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Trade Retrospective: The A’s trade Gio González to the Nationals for A.J. Cole and prospects

The A’s got a great deal for González, but the results show how hard it can be to project pitcher performance.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Oakland Athletics Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

For the second straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.

The Athletics were quite busy trying to execute on a rebuild during the 2011/2012 offseason; this is the third major trade that will be covered in this series. Shortly before Christmas in 2011, the A’s traded Gio González to the Nationals in exchange for Tommy Milone, A.J. Cole, Derek Norris, and Brad Peacock.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will still be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades because anybody can get lucky. Process over results. That being said, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties. All WAR values are from Baseball Reference unless otherwise specified.

The Deal

I suggest checking out my review of the Josh Reddick trade for some background on the A’s general mentality and plan that offseason.

Gio González was originally acquired by the A’s in January 2008 in a trade that saw Nick Swisher go to the White Sox. The trade received criticism at the time because while the A’s received the White Sox’s two best prospects in González and Fautino De Los Santos, Swisher was a good, proven hitter who could be cheaply controlled through 2012. In other words, Swisher was exactly the kind of player the A’s should keep, not trade away.

At the time, De Los Santos was actually considered to be the better prospect in that trade. A combination of injuries, ineffectiveness, and bad decisions led to him becoming a complete bust. Kevin Goldstein said that González could be an above-average starter, but he also stated concerns about his average fastball and lack of size.

González surpassed his ceiling by getting his fastball velocity up to 93 MPH in 2010. In his first two full seasons in the majors, he combined for a 3.49 RA9 and 8.3 WAR. He had a solid strikeout rate but his control problems persisted. He was durable too, having pitched at least 200 innings in both seasons. I can’t tell you what GM Billy Beane’s thought process was when he acquired González, but it paid off.

The Nationals were coming off an 80-win season — their best since their first year in Washington D.C. in 2005. They were ready to take the next leap, but their starting rotation needed help. The front of the 2012 rotation looked strong with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. The back-end included Chien-Ming Wang and Liván Hernández, both of whom had become a replacement level pitchers and the latter of whom left in free agency anyway. At the time of this trade, they had not yet signed Edwin Jackson to the cheap, one-year pillow contract.

All that being said, González was not cheap, nor was he without a fair amount of risk. The Nationals were gambling that González’s success in Oakland was not a function of the Coliseum. During his two full seasons playing for the A’s, he posted a 2.80 RA9 at home and a 4.26 RA9 on the road, which indicated there was plenty of cause for concern. The Nationals would really need him to be the pitcher he was in Oakland for the trade to be worth the price paid, even considering the fact that those extra wins are especially valuable given where the team was on the win curve. It could mean the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs.

A.J. Cole was the best prospect in the package. Keith Law called him a potential ace, and he immediately became the best prospect in the A’s system, though he was still considered to be two years away. Derek Norris projected as an everyday catcher who could control the running game. On the offensive side, he walked a lot and showed significant power in the minors. Brad Peacock showed the potential to be a number three starter, but there was risk that he would end up in the bullpen. Tommy Milone did not project as anything more than a fifth starter, even with the excellent control he displayed in the minors.

That is a heck of a package for just Gio González. The Nationals traded away three of their top-ten prospects, according to Baseball America. For that price, I would want something closer to an ace, not González and the risk of taking him out of the Coliseum. The A’s traded him just as he was going to get expensive in arbitration. They took a risk in acquiring him in the first place, but they succeeded in building up his value and trading him for a higher return.

I would have absolutely done this trade if I were the A’s, and hesitant to do so if I were the Nationals. The process was sound from the A’s perspective, similar to last week’s trade review, pitchers can be especially unpredictable.

The Results

A.J. Cole only lasted a year in the A’s system. They started him in High-A where he got shellacked to the tune of a 9.47 RA9 in only 38 innings. Oakland sent him down to Low-A where he fared much better. In 95.2 IP, he had a 3.03 RA9 with excellent strikeout and walk rates. The A’s, however, decided to give up on him. Barely a year later, they traded Cole back to the Nationals in a three-team trade with the Mariners that saw John Jaso go to Oakland.

Cole debuted in 2015 and has only pitched 47 23 innings in the majors. Believe it or not, he still qualifies as a prospect. Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs ranked him 12th in the Nationals’ system. This is what he had to say about Cole:

"His fastball velocity backed up last year, sitting more 90-92 than comfortably 92-95 the way it did when Cole was arguably a top-100 prospect. His arm slot is low and the fastball comes in flat, two things that, in concert with one another, make him vulnerable against left-handed hitters. He’ll flash an above-average changeup and two average breaking balls in a mid-70s curve and low-80s slider. Neither has consistent depth because Cole’s arm angle makes it hard for him to get on top of either consistently. He has fringe command and projects as a No. 5 starter."

