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Looking back at the Gio Gonzalez deal

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Taking a look back at the Washington Nationals’ deal with the Oakland A’s that brought Gio Gonzalez to the nation’s capital.

Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals
In December 2011, the Washington Nationals traded four prospects for Gio Gonzalez. Seven years later, let’s take a look back at how the deal panned out.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

On December 23, 2011, the Washington Nationals made a deal with the Oakland Athletics that helped to shape the best six-year run in franchise history. The Nats obtained Gio Gonzalez and minor league pitcher Robert Gilliam for prospects A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone, Derek Norris, and Brad Peacock. Less than a month later, the Nationals locked Gonzalez in to a seven-year extension that bought out his first three years of free agency. Seven years later, let’s see how the deal turned out.

The Nats return: Gio Gonzalez and Robert Gilliam

I suppose we can start with the token mention of Robert Gilliam. A 23-year-old right-hander at the time, Gilliam pitched in the Nats organization for three years in the minors. He never progressed beyond AA ball before retiring following the 2014 season.

Gio, on the other hand, had an immediate impact with the big league club. He served as the ace on the Nationals’ first division winning club in 2012, finishing third in the Cy Young balloting that season. He’s been incredibly durable throughout his tenure with the Nats, missing just five starts in 2014 due to shoulder inflammation. All in all, he’s been incredible in his seven years with the Nationals, going 86-63 with a 3.56 ERA, a 3.43 FIP, a 1.28 WHIP, and 1,202 strikeouts in 1236.2 innings.

Gio Gonzalez has been worth 23.5 fWAR and 22.0 rWAR during his tenure with the Nationals. These are numbers we’ll come back to when we discuss the extension he signed in January 2012 later on, but they’re also important in judging the trade itself.

The A’s return: A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone, Derek Norris, and Brad Peacock

A.J. Cole spent just one season in the A’s organization before being returned to the Nats in a three team deal that netted them John Jaso and the Mariners Michael Morse. Cole never progressed beyond A+ ball in Oakland, though he has spent some time in the majors with the Nationals and Yankees. He certainly didn’t pan out for the Nats, posting 0.0 fWAR (+0.5 entering this season, but hey.... the -0.5 this season happened) and -0.2 rWAR. He’s been a bit better in 30 innings as a member of the Yankees’ bullpen, but it’s fair to say that the Nats didn’t lose much giving Cole up in this deal.

Tommy Milone had a couple of solid seasons holding down a rotation spot in Oakland. He posted a 3.84 ERA, a 4.17 FIP, a 1.26 WHIP, and 324 strikeouts in 442.2 innings from 2012-2014. He was dealt to Minnesota at the 2014 trade deadline for defensive specialist Sam Fuld, though he’s never enjoyed quite the success anywhere else that he did in Oakland. Like Cole, he found his way back to the Nats and is currently pitching out of the rotation while Stephen Strasburg is injured. Milone has carved himself out a decent enough career so far, with a 4.40 lifetime ERA, a 4.49 FIP, a 1.34 WHIP, and 551 strikeouts in 759 innings. That’s been good for a 6.2 fWAR (4.5 fWAR in his time in Oakland) and 3.3 rWAR (3.8 rWAR in his time in Oakland).

Derek Norris did what few people in Natstown thought he would do at the time of the trade. He stuck behind the plate and was actually passable as a defensive catcher. Norris had some growing pains in his rookie season in 2012, but followed that up with a short run as one of the better offensive catchers in the game. In 2013, Norris slashed .246/.345/.409, good for a 114 wRC+. He improved on that the next year, slashing .270/.361/.403, good for a 123 wRC+. After 2014, the A’s traded him to San Diego for a package centered around Jesse Hahn. Norris’ walk rate fell off a cliff in his first season with the Padres, though he actually improved his power production. He dropped off even more in his second season in San Diego, batting just .186/.255/.328. He’s been traded twice since, including once to (you guessed it) the Nationals and had off field issues that have kept teams away in free agency. Norris has accumulated 7.3 fWAR (5.1 with Oakland) and 8.8 rWAR (6.0 with Oakland) over the course of his career.

