After a relatively quiet offseason, the Nationals finally made the “big splash” their fan base has been craving all winter, trading prospects RHP Brad Peacock, RHP A.J. Cole, LHP Tom Milone and catcher Derek Norris to the Oakland Athletics for LHP Gio Gonzalez and RHP Robert Gilliam. For Oakland, they continue their offseason rebuild with this trade, acquiring four top Nationals prospects to further strengthen their farm system while waiting for a potential future stadium in San Jose. On the other hand, by dealing for Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals quickly grabbed the attention of the National League East and stated their intentions to challenge for the playoffs in 2012.
Gio Gonzalez, a 2011 all-star for the Athletics, is a proven top-of-the-rotation left-handed starting pitcher under contract through 2015, who has pitched 200+ innings the past two seasons while posting ERAs of 3.23 and 3.12. Gonzalez, 26, possesses an above-average 92-93mph fastball, a devastating wipeout curveball, and a fringy changeup – he uses this arsenal to induce plenty of strikeouts with a career K/9 rate of 8.6. The knock on Gio has always been his below average control and the large number of walks allowed, as his elevated career BB/9 rate of 4.4 points out (league average is around 3.0-3.1). While acknowledging his short comings, Gio makes the Nationals starting rotation significantly better next season and at his age, still has the potential to improve. With this deal, the core of the Nationals rotation, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez, is now one of the best in baseball and could be together in Washington for the next four seasons.
Robert Gilliam, a 24 year old right-handed pitcher drafted in the 8th round in 2009 out of the UNC Greensboro, struck out 156 hitters in 164.1 innings at High-A last season. Gilliam throws a solid 92-94mph fastball, a below-average slider and below-average changeup, though scouts think both the slider and changeup could improve with further development. Gilliam should spend 2012 in Double-A Harrisburg, and while he is more than a throw-in in this deal, his future most likely relies in middle relief, where his fastball and slider will “play up” and he will only need a changeup on occasion.
In order to acquire such a talented, cost-controlled pitcher like Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals had to part with significant young talent in Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole, Derek Norris, and Tom Milone. Let there be no question, this is A LOT of young talent heading to the Athletics. Peacock had a breakout season in 2011, producing a 15-3 record with a 2.39 ERA and 176 strikeouts over 146.2 innings pitched last season, including an impressive 12 inning audition in Washington last September. Peacock, 23 years old, has a solid fastball, an inconsistent but plus curveball and below-average changeup: the development, or lack thereof, of his changeup will determine if Peacock reaches his ceiling of a #3 starter, or if he is shifted to the bullpen where his fastball/curveball combination would be potentially lethal.
A.J. Cole has the most potential of any player in this trade, and has a great chance to make the Nationals regret making this deal five years from now. Cole slipped to the 4th round in the 2010 draft because of high bonus demands, a solid commitment to the University of Miami, and a relatively lackluster senior season in high school. However, Cole had shown incredible potential the prior summer in the draft showcases and the Nationals decided to give him a $2 million dollar bonus to pass on Coral Gables and become a professional. After signing late that summer, Cole arrived in Low-A Hagerstown this season and was dominant, striking out 108 batters against only 24 walks in 89 total innings. He has a terrific fastball/slider combination but his third pitch, his changeup, is well below-average and needs significant development work. Cole, only 20 years old, should move to High-A next season and climb one level per year, but with polish and improvement from his changeup, could arrive in Oakland in 2014 or 2015 with #2 starter type potential. He has long been one of my favorites in his draft class and as a Nationals prospect, and I fear he will make the Nationals regret this trade.
Derek Norris is the prototypical “Moneyball” type player, with a low career batting average .249, including .210 this season in Double-A Harrisburg, but a strong habit of reaching base, with a career on-base percentage of .403. Scouts have long believed in his bat and keen batting eye, but the question about Norris has always been his defense and whether he could be a major league caliber defensive catcher. In the past 18 months, he has focused on his defense and the results have shown, as many scouts commented on his improvement behind the plate. I certainly noticed in the two Arizona Fall League games I watched this fall how calm and quiet he looks behind the plate, where previously he had looked a bit antsy defensively. Norris needs another season in the minors to refine his defense and improve his contact rate at the plate, but Norris should settle in as an average or better starting major league catcher, perhaps as soon as 2013.
I have written about the final member of this trade, Tom Milone, fairly extensively in the past and think his trade to Oakland might be a perfect fit. Milone possesses a below-average 86-88mph fastball, a below-average curveball, and an above-average changeup to go along with his masterful control. Milone keeps his walks to a minimum with a career 5.5 to 1 K/BB ratio and relies on his defense in order to succeed, thus having Oakland’s massive home stadium could allow him to thrive at the back-end of their rotation for the next few seasons.
Both teams accomplished their goals with this trade, as the Nationals acquired the solid #2/3 left-handed starting pitcher they sorely wanted to pair with right-handers Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, while Oakland receives four terrific young talents, including three pitchers, to add to their offseason overhaul. The major criticisms of Gio Gonzalez are that he walks too many batters and that he greatly benefited from having Oakland as his home park; while both criticisms have merit, I counter that his control has shown signs of mild improvement and the benefit of shifting from the American League to the National League, with the lack of a designated hitter and the traditionally weaker lineups, should counteract a good portion of his previous home field advantages. I still contend that a free agent contract to Roy Oswalt for two years at a large annual expense would have been the more prudent solution to bolster their starting rotation, rather than parting with Peacock, Cole, and Norris all in one trade. That said, as difficult as the decision would have been, like GM Mike Rizzo, I would have pulled the trigger on this deal. However, I still grade this deal poorly because of the comparable options still available (Oswalt, Edwin Jackson, Matt Garza) and to acknowledge the risk involved in dealing multiple high-level prospects, along with my own assumption that trading A.J. Cole comes back to haunt the Nationals in the future.
Overall Grade… D+
This “Tip of the Fedora” goes out to the Washington Nationals amateur scouting and development staffs. In the trade for Gio Gonzalez, the Nats traded away two 4th round picks, one 10th round pick, and one 41st round pick. This is a true testament to the jobs they have done finding talent throughout the draft, developing them to their full potential, then turning them into a top-flight starting pitcher. I want to acknowledge them and congratulate them on a job well-done in recent years!
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