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12/22/11 9:00 PM EST

Gio strengthens Nationals' hand in NL East

Joins forces with Strasburg, Zimmermann in talented rotation

To buy into this trade for the Washington Nationals, you must buy into Gio Gonzalez. OK, let's start there.

He's a 26-year-old left-hander who has averaged 16 victories and 200 innings the past two seasons. His two-year ERA is a very nice 3.17.

Any list of the American League's best young left-handers over that time would have to include him.

He averaged 8.78 strikeouts per nine innings last season, third best in the AL. He's also a very solid clubhouse guy, with one of those personalities that wears well during the grind of a long season.

To summarize: Young left-hander. Great stuff. Has had success. Good teammate.

Now, about those walks. He led the AL with 91 of them last season, which is one less than he had in 2010.

He needed an average of 16.9 pitches to get through an inning, so he's not going to be the poster boy for faster games.

Those walks bring games to a crawl, get defensive players back on their heels and have absolutely no rhythm.

If there's a job one for the Washington coaching staff, it's to somehow get Gonzalez to harness his great stuff and command the strike zone better.

His home-road splits are also troublesome. His ERA was almost a run higher on the road than at his pitcher-friendly home ballpark (3.62 vs. 2.70).

Still, as Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo sorted through his options, Gonzalez made sense on a number of levels.

First, he's still four years away from free agency. Second, he's two years younger than Matt Garza, who is also two years closer to free agency.

Rizzo could have held onto the four prospects he sent to Oakland in the deal by going for a Roy Oswalt or an Edwin Jackson in free agency.

But Gonzalez is younger and in just his first year of arbitration-eligibility. If the Nats are still a year or two away from being good enough to make the playoffs, Gonzalez should still be at the top of his game.

Rizzo has invested time, money and manpower into his farm system so he would have the ability to make this kind of deal when he believed his franchise had arrived at a certain point.

He worked furiously to acquire Zack Greinke last winter. And if some thought he was rushing the timetable a bit, the Nationals justified his confidence with an 80-81 season.

Now, with Stephen Strasburg healthy again and Bryce Harper getting closer to the big leagues, Rizzo saw Gonzalez as a big get in a division that has become very competitive.

So he shipped four young players -- including three of his best prospects -- to the A's for Gonzalez.

Let's pause now for a word of praise for A's GM Billy Beane. He appears to have played the trade market brilliantly again, working one package of prospects against another until finally getting a deal he was comfortable with.

He has now acquired seven young players in the trades for his top two starters, Trevor Cahill and Gonzalez.

He may not be done. Teams are likewise lined up in case Beane deals closer Andrew Bailey.

Back to Gonzalez. The Phillies are still the National League favorites. The Marlins have taken a dramatic step forward -- and the Braves are right there, as well.

But any conversation must include the Nationals. Gonzalez joins Jordan Zimmermann and Strasburg to make the front three of their rotation very, very good.

There's young talent all around them -- third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, closer Drew Storen, second baseman Danny Espinosa.

Almost no one is going to pick them to finish ahead of the Phillies, Braves or Marlins. But they appear to be really close to being really good.

And they may not be finished.

The Nationals are like the Marlins, in that they're seeking more than just talent. They're also hoping to create a buzz around their franchise.

As you may have heard, there's one free agent still out there who could do the trick.

Are the Nats in the Prince Fielder sweepstakes? That's impossible to know, because agent Scott Boras simply does not reveal his cards during negotiations.

All that's certain is that Fielder would make sense for the Nationals -- just as he'd make sense for the Blue Jays, Mariners, Cubs and Rangers.

What's certain on this day is that the Nats appear to have improved themselves. In Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez, they have three starters who throw hard and will make hitters uncomfortable.

Regardless of what else Rizzo does, the Nationals have taken a significant step in the right direction. They're not just better. They're also more interesting.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.