In the second cost-saving move of the day, the Washington Nationals traded Gio Gonzalez to the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, a deal they announced after their 4-1 loss to the Brewers. The Nationals acquired minor league infielders KJ Harrison and Gilbert Lara. The Brewers will take on the rest of Gonzalez’s 2018 salary, according to a person familiar with the deal, which means they will save roughly $2 million. Earlier in the day, the Nationals sent Ryan Madson to the Los Angeles Dodgers to save roughly $1.2 million.
In total, by selling off Gonzalez, Madson, Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams, Brandon Kintzler and Shawn Kelley, the Nationals have saved more than $14 million, money that might not drop them far enough to slide under the luxury tax this season but will certainly help them pursue more talent on the free agent market this winter.
Of all the moves the Nationals made to sell off parts of their disappointing team, this one represents the biggest cultural shift. Gonzalez has been a staple in the clubhouse since the Nationals acquired him from the Athletics before the 2012 season, as consistently jovial as he could be inconsistent on the mound. Still, the left-hander was as reliable as they come in terms of his readiness to pitch every five days. He landed on the disabled list once — for all of a month in 2014 — and only five starters have started more games since 2012. Even after a disappointing, up-and-down, maddening 2018 season, his ERA in 213 starts with the Nationals was 3.62.
“It’s going to be tough to see him go. I’ve played with him since I’ve been up here. I’ve learned a lot from him and the way he cares himself, the way he goes about his business,” right-hander Tanner Roark said. “He’s been in this game a long time and he knows what he’s doing. He’s a big league pitcher and a class act. He’s helped me a lot, and he’s given me some good pep talks. We’ve had some good talks together, so it sucks to see him go.”
Gonzalez will also be remembered for his playoff failings in the District. He was winless with a 4.78 ERA in six starts, including two disappointing Game 5 starts, one in 2012, one in 2017. He struggled on the big stage, in a constant battle with his mind and mechanics, and his command and composure left him at inopportune moment. At times during his 2017 season, members of the Nationals front office grew frustrated with his body language and inability to collect himself, contributing to short starts that taxed a rotation already suffering without Stephen Strasburg.
His absence will be felt more in the clubhouse, where until his deepest struggles this season Gonzalez was the friendly face with a joke and pair of shoes for everyone, the guy who lugged a giant boombox into the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and allowed Wilmer Difo to use it for karaoke — the most courageous decision made by a National in some time.
“I just wanted to do something notable here in Washington, and I was just grateful to be in four playoff runs, pitch with some of the greats, I think Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Tanner Roark, Jordan Zimmermann,” Gonzalez said. “… I had a great fan base here, could never say anything ever bad, that would make me feel sad or anything. This organization and the fans were incredible; they treated me and my family. They gave me so much when I was here, and I couldn’t ask for more.”
The deal came at an awkward moment, just before game time, as Gonzalez was in the Nationals dugout with his teammates. The team had hoped the deal wouldn’t leak. He pitched Wednesday, which means the Nationals will not face him in this series, though his commute to the visitors’ clubhouse was short.
Gonzalez will be a free agent after this season, and the Nationals were probably not going to make him a qualifying offer given his struggles this season. In trading him, for a return that is as-yet unclear, they are recouping some value. Early understanding is that even with this deal, the team does not expect to drop below the luxury tax threshold this year. The Nationals have, however, saved more money than they paid Gonzalez to be one of the most durable starters in the game each of the last few years. Those savings will matter as they try to rebuild their rotation this offseason.
In the meantime, the Nationals will have to find someone to take Gonzalez’s innings. Erick Fedde is eligible to come off the 60-day disabled list this week. Joe Ross is working his way back from Tommy John surgery. At this point, the Nationals might as well showcase young talent, both to determine exactly what they have in Fedde moving forward and to give other teams a chance to glimpse them as potential trade targets.
Whatever they decide to get them through September, the already obvious message became even more clear Friday night, with hours to spare for contenders to acquire talent that will be postseason eligible: The Nationals do not consider themselves a contender anymore and are resembling one less and less.
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