Five questions (and answers) about Gio Gonzalez

The deal is done, finally officially announced by the teams involved Friday night. The Nationals have acquired left-hander Gio Gonzalez and minor league right-hander Robert Gilliam from the A’s in exchange for four top prospects: right-handers Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole, left-hander Tommy Milone and catcher Derek Norris.

Some of you like the deal, others don’t. Curiously enough, in the two weeks since the Winter Meetings ended in Dallas, a good portion of NatsTown has been milling about with pitchforks and scythes, calling for general manager Mike Rizzo’s head because they believe he’s been far too passive this offseason. Now comes the hue and cry that he gave up way too much to fill the team’s longstanding need for a top starting pitcher. Guess you just can’t please all of the people all of the time.

So with physical exams completed and medical records exchanged, here are a handful of questions (and answers) pertaining to the newest National:

The Nationals already have Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann atop the rotation. Did they really need Gonzalez and is he really a No. 1 starter?

Few monikers in sport are as overblown as “No. 1 starter.” After opening day, does it really matter, since a manager will often tinker with his rotation to gain a more favorable pitching match-up against an opponent. It’s hard to predict where manager Davey Johnson will slot Gonzalez in the starting five, but that’s less important than the fact that the 26-year-old has made 65 starts over the past two seasons, logged at least 200 innings in each and won 15 or more games both times. Rizzo wanted a horse and he got one. Rizzo said Friday night he expects Gonzalez to slot between Strasburg and Zimmermann, the southpaw splitting the right-handers.

Aren’t Gonzalez’s high walk totals a concern?

Anytime a pitcher leads the league in walks - as he did with 91 free passes in 2011 - it’s a concern. And Gonzalez has had some control issues - his 183 bases on balls over the past two seasons are the highest total in the majors. Lots of walks coupled with a suspect defense might frustrate some pitchers. But Gonzalez has seen his ERA in his four seasons decrease from 7.68 to 5.75 to 3.23 to 3.12. At the same time his innings have increased, his strikeout totals have gone from 34 in 34 innings in 2008 to 109 in 98 2/3 in 2009 to 171 in 200 2/3 in 2010 to 197 in 202 innings last season. Go ahead and focus on his walks, if you must, but at least be fair and look at the strides he’s made in other statistical departments.

Will his game play in the National League and, more specifically, at Nationals Park?

There’s no doubt that Gonzalez was helped by cavernous Coliseum, where the foul territory has its own ZIP code. He’s a career 21-14 pitcher with a 3.56 ERA in Oakland and 17-18 with a 4.32 ERA on the road. Yes, an adjustment will be necessary for Gonzalez to succeed in a Nationals uniform. But keep in mind that he’ll no longer be facing a lineup with an extra batter in the designated hitter and he’ll have the ability to work around weaker hitters at the bottom of the order to get to weak-hitting pitchers. Nationals Park can be unforgiving to pitchers, but with sure-handed defenders like catcher Wilson Ramos, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, second baseman Danny Espinosa, first baseman Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth in either center or right, he’s got some backup.

If Gonzalez is so good, why did the A’s give up on him?

This trade is proof of the old baseball maxim about giving up something to get something. The A’s are cash-strapped, hoping for a new stadium deal in San Jose to allow them to add payroll and have no need for high-priced players in an admittedly small market. On the cusp of his prime years, Gonzalez was perhaps their most trade-worthy commodity. They also don’t want to pay him the $4 million-plus he will earn in his first crack at the arbitration apple, nor were they interested in signing him long term and buying out his arbitration years. In short, they had to move him and were willing to accept four prospects with virtually no major league experience in return. Think of it more as the A’s using what they had to restock their system full of cheaper players they could control longer at more reasonable salaries.

What’s his upside?

It’s hard to determine in baseball’s current landscape whether a guy can be a 20-game winner, but pitchers who can win 16 games, as Gonzalez did in 2011, can usually point to another handful of losses or no-decisions that could have easily gone their way. Gonzalez is young, can be under team control through 2015 and can dictate how the Nationals proceed contractually through his own performance. A lot of people point out that Gonzalez has been traded four times as if it’s baseball’s version of a scarlet letter - yet they forget to mention that he was dealt from the White Sox to the Phillies for future Hall of Famer Jim Thome, packaged by the Phillies back to the White Sox for Freddy Garcia, then dealt as part of a 3-for-1 swap that netted the A’s Nick Swisher - all before he even established himself in the majors. That means several organizations have looked at Gonzalez and seem immense potential. Put him alongside Strasburg and Zimmermann and the Nationals suddenly have a most formidable top three. What’s more, they no longer have to worry about guys better suited to be No. 4 or No. 5 starters being asked to do too much. Gonzalez gives Washington a power lefty to combat the tough left-handed hitters in the National League East. A sandwich pick after the first round by the White Sox in 2004, he throws a fastball that tops out in the 95 mph range, a two-seam fastball, a change-up and a curveball.

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