The Details: Pending physicals, the Oakland A's have traded left-handed starter Gio Gonzalez and minor league right-hander Robert Gilliam to the Washington Nationals for right-hander A.J. Cole, right-hander Brad Peacock, catcher Derek Norris and left-hander Tom Milone.
For the second time in two weeks, the Oakland A's have traded an All-Star starting pitcher for a package of young players. Two weeks ago, the A's traded right-hander Trevor Cahill and left-handed reliever Craig Breslow to the Arizona Diamondbacks for prospects Jarrod Parker, Collin Cowgill and Ryan Cook. On Thursday, the A's agreed to deal 2011 All-Star Gio Gonzalez and Stockton Ports' right-hander Rob Gilliam to the Washington Nationals for three top pitching prospects and a promising catching prospect. The deal will reportedly be official in a day or two when physicals are performed.
What the A's are losing in the deal is obvious. Over the past two seasons, Gonzalez has grown from a maddeningly inconsistent talent into one of the top southpaws in the Junior Circuit. They are losing an established major league star who was under the team's control for another three seasons. They are also giving up an under-the-radar arm in Gilliam who made great strides with High-A Stockton in 2011.
What the A's are gaining is up to a little more interpretation. Without question, the A's have gained a considerable amount of young talent, although none of the players have established themselves at the major league level. Both Peacock and Milone got their feet wet in the big leagues last season, but both will still be rookies in 2012, assuming they make the major league roster. Norris finished the 2011 season in Double-A and Cole, who won’t turn 20 until January, pitched last season at the Low-A level.
In other words, the A’s are assuming a lot of risk in this deal. If all goes the A’s way, however, the package they are receiving could end up rivaling – from a major league production perspective – the one they got from Arizona for Dan Haren in 2007.
The package is headlined by the youngster Cole. Taken in the fourth round out of a Florida high school in 2010, Cole signed a record-setting bonus for that round. He made one appearance for short-season Vermont (ironically now an A’s affiliate) in 2010, but really got his professional career underway in 2011 with Low-A Hagerstown.
Cole’s 2011 season started a few weeks late thanks to a spring training illness that required him to rebuild his strength, but he still managed to throw 89 innings. A lanky right-hander at 6’4’’, 180 pounds, Cole posted a mediocre 4.04 ERA, but that hardly told the story of his season. He struck-out 108 batters while walking only 24 and he gave up only one homerun over the final eight weeks of the season. Cole was a flyball pitcher at the start of the season, but by the end of the year he was wearing out the turf, inducing groundball after groundball. His velocity fluctuated some during the season, but ranged from 91-98 MPH. His secondary pitches were still a work-in-progress, but his curveball showed promise.
Cole’s arm strength and his aggressive approach to pitching are his strengths. He will be the same age in 2012 as Cahill and Brett Anderson were when they tackled the High-A California League with the Stockton Ports in 2008. Much like Cahill and Anderson, Cole’s career trajectory to the major leagues could be swift if his secondary pitches round into shape next season. At 6’4’’, he has plenty of height to be a frontline starter and he should continue to gain weight and strength as he ages.
Peacock is another hard-throwing right-hander and he will join fellow highly regarded right-handed prospects Parker and Sonny Gray in A’s camp competing for a spot in their revamped 2012 starting rotation. Drafted out of high school in the 41st round in 2006, Peacock was part of the last draft-and-follow class before a rules change prevented teams from watching draft picks play in junior college for a year before deciding whether or not to sign them.
Peacock began his professional career during the late summer in 2007 and moved slowly through the Nationals’ system from 2007 through 2010, gaining a reputation as a pitcher with excellent arm strength but inconsistent mechanics and performance. In 2011, things finally clicked for Peacock. He made a few adjustments to his throwing motion – specifically keeping his front shoulder closed – and that led to a breakout campaign.
He dominated at the Double-A level, posting a 2.01 ERA and a 129:23 K:BB ratio with only four homeruns allowed in 98.2 innings. He was then promoted to Triple-A Syracuse, where had a 3.19 ERA and a 48:24 K:BB ratio in 48 innings. Peacock also had a 12-inning stint with the Nationals at the end of the season. He allowed only one run and seven hits, but had a 4:6 K:BB ratio.
