Still seeking a referendum on the Gio Gonzalez question? You’re in luck. Thanks to Brewers manager Craig Counsell and the tattered state of Milwaukee’s rotation, Gonzalez’s re-introduction to the majors will come Sunday — at Citi Field, of all places.
If the Mets want to make general manager Brodie Van Wagenen look as smart as his impeccably tailored suits, here’s the perfect chance, served up in their own backyard. Pummel Gonzalez, and they’ll help put the Gio debate to rest — at least for another turn or two through a rotation that still counts Jason Vargas as a member.
Better not to think about the alternative. If Gonzalez is able to perform his usual Citi Field wizardry, the Mets will face another public flogging, having to explain all over again why they wouldn’t guarantee him Vargas’ No. 5 spot.
Apparently, that’s all Gonzalez had to hear from the Mets, who lost to the Brewers, 8-6, on Saturday night. He revealed Saturday that they were the other finalist competing with the Brewers for his services, but the Mets thought they couldn’t promise him a starting job at this point.
“The Mets were huge, they were great,” Gonzalez said Saturday. “They were definitely in there. I think they had such a great rotation, a great group of guys, it was a tough decision. The Brewers came in and met my expectations, met my needs. Either way, it was a win-win for me.”
And now it’s the Mets who have more to lose than merely a game Sunday, when Gonzalez will have the crowd hanging on his every pitch. His deal with the Brewers includes a $2 million base salary and another $2 million in creative incentives, linked to a framework that gives him points for every outing of at least three innings.
A source familiar with the negotiations said Saturday that Gonzalez’s choice was more about the opportunity than the economics, and the Brewers’ willingness to immediately make him a starter secured his return to Milwaukee.
The Mets, who weren’t ready to sacrifice Vargas, needed Gonzalez to accept a more flexible role, such as pitching out of the bullpen until they got more clarity with the rotation. They feared that bouncing Vargas — who has $10 million guaranteed coming him to him this year — could jeopardize salvaging anything from him this season.
Vargas did show marginal improvement Wednesday, holding the Phillies to one run in 4 2⁄3 innings, which also happened to be the same day that Gonzalez agreed to terms with the Brewers. Hoping that Vargas somehow manages to outpitch Gio the rest of the way is wishful thinking, but for the time being, they’d settle for beating up the newest Brewer on Sunday.
For an April game, these are some high stakes, and it’s difficult to predict how this is going to go. We do know one thing: History isn’t on the Mets’ side. Gonzalez is Cy Young at Citi Field with an 11-2 record, 1.75 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 17 career starts there. He also has held the Mets to a .185 batting average with 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings in their own building. Gonzalez’s last outing at Citi was on Aug. 24, when he allowed one run in seven innings but suffered one of his two Mets losses as the Brewers were blanked, 3-0.
Perhaps working in the Mets’ favor? Gonzalez has plenty of rust to shake off. Frozen out in free agency, he was jobless for nearly all of spring training and hasn’t pitched in a competitive game since April 19, his last start at Triple-A Scranton before opting out of his Yankees contract. Overall, Gonzalez had a 6.00 ERA in three minor-league starts, but he made progress in his last two, giving up two earned runs in 11 innings and striking out 18 with three walks.
“It was a rude awakening at Triple-A,” Gonzalez said. “I had to change the game plan, had to switch it up a little bit, then trust what I know how to do — throw my pitches for strikes.”
Asked about his Yankees experience, Gonzalez thanked Brian Cashman for the chance to showcase himself and understood the GM’s commitment to the team’s impressive young guns, such as Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga. Once CC Sabathia returned from the injured list, Gonzalez knew his already-closing window with the Yankees had shut, so he switched agents — from Scott Boras to CAA — and found the rotation spot he was looking for.
“I thought [Cashman] was awesome,” Gonzalez said. “He was very respectful, very understanding of what the situation was. And again, if it wasn’t for his opinion and what he did for me, in spring training and on, I wouldn’t be in this position that I’m in now. I would have been at home, still waiting for a job.”
After leaving Scranton, Gonzalez was with his family in Miami, working out and “throwing my kids in the pool,” he said. Now his Sunday return to Citi looms large for the Mets, who can potentially turn the page on their failed pursuit of Gonzalez — or risk being haunted by it.