Billy Beane knew what he had in Gio Gonzalez: a young, durable, lefthanded strikeout artist. If Beane, the Oakland A's general manager, was going to deal him last winter -- even in the midst of a fire sale in which virtually every player on the A's roster, save second baseman Jemile Weeks, was available -- it would be for a return of the sort that would decimate most trading partners' farm systems.
In fact, just one organization might have had the wherewithal to pry Gonzalez away from Beane without crippling its future: the Washington Nationals.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo didn't blanch when he heard what Beane wanted for Gonzalez. Rather, he pounced. Two days before Christmas, he sent to Oakland three prospects, each of whom has in the past two seasons been ranked among Baseball America's top 75 -- pitchers Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole and catcher Derek Norris -- and a fourth pitching prospect who was considered ready to immediately step into a major league rotation, Tom Milone. Gonzalez was his.
"A lot of people say we gave up the future for the present," says the 51-year-old Rizzo, but he knows better, as it appears the Nationals simply turned their already promising future into an even brighter one. On Tuesday, Gonzalez threw six shutout innings against the Padres to lift his record as a National to 2-0, and lower his ERA to 1.52. That miniscule figure ranks him only fourth in a five-man rotation that, through 18 starts, boasts a cumulative ERA of 1.71, and is the central reason why the Nationals -- who have never had a winning season in their seven years since moving from Montreal -- have a National League-best 14-4 record and a 2 1/2 game lead in the NL East.
Little about the rotation is due to change in the near-term, especially among a top three that suddenly seems to rival any club's, even the Phillies', in its quality. Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg (2-0, 1.08 ERA) and Jordan Zimmermann (1-1, 1.33) are all 26 or younger, and not one of them can become a free agent until after the 2015 season.
That the Nationals were able to consolidate their resources to acquire Gonzalez while retaining an admirably deep minor league system -- which is led by outfielder Bryce Harper (No. 1 on B.A.'s Top 100 list) and third baseman Anthony Rendon (No. 19, and considered the best hitter in last June's draft) -- is the direct result of a philosophy that was installed immediately after the Lerner family bought the team from Major League Baseball in July 2006. The philosophy was carried out by Rizzo, who was hired as the club's new vice president of baseball operations: develop, or die trying.