Project Gold Heads West for Gio Gonzalez

The A’s dealt yet another of their young starters from this past season, and received four prospects in return. Two of the four prospects, Brad Peacock and Tom Milone, saw time in the majors, one, Derek Norris, could make his debut as soon as this coming season, and the fourth, A.J. Cole, has a high ceiling but is a few years away from reaching the bigs. All-in-all, the A’s received an impressive haul for Gio Gonzalez.

Gonzalez finds himself with his fourth organization since being selected by the White Sox 38th overall in the 2004 amateur draft. He has always been a strikeout artist, but has frustrated previous employers with his inconsistent control. After two rough stints in the majors in 2008 and 2009 with the A’s, he broke out during the 2010 season. He followed up his breakout with a superior 2011 campaign.

Gonzalez still has below average control, 4.05 BB/9 in 2011 compared to 3.11 BB/9 league average, but has made improvement there (4.13 BB/9 in 2010 and a ghastly 5.49 BB/9 in 2008 and 2009 combined). The most impressive thing about Gonzalez’s improved control from 2010 to 2011 is that it coincided with him recapturing his high strikeout ways (7.67 K/9 and 20.1 percent strikeout rate in 2010, 8.78 K/9 and 22.8 percent strikeout rate in 2011). In addition to being appealing for his strikeouts, Gonzalez is also a desirable arm because of his healthy 47.5 percent groundball rate.

Gonzalez attacks hitters with a traditional fastball, curveball, change-up mix. He throws two fastballs, a two-seamer and a four-seamer, that averaged 92-93 mph. His two-seam fastball is a pitch-to-contact pitch, however, his four-seam fastball is a swing-and-miss offering that had an 11.5 percent whiff rate this year. Those pitches made up 65 percent of what he threw this year. His primary secondary offering is his curveball, which he threw 27.9 percent of the time. The curveball is a big bender that averaged 80 mph, and caused batters to whiff at a 12.3 percent clip. Gonzalez’s best swing-and-miss pitch is his change-up. He only threw it 7.1 percent of the time, and he threw it for a strike much less often than his other pitches, but batters struggled to hit it (14.9 percent whiff rate).

Moving to the National League should help Gonzalez’s fantasy value. He is a fairly safe bet to strikeout better than a batter per inning, and post a sub-3.50 ERA for a third straight season. Be careful projecting a drop in ERA below 3.00, because he has bested his FIP, xFIP, tERA, and SIERA the last two seasons. It’s more likely that he maintains a low-3′s ERA, and is aided in fighting regression with the change of leagues.

Peacock is the top prospect the A’s received in the trade. Like Jarrod Parker, whom they acquired when trading Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks, Peacock saw time in the majors this season. 2011 was a breakthrough in development for the young Peacock. He claimed minor league hardware winning the Double-A Eastern League pitcher of the year award, and did so by terrorizing hitters. Minor League Ball’s John Sickel listed him amongst his breakout candidates, and it’s safe to say he came through with that prediction. Peacock pitched to the tune of a 2.39 ERA and 0.99 WHIP that was fully supported by a 10.86 K/9 and 2.88 BB/9. That lights out performance has helped change the perception of Peacock’s future role in the big leagues. He was previously viewed by many prospect gurus as a 4th or 5th starter, or possibly a reliever, and is now considered to have a 2nd or 3rd starter ceiling.

He throws a fastball, curveball (Sickels calls it a knuckle-curve), and a change-up. 12 innings of major league PITCHf/x data support that repertoire, and also support that his fastball is thrown with plus velocity (92.6 mph average velocity). Aaron Fitt of Baseball America says his heater clocks as high as 97 mph when he needs to reach back for something extra. None of his pitches resulted in many empty swings in the majors, but 12 innings is far too small a sample to be reason for concern.