Derek Norris struggled when he debuted in 2012, but he had a nice two-year run after that, hitting .260/.354/.405 over that span. Despite his success at the plate, he was a negative on defense and a poor pitch-framer. The A’s decided to sell high on Norris after 2014, as they are wont to do, and traded him to San Diego. Though his offense was barely league average in 2015, his defense and pitch-framing improved dramatically in 2015, making him worth 3.5 WARP. Unfortunately, he stopped hitting in 2016 and was traded to the Nationals this past December. With the recent acquisition of Matt Wieters, it is expected that he will likely be cut this spring.

Like Cole, Brad Peacock never pitched for the A’s at the major league level. He spent the entire 2012 season in the minors, and then was sent to Houston in a trade that saw Jed Lowrie go to Oakland. Sadly, he has been completely ineffective during his Astros career with a 5.33 RA9. He has been a replacement level player in Houston. He is still on the Astros and they are still trying him as a starter.

Tommy Milone had a solid first year in Oakland. He had a 4.26 RA9 and 2.1 WAR. His strikeout rate was well below average, but his walk rate was excellent. He regressed in 2013, then appeared to bounce back a bit in 2014. He had a 3.92 RA9, but his 4.52 DRA showed that he was outperforming his peripherals. He had a poor 15 percent strikeout rate, he was homer-prone, and though his 6.4 percent walk rate was quite good, it was significantly worse than it used to be. The A’s also had a good defense that helped him out, anchored by Josh Donaldson at third base.

The A’s were having an outstanding 2014, so they decided to go all-in and trade their best prospect Addison Russell for Jeff Samardzija. To make room in the rotation, Milone was demoted to Triple-A. He wasn’t having it, so he demanded a trade. He was sent to Minnesota at the trade deadline for Sam Fuld.

Milone was a serviceable starter in 2015, but his performance plummeted in 2016. At the end of the season, Milone decided to decline going back to the minors and elected to become a free agent instead. He signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal with the Brewers.

As I mentioned in previous articles, the A’s went on an excellent and unexpected three-year run starting in 2012. While Gio González would not have made a difference in the regular season during that run, the A’s could have really used him in the 2012 and 2013 ALDS.

A’s Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
A.J Cole 6 0 $0.0
Derek Norris 6 5.4 $1.5
Brad Peacock 6 0 $0.0
Tommy Milone 6 3.5 $1.5
Total 24 8.9 $3.0
All data are just from time spent on the A’s. Salary only represents major league salary.

The good news is that the trade cost very little money. The A’s also did well in seeing that Cole and Peacock were mistakes and parting with them when they did. It is still a disappointing outcome considering the apparent immediate advantage.

Mere weeks after acquiring him, the Nationals signed González to a five-year, $42 million extension with two team options at $12 million a piece. The deal bought out his arbitration years and two free agent years, with the option to buy-out up to two additional years.

González had the best year of his career during his first year on the Nationals. He had a 3.12 RA9, 2.49 DRA, and 6.3 WARP. He improved his control and struck out 25 percent of batters faced. He then regressed to more or less what was projected of him by scouts, averaging 2.7 WAR per season from 2013-2015 with a 3.80 RA9.

González’s 2016 was more interesting than it appeared. He had a 4.97 RA9 but a 3.50 DRA. He gave up too many runs for the quality of contact he gave up, so DRA credited him for that. He also had a low strand rate. Naturally, the Nationals picked up his option for 2017. His 2018 option will vest if he pitches 180 innings this season.

Nationals Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Gio González 7 13.6 $41
Team options are included for years of control.

That is really good value. With the dollars they spent and the disappointment in the prospects’ results that went to Oakland, the Nationals cleaned up in this trade, despite the fact that there was little evidence that this would happen; sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Obviously this trade worked out poorly for the A’s and well for the Nationals. One can absolutely make the case that the A’s should have held on to González given what we knew at the time. He was proven and still had three years of control left. Still, the A’s run was unexpected, and the Nationals offered a great package of prospects. I think you would have been hard pressed to find a GM who would have declined the deal Oakland accepted. Nevertheless, I still believe that the Nationals got lucky, and the A’s fell victim to the unpredictability of projecting pitcher performance.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.