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On Gio Gonzalez’s option and the options he gives the Nationals

Gio Gonzalez’s contract includes a $12 million option for 2017. (Ron Schwane/Associated Press)

Gio Gonzalez‘s contract includes a team option that would pay him $12 million for the 2017 season. If the Nationals pick that option up, and Gonzalez throws 180 innings next year, a vesting option kicks in to pay him $12 million for 2018, too.

If the Nationals pick up that 2017 option, then, Gonzalez could be under their control for two more seasons. If they do not, he will become a free agent this winter. Decisions like those are often among the first made and announced after the end of the World Series, and this one could be one of the first the Nationals make after the 2016 season concludes on Wednesday night.

Whatever indictments one can levy against Gonzalez — his maddening inconsistency, his often plodding pace, his consistently climbing pitch counts — statistics show he has been one of the more reliable left-handed starters in baseball since joining the Nationals in 2012. Whatever concern he fosters in those who watch him on a daily basis, many teams in baseball would pay more than $12 million for a left-hander who ranks among baseball’s top 25 starters in most relevant categories in that time.

Baseball Reference’s statistical comparison tool lists pitchers like Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy, John Lackey, Yovani Gallardo and Scott Kazmir as those active pitchers most comparable to Gonzalez through age 30. Kazmir signed a three-year deal worth $16 million annually last offseason, when he was 31. Peavy, Lackey, and Lincecum all made more than $16 million in their prime.

Given the value his contract provides, the Nationals are likely to pick up Gonzalez’s option. One person in Gonzalez’s camp said he considers it “a matter of course,” a fait accompli — procedural, more than anything. No one on the Nationals’ side has said so yet, though it does seem to make sense, particularly because picking up Gonzalez’s option does not eliminate their options moving forward.

The Nationals can hold on to Gonzalez, who can serve the same role for them in 2017 as he has for the past two seasons. His average fastball velocity dropped by about a mile per hour this season, and his strikeout rate dropped somewhat, but not remarkably as compared to his career average. His ERA jumped almost a full run this season, to its highest point since 2009, but his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) increased by half a run. Still, he is the only big-league-ready left-hander in the Nationals’ system, and even those elevated numbers make him a reasonable back-end-of-the-rotation candidate.

But because young (though right-handed) starters like Joe Ross, Reynaldo Lopez, A.J. Cole, Lucas Giolito and even Erick Fedde are nearly ready for major-league duty, the Nationals could afford to jettison Gonzalez from their crowd of potential 2017 starters. They would almost certainly find suitors in what is widely regarded as a weak and shallow free agent starting pitching market. In that climate, Gonzalez could be a highly valued commodity: For all his day-to-day inconsistency, Gonzalez is as consistent as they come from one season to the next.

The 30-year-old ranks 16th in FanGraphs WAR among starters since 2012. Gonzalez is 18th in strikeout-to-walk ratio in that time, and is 15th in strikeouts overall. He has made at least 31 starts in six of the past seven seasons, and won at least 10 games every season since 2010. Only one other left-handed starter has won at least 10 games in each of the past seven seasons, and his name is Clayton Kershaw.

So that consistency, from a left-handed veteran, at that reasonable price could appeal to many teams in need of starting pitching. Teams not seeking an elite starter, but hoping to find a durable veteran option — perhaps teams like the Pirates, Rockies, or Astros, for example — could see value in Gonzalez. The Texas Rangers’ experience with 30-year-old left-hander Derek Holland — another lefty with an option worth $11 million for 2017 — could be instructive to the Nationals as they make their decision. The Rangers are reportedly actively shopping the 30-year-old, who put up a 4.95 ERA in 20 starts this season. Whatever return the Rangers get for Holland, if any, the Nationals could expect to get far more for Gonzalez.

For now, the jovial left-hander is still a National, with an option in his contract that could keep him in D.C. through 2018. But with his résumé, at his price, other teams could be interested in taking him elsewhere.

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