As the winter's starting-pitching market continues to thin, the asking prices via trade for premium arms are getting steeper.
There is no greater example than Thursday's Gio Gonzalez deal. The Washington Nationals acquired Gonzalez, giving them a young, outstanding 1-2-3 at the front of their rotation. But in order to land the left-hander, they had to pay a steep price in prospects: three of their top 10 -- No. 3 Brad Peacock, No. 4 A.J. Cole and No. 9 Derek Norris -- as judged by Baseball America, as well as Tommy Milone, a 24-year-old left-hander who managed a 3.81 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in a five-start stint for the team in September.
All five names should grab fantasy owners' attention.
Gonzalez, the centerpiece, instantly inherits one of the top three spots in the Nationals' rotation. It can be argued he'll be their Opening Day starter and "ace," being that he lacks the workload concerns of either Jordan Zimmermann (only one full major league season removed from Tommy John surgery and a 161 1/3-inning campaign at that) or Stephen Strasburg (15 months removed from the same operation and certain to face the Zimmermann treatment from this past season). Gonzalez has managed at least 200 innings in each of the past two years, and the good news surrounding his arrival as it pertains to the at-least-as-interesting Strasburg and Zimmermann is that if he can make it three in a row while helping keep the team competitive deep into the summer, the Nationals might be pressured to loosen the reins on their other two youngsters.
Although Gonzalez isn't an ironclad guarantee to make it three straight -- he has, after all, ranked among the top 20 in the game in both pitches per plate appearance and pitches per inning, with his occasionally sketchy command sometimes leading to more taxing frames -- another 200-inning campaign is certainly a stronger bet than the Nationals being competitive into August in what is an increasingly competitive National League East. His arrival is certain to be a plus for both Strasburg and Zimmermann, if only because he'll ease the pressure of either needing to be the "leading man," and that's not talking about "aces matching up with aces" (that's a myth); it's talking about expectations.
Statistically speaking, Gonzalez's value might not change substantially, if only because leaving pitching-friendly Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is balanced by his moving into the more pitching-oriented NL, getting to face the pitcher instead of designated hitters two or three times a night. Gonzalez was 18-8 with a 2.63 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 33 starts at home the past two seasons combined, benefiting from a ballpark with among the most expansive foul territory in all of baseball, but 13-13 with a 3.79 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 32 road starts. At the same time, he has a 2.54 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 10 career interleague starts, so battling NL foes does appear, on the surface, to agree with him.
One note about Gonzalez's road splits: He had a tendency to struggle in the most extreme hitter-friendly venues, which must be taken into account. Among Boston's Fenway Park, Detroit's Comerica Park, New York's Yankee Stadium, Texas' Rangers Ballpark and Toronto's Rogers Centre, those being the five worst venues for pitchers in 2011 going by runs scored on our Park Factor page, Gonzalez is 4-6 with a 5.99 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 14 career games (13 starts). The NL East, fortunately, has only one true hitters' park: Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park.
Expect Gonzalez's WHIP to remain in the 1.30 range and his strikeout rate to finish in the mid-eights -- meaning approximately 180 to 190 in a 200-inning season -- but his ERA could rise slightly, perhaps into the 3.30-3.40 range, accounting for the change in ballparks. After all, his walk rate, 4.09 per nine innings the past two seasons combined, is a little more palatable in a venue with more foul territory, where pop-ups that might otherwise make the seats are more easily gobbled up for outs, shortening at-bats and preventing untimely two-run home runs. Gonzalez might not look like a homer-prone starter today -- he allowed only 32 combined in 402 2/3 innings from 2010 to '11 -- but don't be shocked if that number rises to 20 in 2012 and he suffers in ERA for it.
That's still a potential top-30 fantasy starter, however, and it sets up a compelling battle as to which Nationals pitcher will rank highest on our 2012 Player Rater. Gonzalez provides the greater volume of innings, Strasburg the greatest strikeout potential and Zimmermann the safest source of WHIP. My rankings, among starters: Zimmermann 24th, Strasburg 29th, Gonzalez 34th.
As for the Athletics' haul, the gem of the deal is one we almost certainly will not see in 2012: Cole.
Although Cole was a mere fourth-round pick in the 2010 amateur draft, he fell only because of signability concerns. In addition, while he managed a 4.04 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 20 games (18 starts) for Class A Hagerstown last season, his strikeout rate of 10.92 per nine innings grabbed much attention. Cole is regarded as a potential front-line starter, if not an ace then certainly a possible No. 2 who could contend for a strikeout crown, and despite his 19 years of age (he'll turn 20 on Jan. 5), he'll probably advance quickly in the Oakland Athletics' system. Keeper-league owners with minor league spots should stash him, and redraft league owners might need to know his name as early as 2013.
Peacock and Milone, meanwhile, are inevitably linked because they made their big league debuts within three days of one another and both finished the season in the Nationals' rotation. Peacock is widely regarded as the better prospect, thanks in part to a 15-3 record, 2.39 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 10.86 K/9 ratio in 25 games (23 starts) between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse. That performance vastly improved his stock; he was the Nationals' No. 10 prospect as ranked by Baseball America a year ago but rose to No. 3 this winter. Peacock most likely should begin the season in the Athletics' rotation, and while he might endure the struggles any young pitcher does at the big league level, calling the Coliseum his home might at the very least make him matchups-worthy in larger leagues. Keeper-league owners might find him a sneaky late-round pick.
Milone's minor league success extends further than Peacock's, even if he's not as highly regarded. It was his improved command at Triple-A Syracuse that boosted his stock. Incredibly, the left-hander managed 155 K's compared to 16 walks in 148 1/3 innings, for 0.97 walks-per-nine and 9.69 K's-per-walk ratios. Although his stuff is hardly overpowering, he might be able to use his elite command to serve as a matchups helper, like Peacock in 2012. The difference between the two: Milone might have less of a shot at a rotation spot in the spring, and his long-term appeal in fantasy leagues isn't quite as great.
The sleeper of the deal might be Norris, and if you don't believe that, consider that he earned sleeper status on my All-2014 team, published 18 months ago. Norris' stock has slipped somewhat since then, as his high strikeout rate has led to struggles while he has advanced, but he still has the kind of on-base ability and big-time power that could make him a massive fantasy asset at catcher. (Think a poor man's Carlos Santana, in the best-case scenario.) Look at Norris' career minor league stats: .403 on-base percentage, one homer per 20.6 at-bat ratio, .209 isolated power, but also a 29.7 percent strikeout rate. He might make his big league debut late in 2012 before taking over full-time in 2013, and while his batting average might always be frustrating, he'd do enough in terms of homers, RBIs and runs scored that in his prime he'd be a possible top-five fantasy catcher.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality experts league. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.