The Making of An Opening Day Starter

Trevor Cahill's path from high school pitching prospect to Opening Day major league starter was a rapid one. We have covered Cahill's career since he was selected by the Oakland A's in 2006 and we trace his rise inside...

When Trevor Cahill takes the mound on Friday at the Oakland Coliseum, he will be, at 23-years-old, one of the youngest Opening Day starters in Oakland A's history. The youngest A's hurler to get the nod on Opening Day was a lefty named Vida Blue, who wasn't quite yet 22 when he made the start in 1971.

Since arriving in Oakland in 1968, the A's have built a tradition of developing young pitching talent, whether it was that dominant staff that Blue was part of in the 1970s, the Billy Ball crew of the early 1980s, the Big Three of the 1990s or today's A's staff. Of the five guys in Oakland's current rotation, none have reached their 30th birthdays. Although only two were actually drafted by the A's, all but fifth starter Brandon McCarthy spent a significant amount of time in the A's minor league player development program.

Cahill, along with fourth starter and owner of a perfect game Dallas Braden, is in that "drafted by Oakland" category. Cahill was the A's top pick in 2006, although that pick didn't come until the second round, as Oakland had forfeited its first-round pick that season to sign veteran free agent Esteban Loaiza. At the time the A's took Cahill, it was a mild surprise given their publicized preference for college pitchers in the draft in Moneyball, although the A's had shown signs of moving away from that preference in 2005 when they took three HS arms in rounds two through three.

Cahill wasn't a particularly high-profile high school prospect before the draft, but he was a player the A's had tracked extensively leading up to the draft."

"We saw him early. Our scouting director [Eric Kubota] and Billy Owens, [A's director of player personnel], saw him pitch extremely well and then Billy [Beane] went down there and saw him pitch again," Bryn Alderson, who was the A's Scouting Coordinator at the time, told OaklandClubhouse shortly after the 2006 draft.

Alderson gave this "draft-day" scouting report on Cahill:

"He is a right-handed pitcher with a three-pitch mix. He has shown three-plus pitches at times. He can throw consistently 90-91 and can touch 93-94. His real plus pitch is a swing-and-miss breaking ball. He is a really good athlete. He has played shortstop and he is a smart kid."

Cahill didn't sign until July 9th and made only four starts for the A's Rookie League team in 2006. He showed a glimpse of the type of pitching prospect he would become in 2007 when he combined with Henry Rodriguez on a no-hitter over the AZL Cubs on the season's final day.

After the 2006 season, Cahill ranked seventh on our list of the top-50 Oakland A's prospects. He began the 2007 campaign at extended spring training, as the A's decided to hold back their young pitcher until the weather warmed in the Midwest. He joined the Low-A Kane County Cougars on May 12 and he didn't even make it out of the first inning in his debut outing. Things got better for Cahill from there, however. He posted a 2.73 ERA and won 11 games for the Cougars while striking out 117 batters and allowing only three homeruns in 105.1 innings.

After the season, then-A's minor league pitching coordinator Ron Romanick credited Cahill's 2007 success to his off-season work and his increased maturity.

"He came into spring training with a change-up. He worked on it all winter and he came into camp with a really nice what I'd like to call a back-and-forth game. It has allowed him to pitch effectively at a higher level," Romanick said in August 2007.

"With Trevor, another big development was that he finally started speaking. [laughs] He is a very quiet guy and mostly I was getting ‘yes' and ‘no' answers from him. I finally started getting some sentences out of him and he has really blossomed. He is a very disciplined kid and he picks things up really quickly. All of the really good ones do that. If they believe in something, they can incorporate it right away. He has that quality about him."

At the end of the 2007 season, A's farm director Keith Lieppman also noted Cahill's improvement with his sinker, a pitch that has become his bread-and-butter in the big leagues.

"He gets a ton of groundballs," Lieppman noted at the time.

The 2008 season was an exciting one for the A's farm system. Through off-season trades, the A's acquired an influx of top prospects, including Brett Anderson, Carlos Gonzalez, Gio Gonzalez, Chris Carter and Fautino De Los Santos. Before the trades, Cahill was ranked as our number two A's prospect (behind only Daric Barton), but after all of the wheeling-and-dealing, he finished fourth on our final list.

