PHOENIX – For Tom Milone, Derek Norris and Brad Peacock, the trade that upended their professional lives remained in the realm of the conceptual for nearly three months: It was real, but it wasn’t necessarily tangible.
From the December day they got the calls saying the Washington Nationals had traded them away, until the day last week when they reported here at the start of spring training with the Oakland Athletics, their offseasons went by much like any other offseason.
“It really didn’t sink in until I got here – because I was doing the same things I’d always done when I was a National,” Norris said one recent morning at his locker in the A’s spring training complex. “But then you get here, and it becomes kind of surreal. You slip on the green, instead of the red, white and blue. I’m still getting used to that.”
For Milone, it wasn’t the green Oakland jersey and cap that seemed strange at first – it was the distinctive white spikes the A’s wear.
“They’re very…” Milone said, looking for the right word. “… bright.”
Once they got past the initial shock of the trade — which sent Milone, Norris, Peacock and 20-year-old pitching prospect A.J. Cole to Oakland for all-star left-hander Gio Gonzalez and a throw-in prospect — as well as the tiny jolt of regret at leaving the only professional organization any of them had ever known, each player began to see the move in terms of opportunities lost and gained.
And for each, the trade was a net positive – or at the very least, a lateral move.
Norris, a 23-year-old catcher, went from being blocked in Washington by a rising star, Wilson Ramos, who is only 17 months older, to having a 28-year-old veteran, Kurt Suzuki (who is signed through 2013), as the only thing standing between himself and the starting catcher’s job in Oakland. And if Norris hits well, there is always a DH job there to be won.
For Milone, 25, and Peacock, 24, they moved out of the Nationals’ crowded rotation picture, where nothing was guaranteed for 2012, and into an open competition in Oakland where it is entirely possible both will go north (or east, as the case may be, since the A’s open the season in Japan) with the team on opening day.
“Obviously, it’s in the back of your mind that there’s a spot there for me to win,” Milone said. “And that’s what I plan to do.”
The A’s have at least two rotation spots up for grabs this spring – and possibly three, depending on the health of veteran Dallas Braden – and Milone and Peacock are among roughly a half-dozen candidates for the jobs.
While Peacock, because of his superior raw stuff, was thought to be ahead of Milone in Washington’s 2012 rotation pecking order prior to the trade, with the A’s it appears to be other way around, with Milone’s superior polish and command giving him a slight edge. It also helps that he’s left-handed, as the A’s would otherwise be without a lefty in their rotation should Braden have to start the year on the disabled list.
“Anyone who throws it over the plate every single time this early in camp always impresses you,” A’s Manager Bob Melvin said this week after watching Milone pitch. “He seems like he’s a polished guy.”
Cole, meantime, is projected to begin the season in Class A – although privately, the Nationals feel it is Cole, of the four players they gave up in the deal, who has the most potential to blow up in their faces by developing into a true ace.
For Milone, Norris and Peacock, whose lockers form a triangle at one end of the A’s big league clubhouse, the trade has brought them closer together, each of them grateful to have a couple of familiar faces in their new home. Norris and Peacock decided to room together this spring; the three of them play golf together some afternoons.
“It definitely makes the transition easier,” Norris said.
None professed anything other than gratitude and appreciation for the way the Nationals nurtured their careers.
“They gave me all the opportunity in the world,” Peacock said.
“They moved us all through the system quickly,” Milone said. “They really took care of me.”
In all, the Nationals invested 17 years of development in the four players they traded away for Gonzalez. But such is the nature of progress in baseball: A strong farm system turns players into “inventory” to be packaged together in a trade. And those same players, jostled out of their comfort zones and into a strange new world, might just find the path before them has opened up anew.
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