09/12/12 10:00 AM ET
Gio deal turns fortunes of both Nats, A's
Offseason trade reaps unexpected immediate benefits in tandem with other deals
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
The A's radically remade their pitching staff with three major trades over the winter, leading to multiple appearances of the word "rebuilding" in descriptions of Billy Beane's offseason. The Nationals were happy to take advantage, shipping four prospects to Oakland in order to add high-upside but sometimes erratic lefty Gio Gonzalez.
About 8 1/2 months later, it's quite clear that neither side should have any regrets. The Athletics' makeover bore fruit much sooner than expected, as the pieces they received in the three deals have helped propel Oakland into surprise Wild Card contention. And the Nats? They have the National League's best record, thanks in large part to a breakthrough season by Gonzalez.
In fact, Gonzalez has emerged as a contender for the title of the Nationals' best starting pitcher, and not just in the non-Stephen Strasburg division. And if you're the best pitcher on the Nats this year, you're in the running for best pitcher in the league. Cy Young Award talk is starting to build for Gonzalez, who ranks in the top 10 in the NL in ERA, strikeouts, WHIP and wins.
"He's been unbelievable all year long," said Washington shortstop Ian Desmond. "He's consistent. I think that's one of the most important things for the Cy Young. You've got to be able to give your team a chance to win. He's done that and beyond. He's nasty. I wouldn't want to face him. I'd give him the Cy Young right now."
Although the Nationals knew they were acquiring a quality pitcher, it's likely that even they didn't realize exactly what they had on their hands. Gonzalez began harnessing his control and the results have been remarkable.
Already a 200-inning workhorse with big strikeout numbers, Gonzalez has cut his walk rate significantly. He's one of the biggest reasons why, even with Strasburg shut down, there's reason to believe the Nationals can go deep in October.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's exceeded [expectations]," said manager Davey Johnson. "He's been very consistent. Very few hits per nine innings. Just an outstanding job. Throw all right-handers up there or all left-handers, it doesn't matter to him."
And while Oakland -- or any team -- would certainly benefit from having Gonzalez in the fold, the A's have fared superbly in his absence. Tommy Milone and Derek Norris, two key pieces from the trade, have contributed to the surge. So have Josh Reddick, acquired in the deal that sent Andrew Bailey to Boston, and Jarrod Parker, who came from Arizona for Trevor Cahill.
It appeared the A's were, to some extent, punting on 2012 in order to be stronger sometime down the line. That has not been the case.
"You obviously hope that they'll be able to help you sooner than later, but you never know," said Oakland manager Bob Melvin. "You just put trust in your front office and know that they're making the right decisions that will not only help your ballclub for the future but for the present, and that's what they've done."
One key, though, was that the A's weren't taking on long-shot projects. They wanted, and they got, players who were close to the Majors or already there. Milone pitched for Washington in 2011. Norris was coming off a successful year in Double-A.
"They've stepped right in and contributed," said A's shortstop Cliff Pennington. "That's what we needed. We wanted big league-ready guys, and though a lot of people didn't see them as that, that's what we got. You can't really ask for much more from them. We haven't missed a beat with the guys that have stepped in."
There's even been a ripple effect for both Oakland and Washington. Norris' arrival, along with the July acquisition of George Kottaras from Milwaukee, allowed the A's to deal catcher Kurt Suzuki. The six-year veteran was having a down year, so Oakland was willing to move him.
Conveniently, it's been a terrible year for injuries in the Nats' catching corps, so guess where Suzuki's landing spot was? The Nationals shipped catcher/bat David Freitas to the A's for Suzuki, shoring up their catching situation while the A's deepened their farm system yet again.
It's a deal that almost certainly wouldn't have happened if not for the previous trade. It's also yet another win-win move, with Oakland clearing some payroll space without compromising the short term too much, and Washington getting better as it pursues the franchise's first World Series.
And make no mistake, that is the goal. The Nats are aiming high, with Gonzalez at the front of their likely playoff rotation.
"I feel that this is a great team," Gonzalez said when asked if he expected this degree of team success so soon. "Bullpen, offense, defense, I think why not? We've been playing hard and we deserve it."
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. Jane Lee contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.