To this point in the season, Gio Gonzalez is having a career year.
You heard it correctly. Gio Gonzalez, the same one that put up a 4.57 ERA last season, is having a career year — at least by traditional measurements.
Gonzalez has a 2.89 ERA over 14 starts, good for, believe it or not, the second-best mark on the starting rotation and third best on the pitching staff overall behind Max Scherzer and Matt Albers.
Granted, sabermetrics suggest that Gonzalez should fall back to earth sooner rather than later; his 4.31 FIP (a refined, fielding-independent version of ERA) suggests that his hot streak won’t last all that much longer, although maybe it will.
Either way, it’s hard to argue with the results — just 28 earned runs over 87.1 innings pitched.
If Gonzalez were to keep it up, it would make the Nationals’ rotation the best in baseball without question.
However, his continued success also poses a “problem” for Gonzalez as FanRag’s Jon Heyman wrote this weekend: If Gonzalez reaches 180 innings, a vesting option is triggered that keeps him aboard the Nationals to the tune of $12 million for at least one more season.
“Gio Gonzalez is pitching well enough that he might not want to hit 180 innings, which triggers a vesting option for $12 million,” Heyman noted. “He’d surely do better than that as a free agent the way he’s pitching.”
There is a club option in the deal at $12M, so the Nationals could pick that up and keep Gonzalez at a relatively affordable salary even if he doesn’t reach 180 IP.
Either way, he becomes a free agent within the next two years.
Which, nominally, is fine. Gonzalez is past his prime, and the Nats should be able to move on with younger talent.
In reality, it presents a real problem. Gonzalez’s departure would leave a significant hole in the starting rotation, considering that they have only one left-handed minor leaguer in their system that projects to fill a spot in the major league rotation.
That minor-leaguer, Jesus Luzardo, who, aside from being a name that will inevitably come up in trade talks this summer, doesn’t even project to being major-league ready until 2020.
Gonzalez will not be where the bleeding stops for Mike Rizzo come 2019.
Stephen Strasburg, locked up on a so-called “7-year extension,” has an opt-out after both 2019 and 2020. If he’s unhappy with what he sees around him or thinks that he can command more more money on the free-agent market, Strasburg could walk, leaving another hole in the Nats’ rotation.
“But Max Scherzer will still be there!” goes the thinking. Yes, Scherzer may very well sustain high levels of success for the next three, four, or five years.
However, Scherzer will age, and his performance will age alongside him.
Although unlikely, he may be more of a burden than a help to the Nationals rotation by 2020.
In the nightmare scenario in which Max Scherzer is no longer successful, only Joe Ross (who, granted, very well may be extremely far from his final form as a major-league starter) and Tanner Roark, who hasn’t exactly impressed this season, pitching to a 4.39 ERA and 4.15 FIP, are left standing.
Excepting Erick Fedde, who will most likely be in the majors by the end of this season anyways, the minor league corps are equally unimpressive. Austin Voth, once thought of as the next man up in the rotation, has pitched to a 6.38 ERA in Triple-A Syracuse.
Aside from Voth and Fedde, only three other pitching prospects are ranked on the Nationals’ top 30 prospects — not exactly a reassuring sight for a team built on pitching.
The Nats could have avoided this situation by holding on to blue-chip prospects Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito.
They didn’t—they saw an opportunity to add real major-league value in exchange for them, which is fine.
However, without Lopez and Giolito (who, by the way, appears to have found his stride), the Nationals’ rotation should be something of a horror show in a few years, barring the team signing Clayton Kershaw in free-agency.
Because they’ve put themselves in this situation, the Nationals must understand that it’s not just Bryce Harper who they’ll likely be losing come 2019.
Their competent pitching rotation could very well be severely diminished.
With that in mind, the argument for Mike Rizzo to go all-out and fix the Nationals while they still have a shot has only gotten stronger.
If he has to trade away prospects the team highly values to fix the bullpen, he absolutely should; ultimately, the Nats are a team built on starting pitching, and without it, what’s the point of stockpiling other talent?