The Oakland A's seemed to foray into rebuilding mode when they traded Trevor Cahill to the Arizona Diamondbacks in early December 2011, and they all but made it official when they traded Gio Gonzalez to the Washington Nationals just two weeks later.
Gonzalez was Oakland's best pitcher in 2011. He won a career-high 16 games with a career-low 3.12 ERA, and he made the All-Star team for the first time. Even for a cold-blooded GM like Billy Beane, waving goodbye to Gonzalez couldn't have been easy.
Here we are many months later, and it's safe to say things have worked out just fine for the A's. Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook, the two pitchers the A's got in the Cahill trade, have proved to be two of Oakland's most effective hurlers this season. Tommy Milone, one of the primary pieces in the Gonzalez deal, leads the A's in wins and innings pitched.
Thanks in large part to the contributions the A's have gotten from the pieces obtained in these two trades, they have the second-best record in the American League and are well on their way to the club's first postseason berth since 2006.
Still, just imagine what things would be like if the A's hadn't traded Gonzalez. Of all the deals the A's made this offseason (and they made a lot more than the two I'm focusing on), the Gonzalez trade is the one trade the A's probably would take back if they knew what they stood to gain in keeping him. They would have retained a pitcher who has become one of the most dominant starting pitchers in either league.
As good as Gonzalez was in 2011, he's really put it all together in 2012. He already has 19 wins in 29 starts, and he's working on a career-best 2.93 ERA. His 2.81 strikeout-to-walk ratio also is a career best. He leads the National League in both hits per nine innings pitched and home runs per nine innings pitched.
Per FanGraphs, Gonzalez ranks second in the Senior Circuit to teammate Stephen Strasburg in fielding independent pitching (FIP) at 2.84. This is as good a sign as any that there's nothing at all fluky about the success Gonzalez has enjoyed this season. His record and his ERA truly reflect how well he's pitched.
So does his WAR. FanGraphs has it at 4.8, second only to Clayton Kershaw among National League pitchers.
Milone has done pretty well in place of Gonzalez, so to speak, but FanGraphs has his WAR measured at a mere 2.3. For that matter, no A's pitcher has a WAR over 3.1. Gonzalez thus has been more effective this season than any pitcher the A's have used in 2012 by a mile. And since the A's rank third in baseball with a team ERA of 3.40, that's saying something.
You may be sitting there thinking that we can't necessarily assume that Gonzalez would have posted such gaudy numbers this season if he were pitching for the A's instead of the Nationals. After all, the American League is a different animal than the National League. Just because Gonzalez has owned NL hitters doesn't mean he would be owning AL hitters right now.
I beg to differ. Gonzalez did just fine in interleague play this season, holding opposing hitters to a .548 OPS with a 2.83 strikeout-to-walk ratio. To boot, he's made certain improvements this season that would play just as well in the AL as they are in the NL.
The biggest knock on Gonzalez heading into this season was that his control was too erratic for him to be an ace. He's silenced that concern by dropping his BB/9 to a career-low 3.38. He's helped himself by upping his first-pitch-strike percentage from 53 percent in 2011 to 59 percent this season. His looking-strikeout percentage has jumped from 21 percent to 24 percent, which is not an insignificant increase.
It helps that Gonzalez's fastball velocity has increased. FanGraphs had his average fastball tracked at 92.8 mph in 2011, and this year, it's coming in at an average of 93.4 mph.
It's no wonder that his fastball has a value of 12.2, per PITCHf/x, giving him the third-most effective fastball in baseball this season behind Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. Gonzalez's curveball also has been a more effective weapon than ever before. Its value is measured at 10.9, the highest among all qualified major-league pitchers.
If Gonzalez were pitching in the American League instead of the National League, he'd probably still be what he has become in the National League this season: a true ace.
And that's precisely why it's hard not to imagine what life would be like for the A's if they still had Gonzalez on their side. Their starting pitching has been very, very good all season, but a true ace is something they've lacked.
Bartolo Colon was pitching pretty well before he got suspended, to be sure, but a 3.43 ERA and a 3.83 FIP hardly make him Felix Hernandez. Parker's 3.56 ERA and 3.46 FIP are excellent for a rookie pitcher, but he's been too inconsistent to come anywhere close to being in the ace discussion. Brandon McCarthy was great when he was able to pitch, but he's only made 18 starts this season, and he's probably not going to make another until next season after what happened to him last week.
You could make a case for Brett Anderson, who posted a 0.69 ERA and a .185 opponents' batting average in his first four starts upon his return from Tommy John surgery, but we're talking about a very small sample size where he's concerned. Furthermore, the Los Angeles Angels knocked him around in his fifth start of the season on Thursday, yielding five runs on nine hits in 6.2 innings of work.
Though an ace-less collection, what the A's have, in essence, is a very deep collection of quality starting pitchers. Collectively, they're responsible for starting-pitching numbers that numerous other teams wish they had.
If a true ace such as Gonzalez was in the mix, those numbers would be even more impressive. Just as important, the A's would have a no-brainer option to start in Game 1 of the postseason if and when they get there.
The A's don't have any obvious options for that honor right now, and that's not likely to change over the next three weeks. If it comes to it, Bob Melvin probably will just play the hot hands as far as his postseason rotation goes.
The lack of an ace to lead their (potential) postseason rotation doesn't mean the A's aren't a World Series-caliber ball club. The Texas Rangers didn't have too much trouble making it back to the Fall Classic without Cliff Lee last season, and the Chicago White Sox proved in 2005 that great things can happen if a group of quality starting pitchers gathers more and more momentum in October.
Who's the ace of this A's pitching staff right now?
But, having an ace definitely helps. The St. Louis Cardinals wouldn't have made it to the World Series last year without Chris Carpenter. The San Francisco Giants were lucky to have two aces in 2010 in Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. The 2009 New York Yankees had CC Sabathia. The 2008 Philadelphia Phillies had Cole Hamels. The 2007 Boston Red Sox had Josh Beckett.
And so on. There's more than enough evidence in recent baseball history—and, indeed, baseball history in general—to suggest that 'tis better to have an ace in October than to not have an ace in October.
In a parallel universe, Gonzalez is still with the A's and primed to lead their charge to the Fall Classic.
In this universe, Gonzalez is with the Nationals and primed to lead their charge to the Fall Classic.
If you're an A's fan, you may as well go ahead and admit that you'd rather be watching the team in the parallel universe. This universe's team is good, but Gonzalez makes the other universe's team better.
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