The Athletics were a popular pick by many people as a sleeper team coming into the 2011 season. The team had a pitching staff filled with young, quality arms and a solid group of veteran players. However, injuries and players performing below expectations led to the A’s winning just 74 games last season. Throughout the offseason, GM Billy Beane has completely made over the team, by trading away several young, cost controlled pitchers for prospects. Some of the key players traded away include Andrew Bailey, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill. The reason those pitchers were traded for prospects is because Oakland has an eye on contending in about four or five years, when the team hopes to have relocated to a brand new ballpark in San Jose.
As a result of the trades, the team has been left with a relatively inexperienced pitching staff. While there are some veterans that will make up both the rotation and the bullpen, many spots will be up for grabs during the spring and will be won by pitchers with minimal, if any big league experience. As a result, it will probably be another long year in Oakland that will consist of staring up at the Angels and Rangers in the standings.
The A’s de facto ace and Opening Day starter this year will be Brandon McCarthy. Last season, McCarthy finally enjoyed the breakout campaign that everyone had been anticipating after he had a 4.03 ERA in 12 games (10 starts) with the White Sox in 2005 as a 21 year old. McCarthy made the White Sox out of Spring Training in 2006, but 51 of his 53 appearances came out of the bullpen because the White Sox had five starters who started thirty games. After the season, McCarthy was traded to the Rangers as part of a deal for John Danks and Nick Masset. In ’07, McCarthy made 22 starts but pitched to the tune of a 4.87 ERA, which was buoyed by low groundball (35.8%) and strikeout (5.22 K/9) rates. McCarthy’s first year in Texas also marked the beginning of his injury problems, as he spent time on the disabled list with blister problem as well as a stress fracture to his right shoulder blade. 2008 was a year lost almost entirely to injury, as McCarthy was only able to make five starts due to forearm inflammation. Another stress fracture in McCarthy’s right shoulder plagued him in 2009, as he was only able to make 17 starts. When he was on the mound he was mediocre at best and finished with a 4.62 ERA (4.70 FIP). McCarthy did not even pitch in the major leagues in 2010, as he dealt with more shoulder issues. McCarthy was non-tendered at the end of the 2010 season and signed a one-year deal with Oakland in December.
Last year, McCarthy set career highs in innings pitched, ERA, wins and starts. McCarthy’s 4.92 K/BB ratio was the best in Oakland history since 1901. In addition, McCarthy had a low home run ratio (.58 HR/9) and posted the best groundball rate of his career (46.7 GB%). All that added up to a 2.86 FIP, which indicates that McCarthy’s breakout campaign will not be an anomaly.
FIP, strikeout to walk ratio and ERA aside, what can we realistically expect from a man who has never made more than 25 starts and pitched more than 170 2/3 innings in a season? The answer is unclear. Considering he will be pitching his home games in Oakland once again, it would not be crazy to think that McCarthy will have another good season. However, due to the fact that McCarthy has missed so much time with shoulder issues, it is far from a given. McCarthy will be a free agent after 2012 and will be Oakland’s most expensive starting pitcher this season, while making $4.275 million. Based on the fact that Oakland is in full rebuilding mode and will not be contending this season, it would not be surprising if McCarthy were traded at some point. Knowing Billy Beane, he will not hesitate to deal McCarthy if his team’s de facto ace is having another good season.
I remember laughing and making some sort of fat joke to myself once I saw that the Yankees signed Bartolo Colon to a minor league deal last offseason. Still bitter that Colon swiped the Cy Young away from Mariano Rivera in 2005, I was just hoping that Colon would come into camp, embarrass himself and retire. However, the exact opposite happened. Armed with a cleaned up shoulder, thanks to a stem cell procedure he underwent in 2010, Colon had his finest season since he won the Cy Young with the Angels. Colon initially made the Yankees as a reliever, but was pressed into starting duty when Phil Hughes was placed on the disabled list in the middle of April. Colon was nothing short of spectacular in his first ten starts of the season, going 5-2 with a 2.96 ERA with 59 strikeouts in 67 innings. Unfortunately, Colon’s tenth start of the season was cut short, due to a hamstring strain. He ended up being placed on the DL with the injury and returned at the beginning of July.
When Colon returned from the disabled list, he was not the same pitcher. He was not throwing as hard as the beginning of the season and as a result, his strikeout rate declined in the second half. Overall, Colon finished the year with a 4.00 ERA (3.83 FIP) in 164.1 innings. Despite the fact that he finished the year not pitching as well as he had during the beginning of the year, Colon had a great season, considering he was able to pitch all those seasons for the first time in six seasons as a 38 year old.