Seven years later, Brad Peacock is probably the best current player involved in the trade. He never did pan out in Oakland, though. The A’s used Peacock as a starter in AAA during the 2012 season, where he struggled to a 6.01 ERA. He was dealt to Houston that offseason, along with Chris Carter (yes... the 2016 NL Home Run king) and Max Stassi for Jed Lowrie and Francisco Rodriguez. It took a while for Peacock to thrive in Houston, but he really took off during the 2017 season. Peacock began 2017 in the bullpen, but moved to the rotation when injuries struck and went 13-2 with a 3.00 ERA, a 3.07 FIP, a 1.19 WHIP, and a ridiculous 161 strikeouts in 132 innings. He struggled in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but made four strong appearances out of the bullpen in the World Series, including a save in Game Three. This season, Peacock has gone back to his more familiar bullpen role, but he’s been just as effective, with a 2.84 ERA and a 75:13 strikeout to walk ratio in 50.2 innings. Peacock has been good for just 4.2 fWAR (4.0 in the past two years!), none of which came with Oakland. He’s contributed 4.4 rWAR (also none with the A’s).

All told, the four players that the Nationals traded for Gio Gonzalez have been worth 17.7 fWAR and 16.3 rWAR in the seven years since the deal. Oakland saw just 9.6 fWAR and 9.8 rWAR out of the players they received while they were in an A’s uniform. That falls well short of the 23.5 fWAR and 22.0 rWAR the Nats have gotten out of Gio’s tenure. Mike Rizzo did quite well here.

Gio’s 2012 extension

In January of 2012, the Nats signed Gio Gonzalez to a five year extension with a club option for 2017 and a vesting option for 2018. The deal guaranteed Gio $42 million ($41.5 for the first five years plus a $500,000 buyout as part of the club option) and had two option years at $12 million per season. All told, the Nats have paid Gio $65.5 million over the past seven seasons... or an Average Annual Value of $9.36 million.

I’m not going to go into how to determine the cost per win above replacement for a couple of reasons...

  1. Figuring out the dollar value of each projected win is something that I’ve seen many people write thesis-length articles about.
  2. The people who are writing those articles are quite a bit smarter than I am.

Instead, what I’ll do is point you to Gio Gonzalez’s Fangraphs page. From there, if you scroll down to “Value,” you can see what a team would have expected to have to pay a free agent to provide Gio’s WAR contributions each year. To do the simple math (including this season’s $10.7 million), we come up with a value of $169.6 million over the seven years that he’s been with the Nationals. That’s more than $100 million of surplus value.

Why am I writing this?

Gio Gonzalez is slated to be a free agent at the end of the season. As a fan, I do not want them to bring Gio back in the offseason. He’ll turn 33 in September, meaning his best years are probably behind him. Despite the absurd surplus value he’s given the Nats over the years, Gio also certainly has his faults. He’s led the league in walks twice (OK... just once with the Nats). The season that he led the league in walks with the Nats was in 2017, when Gio’s ERA severely outperformed the underlying metrics*. He’s right near the top of the NL leaderboard in walks again this season, and he’s doing so with a 4.40 BB/9 rate that is his worst since his rookie season (2009) in Oakland. Gio rarely misses starts, but he rarely pitches deep into games and is, at times, almost unbearable to watch.

*His .258 BABIP (.294 career) and 81.6% strand rate (74.0% career) in 2017 were major factors.

So why, then? Why am I writing this? It’s often easy for me (and many of my fellow Nats fans) to focus solely on the here and now. As I was watching last night’s 6-4 loss to the Cardinals (thankfully I was not at this one. Monday’s soul-crushing loss was enough!), I found myself counting down the days until Gio Gonzalez is no longer on this team. I found myself thinking that I couldn’t wait until I no longer watched him dance around the strike zone (yes... around... not in) every fifth day. I found myself almost hoping that Gio doesn’t suddenly have a brilliant final eight starts this season to convince the front office that re-signing him is a good idea. It’s just not!

In this dismal season, I occasionally find that I have to remind myself that some of these guys who are headed towards free agency have been fun to watch for many years. They’ve been key players on this team during (as stated above) the best six-year run in the history of this franchise. I know that may not have the same impact on many of you who have been following this team since 2005 (or even later) as it does to me, but I’ve been cheering for this franchise since I started following baseball in 1980 and they were the Expos. The Expos never had a six-year run like this. They would have two or three-year spurts where they were good before all of their best players hit free agency and were off to a team that could afford them.

As the season starts to wind down, we can certainly focus on the likelihood that there will be no October baseball for this year’s Nats. They really haven’t looked like a playoff team since May, but the cloud that’s hovered over the team for the past week seems to have led a lot more people to accept that postseason baseball seems unlikely this year. However, as some of the impending free agents near the end of their tenure with the Nats, let’s not forget to show appreciation to the guys on this team that made it great for the past few years. Gio was one of those guys.