Back in 2011, the Yankees had a lot of fun after signing two aging starters to minor league contracts, when they brought on Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. Colon was deemed to be done by many. He went so far as to get a stem cell injection in his shoulder to give it another go. Garcia had a so-so season in 2010 and was working with significantly diminished stuff from his prime, but the two combined for 4.8 WAR, helping the Yankees on the way to a division title. Eight years later, New York has signed Gio Gonzalez to a minor league deal. He will earn $3 million if he reaches the big leagues, with incentives based on games started. He has the ability to opt-out on April 20 should he not receive a major league assignment. The circumstances that led to signing Gonzalez now, and Colon and Garcia then, are different, but the best-case scenario might be the same: big bang for the buck from a veteran arm.
Normally, there are five starting pitchers in a set rotation; two of the Yankees’ are injured this spring. Luis Severino, the staff ace, has an inflamed rotator cuff and is expected to be out until May. CC Sabathia is recovering from angioplasty and right knee surgery, and is projected to return sometime in April. That leaves two spots open beyond the cast of James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ.
The Yankees already have depth arms with major league starting experience in Domingo German, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Luis Cessa. German and Cessa in particular are having pretty good springs, but we all know that spring training can be a bit of a mirage. Those three combined for 1.8 WAR last year, which isn’t inspiring. But they are young and have shown flashes of promise, so it is possible that they could break out this year. For now, they are talented question marks. And even if the Yankees decide to carry two of the three, they would still face issues when it comes to rotation depth. As we’ve seen from the 2016 Dodgers, anything could happen to human beings who throw baseballs for living.
Enter Gio Gonzalez, a former first round pick by the White Sox in the 2004 draft. After stints with the White Sox, Phillies, and Athletics, Gonzalez found a long-term home in Washington D.C., where he spent 6.5 seasons as a consistent presence in the Nationals’ rotation. After pitching with the Brewers for the second half of 2018, the lefty became a free agent.
Gonzalez is still a competent major league starter, but his 2018 indicated that things could be trending the wrong way.
Along with his age, that recent performance probably also cost him some suitors in the offseason. A pitcher approaching his mid-30s with diminishing strikeout and walk rates isn’t really a top commodity. Still, it’s a sign of how dire the free agent market has been for players outside of the top tier that a guy with Gonzalez’s credentials remained unsigned until mid-March. You can’t scoff at a major league starter who was worth 2.0 WAR a year prior — that kind of production warrants a spot. But Gonzalez says that the Yankees offer was the only one he received this offseason. Gonzalez has proven to be an inning-eating workhorse. From 2015 to 2018, he threw 725.0 innings, good for 17th among all starting pitchers. Dallas Keuchel (14th on the list with 750.1 IP) is now the only one in the top 20 currently without a team. The Yankees are projected to rely on an ample number of innings from their mega-bullpen, but if Gonzalez were to make the team and can absorb innings like he has in the past, it can only help the Yankees — both in the rotation and with the bullpen’s workload.
There are more reasons to think Gonzalez could still contribute in 2019. Looking at his 2018 Statcast data, there are a couple things I want to emphasize. It is evident that, besides curveball spin, much of Gonzalez’s 2018 season left something to be desired. His average exit velocity (86.9 mph, 70th percentile) and his hard hit percentage (34.3%, 56th percentile), however, are a bit more reassuring. Those figures aren’t exceptional, but they are better than average. Here’s how Gio Gonzalez stacks up against the rest of the Yankee rotation regulars:
|Pitcher||Exit Velocity||Hard Hit %|
|Gio Gonzalez||56th percentile||70th percentile|
|Luis Severino||35th percentile||55th percentile|
|CC Sabathia||98th percentile||97th percentile|
|JA Happ||35th percentile||58th percentile|
|James Paxton||9th percentile||3rd percentile|
|Masahiro Tanaka||39th percentile||26th percentile|
First off, holy CC Sabathia. Secondly, Gonzalez is second on the list in terms of both exit velocity and hard hit rate. Now, it doesn’t mean that Gonzalez will thrive. I mean, look at Paxton. He ranks towards the bottom on both scores, but he is still an excellent pitcher. As for Gonzalez, the numbers give reason to believe that he can be serviceable this season, despite his well-documented decline. He also gave up a lower-than-average barrel rate (5.8%, as opposed to 6.1% league average). In an offense-friendly venue like Yankee Stadium, that can only be a plus.
Additionally, as our own Devan Fink pointed out, Gonzalez is projected to maintain a 2.0 WAR/200 IP pace from all three major projection systems. Take projection systems for what they are — a projection — but those numbers don’t come out of nowhere. It’s a testament to what kind of pitcher he has been over the last few years.
Because it is unlikely that he will be ready for Opening Day and has the ability to opt out of the deal, this could end up being a short stint. Gonzalez could find himself stashed in the minors if some combination of German, Cessa, and Loaisiga are doing well in the big league rotation (or in an opener role), and choose to opt out. Or the Yankees could decide that he’s the best option and take it from there. For New York, this signing comes with little risk. They got another guy who’s been a reliable workhorse and a sure rotation talent for a low cost. If the Yankees get a pitcher who can produce around 2 WAR for $3 million plus incentives, that’s a steal. If he doesn’t work out, they’ll rely on other pitchers further down the depth chart and wait until Severino and Sabathia come back.
Right now, the situation is full of question marks: How ready is Gonzalez? How will he look once he’s ready? Will there be factors out of his control that will determine if he makes the Yankees’ rotation? While Gonzalez might not be too high on the pecking order, if the Yankees like what they see, he’ll get a shot. And as I mentioned, they made the minor league signings of Colon and Garcia into useful rotation additions not too long ago.