Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Gio Gonzalez: Big Trade, Big Risk


Nats go all-in for Gonzalez. Is it worth the cost? Photo Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images via

Well, the rumors turned out to be true.  The Nats today traded four major prospects for Oakland’s Gio Gonzalez.  Early reactions from fans on MLBtraderumors were all over the road; some said this will give Washington the Wild Card in 2012, others said Oakland fleeced Rizzo on the deal.  Predictably, Keith Law said that the Nationals over-paid in terms of prospects, calling AJ Cole the gem of the deal but paying little attention to the other three players.  Law is obsessed with ceiling arms and would rather have a projected #1 in Low-A versus a bird-in-hand guy like Peacock who has already debuted, so you have to take his opinion with a grain of salt.

First things first, how good do you think Gonzalez really is?  Without having done major analysis of the guy, I’ve considered him in the past to be one of a slew of “#2 pitchers” on Oakland’s rotation.  He’s put in two straight solid seasons pitching in Oakland, but we all know that Oakland’s a pitcher’s park with massive foul grounds that turn souvenirs into outs.  However, even I was surprised when checking the Park Effects of Oakland; it only rates as a 97 or 98 in the Park effect measurements on for the last couple of years.  By comparison, San Diego’s Petco Park (notoriously the best pitcher’s park in the league) was a 92/100.  Other known pitcher’s parks in San Francisco, Tampa, Anaheim and Seattle all scored well below Oakland’s park this year.  So, maybe the Oakland effect is over-stated by the media.

A quick glance at Gonzalez’s 2011 splits give me a bit more to go on; yes he was good in Oakland (10-5 with a 2.70 era) but he was more than servicable away (6-7, 3.62 era).  When he’s winning, he’s fantastic (1.37 ERA in 16 wins), but his ERA in his no-decisions was BETTER than in his wins (1.09 in 4 no decisions), indicating that he had a few unlucky no-decisions and could have been a 20-game winner with a bit better run support.  Looking a bit deeper at his advanced pitching stats shows that there’s nothing surprising; he’s got a normal BABIP of .287, his Fip was a pretty good 3.64 last year, and his xFIP was just slightly higher at 3.73.  All good signs; there’s nothing that really indicates that his conventional numbers were really “lucky” in any way.

He’s a low ERA, so-so WHIP (1.32 last year), high walk, high strikeout lefty arm that should benefit from coming to the NL.  Simple as that.  He’s going to put guys on base and depends on a good defense to bail him out, but he also strikes out a ton of guys and can get himself out of jams.

One last thing that is a huge plus on Gonzalez; he’s under team control for FOUR more years.  He’s heading into his first arbitration year this spring, is going to be a super-2, meaning the club controls him THROUGH 2015.  Honestly, when you look at the cost of our prospects given up, a lot of that has to do with this fact here.  A strong young guy who isn’t hitting FA for years to come?  That’s pretty valuable in this league.

Ok, I’ve talked myself into being excited to see this guy in our rotation.  Now, can I stomach the prospect loss?  Here’s the four guys we sent over.

  • AJ Cole
  • Brad Peacock
  • Tommy Milone
  • Derek Norris

Or, put another way, Baseball America’s #3, #4, #9 prospects from our system, plus a 4th guy in Milone who didn’t rate but was relatively successful in a couple of late season 2011 stints and who has been successful at every level of the minors.

We have a tendency to over-rate our own prospects.  I do especially, as someone who follows the minor leagues and has been tracking our pitching as it has risen for years.  And especially for a team like Washington, that has struggled in recent years to develop talent.  So when it comes time to cash them in for a pitcher like Gonzalez, sometimes it can be difficult to be objective about what we give up to get something we value in return.  So, lets play best case/worst case for these four guys:

Best Case

  • AJ Cole turns into a near #1 starter with an electric arm, in the mold of Justin Verlander.
  • Brad Peacock finds a reliable third pitch and maybe even a 4th, and peaks as a #3 starter.
  • Tommy Milone turns out to have 80 control and becomes this generation’s Tom Glavine, a serviceable back-end starter for years.
  • Derek Norris recovers from Hamate bone surgery to become a .260/.410/.550 catcher with 20-homer capability.

Ok.  Now what about worst case?

