Oakland Cashes in with Gonzalez Trade

As division foes Texas and Los Angeles grow stronger, the Oakland A’s are entirely committed to focusing on their future as they have dealt another key cog in their once strong rotation.  Gio Gonzalez is headed to the Washington Nationals for a package of prospects that includes their 3rd (Brad Peacock), 4th (A.J. Cole) and 9th (Derek Norris) best farmhands according to Baseball America.  The fourth piece was lefty Tom Milone, who BA listed as having the best control and changeup in the organization.

This group of youngsters (Milone is the elder statesman of the bunch at 25) joins the trio of prospects the A’s got for Trevor Cahill.  That group was highlighted by Jarrod Parker and included outfielder Collin Cowgill and reliever Ryan Cook.  Parker was listed 4th on the Arizona Diamondbacks top 10 prospects and projects to have some incredible upside that could make him better than Cahill if he pans out completely.  However, Cahill is the more finished product, obviously, and still under team control for several years while Parker returned from Tommy John Surgery in 2011.

Looking at the returns from Washington shows some strong upside starting as early as 2012:

Brad Peacock (RHP) – Peacock emerged a bit in 2010 pitching in High-A for the second time (48 IP there to end 2009) when he doubled his strikeout rate to 10.3 K/9 while seeing his walk rate rise just slightly from 1.9 to 2.2 BB/9 in 103 innings.  He was promoted to AA where he came off the rails a bit, specifically a 5.1 BB/9 and 1.2 HR/9 in 39 innings (meanwhile, his strikeout rate dipped to 7.0).

In similar fashion, he repeated the level to start 2011 and looked more like the Peacock from the start of 2010 with an 11.8 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9 in 99 innings before reaching AAA.  While he saw some degradation in his numbers with the promotion, he still struck out a batter per inning, but the walk rate jumped to 4.5 per game.  The real difference in his 2011 season was a severe lack of hits against him.  He allowed just six hits per nine in 147 innings across both levels.  The big season earned him a cup of coffee with the Nats (0.75 ERA in 12 IP).

Peacock has a mid-90s fastball (sits 93) that can touch 96-97 with a wicked curveball and progressing change up that sits 82-84 and looked sharp during his quick 12-inning stint with the big league club.  There was talk of him possibly being a future reliever, but after his breakout season in the high minors last year, he looks like a full-fledged starter capable of becoming a #2 or #3 at his peak, especially in that pitching-friendly home ballpark where Oakland plays (for now).

A.J. Cole (RHP) – At 20 years old and about to enter just his second season a professional, Cole is still pretty far away from contributing to the A’s, but an impressive debut combined with a projectable frame (6’4/180) have many seeing future ace potential for him.  He did nothing to dissuade such thoughts in 2011 striking out 10.9 batters per game in his 89 innings and walking just 2.4 (for a 4.5 K/BB).

Like Peacock, his fastball sits 91-93, but flashes 96-97 and his curveball is further along than his changeup.  He has a Ubaldo Jimenez-esque delivery whereby he shoots his hand out behind his back just before he throws the pitch.  His leg kick is a little Verlanderian in that he gets it really high and loose and leads into his easy delivery.  His mechanics aren’t quite as effortless as Justin Verlander’s, but then again outside of maybe Matt Moore, nobody’s are right now.

If his body fills out a bit as projected and that gives him the tick or two on his fastball, he will be in really good shape in terms of hitting that ace-level projection, especially if that boost in velocity is paired with the expected improvement of his changeup.  There are some ifs and maybes with Cole right now, as with any 20-year old, but the future is bright and he may well end up being the gem of this entire haul in five or six years.

Derek Norris (C) – For those who mislabel “Moneyball” as simply “guys who take walks”, Norris is the quintessential Moneyball player.  For those who are more enlightened, Norris is the kind of player who would’ve been wildly undervalued in the era when Moneyball first came to be because he totes a wholly unimpressive .249 career batting average in 1815 minor league plate appearances, but offsets it with an eye-popping .403 on-base percentage thanks in large part (OK, thanks exclusively) to a 19% walk rate, including two seasons over 20% (2008 & 2010).

His .235 and .210 batting averages the last two years are alarming especially in light of his plate discipline.  Some scouts believe that his contact rate will improve in the coming seasons, but it is hard not to be at least somewhat concerned at this juncture.  Of course, he isn’t just a fancy walk rate.  When he does make contact, it is often solid contact as evidenced by his 20 home runs (his second 20+ HR season in the minors) and a career-high .237 Isolated Average (slugging minus batting average).

A catcher who can get on base, hit for pop and even run a bit (13 SB per 500 AB) is a valuable commodity for sure, but playing half of his games in Oakland Coliseum means Norris will have to improve his contact rate or he could easily be looking at a sub-.200 batting average.  The Major League Equivalency of his 2011 line when placed in Oakland yields a .155/.268/.312 line.  Ouch.  No need to panic just yet, though, as he will be just 23 years old in 2012 so he still has time to develop.

Tom Milone (LHP) – The term “crafty lefty” is often reserved for a veteran southpaw who may have once had an overpowering arsenal that has diminished with age leaving him to outsmart hitters with command and guile.  At 25, Milone is already a crafty lefty despite what you might infer from his minor league numbers.  He is a prime example of why just looking at the numbers isn’t ever enough.

Though he boasts an improving strikeout rate that went from 6.3 K/9 in 2009 to 9.4 this past season, Milone doesn’t overpower hitters.  Deception and pinpoint accuracy make his high-80s fastball play better that it truly is while a strong changeup and passable curveball round out his arsenal.  He has chipped away at his walk rate since 2009, as well, starting at an already-strong 2.1 BB/9 and getting down to a remarkably impressive 0.97 mark in 148 innings at AAA this year (giving him a 9.7 K/BB).

Milone’s big season in the high minors earned him a big league cup of coffee and he was pretty much as expected in his 26 innings.  He maintained his sharp command walking just 1.4 batters per game, but the strikeout rate dipped to 5.2 K/9, unsurprisingly.

He showed a heavy flyball lean in his small sample (49%), so Oakland’s home park will suit him quite well in that regard should that prove to be a trait he retains once he becomes a full-time big leaguer.  His groundball rate had been diminishing a bit as he climbed the minor league ladder, but his 31% mark in the majors was in sharp contrast to his 41% at AAA.  Of the ballparks within his new division, only Texas will punish him severely for a flyball lean, but fantasy managers are always leery of their non-aces going into Texas so that isn’t a major adjustment in strategy.

If you are looking for a solid comp for Milone, look no further than his new team as Dallas Braden seems to fit the bill quite well.  Braden pitched just 18 innings in 2011 because of injury, but his 2010 season was a bit of a breakout as he notched 30 starts for the first time posting a 3.50 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 193 innings.  His 5.3 K/9 wasn’t terribly impressive, but 2.0 BB/9 was quite nice and helped him achieve a strong 2.6 K/BB.

Milone, like Braden, will likely be an undervalued asset come draft day and though I often prefer guys who miss bats, I also like bargains and this particular skill set is still underappreciated on the fantasy landscape.  If you have some flamethrowers atop your rotation and some high strikeout relievers, you can afford a Braden/Milone or two to round out your staff.

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