Oakland A's Prospect Profile: Gio Gonzalez

Last week, the Oakland A's sent outfielder and number three hitter Nick Swisher to the Chicago White Sox for a package of three prospects. OaklandClubhouse.com is taking a closer look at the three players that the A's acquired. We begin with a profile of left-handed pitcher Gio Gonzalez.


Name: Gio Gonzalez
DOB: 9/19/85
H/W: 5'11''/ 195 LB
B/T: L/L

Background

Leading into the 2004 MLB draft season, Gio Gonzalez was one of the most highly touted high school pitching prospects in the country. However, Gonzalez saw his stock drop from a sure-fire first round slot to being a supplemental first round pick after he was dismissed from his high school team late during his during his senior season after his family had a dispute with his high school coach.

The Chicago White Sox took advantage of the controversy surrounding Gonzalez's senior season and took him 38th overall in the 2004 draft. Gonzalez soon proved that he was worthy of being a top-30 pick. He made his professional debut with Bristol of the Rookie-level Appalachian League. He got off to a fast start to his professional career, posting a 2.25 ERA and striking out 36 in 24 innings. The White Sox then moved Gonzalez aggressively, sending him to the full-season Low-A affiliate Kannapolis Intimidators, where he competed against players three years his senior. Gonzalez proved his mettle, posting a 3.03 ERA in 32 innings at the tail-end of his professional debut season.

Chicago sent Gonzalez back to Kannapolis to start the 2005 season. As a 19-year-old, the left-hander posted a 1.87 ERA and an 84:22 K:BB ratio in 57.2 innings to start the season. He was promoted to High-A Winston-Salem of the Carolina League for the second half of the season, and he continued to impress, winning eight games and posting a 3.56 ERA in 73.1 innings. In total in 2005, Gonzalez won 13 games and struck out 163 batters in 137 innings.

That off-season, Gonzalez was dealt as part of the White Sox's package to Philadelphia to acquire first baseman/DH Jim Thome. The Phillies assigned Gonzalez to Double-A Reading of the Eastern League. The South Florida native struggled for the first time during his professional career in 2006, which would turn-out to be his only season in the Phillies' organization. Gonzalez went 7-12 with a 4.66 ERA in 154.2 innings for Reading. He struck out 166 batters, but walked 81 and allowed a career-high 24 homeruns. That fall, Gonzalez appeared in the prospect-showcase Arizona Fall League, where he improved on his regular season performance, posting a 2.81 ERA and striking out 20 in 16 innings. He also allowed only one homerun during the AFL season.

For the second year in a row, Gonzalez was involved in a trade between Philadelphia and Chicago last off-season. This time, it was the Phillies who traded Gonzalez, sending him to Chicago in the deal for right-hander Freddy Garcia. Chicago sent Gonzalez back to the Double-A level for the 2007 season. He responded well to the challenge of repeating a level, and he posted a 3.18 ERA in 150 innings for Double-A Birmingham. He regained his control – posting a 185:57 K:BB ratio – and limited the longball, allowing only 10 homers. He led all minor league pitchers in strikeouts in 2007. The Oakland A's liked what they saw from Gonzalez and made him a centerpiece in the package they received for Nick Swisher in early January 2008.

Scouting Report
Gonzalez has ranked as one of the top left-handed pitching prospects since he arrived in professional baseball in 2004. The luster on his prospect status waned a bit after his disappointing 2006 campaign, but he regained elite status after his stellar 2007 season. Gonzalez improved in every aspect of his game in 2007. Even though he was repeating a level last season, he was doing so as a 21-year-old with Double-A Birmingham, meaning that he was still competing against mostly older competition.

One of the keys to Gonzalez's improved 2007 campaign was that he did a better job of throwing down in the strike-zone. That not only resulted in lower homerun totals, but also led to fewer walks. Gonzalez also improved his change-up. The left-hander's bread-and-better pitch, however, has always been his curveball, which ranks as one of the top breaking balls in the minor leagues. He can throw it for strikes in any count and can use it effectively against both left-handers and right-handers. Gonzalez is not a finesse pitcher, however. He throws his fastball in the low-90s and can reach 95 when he rares back for something extra. Gonzalez adds and subtracts well off of his fastball and he has held his low-90s velocity well into the late innings of ballgames.

Gonzalez is a smart pitcher, despite being very young (he turned 22 in September). He does a good job changing speeds and he isn't afraid to throw his off-speed pitches in fastball counts. His curveball is a power curveball and it has the tendency to start in the hitting zone and then disappear just before the pitch reaches the hitter. Gonzalez improved his control in 2007 and he gets plenty of swings-and-misses on both his fastball and his curveball.

The southpaw stands at only 5'11'', 185 pounds, and his size has been a concern for scouts since he arrived in the pros. However, he has been healthy throughout his pro career and has thrown more than 300 innings over the past two seasons without missing a beat. Some scouts have also worried that Gonzalez has a tendency to pitch backwards and over-use his curveball, something that usually works better against minor league hitters than major league hitters. It remains to be seen whether he will have to adjust his pitching pattern when he reaches the major leagues. Gonzalez has improved his ability to throw in the lower part of the strike zone, but he still has a tendency to elevate his pitches at times, something that could make him vulnerable to the longball in the major leagues. He has improved his change-up a lot over the past year, but he could stand to continue his work on the pitch, which is only average at the moment.

Outlook
Gonzalez will be invited to major league spring training as a non-roster invitee and he will have an opportunity to win a rotation spot with the A's this spring. He will likely need to star during spring training to convince the A's to start him in the major leagues, as Gonzalez has yet to pitch at the Triple-A level and the A's have plenty of pitchers to fill the rotation if they want to give Gonzalez a little more minor league time for seasoning. Should he start the season at Triple-A, Gonzalez will likely be asked to continue his work on his change-up and his improved control in the lower half of the strike zone.

Gonzalez will only be 22 during the 2008 season, but barring injury, he should make his major league debut sometime during the 2008 campaign. If he can elevate his change-up to above-average status, Gonzalez could be an elite major league starter with three above-average offerings. If he continues to pitch with only an average change-up, however, Gonzalez should still have the stuff to be a solid third starter in the major leagues. Provided he stays healthy, Gonzalez should have a long career as a major league starter.


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