The free agent market has been painfully slow during this baseball offseason. MLB clubs will begin reporting to Spring Training next week, and yet more than 100 free agents remain unsigned and searching for homes in 2019. Some players may be feeling pressure to simply take the best offer presented to them rather than continue to wait for a team to pay them what they’re worth; for example, earlier today, Curtis Granderson accepted a minor-league deal and a Spring Training invite with the bottom-dwelling Marlins, coming off a season in which he posted a 116 wRC+ and 13 home runs in 403 plate appearances.
With that in mind, the Milwaukee Brewers are reportedly among the teams who remain interested in left-handed starter Gio Gonzalez:
Gonzalez, as you’ll surely remember, finished last season with Milwaukee after arriving in a waiver trade with Washington on August 31st. He arrived ready to pitch “whenever they give me the ball” in what he called “an opportunity of a lifetime” and provided a shot in the arm to a starting rotation that desperately needed it during the final month of the season, posting a 2.13 ERA in five starts and 25.1 innings to help the Brewers capture an NL Central title. He would make two starts in the playoffs, leading a bullpen day in NLCS game one and taking the mound again in game four before exiting after one inning with an ankle injury that ended his postseason. Gio became a free agent for the first time in his career following the conclusion of the season.
Now 33, Gonzalez has been one of the better left-handed pitchers over the last decade-plus and is the owner of a 3.69 ERA across 1,814 MLB innings and has generated between 29 and 35 wins above replacement (depending on one’s preferred metric). A pillar of durability, he’s made at least 31 starts in eight of the last nine years (and 27 in the other). The southpaw is, however, coming off his second campaign with a 4.00+ earned run average in the last three years. But while Gonzalez may no longer be the All-Star starter he was in his prime, the underlying metrics - especially after his trade to Milwaukee - suggest that he is still an above-average big league hurler.
Gonzalez has never had the best control, and though his 4.21 BB/9 last season was the worst total he’s overall since 2011, it isn’t all that far off from his career rate of 3.77 BB/9 and his zone rate was right in line with where it’s been going back to 2015. His fastball doesn’t have quite as much zip on it as in his heyday, but his 90.7 MPH average velocity last year was actually up a tick from 2017. Gio’s overall 7.79 K/9 rate was below his career average, but his 9.5% swinging strike rate was above his career average. His 31.7% rate of hard contact allowed was well below the league average and the 17th-lowest among qualified starters. As usual, he did well suppressing homers, allowing 0.89 per nine innings. Deserved Run Averaged viewed his overall body of work as 7% more effective than the league-average pitcher in 2018 (93 DRA-).
Milwaukee’s coaches, scouts, and analysts made some alterations to Gio’s approach upon his arrival, slicing his sinker and curveball usage while upping his four-seam and changeup. It’s a small sample, but Gonzalez’s swinging-strike rate jumped up to 11.4%, his walk rate fell to 3.55 BB/9, and his DRA- was an ace-like 73 during those five memorable regular season starts.
Gio Gonzalez remains not only viable, but a better-than-average MLB starting pitcher. At worst, he should be a durable innings-eater providing stability and certainty to the back end of the rotation. At best, the improvements he made down the stretch with Milwaukee stick and he turns in yet another All-Star caliber season. We don’t know exactly just how much he and his agent are seeking in a contract for 2019. But, if all it’s going to take is something like a one-year deal for $3 mil or less, or possibly even a minor league deal with a camp invite, why shouldn’t the Brewers sign Gio Gonzalez?
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs