At this point, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel stand as avatars of MLB’s ice-cold offseason market. Both are roughly 30-year-old pitchers with highly productive years in their rear-view mirrors. Each have résumés that would have fetched them lucrative long-term deals in the recent past, only to have been mostly discarded as the regular season draws near.
Close behind Keuchel and Kimbrel, though, has been Gio Gonzalez. As a 33-year-old veteran lefty, Gonzalez’s age works against him more than Keuchel and Kimbrel, yet his skillset and lengthy track record would have earned him millions just a few years ago. Gonzalez has declined, but even so, that the Yankees managed to sign someone of his pedigree to a minor-league deal to fill a position of need has to qualify has nothing other than a steal.
The terms of Gonzalez’s contract truly are startling. He is not guaranteed a major-league roster spot, and early indications are that the Yankees won’t even necessarily rank him above Domingo German and Luis Cessa on the depth chart right away. Should Gonzalez make the majors, he will earn a $3 million annual salary. He receives a tiny bit of protection in the form of an April 20th opt out, which would allow him to become a free agent in the event that he’s not in the majors and wants to leave the team.
A more cynical observer might see this deal and think “Sure! Gonzalez fetched so little as he is in decline.” The sentiment does possess at least some truth. Gonzalez has entered his 30’s, and he’s seen his performance dip somewhat, as most all athletes do as they age.
Most simply, consider his fastball velocity over the past few seasons, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
After sitting at about 93 mph on his four-seam fastball as recently as 2015, Gonzalez sat at 91 mph last year. That’s two full ticks gone, and his sinker has followed the same downward trajectory.
Most interestingly, this loss in velocity doesn’t appear to have sapped Gonzalez’s effectiveness with his fastball. Rather, his secondary offerings have actually suffered due to his fastball’s lessened speed. According to Statcast, Gonzalez held hitters to a .273 wOBA with his fastball last year, and a .294 wOBA in 2017, compared to a similar .269 figure back in 2015.
However, Gonzalez allowed a .335 wOBA with his changeup in 2018, and a .319 wOBA with his curve. In his prime, Gonzalez consistently held hitters to sub-.300 wOBA figures, and sometimes even sub-.200 numbers, with both his secondaries. This is an interesting dynamic, as it seems that the fact that hitters don’t need to prepare for a mid-90’s fastball has left Gonzalez’s breaking and offspeed pitches more vulnerable. The lacking threat of his heater, combined with a smaller velocity gap between his pitches, likely drives the decline in production with his secondary pitches.
Add it all up, and Gonzalez was about perfectly average on a rate basis in 2018, down from his peak when he could pass as a front-line arm. His ERA of 4.21 made for a 100 ERA+. He posted a 4.16 FIP to match. Gonzalez still provided ample volume in the form of 171 total innings with the Nationals and Brewers, which pushed his rWAR total of 2.2 into above-average territory.
Gonzalez visibly declined, and even in doing so, remained a quality arm. That he declined and still was quite solid hints at his even stronger overall track record, one that includes a career 111 ERA+, an extremely durable average of 187 frames a year over the past nine seasons, and nearly a strikeout per inning in that span. A player with that pedigree should scoff at a minor-league pact, and would have just a couple years ago.
Consider these stat-lines compiled over the three-year period preceding free agency for a handful of recent pitchers:
Recent Free Agent Pitchers
|Player||Time Frame||Age||Avg. IP||ERA+||K/9|
|Player||Time Frame||Age||Avg. IP||ERA+||K/9|
When you consider volume, run prevention, and strikeout rate, Player A probably has the best numbers of this group. Player B is Wei-Yin Chen, who garnered five years and $80 million with an opt-out clause three years ago. Player C is Jeff Samardzija, who three years ago earned a $90 million guarantee over five years in spite of inflated ERA figures. Player D is Alex Cobb, who garnered $57 million over four years in the midst of last offseason’s frigid market, despite having only one completely healthy season on record over the past three.
Player A, of course, is Gonzalez, who will not fetch a major-league contract this winter. Obviously, Gonzalez is a bit older than this trio, but even so, the disparity in compensation is jarring. If you want to compare him to someone of the same age, consider that two years ago, coming off a three-year stretch with a 100 ERA+ and entering free agency at age-33, Edinson Volquez still managed a $22 million guarantee over two years.
That Volquez deal really should have been Gonzalez’s floor here; a short-term deal with a solid annual salary. Even two or three years ago, Gonzalez would have stood to earn a quality annual salary over perhaps a three- or four-year term. Instead, the Yankees get to add a useful depth option to their currently injury-riddled rotation. At this price, the Yankees would have been fools to pass it up.
Which begs the question; are the rest of MLB’s teams fools for passing this up? Is a minor-league deal really appropriate for a player with a sustained record of quality like Gonzalez? The answers to these questions will hopefully come sooner rather than later, and at the very least, indications arose from last week’s rules announcement that both the players and owners are open to sitting down and trying to improve MLB’s economic situation. Until that happens, though, players like Gonzalez stand to get hurt in the wallet, while teams like the Yankees are happy to benefit.