LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Greetings from the Swan and Dolphin Resort at Walt Disney World, where baseball’s Winter Meetings are underway.
With Shohei Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton’s situations resolved before a host of general managers and front office types convened on this resort to talk trade and lure free agents, there’s a general feeling that the proverbial floodgates could open over the next few days.
Whether the Nationals will be a part of whatever occurs by the time baseball executives scatter like the wind late Thursday morning remains to be seen. But you can count on Nats GM Mike Rizzo’s suite being a popular destination for his peers who know the Nationals’ needs and have ideas on how to fill them.
A scout I trust floated an interesting proposition to me a couple of weeks back and it may be just the kind of outside-the-box move that has Rizzo written all over it. Would the Nationals, consider filling one of their needs - starting pitching, right-handed relief, a lefty-swinging first baseman, a right-handed hitting outfielder and other bench help - by dealing from a position of strength?
Specifically, could the Nats trade lefty Gio Gonzalez?
The Nationals control Gonzalez through 2018, the southpaw cementing his $12 million option once he reached 180 innings last season, when he went 15-9 with a 2.96 ERA in 32 starts covering 201 innings. While Gonzalez enjoyed a 2017 renaissance, his poor postseasons - he’s never recorded a win in six career playoff starts for the Nats, posting a 4.78, and failed in win-or-go-home Game 5 National League Division Series assignments in 2012 and 2017 - have left some in the organization wondering if he’ll ever be a big-game pitcher.
But guys who can put up strong numbers and make 31 or more starts seven times in eight seasons have value - especially when they’re cost-controlled at a reasonable salary while middling and unproven pitchers are sending pitchers’ paychecks’ skyrocketing. There’s hardly a team out there looking for starting pitching that wouldn’t like to acquire a veteran lefty.
Do you deal from an area of strength, hoping to get back a younger, less expensive pitcher who is under team control for a longer term? A team on the cusp of playoff contention might be licking its chops at the prospect of acquiring a veteran like Gonzalez, and he could be a classic sell-high candidate, especially for a club that would want to stash him at the back of the rotation.
The Nationals have some interesting guys whose value may never be higher - center fielder Michael A. Taylor and infielder Wilmer Difo come to mind - and Rizzo is shrewd enough to know when a particular player’s value is at its zenith. National League teams have been snapping up free agent pitchers left and right - Tyler Chatwood went to the Cubs for three years and $28 million and Miles Mikolas parlayed three strong seasons in the Japanese league into a two-year, $15.5 million deal with the Cardinals - so some team that wanted those guys still has a hole to fill.
Right fielder Bryce Harper is entering his walk year. So is second baseman Daniel Murphy. Third baseman Anthony Rendon is worthy of a long-term extension. Rizzo must find creative ways to balance the ledger sheet, giving new skipper Dave Martinez the right ingredients to contend, but doing so in such a way that he doesn’t again exceed the luxury tax threshold, setting the Nationals up to pay a hefty financial penalty. The Nats crossed the $195 million luxury tax line for the first time in 2017, meaning a 20 percent tax on their overage. Do it again in 2018, when the threshold is $197 million, and the punishment is a 30 percent tax on the overage. The less wiggle room the Nats have, the harder it is to make a splashy midseason move where they take on salary.
In the past, Rizzo has demonstrated his belief that packaging together multiple top prospects is a cost-efficient way of filling holes with established major league talent. The Nats have been unwilling to part with two top prospects - outfielders Victor Robles and Juan Soto - to acquire top players. The minor league coffers aren’t as flush as they were when four top prospects were sent to the A’s for Gonzalez in December 2011 (none of the four - pitchers A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock and catcher Derek Norris came anywhere near achieving stardom, and Cole is a candidate to be the Nats’ No. 5 starter after returning to the organization two years after being shipped to the A’s).
Perhaps dangling Gonzalez helps the Nats get what they want, and Rizzo uses some of his minor league depth to get a back-end starter to replace him. Mind you, any trade involving Gonzalez would be one of two or more moves, designed to fortify the Nationals. But in an environment where you have to give something to get something, Gonzalez has value that might help the Nationals accomplish what they want to during the Winter Meetings - and beyond.