  • AJ Cole burns out as a starter and turns into a hard-throwing middle to late innings reliever.
  • Brad Peacock never harnesses a 3rd pitch and becomes a 2-pitch pony destined for middle relief.
  • Tommy Milone gets routinely pounded in the majors as a guy with no out pitch and becomes a 4-A guy.
  • Derek Norris never reaches his potential and settles in as a backup MLB catcher.

The reality will, of course, fall somewhere inbetween these two scenarios when all is said and done.  Norris was always going to be traded; we have found the catcher of the future in Wilson Ramos, Norris has seen his stock fall with two consecutive sub-par offensive seasons and he’s got little chance to supplant Ramos in our organization.  So I have no issues turning him into another player.  Its the pitchers we have to worry about.  In my Prospect Ceiling post I thought that Cole was a future #2, Peacock a future reliever and Milone a 4-A guy, somewhat mirroring the “worst case” scenario above.  If that’s the case, then we’ve essentially gambled on Cole or Peacock turning into something more valuable than they appear to be capable of right now in return for Gonzalez.

Yes, the price of pitching has skyrocketed this off-season, and a lot of analysts will say that we’ve over-paid.  But clearly the team has made a determination that Norris was expendable, Milone is topped out, and that Cole and Peacock are replaceable with guys like Meyer and Purke from the 2011 draft.  Fair enough.  For all the griping in yesterday’s post about how the Nats have “missed” on their starting pitcher goal, how the tides turn.

Can’t wait for 2012!

Written by Todd Boss

December 23rd, 2011 at 8:47 am

28 Responses to 'Gio Gonzalez: Big Trade, Big Risk'

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  1. This post was very well thought through, and by far the most balanced of any on this topic in the Natosphere. Excellent work. You continue to be my favourite of all the Nats analysts.


    23 Dec 11 at 9:54 am

  2. Sickels says the A’s got 4 of our top 9 prospects, and I agree.
    I agreed with Tom Boswell for the most part, and this trade reinforces my beliefs. This trade is so much cheaper than overpaying for a mentor to the youngsters. It’s a low payroll move.

    I chuckle at the posters who complain about overpaying for free agents pitchers, I’m presuming these are very young people, as that’s how it works.
    At least for the last 30+ years.
    Todd, your focus is on pitching — how important do you feel a veteran mentor is?
    That is the big question.

    Mark L

    23 Dec 11 at 9:57 am

  3. Great post, Boss. A very balanced and informative weighing of the pros and cons. My initial gut reaction was that Rizzo vastly overpaid, but then I also tend to overvalue our own prospects. You’re right that Ramos instantly made Norris expendable; I’m actually surprised he wasn’t traded sooner. As for the pitchers, either Cole or Peacock (but almost certainly not both) could be as good as Gio someday, but that’s pure speculation, and the answer is still years away. Meanwhile, acquiring Gio instantly creates a solid 1-2-3 punch at the top of the rotation, which is something the Nats have never had before. I still have a lingering sense of dread over what we gave up, but I feel better about this trade this morning than I did last night.

    As for the Mark L’s comment that the Nats’ needed a veteran mentor, and that getting Gio was a low payroll move, that strikes me as an overvaluation of the thin market of veteran FA pitchers who were available this offseason. CJ Wilson was obviously never that veteran pitcher, the Nats never wanted him, and he got far more money than he’s worth (which is what happens when you’re the strongest swimmer in an empty pool). I thought Mark Buehrle would have been a nice addition, but he was never a vital one, and he certainly wasn’t worth the 60M/4years that it apparently would have taken to sign him. Signing Roy Oswalt for a year would be fine, too, but to compare an aging, one season rental to a high-ceiling lefty like Gio, who the Nats now control through 2015, is no comparison. This move puts Gio in the rotation well into the years when the Nats should be perennial contenders. Also, in pure dollar terms, what Gio will get over the (minimum) four seasons he’ll be in Washington will certainly be more than Oswalt would get for one year. Point being, this deal saves Ted Lerner money in 2012, but it costs him more through 2015—plus you’re paying that money to a player with a far higher ceiling.


    23 Dec 11 at 10:52 am

  4. Yes they paid a hefty price. As one commenter from an Oakland said “looks like Dan Synder got Rizzo drunk before the deal”. If pitching was this team’s major concern, its risky but needed

    However, I’ve always thought Nat’s pitching situation was less a concern than getting a leadoff and/power hitter in the lineup–the Nat’s biggest weakness last year (offense).


