- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 15, 2012

In the 23 days since the Washington Nationals acquired left-handed starter Gio Gonzalez, his new team has welcomed him with open arms. They’ve called; they’ve texted; they’ve done everything they can to ensure that Gonzalez is as excited about joining the Nationals as they are about adding him.

That level of comfort went a long way Sunday when the Nationals announced a five-year contract extension for Gonzalez. The deal, which bought out Gonzalez’s four arbitration years, also added the 2016 season to his contract and included team options for 2017 and ‘18.

“Gio’s ample talents are well-known and chronicled,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said in a statement. “Today’s extension was about comfort for both parties. From our end, the two options years and team control were imperative to the extended commitment.

“Now both Gio and our fans can shift their focus and excitement to his debut in D.C., knowing that their relationship won’t be ending in the short term.”

Monetary terms of the extension were not disclosed publicly, but the length ensures that Gonzalez, 26, will remain atop the Nationals’ rotation with Stephen Strasburg throughout the life of his contract, and with Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann through at least 2015. ESPN Deportes reported the extension was worth $42 million with the two option years bringing the total to a possible $65 million, but the Nationals would not comment on the contract’s value.

A first-time arbitration-eligible player as a Super Two this offseason, some industry estimates had Gonzalez’s 2012 salary in the $3.6 - $4.2 million range. The comparisons for a long-term extension were plentiful, with Gonzalez’s career numbers not unlike those of other young left-handers Jon Lester (Boston) and Ricky Romero (Toronto) — who all signed five-year extensions worth roughly $30 million that covered the same years of their careers as Gonzalez’s deal will. None of those three, however, were Super Two eligible and thus the value for buying out the additional arbitration escalated Gonzalez’s price.

According to the fangraphs.com, Gonzalez, who made $420,000 in 2011, was worth $15.9 million based on his performance and value to his team. The exact breakdown of the contract is not known but on the reported $42 million deal, the average annual value is $8.4 million.

The acquisition of Gonzalez in a blockbuster six-player trade that sent four of the Nationals best prospects — right-handers Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole, left-hander Tommy Milone and catcher Derek Norris — to the A’s in exchange for Gonzalez and minor league right-hander Robert Gilliam was one that many hailed then as bringing Washington a big step closer to contention.

“It makes us a stronger rotation,” Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty told The Washington Times after Gonzalez was acquired. “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.

“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.”

The trade, which came just more than two weeks after the Nationals failed to acquire their top free-agent target, Mark Buehrle, accomplished one their top offseason goals: to add a front-line starting pitcher. It also brought another young horse into the team’s rotation who was under team control through at least the 2015 season.

But by agreeing to an extension that could keep him in Washington for the next seven seasons, Gonzalez was acknowledging his own desire to help build the Nationals into a contender. With the potential for him to remain with the team through 2018, it is now the longest contract on the team. Jayson Werth’s seven-year deal signed prior to the 2011 season runs through 2017 and is the only other deal extending that far.

“I’m extremely excited,” Gonzalez told MLBNetwork Radio in the first week of January, 10 days before his contract extension would be officially worked out. “I’ve been getting a lot of calls from the coaching staff and the owners, and they just seem so excited. All you can do is just get excited with them.

“I’m training even harder; I’m putting in extra work; I’m training every hour if I could. I know how important this is to them and to the Nationals. I’m ready to go, man. Just give me a baseball, and I’m ready to rock ‘n’ roll.”

In his first two full major league seasons in Oakland’s rotation, Gonzalez went 31-21 with a 3.17 ERA and turned in a quality start in 65 percent of his outings. In 2011, on an Athletics team that won just 74 games and had the second-worst offense in the American League, Gonzalez was the team’s lone All-Star, and his 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings was the fourth-best mark in the AL. He also led the league in walks with 91.

The Nationals still have six other players to navigate the waters of salary arbitration with, including Zimmermann, who is also Super Two. They also have yet to come to terms with Jesus Flores, John Lannan, Michael Morse, Tom Gorzelanny and Tyler Clippard. The sides must exchange salary figures by Tuesday.

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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