Cahill joined a star-studded 2008 Opening Day Stockton Ports' rotation that also included Anderson, Rodriguez and De Los Santos. Cahill immediately caught the eye of A's minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson, who was in his first year in the role that season. In an April 2008 interview, Patterson compared Cahill's sinker to that of Roy Halladay and Brandon Webb.

" I'm not sure that Cahill would have to take much of a back seat to those sinkers. He's just a tremendous competitor and warrior and can sink the ball," Patterson said.

Cahill breezed through the hitter-friendly California League, posting a 2.78 ERA in 87.1 innings for the Ports. Part of his success was fueled by a budding friendship with Anderson, who was also drafted out of high school in 2006. The two had an ongoing competition to see who could be more spectacular from start-to-start. The A's would keep the two pitchers on the same development path up through-out their rise to the major leagues.

That path took Cahill and Anderson to the Texas League midway through the 2008 season. Both handled the jump with ease. Cahill posted a 2.19 ERA in 37 innings for the Rockhounds, while Anderson had a 2.61 ERA in 31 innings. Their time in West Texas was cut short when they were named to the MLB Futures game and then the USA Olympic team. After pitching at old Yankee Stadium in the Futures Game, Cahill and Anderson traveled to Beijing for the Olympic Games. They helped the Stars and Stripes win a bronze metal, but while Anderson would later pitch for the Sacramento River Cats in the PCL playoffs, Cahill didn't pitch again after the Olympics thanks to a strained oblique.

"The neat thing is that [Brett Anderson] and Trevor Cahill, they have a bond that I haven't seen in awhile with young players. They are both trying to help each other to get better and are trying to out-do each other and push each other to the next level," A's minor league pitching rehab coordinator Garvin Alston said just before the 2009 season.

The 2009 season was expected to be one of further development for Cahill. Cahill came into the season ranked second on our top A's prospect list, just behind Anderson. Both pitchers were invited to major league spring training as non-roster players, but neither were expected to win jobs on the Opening Day roster. Both pitched too well that spring for the A's to ignore, however, and both were named to the A's 2009 Opening Day starting rotation.

Cahill's rookie season was filled with ups-and-downs. He went 10-13 with a 4.63 ERA in 32 starts with the A's. On the plus side, he pitched 178.2 innings and maintained a solid 1.44 groundout-to-flyout ratio. On the downside, he allowed 27 homers and had a mediocre 90:72 K:BB ratio.

At the tailend of the 2009 season, A's director of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi assessed Cahill's season as "streaky."

"He has tried to find himself a little bit. It has been more of an adjustment for him because he is kind of a unique pitcher. He uses different arm angles and he is a sinker guy, but he did strike-out a lot of guys in the minors," Zaidi said in September 2009.

"I think he has had to learn over the course of this season how to try to get early contact as opposed to getting two-strikes and trying to make the perfect pitch. I think that created some problems and that was one of the causes of his inconsistency. But over the course of the season, any time that you can have guys who have only a handful of starts at Double-A who can come up to the big league level and, as starters, put up ERAs in the fours, that is a pretty tremendous feat."

Cahill's streakiness led the A's to bring in veteran free agent starters Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer (who was re-signed to a free agent deal) for the 2010 season, with the thought that Cahill needed some additional time to develop in the minor leagues. He actually began the season on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury and returned to the mound in late April for the River Cats. Cahill made two starts for Sacramento, allowing one earned run in 8.2 innings, before he was recalled to Oakland, ironically to replace an injured Anderson in the rotation.

Cahill's first outing with the A's in 2010 went much the same way that his forgettable first appearance for the Kane County Cougars did back in 2007. He allowed three homeruns and eight runs in total (six earned) in five innings in a 10-2 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. Like in 2007, Cahill used that bad outing as a launching point for an outstanding season. In 29 subsequent starts, Cahill would allow four or more runs only six times. He finished the year with a 2.97 ERA and an 18-8 record. He was an All-Star and in the conversation for the AL's Cy Young award.

Now less than five years removed from draft day, Cahill will head an Oakland A's rotation that has drawn favorable comparisons to the great A's rotations of the past 40 years.


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