    23 Dec 11 at 11:03 am

  5. You got to like this move, if only because it finally puts and end to 7 gruelling years of “wait until next year.” Barring injury, the Nats are set at the top 3 positions in their rotation for at least four years, longer if they do what most teams do and do contracts extensions for a couple of years into the what wuld be their free agency periods. Say during that time Purke and/or Meyer prove to have been worthy first roung picks (which Purke would have been without the injury), and suddenly the Nats potentially have the best young rotation in baseball.


    23 Dec 11 at 11:49 am

  6. Thank you sir! Thanks for chiming in. Though to be fair i’m far from a professional analyst. I’m just a guy, posting his opinions. The pros on the team’s beat are great.

    Todd Boss

    23 Dec 11 at 11:54 am

  7. Your point is fair; we could have committed $100-$120M for Darvish and kept all our prospects. We could have spent the $77M that it took to get Wilson and gotten someone rather similar to Gonzalez (albeit much older) and kept these prospects. Instead we cashed them in. Of course, had we bought a FA then we’d be blocking some of the same prospects we just traded … thus making them less valuable. Norris was less valuable the longer he stays in our minor league system, blocked from coming to the majors. So you trade them.

    The one guy I really liked was Cole. I posted my thoughts on the ceilings of Milone and Peacock. That’s the big loss, and that’s the marquee name in this trade. Here I agreed with Keith Law.

    Veteran Mentor; important to a certain extent. Last year we had both Livan and Marquis to provide their experiences, but both ended up struggling at times. The best mentor is a vet who is also successful, who leads by example and backs his words up. I think of someone like Roy Halladay or Tim Hudson intra-division. Curt Schilling once said that Roger Clemens was the guy who turned his career around by challenging him to step up and use his talents ..and they were only 4 years apart in age. So sometimes the definition of “veteran” can be murky. If you had a high-end coaching staff that need is mitigated somewhat (and certainly Davey Johnson qualifies there). But then again, Matt Stairs provided some veteran opinion to our youngsters without needing to be our clean up hitter.

    Maybe we find that veteran in the reliever market. Maybe its Livan returning in an advisor role if he can’t find work. Maybe its Livan coming back as our 7th man out of the bullpen (unlikely, given Rizzo’s desire for power arms).

    Its a good question though.

    Todd Boss

    23 Dec 11 at 12:03 pm

  8. Its true. The nats pitching staff has given up fewer runs 3 years running … but has also scored fewer runs 3 years running. Perhaps there’s a couple more moves coming. Clearly if Rizzo pulled the trigger on this move now, he’s trying to win now. They could really use a consistent bat to protect Zimmerman and to take pressure off of Werth. A big, lefty bat who creates a zillion runs. You know, someone like Prince Fielder.

    Todd Boss

    23 Dec 11 at 12:05 pm

  9. Honestly, I was going to be OK if the team stood pat this off-season and didn’t overpay for pitchers. I’m a patient man. For one season of Buehrle’s AAV of $14.5M, we’ll get Gonzalez’s first two arbitration years (estimating at $4.5M and $6M) and then probably half his third. To Mark L’s point, that’s money that we DON’T spend now but we can spend later. Another way of looking at payroll for sure.

    Maybe all this payroll talk becomes moot in a couple weeks when we guarantee Prince Fielder $180M. 🙂

    Todd Boss

    23 Dec 11 at 12:09 pm

  10. Agree agree. Purke’s ceiling was > Cole (slightly) and Meyer is really more equivalent to Peacock than most know.

    Todd Boss

    23 Dec 11 at 12:10 pm

  11. Boswell just posted a new column, approving of the Gio trade. He mentions his recent doom-and-gloom column, but he doesn’t exactly fall on his sword. Man, I’ll bet that he wishes he’d sat on that piece for 48 hours.


    23 Dec 11 at 1:50 pm


    I went looking for it b/c it didn’t show up on my RSS feed for some reason. No mea culpa. Remember; his job is to sell papers, right?

    Todd Boss

    23 Dec 11 at 4:31 pm

  13. This is off topic, but am I the only Nats fan who has serious reservations about Prince Fielder? Sure, he hits a ton, but he’s almost as poor a position player as Adam Dunn, and he also has Dunn’s body type, which makes me worry about his weight climbing and his batting declining well before the end of the 7-8 year contract he’s seeking.


