Billy Beane has now traded two-fifths of his 2011 starting rotation in less than a fortnight, as Gonzalez -- an oft-rumored trade target of the Rangers, as well as somebody that a few national baseball pundits believed was actually the likeliest acquisition for the Rangers after they lost C.J. Wilson to the Angels -- has been traded to the Nationals for right-handers Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole, left-hander Tom Milone and catcher Derek Norris.
Just to add a little perspective to this, the Nationals' farm system was ranked No. 13 in baseball last off-season by Baseball America, and then proceeded to enjoy both a strong developmental year and the farm-bolstering benefits of a substantial Rule 4 draft budget + good draft position. By the time the dust settled at season's end, the Nationals boasted one of the game's 10 best farm systems.
They also just traded their third-, fourth-, and ninth-best prospects (by BA's reckoning, at least), which gives the Athletics' system a pretty substantial boost as Beane attempts to undertake a successful rebuild without any resolution in sight on the team's stadium/relocation dilemma.
Which would all be just fine and great, if Gonzalez projected as an answer to one of the key questions in Washington ... but that isn't necessarily the case, as Keith Law points out:
The Nationals get some starting rotation depth, but at a pretty significant cost in prospects, pinned to the hope that Gonzalez' moderate success these last two years wasn't just a function of him playing his home games in Oakland's pitcher-friendly park. The A's, on the other hand, get a substantial reward for taking in Gonzalez -- who struggled with two other organizations -- and building up his value beyond what I think it would have become in most other ballparks.
Washington has its ace in Stephen Strasburg and a near-ace behind him in Jordan Zimmermann, with some pitching coming up through its system to fill out the rotation in the coming years, so I'm not sure why they'd deal for Gonzalez at this point unless they believe he's a lot better than I think he is.
You also have to take into account the fact that the Nationals' offense in trending in exactly the wrong direction (from 710 runs in 2009 to 624 runs in 2011, a plunge that outpaces the league-wide drop in offense), and that the bigger obstacle preventing the Nationals from being legitimate playoff contenders right now is a glaring lack of run production. Hell, look at their most common 2011 lineup:
|Rank in 16 NL teams||7||8||11||13||1||14||12||11||12|
Top of the leaderboard in strikeouts, near the bottom of the leaderboard in walks, handing out significant playing time to Laynce Nix ... yeah, these are all major problems. Problems that the Nationals didn't address in this deal, as they're instead devoting substantial resources to adding more girth to the rotation.
Which, again, isn't much of a problem in itself if Gonzalez projects to add lots of value to the Nationals ... but Law suggests that this isn't necessarily the case either:
He has racked up strikeouts the last few years despite below-average command and control that have led to high walk totals, and would likely have led to higher ERAs but for a great ballpark and Oakland's generally strong defenses. The 26-year-old has always had questions about his on-field makeup, particularly his ability to respond to adversity on the mound, something that I'm told is still a concern with him going forward. What Gio does bring is stuff. He'll show you a grade-55 fastball, a big-breaking curveball, and a fringe-average changeup, but not the command to get maximum results from his repertoire. I did think if he was traded to the wrong environment, like Yankee Stadium, he had disaster potential, but in Washington he's more likely to maintain some value (say, 2-2.5 wins above replacement) while leaving the club frustrated that he's not better.
Oakland gets a future ace, a starting catcher, a strong reliever who might be a back-end starter, and an up-and-down arm. Cole is the prize here, a potential No. 1 starter who ranked 36th on my midseason top prospects update and was the No. 2 prospect in Washington's system behind Bryce Harper.
If Gonzalez does end up reverting into a 2-2.5 fWAR pitcher, the Nationals are going to be paying steadily rising salaries (via arbitration) over the next four years to a roughly league-average pitcher -- one who isn't going to materially strengthen their competitive position, and one who's costing the Nationals a premium in young, cost-controlled talent.
The deal does look better if you view Gonzalez as more of a 3-3.5 fWAR guy going forward (which is what he had been over his last two years in Oakland), and it is possible Law is underrating Gonzalez to some extent based on how he views his makeup/stuff ... but the concerns about Gonzalez's control/command and how his performance is going to translate to Washington do appear to be warranted.
It's also possible that Gonzalez could still take a step forward as a function of his relative youth (with that improvement deriving from him figuring out how to command the ball better, which wouldn't be very unusual), and this deal looks pretty solid both ways if Gonzalez can assert himself as a near-All Star caliber pitcher in Washington. Given what this ended up costing the Nationals, though, and given what Gonzalez is likely going to end up being, consider me glad that the Rangers ended up steering well clear of this particular trade option.