Looking back on the Gio Gonzalez trade

There’s a tendency for fans to judge every trade made on its face value in the moments immediately after the deal is consummated and announced. This can be tricky, since raw emotion, rather than careful consideration, takes over.

It’s often better - and more useful - to judge a trade in three ways: immediate impact, short-term results and long-term gains or losses. Yes, it’s natural to have an opinion once a deal is struck. But how a deal plays out for the coming season, even a few seasons down the road, can also be a useful took to gauge its success or failure.

gonzalez-gio-throwing-white-wide-sidebar.jpgRemember the uproar on Dec. 23, 2011, when the Nationals sent four of their top minor league prospects to the A’s in exchange for left-hander Gio Gonzalez and minor league right-hander Robert Gilliam? NatsTown was up in arms. Yes, Gonzalez was a nice get, but how could Mike Rizzo have dealt pitchers A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, Tommy Milone and catcher Derek Norris for him?

Baseball America ranked Norris as the team’s No. 2 prospect, calling him “an offensive catcher with All-Star potential” (outfielder Bryce Harper was the top prospect). Right-hander Cole was No. 4, touted for his frontline starter potential, and righty Peacock was No. 10, a big jump from his status as a 41st-round draft pick in 2006. Left-hander Milone wasn’t on the list, but had made his big league debut in 2011, pitching in five games.

The top 10 list came out the day before the deal was announced, and Baseball America had to rework the top 10. As a result, the Nationals slipped from being ranked as one of the best farms in the game further down in the pack. General manager Mike Rizzo steadfastly told anyone who would listen that the goal of developing players in the minor leagues was to help the major league club, even if that meant packaging them to acquire talent from another organization. Gonzalez filled a need and the Nats had what it took to deal for him. But some fans weren’t convinced.

Well, when Norris was traded to the Padres on Thursday night, it meant that the A’s had none of the four promising players they acquired from the Nats in exchange for Gonzalez remaining in their organization. So three years later, I think it’s safe to quantify that deal as a win for Rizzo and company.

In three years with the A’s, Norris did ascend to All-Star status, making the American League squad last year. He increased his workload each season, slashing .270/.361/.403 in 127 games, with 10 home runs and 55 RBIs. The now 25-year-old played in three postseasons (all losses). But he was sent to the Padres with a minor league pitcher and cash, with the A’s getting pitchers R.J. Alvarez and Jesse Hahn. Norris was the last of the four players to be shipped out by the A’s.

Milone went 31-22 in parts of three seasons in Oakland, posting a 3.84 ERA and 1.63 WHIP. But he could never secure a permanent place in the ever-changing A’s rotation. He was peddled off to the Twins on July 31 in exchange for outfielder Sam Fuld. He’s approaching his 28th birthday and hoping he can get a shot in Minnesota.

Peacock, who went 2-0 with an 0.75 ERA in three tantalizing starts for the 2011 Nationals, never even pitched for the A’s, who spun him off to the Astros six weeks later. This was a bad deal for the A’s, who also surrendered slugging outfielder Chris Carter (66 homers, 170 RBIs in two years with Houston) and catching prospect Max Stassi. In exchange, Oakland received infielder Jed Lowrie and pitcher Fernando Rodriguez. Rodriguez was designated for assignment two days ago and Lowrie batted .271 in two seasons with the A’s before signing as a free agent with Houston earlier this week. Peacock is now 26 and has gone 9-15 with a 4.90 ERA since being dealt from Washington. He’s running out of chances.

Cole-BP-ST.jpgCole was a 19-year-old who had never pitched above low Single-A Hagerstown when he was traded in the Gonzalez deal, and Rizzo lamented the fact that he had to give him up. But the Nationals reacquired the righty on Jan. 16, 2013 as part of a three-team deal also involving the A’s and Mariners. Outfielder Michael Morse went from Washington to Seattle, and the A’s sent Cole, lefty reliever Ian Krol (later dealt to Detroit in the Doug Fister swap) and right-hander Blake Treinen to the Nats. Since then, Cole has re-emerged as one of the top Nats prospects (Baseball American ranked him No. 2 this year) and Treinen has opened eyes with his heavy sinker and ability to both start and relieve. In the three-way deal, Oakland got catcher John Jaso from the Mariners.

All Gonzalez has done in three seasons in Washington is go 42-26 with a 3.25 ERA in 91 starts. Last year’s 10-10 record may have been a disappointment, but except for this year’s stint on the DL with left shoulder inflammation, Gonzalez has taken the ball every fifth day and performed pretty well. In three seasons with the Nats, he’s posted a 1.192 WHIP. His strikeouts have dropped, but so have his walks, and he won’t turn 30 until next Sept. 19.

Almost three years after the fact, I think it’s clear that the Gonzalez trade was a lopsided win for the Nationals, who got a controllable piece that filled a need. Better, except for Norris, they didn’t give up anyone who they couldn’t do without. But if you’re an A’s fan, with your once strong team in the midst of being retooled for the umpteenth time, you probably wish you had Gonzalez still in the fold. Of course, there’s no way Billy Beane and the small-market A’s would have ponied up the five-year, $42 million extension Gonzalez got from the Nats.

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