Peacock should be expected to step right into one of the rotation openings in the spring. Moving to the American League isn’t ideal, though, pitching his home games at the Oakland Coliseum is a decent consolation. He was already a good lottery ticket option at the end of fantasy drafts, and his change of teams does nothing to change that. As with any rookie pitcher, he’ll almost certainly have some stumbling points. That said, the upside is too good to ignore entirely in anything larger than shallow leagues.

Milone is another candidate to fill one of the A’s rotation spots after the team leaves their spring training home in Phoenix. His stats in Triple-A were eye popping this season. Milone walked almost no one, 0.97 BB/9, and retired hitters by strike three frequently, 9.40 K/9. Unfortunately, Milone lacks the projected ceiling of the other players in this trade. His success moving up the minor league ladder lends hope that he can stick in the back of a rotation eating up innings. However, his mid-to-upper-80s (87.8 mph average velocity in the majors) fastball will leave him little room for error against major league hitters. He has succeeded in the minors by throwing the kitchen sink at batters. Baseball America states that his secondary pitches include a cutter, slow curveball, and change-up. Milone’s limited PITCHf/x data recorded him throwing a four-seam and two-seam fastball, slider, change-up, cutter and curveball. Pitch sequencing and location will be key for Milone getting big leaguers out.

Expect him to continue to limit the free passes by pounding the strikezone, but don’t expect his high strikeout totals to carry over from the minors to the majors. His fantasy value will be limited to extremely large leagues, and AL-only formats if things break right. Though, it is possible he won’t even have value in those games if hitters are able to fight off his secondary pitches and feast on his fastballs. The upside isn’t there to roster him in many leagues.

Norris is the type of player A’s general manager Billy Beane has historically fallen in love with. What he lacks for in batting average, he has made up for in power and the ability to get on base by walk. He is a three-true-outcomes legend in the making. Norris blasted 20 home runs in 423 Double-A at-bats, walked 18.2 percent of the time, and struck out in 27.7 percent of his plate appearances. In other words, 45.95 percent of his plate appearances ended in one of baseball’s three-true-outcomes. Norris’s inability to put wood to ball consistently led to a .210 batting average. His future success, or failure, hinges on whether or not he’s able to improve his hit tool. Saber savvy baseball folks recognize that a player can be valuable without hitting for average. The problem for Norris is that major league pitchers simply won’t walk him if he can’t make contact with good pitches in the strikezone. A former third baseman, Norris’s defense has improved to the point that he is a safe bet to be at least an average defensive catcher.

Catcher is no longer as ugly a fantasy baseball position as it once was. Still, if Norris is able to reach his ceiling of a low average, plus on-base, plus power catcher, he would make for an attractive option even in standard leagues. He’s likely to start the year in Triple-A, but could begin his major league career over the summer. If the A’s use starting catcher Kurt Suzuki as a trade chip in 2012, that major league career may not begin as a backup catcher. He is unlikely to be a factor in re-draft leagues, but is ownable in dynasty leagues.

Cole was the fourth prospect the A’s acquired, and has the highest ceiling of the bunch. He is also the farthest away from making an impact to the parent club. He was a fourth round draft pick because of his price tag (he signed for $2 million), not his talent level. His best pitch is his fastball. He throws it in the mid-90s, and could do so more consistently as he physically matures and fills out his lanky 6-foot-4 frame. He also throws a curveball that he’s still learning to place in the zone more often, as well as a developing change-up. Most prospect hounds see Cole’s upside as that of a frontline starter.

His 4.04 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in Low-A don’t jump off the page at onlookers, but his 10.92 K/9 and 2.43 BB/9 do. That combination of strikeouts and strike throwing is excellent. A promotion to High-A will be a telling assignment. If he hopes to continue to mow down batters, further development of his secondary pitches will be necessary. If he advances one level a year, he’d debut in the majors as a 24 year old. It’s possible he could force the A’s hand by developing at an accelerated pace and debuting before that. That would be gravy, but is dangerous to anticipate. Dynasty leaguers should be all over Cole.