|Sensing their opportunity may be at hand after a third-place finish in the National League East, the Nationals swapped four prospects to the Athletics for 26-year-old lefthander Gio Gonzalez, who this year ranked fourth in the American League in strikeout rate (8.8 per nine innings) and 10th in ERA (3.12). Oakland received righthanders Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole, who ranked as Washington’s Nos. 3 and 4 prospects this offseaon, catcher Derek Norris and strike-throwing lefthander Tom Milone. Peacock and Milone made their big league debuts with the Nationals in September, while Norris may not be far behind after finishing the year in Double-A. Oakland also sent high Class A righty Rob Gilliam to the Nationals.
Washington adds Gonzalez to a potentially stout rotation that already features Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan and Ross Detwiler—though trading Peacock and Milone leaves the club with little in the way of upper-level minor league depth.
The Athletics’ trade of Gonzalez follows by two weeks the trade of Trevor Cahill, Oakland’s other rotation anchor, to the Diamondbacks for premium pitching prospect Jarrod Parker. The 23-year-old Parker figures to make the 2012 big league rotation, along with Peacock and possibly Milone, but trading established starters for pitching prospects, no matter how talented, carries significant risk. The A’s have demonstrated this as well as any club.
Following the 2004 season Oakland traded rotation stalwarts Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder for six players, receiving Dan Haren and Daric Barton from the Mulder deal and—well, they didn’t get much in return for Hudson. (See for yourself.) The A’s tore down the present and looked to the future again following the 2007 season when they dealt Haren to the Diamondbacks for a package of six players, most notably Brett Anderson, Chris Carter and the since-traded Carlos Gonzalez and Aaron Cunningham. Prior to the 2008 trade deadline, and just months after dealing Haren, Oakland parted with righthanded starters Rich Harden and Joe Blanton, receiving seven players in return, but few of note. The chief pitching prospects fetched in those deals, Sean Gallagher and Josh Outman, failed to establish themselves as they dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness, while the top position players from those deals, Adrian Cardenas and Josh Donaldson, have done more to further the cause of Triple-A Sacramento than Oakland.
Oakland’s most recent pitcher trades resemble the four-years-old Haren transaction more than the others, because Cahill and Gonzalez carry with them both a baseline of expected production as well as a sense of growth potential, as Haren did all those years ago. Not to mention the fact that Cahill is under contract for three more years, while Gonzalez is under club control for four more.
|Brad Peacock, rhp
Born: Feb. 2, 1988 in Palm Beach, Fla.
Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 175. Bats: R. Throws: R.
School: Palm Beach (Fla.) CC.
Career Transactions: Selected by Nationals in 41st round of 2006 draft; signed May 30, 2007.
Peacock won the Double-A Eastern League’s pitcher of the year award and finished with impressive stints in Triple-A and the majors. He pitches comfortably at 91-94 mph and runs his fastball up to 97 at times. He worked hard in 2011 to keep his front shoulder closed while maintaining his balance and alignment, which led to improved fastball command and deception. He pitches heavily off his four-seamer, which has late hop. He has another swing-and-miss pitch in his sharp 12-to-6 curveball, though it still needs more consistency. He has gained significant confidence in his low-80s changeup, throwing it with good arm speed and fade, though it still gets too firm at times. He could become a No. 2 starter if everything clicks. (Aaron Fitt)
|A.J. Cole, rhp
Born: Jan. 5, 1992 in Winter Springs, Fla.
Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 180. Bats: R. Throws: R.
School: Oviedo (Fla.) HS.
Career Transactions: Selected by Nationals in fourth round of 2010 draft; signed Aug. 15, 2010.
After signing for a fourth round-record $2 million bonus in August 2010, Cole pitched only one inning at short-season Vermont. An illness caused him to lose weight before the start of spring training in 2011, and the Nationals cautiously kept him in extended spring training until mid-May. By the end of the summer, Cole’s fastball ranged from 90-98 mph and sat in the mid-90s. He has no fear of attacking hitters with his fastball, and he did a better job commanding the pitch down in the zone as the season progressed. Early on, he tended to rush his delivery, but it became more compact, repeatable and rhythmic during the summer, helping him generate a good downward plane. Cole throws a spike curveball as a chase pitch and is getting better at throwing it for strikes, but Washington plans on having him work on a true curve that would be easier to keep in the zone. He’s still learning to trust his changeup. Cole still is getting stronger physically and has frontline-starter upside, but he’ll need to refine his secondary stuff. (Aaron Fitt)
|Derek Norris, c
Age: 22. Position: C (95 G).
Born: Feb. 14, 1989 in Goddard, Kan.
Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 210. Bats: R. Throws: R.
School: Goddard (Kan.) HS.
Career Transactions: Selected by Nationals in fourth round of 2007 draft; signed June 21, 2007.
Norris long has been regarded as a gifted offensive player, but early in his pro career there were questions about the converted third baseman’s ability to catch. He answered them by making great strides defensively in Double-A in 2011, when he also slugged 20 homers but also hit .210. Despite his low batting averages and high strikeout totals, Norris has excellent pitch recognition and the ability to command the zone when he stays back. When he struggles, he jumps to his front side too early and his bat doesn’t stay in the zone. He has quick hands and a compact stroke that generates plus power from line to line, though he’s at his best when he’s driving the ball to right-center. Norris’ throwing, receiving, footwork, blocking and game-calling all have improved significantly. He still needs to polish his receiving a bit more, but his solid-average arm helped him throw out an Eastern League-high 40 percent of basestealers. Norris now looks likely to stick behind the plate as a big leaguer, and his offensive ability gives him a chance to be an all-star. (Aaron Fitt)
|Tom Milone, lhp
Born: Feb. 16, 1987 in Saugus, Calif.
Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 205. Bats: L. Throws: L.
School: Southern California.
Career Transactions: Selected by Nationals in 10th round of 2008 draft; signed June 14, 2008.
International League managers agreed that Milone had both the best changeup and the best control in the Triple-A circuit this season. He finished runner-up in the IL with 155 strikeouts (just one off the pace set by Durham’s Alex Torres) but ranked first with a 1.03 WHIP and walk rate of 1.0 per nine innings. Milone pitches at 86-89 mph and succeeds because he delivers four pitches of varying speeds from the same delivery and arm slot. He changes up at 79 mph and drops into the low 70s with his slow curveball, while his cutter comes in near 85. Milone throws strikes and will benefit from pitching in Oakland’s cavernous ballpark. His ceiling may be modest, but he’s a safe bet to reach it.
|Gio Gonzalez, lhp
Age: 26. Remaining Commitment: Under club control for 2012-15 seasons ($420,000 salary in 2011).
Contract details courtesy of Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
|Rob Gilliam, rhp
Born: Nov. 29, 1987 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 195. Bats: R. Throws: R.
School: UNC Greensboro.
Career Transactions: Selected by Athletics in eighth round of 2009 draft; signed June 20, 2009.
Gilliam has three things going for him: arm strength, control and a feel for three pitches. He finished third in the California League this season with both 156 strikeouts and 164 1/3 innings, and he’s more than just a throw-in for Washington. Gilliam sits in the 92-94 mph range and while his slider and changeup grade as below-average presently, both could become average offerings with further refinement. That could mean a future in the bullpen, but it also gives him an outside shot at a future as a mid-rotation starter.