What will Colon give the A’s this season? It all depends on his health. Did the stem cell procedure really help Colon and rejuvenate his weak shoulder, or was 2011 simply a fluke? If Colon can stay healthy and continue to throw 92-95MPH, he should do pretty well in Oakland’s spacious home park. Much like McCarthy, if Colon is having a good season, it would not be surprising if he were dealt to a contender sometime during the middle of the year. If he can bring back a midlevel prospect for the Athletics, than his signing will be considered a success.
Dallas Braden, most famously known for shouting for Alex Rodriguez to get off his mound, is being counted on to rebound from a shoulder injury that cost him all but three starts in 2011. Braden is expected to be ready to go around early to mid-April. While he does not really strike people out (5.59 career K/9%) or get ground balls (38.5 career GB%), Braden manages to keep the ball in the park and provide a solid middle of the rotation presence. The proverbial soft tossing lefty should have no problem replicating his past success if his shoulder is healthy.
Aside from the three aforementioned pitchers, nobody else in Athletics camp will be guaranteed a rotation spot. There will be a competition between several prospects and non-prospects alike for the last two spots on Oakland’s starting staff.
Two pitchers acquired from the Nationals in the Gio Gonzalez trade will be monitored closely this spring. Their names are Tom Milone and Brad Peacock. Milone is a soft tossing lefty with excellent control and a good changeup. He went 12-6 with a 9.40 K/9 rate in 148.1 innings over 24 starts last season for AAA Syracuse before holding his own in a five start cameo with the Nationals last September. Although there is virtually no chance he can repeat those strikeout numbers in the big leagues, Milone could be a solid sleeper pick if he is able to secure a spot in Oakland’s rotation based on his ability to throw strikes and keep the ball in the park.
Unlike Milone, Brad Peacock has a power arm. A converted shortstop, Peacock broke out last season, going 10-2 with a 2.01 ERA and an 11.77 K/9 ratio in 98.1 innings over 16 games (13 starts) at AA. Peacock continued to produce at AAA in nine starts and made his MLB debut for the Nationals in September. While Peacock carries much more upside than Milone, there is a discrepancy as to what people think he is capable of contributing at the big league level. Baseball America ranked Peacock as the #36 prospect in all of baseball, while Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus had him in the #64 slot. Keith Law of ESPN left Peacock off his list entirely and did not even include him in his article of players who just missed the top 100. In another piece, Law stated that he thinks Peacock profiles as a reliever, while Baseball America thinks he can be a #2 starter. Whatever the case, Peacock represents an intriguing option to have at the back of the rotation who could find some success pitching in Oakland’s spacious ballpark.
Jarrod Parker, ranked the #26 prospect by Baseball America coming into 2012, was the centerpiece that Oakland received in the trade that sent Trevor Cahill to Arizona. Despite the fact that he missed all of 2010 due to Tommy John surgery, Parker rebounded nicely last season and posted a 3.79 ERA in 130.2 AA innings before making his major league debut in September. He was even added Arizona’s postseason roster and pitched in the National League Division series.
While Parker certainly has a legitimate chance of claiming a rotation spot, it would not be surprising if he was sent to AAA to get a little more seasoning. Parker’s strikeout rate was down at AA last season (7.7 K/9) in comparison to his previous two seasons at the minor league level. If Parker is indeed sent down, his stay in the minors will probably be short and he could end up being a large contributor to Oakland’s rotation.
Despite the fact that he went 14-3 with a 2.68 ERA in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League last season, Graham Godfrey does not appear on any major prospect lists. This might be due to his age – Godfrey will be 28 in August, his lack of stuff, or both. Godfrey appeared in five games (four starts) with the Athletics last season and posted a 3.96 ERA over 25 innings. However, he struck out nearly a batter every two innings in his small sample size (4.68 K/9) and does not represent much more than a stopgap option in case some of Oakland’s more superior prospects are not deemed big league ready.
Tyson Ross is another candidate for the Athletics rotation. Ross made the A’s out of Spring Training in 2010, despite the fact that he had only pitched 50 innings above A ball. In 26 games (2 starts), Ross struggled to the tune of a 5.49 ERA thanks in part to a high walk rate (4.58 BB/9). Ross was sent down to AAA in July and shut down in August due to an elbow injury. Last year, Ross battled more injury problems and only appeared in nine games (four starts) for the A’s and was limited to just nine starts at AAA. He was much more effective at the big league level though, as he posted a much lower walk rate (3.25 BB/9) and only gave up one home run in 36 innings.
