When the Nationals traded four top prospects to the A’s in exchange for Gio Gonzalez last month, general manager Mike Rizzo talked about the effect the 26-year-old left-hander would have on the Washington rotation. Despite his relative youth, four major league seasons - and three spent primarily as a starting pitcher for the team that gifted “Moneyball” to the game - are more than right-handers Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, whose promising careers were interrupted by Tommy John surgery.
Rizzo sounded as if he expected Gonzalez to serve as a sort of de-facto mentor to the younger pitchers on the staff, based on his service time and success.
Surprise! Gonzalez wants the ball and is happy to pitch in. The mentor role? Not so much.
As a newcomer, he thinks it might be better to initially listen more than he speaks.
“I like to be the guy that listens up, mostly,” Gonzalez said Wednesday when he was introduced after signing his Nationals contract extension. “My door is always open for whoever wants to ask any questions or young guys need a guideline or something like that. Remember, I had to go through some rough patches myself when I was coming up in the minor leagues and the big leagues. It’s maturing, obviously, growing up.”
In Oakland, the guy who helped Gonzalez learn the ropes was lefty Dallas Braden. Ignore for a minute that Braden is 28, only two years older than Gonzalez. The way A’s GM Billy Beane shuffled his top starting pitchers off the roster and turned them into prospects and other workable pieces, someone had to be the graybeard on the A’s staff.
“(Braden) helped me to become the pitcher I am today, and I give all the credit in the world to people like that,” Gonzalez said. “Again, I’m more than happy to pass the torch and keep helping out if I could. But I like to listen. I’m new in this organization and I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. So I like to stay back, watch and then within time, hopefully I can break in and help out as much as I can as a role model.”
Gonzalez has plenty of learning to do, to be sure. He has to get acquainted with new hitters, work on cutting down his walks and start developing a relationship with pitching coach Steve McCatty.
The southpaw is eager to work with his new battery mate, catcher Wilson Ramos.
“I heard he was fantastic,” Gonzalez said of Ramos. “I heard you could close your eyes, he’ll call the game and you could feel comfortable. That’s definitely the kind of catcher I love to have.”
While Gonzalez won’t shed any tears about not having to face a designate hitter night in and night out, there are some things he will miss about pitching in Oakland. He’ll no longer have the protection of the voluminous foul territory at The Coliseum - where, it’s rumored, foul territory on the first base and third base sides both have their own ZIP codes.
Wednesday was Gonzalez’s first up-close look at Nationals Park, and he thinks he’ll be a good fit in his new home.
“I really don’t know how it plays out here in Washington,” he said. “I’ve heard it plays fair for both - pitchers and hitters. But in Oakland, it was like the same thing. Day games, if you popped up it was a home run. And night games you had to really get a hold of it to hit it out. I’ve seen some hard home runs out there. But either way you got to hit the ball. Same thing as a pitcher - you got to keep the ball down and away from their bats. It was fun pitching there, but it’s going to be exciting to pitch here.”
Even with substantially less foul territory? And in a place where the ball can sail during the humid summer months?
“I did see the foul ground here,” Gonzalez said. “I think it plays fair on both the third base side and the first base side. But obviously, the foul ground, where the bullpen is, the foul lines, it happens. You’re going to get some tough breaks. It’s baseball. Sometimes, you’ve got to deal with (that). My whole point is make them hit it at a player, make an out. The rest is up to God. I hope mother nature works out for me. I’m going to do my best to keep the ball down.”