- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2011

When Washington Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty looked at his staff at the end of 2011, he felt confident. He examined the competition in the National League East and thought his pitchers were positioned well to compete in a tough division. With who the Nationals were expecting to have, he thought, “We had a very good rotation.”

But “very good” became “even better” when word made its way to McCatty late Thursday evening that he was getting another horse. Left-hander Gio Gonzalez — a proven, durable starter with an arsenal scouts and officials rave about, along with four more years of team control — was slotting into his rotation. The trade was made official late Friday night, and the Nationals also acquired minor league right-hander Robert Gilliam in the deal.

“Oh, I’m very excited,” McCatty said in a phone interview with The Washington Times on Friday. “He’s outstanding to go along with the guys that we have. He’d be a good fit between [Stephen] Strasburg and [Jordan] Zimmermann — that’s something we’ll decide in spring training — but his stuff, it’s outstanding.

“I think that anybody who picked him up would be extremely happy,” he added, noting Gonzalez’s 92-94 mph fastball, superb curveball and strong changeup. “It makes us a stronger rotation. I think we’re better now. I can’t sit here and say we have the best rotation in the NL East — but I tell you what, I don’t have a lot of fear sending the guys out there.”

That fear is something McCatty knows well, joining the Nationals before the 2006 season as a minor league coach and looking at a system with so few hard-throwers that right-hander Collin Balester, who was recently sent to Detroit in a trade, was one of the only top prospects who could break 90 mph. Now he looks at his major league rotation and sees power arm after power arm.

The cost, four of the Nationals’ top prospects — including three highly-touted pitchers — in right-hander Brad Peacock, left-hander Tommy Milone, right-hander A.J. Cole and catcher Derek Norris, was one that McCatty felt was adequate. It was what it’d take, he knew, to get a pitcher who is young and proven to compliment Strasburg and Zimmermann atop the rotation with Chien-Ming Wang, John Lannan and Ross Detwiler behind them.

“Speaking for myself, you’re not going to get somebody like Gonzalez without giving up quality in return,” McCatty said. “With Peacock, Milone and Cole … they have very good stuff. But I look at it this way: Peacock and Milone did a nice job when they came up at the end of the year. Are they going to be major league pitchers? Yes. Could they have used a little more seasoning? It’s possible. But in Gonzalez, you have a guy who’s 26 years old, throws like he does and has No. 1 stuff.

The pitching coach warned of reading too much into a player’s upside when they’re prospects, unproven at the major league level. With Gonzalez, the Nats know what they’re getting.

“Potential is a great word and all of [the prospects who were traded] have that — but until it’s tested under fire, you really don’t know what you have,” McCatty said. “Did we lose some young talent? Absolutely. But we got a guy we know is talented and he’s still young. … That word potential, it’s a tough word, it really is. The road in the minor leagues is littered with guys with tons of potential.

“This is a bona-fide guy. Nobody’s bona-fide until they’ve played a few years in the big leagues. I think this guy has shown what his stuff is, and he’s still starting to come into his prime. This is a guy who is legit. … He certainly fits the need that we have right now. If you’re going to make a move, you want a starting pitcher, for me, I believe that he’s worth it.”

McCatty also knows there is still work to be done.

Gonzalez’s penchant for walks is not something that sits well with the man whose philosophy is to work quickly, throw strikes and put the ball in play and let the defense work for you. Even Strasburg and Zimmermann, who have plenty of strikeout ability, agree that the fewer pitches they need to retire a batter the better.

But McCatty has never seen Gonzalez pitch in person so defining what the Nationals can do to help bring down his major-league-leading 91 walks from 2011 will take some time and observation during spring training. The switch to the National League, McCatty said, could help, given that it’s easier to work through a lineup when you know the pitcher’s spot will be coming up. He doesn’t, however, buy into the notion that Gonzalez could struggle more outside of Oakland, even though his career ERA is 0.76 points higher on the road than inside Oakland’s spacious Coliseum.

“Until you get down and really talk to somebody and watch them throw and see what’s going on, it’s hard to say, ‘Here’s what we can fix,’ and change it,” McCatty said. “But I played in Oakland (1977-1985) and it was a pitcher’s ballpark then. It’s not a pitcher’s park now. They have a ton of foul ground there, but the ball carries.”

That’s a topic for another day, though. There will be plenty of time for McCatty and Gonzalez to get to know each other and to figure out where the left-hander best fits into the rotation. Many experts were hailing the five-man staff as one of the best in the National League and further proof that Washington is committed to winning in the near future.

McCatty’s excited — he called Nationals manager Davey Johnson on Thursday night to express so — and now he can begin ticking off the days on the calendar until he gets his hands on his beefed-up pitching staff in Viera, Fla. on Feb. 19.

“I think it’s a good deal for us and a good deal for the A’s,” McCatty said. “The rewards from it, we’ll see them first. Everyone has got to earn that ability to pitch in the big leagues, which [Gonzalez] has. And the numbers the last couple of years show that he’s pretty special.”