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Prospect Retrospective: Gio Gonzalez, LHP, Washington Nationals

Nationals Game Five starter Gio Gonzalez was a top minor league prospect who needed time to adapt

Divisional Round - Chicago Cubs v Washington Nationals - Game Two Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker has made his decision: veteran left-hander Gio Gonzalez will make the start tonight against the Chicago Cubs in Gave Five of the 2017 National League Division Series.

Earlier today we looked at his opponent, right-hander Kyle Hendricks, who presented an unusual case of prospect development. Gonzalez himself was also an interesting case, although in many ways an exact opposite of Hendricks. The Chicago starter was a sleeper prospect who immediately succeeded in the majors, while Gonzalez was a top prospect who needed time to adapt but eventually did. Let’s take a look.

Gio Gonzalez was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the supplemental first round of the 2004 draft, out of high school in Miami, Florida. He was considered a certain first round pick as an amateur, but his stock dropped somewhat after an argument between his mother and his high school coach (over his brother) got Gio dismissed from the team.

The White Sox liked his 88-90 MPH fastball along with his big-breaking curve, and he got off to a good start with a 2.25 ERA and a 36/8 K/BB in 24 innings in the Appalachian League. They jumped him up to Kannapolis in the Sally League in August, a huge jump for a high school kid, but he more than held his own with a 3.03 ERA and a 27/13 K/BB in 32 innings. Highly impressed with this, I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2005 book and ranked him as the Number 31 pitching prospect in the game.

Gonzalez began 2005 with Kannapolis again, posting a 1.87 ERA with an 84/22 K/BB in 58 innings, an outstanding strikeout rate. Promoted to High-A Winston-Salem, he remained effective with a 3.56 ERA and a 79/25 K/BB in 73 innings. His velocity went up a notch to 90-93 MPH, and he made further strides with his curveball and changeup. His combined numbers were 13-6, 2.82 with a 163/47 K/BB in 131 innings, with only 97 hits allowed. I gave him another Grade B+, ranked Number 34.

He was traded to the Phillies in the Jim Thome trade; at this point, the main concern was that his scrawny body might not hold up under a large workload. Here’s his comment from the 2006 Baseball Prospect Book:

The Phillies picked up Gio Gonzalez from the White Sox in the Jim Thome trade, and he instantly becomes one of their top two or three prospects, perhaps the best one depending on the criteria you use. A supplemental pick out of high school in Miami in ’04, Gonzalez has a 90-93 MPH fastball, but what makes him special is his changeup and curveball, both excellent for his age. He also has good control, and had no problems last year in full-season ball, even when facing older competition in the Carolina League. Note his strong K/IP ratio for Winston-Salem, +29 percent. I like Gonzalez a lot, and the only worry I have here is injury. Some scouts think he will eventually break down physically, due to his smallish, scrawny body. Grade B+.

The Phillies sent Gonzalez to Double-A Reading for 2006. He struggled at times, going 7-12, 4.66 with a 166/81 K/BB in 155 innings, 140 hits. The K/IP and H/IP were strong, but his control was poor and too many walks resulted in an inflated ERA. His velocity was up into the 92-95 range, but mechanical inconsistencies hampered his control, and he lost his composure on the mound at times. The Phillies traded him back to the White Sox for Freddy Garcia at the end of the year.

The comment for 2007:

Gio Gonzalez was originally in the White Sox system, but was traded to the Phillies for Jim Thome. After one year in Double-A, the Phils shipped him back to the White Sox along with Gavin Floyd in exchange for Freddy Garcia. Gonzalez had a weird season for Reading. His stuff was excellent: 90-94 MPH fastball, sharp breaking curveball, good changeup, resulting in strong K/IP and H/IP ratios. But his command was erratic, raising his walk rate to a high level. He pitched well in April and May, slumped badly in June and July, then pitched well again in August. His ceiling remains very high and he is one of the better lefty prospects in the game, but he’s got some work to do with his command, and will need a good dose of Triple-A. Grade B.

The Sox sent him back to Double-A, with solid results: 3.18 ERA, 185/57 K/BB in 150 innings, 116 hits. Again, the K/IP and H/IP were excellent, and he reduced his walk rate and home run rates substantially. His velocity, interestingly enough, was actually down to 88-93 MPH. But his secondary pitches and command were sharper, and his mechanics were more consistent. I moved him back up to Grade B+ and ranked at Number 11 on the prospect list with this comment:

The White Sox reacquired Gio Gonzalez after one erratic season in the Phillies system. The reunion went well, as Gonzalez responded with a sharp campaign for Birmingham. He was repeating Double-A, true, but at age 21 he was still at an appropriate level of competition. The mechanical and command problems that dogged him in ’06 were a thing of the past last year, as he became more efficient with locating his 88-93 MPH fastball. His curveball and changeup both took steps forward, giving him three major league quality pitches. Note the improvements in all of his component ratios compared to ’06. I think he could use 15 starts in Triple-A before being pushed into major league action, but he definitely reestablished himself as one of the best southpaw prospects in the game. He was traded to Oakland on January 3rd. Grade B+.

On January 3rd, 2008, Gonzalez was traded again, this time to the Oakland Athletics. Gonzalez split 2008 and 2009 between Triple-A and the majors, pitching well in the minors, but getting hammered in his major league time. His stats for Oakland: 7.68 ERA in 34 innings, 34/25 K/BB.

He retained rookie eligibility for 2009 and here was my take:

Gio Gonzalez was thoroughly beaten about the head and shoulders by major league hitters last year, leading some Oakland fans to conclude that he was rushed to the majors. I don’t really think that’s true. He had two seasons of Double-A and more than two-thirds of a Triple-A season under his belt, and I don’t think he really had a lot left to prove in the minors, so it was time to see what he could do. It wasn’t a complete loss: he fanned a hitter-per-inning in the majors, on the strength of his big-breaking curve and 88-90 MPH fastball. But major league hitters took advantage of his mediocre changeup and inadequate control, leading to an ugly ERA. Gonzalez’s weaknesses weren’t exposed by minor league hitters to any great extent, so the major league lesson was likely necessary for his development. It is up to him now: does he stay confident emotionally and make the needed adjustments to his game? Or does he stagnate and end up bouncing around for a bit, if not forever? I still believe in the overall package enough to give him a Grade B. The first sign of a positive breakthrough will be fewer walks. The first sign of a total collapse will be a dropping strikeout rate.

He had rough moments in 2009 but showed some improvement (5.75 ERA in 99 innings, 109/56 K/BB). Most importantly he showed some signs of being able to control his emotions, which were a problem in previous seasons.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics
Gio Gonzalez, 2010
Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

The Big Breakthrough came in 2010: 15-9, 3.23, 171/92 K/BB in 201 innings. From this point on he has been a durable and consistently above-average starter for the Athletics and Nationals. In 1643 career innings he has a 3.64 ERA, 112 ERA+. 27.7 fWAR, 117-86 W-L record. His peak season looks like 2012 when he went 21-8, 2.89 in 199 innings, 5.0 fWAR.

Contrary to the worries of scouts when he was young, he didn’t have significant problems with durability. It took him some time, but Gonzalez eventually became the pitcher the White Sox thought they were drafting and who drew such wide interest on the trade market.

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images