Ross might have an advantage over the other pitchers in camp, due to the fact that he pitched well in his small sample size from last season. While he does not have the kind of top prospect credentials as some of the other pitchers in A’s camp, Ross is still young – he turns 25 in April and his large frame and deceptive delivery could prove to be a solid option for the back end of Oakland’s rotation.
Now for the bullpen, which will be without Andrew Bailey, the team’s closer for the past three seasons. Either Brian Fuentes or Grant Balfour will be the team’s fireman to start the season, with Balfour being the likely candidate, despite the fact that Fuentes is the more experienced closer. Fuentes’ strikeout rate was a career low last season (6.48 K/9) and he is probably best served being a lefty specialist at this state in his career. Both Balfour ($4million) and Fuentes ($5 million) will be making a decent amount of money as far as relievers go and as a result it would not be surprising if one or both of them are traded to a contender during the season.
Fautino de los Santos is an interesting late inning option for the A’s. He was acquired from the White Sox as part of the Nick Swisher deal in 2008. De los Santos has had a high walk rate at virtually all of his stops in the minor leagues, including during his 33.1 innings at the MLB level last season (4.59 BB/9). However, he also has a fastball that averaged 95.6 MPH and a wipeout slider which enabled him to strike people out frequently (11.61 K/9) and (30.1 K%). If he can harness his control somewhat, de los Santos could be closing games for Oakland by the end of the season if the team’s veteran relievers are dealt.
Joey Devine was a first round pick who reached the majors in the same season that he was drafted (2005). After years of injury and ineffectiveness with the Braves, Oakland acquired Devine for Mark Kotsay during the 2008 offseason. It seemed as if Devine finally figured it out that season, as he went 6-1 with a 0.59 ERA and a 9.66 K/9 ratio in 45.1 innings over 42 games with the A’s. Devine was penciled in as an important piece in the Oakland bullpen for the 2009 season, but Tommy John surgery would wipe out his chances of contributing both that season and in 2010.
Devine resurfaced last season, but struggled with his control (4.30 BB/9) and his strikeout rate (7.83 K/9) was lower than his career norms (9.07 K/9). The sample size was rather small though, as Devine only pitched 23 innings over 26 appearances while being shuttled back and fort between AAA and the big leagues. If Devine can regain his form somewhat and strike people out like he did before his surgery, he could be a stabilizer in the late innings for the A’s.
Lastly, I want to talk about two pitchers who have a chance to contribute to the A’s later in the season. The first is Oakland’s first round pick from 2011, Sonny Gray. Gray was drafted out of Vanderbilt and is so advanced that he made five starts with AA after he signed last season. Although he was only allowed to pitch 20 innings, Gray allowed just one earned run and struck out 18 men. Gray projects as a mid-rotation starter with the potential for more if he can continue to develop his changeup. He will probably return to AA to start the season and could move up to AAA if he gets off to a quick start.
Brett Anderson will miss most if not all of the season due to Tommy John surgery, which he underwent in July. Anderson is only 24 years old and as a result Oakland will not rush him back to make a few meaningless starts at the end of the season. In 2009 Anderson was ranked as the #7 prospect in baseball by Baseball America and he burst onto the scene that year with a solid rookie campaign. Overall, in 175.1 innings over 30 starts, Anderson had a good ground ball rate (50.9 GB%) and held his own in terms of strikeouts (7.70 K/9) and walks (2.31 BB/9). Overall, Anderson posted a 4.06 ERA (3.69 FIP) and finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting. However, Anderson was limited to just 32 starts over the next two seasons due to various injuries. When he has been on the mound, he has pitched effectively and shown a knack for getting ground balls, but he has not been healthy often. Expect big things from Anderson in 2013, even if he does not make it back to a major league mound this upcoming season.
Even though this will be a rebuilding year for the A’s, there is a lot to be excited about in their pitching department. The team replenished its farm system and is now much deeper than it was at the start of the offseason. Oakland has a solid core of young arms vying for rotation spots and a few high upside guys such as A.J. Cole and Raul Alcantara who are a couple years away. Even though we expected Anderson, Cahill and Gonzalez to be the anchors of the team’s rotation for years to come, it is very possible that we could see guys like Parker and Peacock step up this year and fill the roles of the established pitchers that they were traded for.
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