Gio hopes for longer leash under Baker

Nationals lefty entering final guaranteed year of contract

Gio hopes for longer leash under Baker

VIERA, Fla. -- In his first season with the Nationals in 2012, Gio Gonzalez delivered a stellar performance with a 2.89 ERA en route to a third-place finish for the National League Cy Young Award. Since then, he has become a fixture with Washington, transforming from the clean-cut look he sported back then to the long flowing hair he has been growing out since last year.

But Gonzalez is entering the final guaranteed year of his contract; the Nationals do hold a $12 million option for 2017, with a vesting option in 2018 that becomes guaranteed if Gonzalez reaches 180 innings in '17.

Considering the price paid for pitching this offseason, Gonzalez, 30, could still come at a relative bargain for Washington. Still, there is no guarantee the club will pick up the option over a $500,000 buyout. The Nationals have three starting pitchers under contract next season (Max Scherzer, Joe Ross and Tanner Roark), and top prospect Lucas Giolito seems destined to have cracked the Majors by then.

Spring Training: Schedule | Tickets | Gear

That makes 2016 a crucial season for Gonzalez, and he is looking forward to working with Dusty Baker, who has earned the reputation as a players' manager for the relationships he forms and the trust he gives.

"In the offseason I was actually excited to come in," Gonzalez said. "I wanted to come in and show Dusty I'm capable of doing that. Last year was tough because I was minimized in a lot of innings, and any damage that was going on I couldn't get out of it because it was already immediately into the bullpen.

"This year, I'm hoping Dusty gives me an opportunity to actually be a pitcher and not try to rush my game or feel nervous when I go out and pitch. I don't want that. I want him to feel confident every time I go out there and get the ball."

Outlook: Gonzalez, SP, WSH

In 2015, Gonzalez averaged about 5 2/3 innings per start, largely as a result of high pitch counts. However, Gonzalez always throws a lot of pitches because he walks and strikes out a lot of batters. His strikeout rate per nine innings has stayed steady (8.7 in 2015, just under his career average of 8.8), and his 3.05 FIP indicates he pitched better than the 3.79 ERA he posted.

Gonzalez did allow a career-high 181 hits and a 1.42 WHIP, although an absurdly high .341 BABIP shows he got little help from his defense or luck last season. That number will almost certainly return near his career average of .295, putting Gonzalez in a position for a bounce-back year in an important season for his future.

"I don't think it changes from every year. Every year is important," he said. "Every year I want to go out there and try to win a World Series for the Nationals. Every year I want to do my best and keep us in a winning streak. I want to be a part of the organization as much as possible."

Jamal Collier is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.