Like Cole, Peacock maintains excellent velocity, sitting around 93 MPH and tipping the radar gun at 97 at times. He also has a solid change-up and a big curveball that serves as an out-pitch. Peacock will turn 24 in early February. With his stints at Triple-A and with Washington last season, he is in position to compete for a spot on the A’s Opening Day roster, although if he struggles at all during spring training, the A’s won’t hesitate to have him gain more refinement at Triple-A.
One player who needs little refinement is the southpaw Milone. The Southern Cal alum was a college teammate of A’s 2009 first-round pick Grant Green. Milone doesn’t throw hard – topping out at 90 MPH with his fastball – but he has one of the best change-ups in the minor leagues and an excellent cut fastball. His command is his greatest asset. In 517 career minor league innings, Milone has walked only 84 – or less than one-and-a-half per nine innings. He has also struck-out 465 batters and his career WHIP is 1.14.
In many ways, Milone projects to be a similar pitcher to current A’s left-hander Dallas Braden. Both pitchers rely on command and a disappearing change-up to keep hitters off of their fastballs. Unlike Braden, however, Milone is a flyball pitcher, although being a flyball pitcher in Oakland will certainly not be a disadvantage. Ironically, if Braden isn’t fully recovered from his 2011 shoulder surgery in time to pitch on Opening Day for the A’s, Milone could take his place in the rotation, at least temporarily. Milone doesn’t have the high ceiling of Peacock, Cole or the A’s other recent acquisition, Parker, but Milone is the most major-league ready of the four starting pitchers.
The only position player involved in this deal is Norris, a highly regarded catching prospect. A fourth-round pick in 2007 out of a Kansas high school, Norris quickly established himself as a prospect to watch with a standout season for Vermont in 2008. He walked 63 times in 70 games and posted a .278/.444/.463 line for the Lake Monsters. In 2009, he improved on those numbers, clubbing 23 homers and posting a .286/.413/.513 line for Low-A Hagerstown.
Thanks to the bar he set with Hagerstown, Norris’ last two seasons have been seemingly disappointing. In 2010, he hit only .235 for High-A Potomac, but that low batting average masked his .419 OBP and his solid 839 OPS. His 2010 campaign was marred by a scary incident when he was hit in the head by a pitch and suffered a concussion. This past season, Norris moved up to Double-A and he hit only .210, but he still posted a .367 OBP and he hit 20 homers.
A third baseman in high school, Norris has always been considered a bat-first catcher, but his defense behind the plate did show marked improvement in 2011. There hasn’t been any talk of moving Norris back to third base, but given the A’s organizational need at third and their depth at the catcher spot, that could be a consideration down-the-road. As a hitter, Norris has the power-and-patience combination the A’s love. He is a good athlete with above-average foot speed for a catcher.
Norris will be 23 in mid-February and should start the season in Triple-A. Expect the A’s to make a move involving a catcher at some point before this trade is officially announced. The A’s will be clearing one 40-man roster spot by trading Gonzalez, but they will need to clear two more spots before the trade is announced. With Norris’ arrival, the A’s will have five 40-man roster catchers. Unless the A’s plan to move Norris or Josh Donaldson to third base permanently next season, it seems very likely they will move at least one catcher off of the roster before the trade is official.
Between the Gonzalez and Cahill trades, the A’s have quickly gone from an organization that was relatively thin on high ceiling pitchers at the Double-A and Triple-A levels to an organization with quite a bit of depth in that area. Although both Norris and outfielder Collin Cowgill (who was part of the Cahill package) offer some offensive promise, neither profiles as the middle-of-the-order thumper that the team so desperately needs.
Given their new-found pitching depth and the rumors swirling around the potential trades of other A’s stars such as closer Andrew Bailey, it is entirely possible that the A’s will make further trades to rectify their need for a big-time hitting prospect or two. Until that does occur, however, this rebuilding effort will continue to receive an incomplete grade.