Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made his requirements in the team’s search for a starting pitcher this offseason perfectly clear. He wanted a left-hander, someone who could throw 200-plus innings and who had a proven track record.
The Nationals got their man Thursday when they agreed in principle on a five-player trade with the Oakland Athletics, acquiring talented lefty Gio Gonzalez but giving up a prospect haul, according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations. Right-handed pitchers Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole were both sent to the A’s in the deal, along with left-hander Tommy Milone and catcher Derek Norris. Of the four, only Peacock and Milone have major league service time but all are extremely well-regarded both inside the Nationals’ organization and out. Milone and Peacock made strong impressions during September call-ups and were expected to contend for spots in the Nationals’ rotation this spring.
But the Nationals knew the price for Gonzalez would be high — and ultimately it was one they felt they had to pay to reach one of their biggest offseason goals. Gonzalez, 26, not only fits precisely what the Nationals were seeking, having thrown 200-plus innings in each of the past two seasons with a 3.17 ERA, but will remain under team control for the next four seasons. He is eligible for arbitration this offseason for the first time as a Super-Two.
Behind Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, and flanked by Chien-Ming Wang, John Lannan and Ross Detwiler, the addition of Gonzalez makes the Nationals’ rotation one of the most competitive in the National League — as well as one of the youngest with an average age of just over 26. Wang, at 31, is the elder statesman. Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Lannan and Detwiler will remain under control together for the next four years
In part, that’s why Gonzalez cost the Nationals their No. 3, 4 and 9 best prospects in Peacock, Cole and Norris, according to Baseball America, as well as Milone, a crafty lefty whom BA has deemed to have the best changeup in the organization. Peacock, who has a power arm, burst onto the scene in 2011, garnering accolades each step of the way from Double-A up to the major leagues. According to a source, the Nationals tried to avoid giving up both Peacock and Milone but ultimately couldn’t hold out.
Gonzalez is a Miami native but has been through the trade process before. He was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the first round of the 2004 draft but was sent to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2005 as the player to be named in the Aaron Rowand-Jim Thome swap. Philadelphia then shipped him back to Chicago one year later with Gavin Floyd for Freddy Garcia and the White Sox ultimately delivered him to Oakland in 2008 as part of the trade for Nick Swisher. He made his major league debut for the A’s on Aug. 6, 2008.
With that in mind, Gonzalez admitted to MLBNetworkRadio earlier this week that the trade rumors this offseason were getting a little exhausting, noting that “it drains you.”
“I want to play for a team that’s going to put 100 percent of their heart into me and give me a chance to play for their organization,” Gonzalez said earlier this week on MLBNetwork Radio. “Whatever team is willing to have me and put me in their rotation, I’d be more than happy to shine like a star there.”
That’s exactly what the Nationals are hoping now that they’ve tabbed him to fill one of their self-described biggest needs. For much of the offseason, the man to do that was Mark Buehrle, the former Chicago White Sox ace who seemed to fit the Nationals’ needs perfectly. But Buehrle opted for one more year and roughly $19 more million than the Nationals were offering in free agency when he chose the Miami Marlins during the winter meetings, so Rizzo and his staff were sent back to the drawing board.
When they emerged, they’d found their replacement was not only younger and cheaper but a player who found himself in rarefied air in the American League in 2011. The AL pitchers who allowed fewer hits per nine innings than Gonzalez (7.8) reads like a pitching murderer’s row: Justin Verlander, Josh Beckett, Jered Weaver, James Shields, Ricky Romero, Michael Pineda, Jeremy Hellickson, C.J. Wilson, David Price and Jon Lester.
By the end of 2011, Gonzalez was in the Top 10 in league ERA and the top 10 in strikeouts. If his numbers transferred over to the NL he’d have remained there or improved his standing, including the seventh-best hits per nine innings mark in the NL. The only drawback appears to be his penchant for walks — he served up 91 of them in 2011, the most in the American League, eight more than the second-worst offender: A.J. Burnett.
The deal is pending physicals and an exchange of medical information. The move also frees up two more spots on the Nationals 40-man roster with the expected removal of Norris, Milone and Peacock and the addition of Gonzalez.