    23 Dec 11 at 5:04 pm

  14. Its hard to argue with his run-creation ability. A quick glance at his RC, wRC and his wRC+ shows just how valuable an offensive player he can be. He generated 35 more runs last year than Michael Morse did; 35 more runs probably translates to 5 more wins over our pythagorean w/l of 78-82 wins. That’s not coincidental since his rWAR in 2011 was … 5.2.

    Yes i’m discounting his defense. Clearly he’s a poor defender at 1b. He’s got a -5.2 uzr/150 for 2011. But In many ways I say so what? I don’t need Keith Hernandez at first in order to win a title; you sacrifice defense at certain positions on the field so that you can get guys who can bop the ball. This is the way it’s been done for 100s of years in this game. Lou Gehrig once got his hands x-rayed and they showed something like 19 different healed fractures from where he couldn’t simply put glove to ball properly; I’m pretty sure nobody at the time was going, “gee maybe we shouldn’t play this guy since he’s so poor in the field.” No; of course not. He was an elite hitter and you stuck him where he could do the least damage; first base.

    Yes Prince has a bad body type. Yes he’ll age badly and seems set to rapidly decline (Cecil Fielder was out of baseball at 34). But the kid isn’t in his 30s; he s 27. Even if you sign him for 8 years you’re still getting his PEAK years. Unlike Pujols, who now is wholely in his decline years while being paid so much money. Plus the comparisons to his father may not be entirely accurate; Cecil played in a different era with different knowledge about nutrition and fitness. Prince is now a vegetarian! Have you ever seen a long-term fat vegetarian? 🙂

    Dunn; I cannot, nor can anyone else, explain his downfall. A bit of inside knowledge (his wife once visited my wife’s business and chatted her up about their home life) leads me to believe that Dunn is a bit of a home-body, lazy guy, who may not work as hard at his craft as others. He’s not driven; he may be letting himself go and not staying in the best shape he could possibly be. 100% conjecture, but also wouldn’t be surprising if it was true. Some guys are driven and others are just content with living on their talent and not really working it to the best of their ability.

    Todd Boss

    23 Dec 11 at 5:41 pm

  15. FWIW, I agree with your take on the deal. At first, I disliked the idea of trading both Peacock and Cole but I’ve come around. It’s a risk in the case of Cole but I shook my head when I read Keith Law’s comment that Oakland got a “future ace.” I like Law’s stuff but surely a Harvard guy should know that “potential” and “future” aren’t synonymous.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t get the despair over trading Milone. I think (hope?) that Rizzo sold high on Peacock. Norris was expendable.


    23 Dec 11 at 7:12 pm

  16. BTW, what do you mean when you write that “Meyer is really more equivalent to Peacock than most know?”

    Is it that both are two-pitch power pitchers who project more as relievers? Is it that Meyer is closely to MLB than people think?


    23 Dec 11 at 7:15 pm

  17. Todd, Fielder played the vegetarian card 2 years ago and didn’t lose a pound. I presume he’s a vegetarian around 2 days a week.
    Totally agree on Dunn. Ozzie Guillen on his way out of Chicago mentioned that Dunn came to spring training fat & sloppy.

    Mark L

    23 Dec 11 at 7:59 pm

  18. Peacock being a “bird-in-the-hand guy” was an intentional pun, right?

    Anyhoots, while the price was high, and though it’s kinda sad to see those youngsters packed off to Oakland, I like the deal. I terminated my Orioles fandom years ago, but when I remember the collective destiny of Hayden Penn, Matt Riley, Adam Loewen, etc., it reaffirms my belief in going with proven talent (OTOH I didn’t think Morse’s bat could replace the Big Donkey’s, and was eventually glad to be wrong on that one).

    So thanks to the Nats for this Christmas present. I hope it will sparkle as brightly throughout the coming season – and beyond.

    C&O Spence

    23 Dec 11 at 10:41 pm

  19. Yeah, that’s more or less what I meant. Right now, both Meyers and Peacock really have just two pitches each; a big fastball and a big curve. Both are attempting to learn the nuances of a curve. In my opinion you need either three plus-plus pitches or have a fourth to really be effective in this league (that is, unless you have such amazing natural movement or sink that you can basically just throw that pitch 90% of the time). Meyers’ 3/4’s arm slot, bigger frame (6’9″) and easier arm action all are better than Peacock, who throws straight over the top, has a very effort-full arm motion (violent even) and really seems like he’s max effort to hump it up to 95.

