PHOENIX — The Washington Nationals and Oakland Athletics both viewed the Gio Gonzalez trade as a key step toward getting where they want to go. It’s just that one team is trying to get there a little sooner.
While the Nationals have their eyes on contending in 2012 with the addition of the All-Star lefty, the A’s needed a bushel of top prospects to help refill the cupboard and have a winner in a few years.
“We said from the outset that in order for us to trade Gio, we were going to have to get back a package that we couldn’t refuse,” A’s assistant general manager David Forst said last week at spring training. “When you put all four prospects together, we feel that’s exactly what we got. We’ve been pleased with everything we’ve seen from those four. As a package, one month into it, we’re very happy.”
In exchange for Gonzalez, the Nationals sent the A’s pitchers Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole and catcher Derek Norris.
How dramatically did that change the A’s farm system? All four of those players instantly went into the A’s top 10 prospects, according to Baseball America. Peacock was second, followed by Cole (fourth), Norris (seventh) and Milone (10th).
Milone, Peacock and Norris were in big-league camp with the A’s, and Milone has established himself as one of the leading candidates to win one of three open rotation spots behind Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon.
“He’s big league-ready, I don’t have any doubts about that,” manager Bob Melvin said of Milone. “He’s a crafty left-hander who knows how to pitch. He reads swings. He has a great idea what works for him.”
Milone, who had a 3.81 ERA in five starts with the Nationals last year, pitches a little like Tom Glavine, Melvin said. This spring, Milone, 25, has allowed seven earned runs in 12⅔ innings in his first big-league camp. He said that’s actually helped him be sharper than he had been during previous springs in minor-league camp with the Nationals.
“With fans actually watching, you get more motivated and get the adrenaline going,” Milone said. “It means more than going out in a minor league game where there are no fans.”
Peacock, 24, was optioned to the minors Tuesday. He didn’t put up the numbers he’d hoped — 10 earned runs in seven innings — but he still has left an impression.
“The stuff has been great,” Forst said of a Peacock, who was 15-3 with a 2.39 ERA in the minors last year.
Norris, 23, also has helped himself in the eyes of the organization, though he was optioned to Triple-A Sacramento on Monday. His presence is part of the reason the A’s recently released Landon Powell, who had been the big-league backup catcher for the past three years. Norris is expected to be the everyday catcher at Triple-A, with Anthony Recker likely to move from that spot to big-league backup.
Norris came to the A’s with a reputation as an offensive catcher — he hit at least 20 homers two of the past three seasons — but his defense has been better than advertised, Melvin said.
“I like what I’ve seen out of Derek Norris,” the manager said. “He catches better than I thought. He shows he’s not afraid. He’s got a take-charge attitude. He’s confident in what he does. He’s not in awe of the situation here.”
Norris said it helps to have come over with Peacock, who was his teammate at every stop in the Nationals system, and Milone.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have anyone I knew,” Norris said. “It made the transition a little easier.”
While Milone, Peacock and Norris have been spending time together in big-league camp, Cole has been in minor league camp because he’s not as experienced. Cole, 20, is expected to start the season with Oakland’s high-A team in Stockton, Calif.
“He’s a high-upside starter,” Forst said. “He’s long and lean, and he looks like everything a top pitching prospect should be. The ball just comes out of his hand differently.”
While the players have been acclimating to their new green-and-gold surroundings, Milone said he will watch what happens with the Nationals.
“They are definitely trying to do something good, and they want to do it now,” Milone said. “It’s good for them. I’ll keep an eye on them and see how they are doing. Hopefully, they will do well. They deserve it. They’ve been pushing hard the last couple years getting these top prospects. I have a feeling this year will be good for them.”