    For me, Peacock looks like a middle reliever. Actually, If I was his pitching coach i’d teach him another pitch; the split fingered fastball. Or perhaps a fork ball; something he can really throw effectively straight over the top. If he can throw something like that effectively and keep working on his change up, suddenly that’s a valuable starter. But he’s also a shoulder injury waiting to happen with his current mechanics.

    Meyers has the same options it seems; he throws a ton, but reportedly his motion isn’t that repeatable. But, Meyers has a couple things going for him that Peacock doesn’t; size and speed. can’t teach both. For me i wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up anywhere between a #2 starter or an 8th inning guy.

    I don’t think Meyer is that close to the majors, no. I think the team will probably start him high-A and get him to work on repeating his motion and adding pitches. But … the Nats don’t really need bullpen help right now either. To me 5/7th of their bullpen is already a lock and if Mattheus is healthy perhaps all they need is a loogy. So Peacock would have been stuck in AAA again this year, possibly losing value after peaking so well in 2011.

    Todd Boss

    24 Dec 11 at 9:43 am

  20. Hey, i’m a vegetarian 2 days a week too. I get a bean burritto for lunch with chips and queso then a salad for dinner. Ye haw.

    Todd Boss

    24 Dec 11 at 9:44 am

  21. There’s certain aspects of Law’s writing and opinions that I like, and others that I really have a hard time with. When you read his stuff, you have to remember that he’s the smartest guy in the room, everyone else is an idiot, and his opinion counts the most. Plus, most MLB scouts and executives are total morons, most BBWAA writers are too old to understand modern stats, and that every hall of fame opinion piece not written by him or his select few sabrematrician buddies is crap. Oh one more thing; as you point out, the difference between potential and actual being blurred. His opinion is constantly clouded by big, young arms. You can see it in his opinion pieces about draft prospects and in his rankings.

    Cole is a great arm. He’s also 20, has one pro season in low-A ball and could end up anywhere between #1 starter and washout. time will tell.

    Todd Boss

    24 Dec 11 at 10:06 am

  22. I wish I made that pun intentionally 🙂 Sometimes these big prospects-for-proven player trades work out for the team getting the kids (think of the haul Texas got in the Teixeira trade), but most of the time it seems they don’t (the kids that Minnesota got for Johan Santana have never panned out). For me, the best teams have a combination of both developed players and prospects to cash in so they get the best of both worlds.

    Todd Boss

    24 Dec 11 at 10:08 am

  23. I should have elaborated in my post, because it’s definitely true that sometimes a package of prospects does wonders for the team that receives them. I tend to be too wordy so I didn’t load up the post with that qualification. But I approve of this particular deal, given Gio’s success against offense-heavier AL teams. I hope the pitchers the Nats gave up have better careers than all those Baltimore flameouts, but one just can’t be sure.

    C&O Spence

    24 Dec 11 at 2:13 pm

  24. Actually, from what I’ve read, Meyer’s killer pitch is his slider. John Hart gave both is fastball and slider a perfect “8.” The question is whether, like most really tall guys, Meyer can repeat his motion enough to gain command.

    Merry Christmas!


    24 Dec 11 at 8:09 pm

  25. No worries about being too wordy; nobody’s editing you on the internet 🙂 The ironic thing is that both Peacock and Milone probably make Oakland’s 2012 rotation, and they probably both will put up good numbers. I think Oakland’s park effects are slightly overstated, but the fact remains that 5 of the 6 starters Oakland used last year had away ERAs a point or more higher (and in some cases significantly higher) than their home ERAs. But we run the risk of watching Peacock in particular look fantastic and really see our GM get second guessed for a while. No matter; I have a feeling the Nats will come out of the gate hot and will take some teams by surprise.

    Todd Boss

    26 Dec 11 at 9:10 am

  26. Bad scouting report I read; it characterized his breaking ball as a curve, not a slider. I see another indicating what you say; .

    I read an interesting piece once on Chris Young of the Mets, who by virtue of his height effectively “shortens” the distance between home plate and the mound by at least a couple feet by virtue of his height. And that guy only throws the ball in the upper 80s … A guy who has mid 95s speed AND that kind of height could make the ball appear like its going 105.

    Todd Boss

    26 Dec 11 at 9:18 am

  27. […] I’ve posted my thoughts in this same space.  Short version: I like the trade for who we got based on our prospects not entirely fulfilling […]

  28. […] last time the Nats did this big of a prospects-for-players deal it was the Gio Gonzalez move.  And at the time I wasn’t nearly as negative towards the price as I am for this […]

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