Back in 2004, prospect Joe Blanton was a heavy-set right-hander looking to break into the big leagues while pitching for Triple-A Sacramento. Ten seasons, three organizations and negative 45 pounds later, skinny Joe Blanton is back with the River Cats hoping to pitch his way into the big leagues.
Blanton signed a minor league contract with the A's on Monday after his release from the Los Angeles Angels last week. Coming off his worst season in the big leagues, Blanton is hoping the familiarity of Raley Field and the same pitching coaches that helped him break into the big leagues will help revitalize his career.
Blanton's 2013 season with the Angels was the worst of his career. He posted a 6.04 ERA, allowing 180 hits in 132.2 innings. LA is still on the hook for his $8.5 million salary.
"You go through all those things, it just makes it a little bit easier - somebody that knows you," the 33-year-old said of his return to the organization. "You know them, it makes it a little easier transition."
Coming into the season, the A's had formed a starting pitching staff with depth atop the organization, but with projected ace Jarrod Parker shelved for the season after undergoing his second "Tommy John" surgery and A.J. Griffin out for the foreseeable future with flexor tendinitis, that depth took two big hits before the first pitch of 2014 was even thrown.
With prospect Drew Pomeranz slated to start the season as the A's long man out of the bullpen, Oakland was short on starting arms in Triple-A that could contribute at the major-league level in a pinch. Given Blanton's extensive resume in the big leagues, it's no wonder he's back with the team that drafted him 24th overall in the 'Moneyball' draft of 2002. He will join former White Sox hurler Philip Humber - who threw a perfect game against the Mariners in 2012 - atop the River Cats' rotation to start the season.
Blanton's best pro seasons came with Oakland in 2005 and 2007, back when his playing weight was upwards of 250 pounds. Now, he says he's in the best shape of his life weighing around 210 pounds.
"I grew up a little bit after that. Certain things you're not doing as much anymore so the baby fat disappears," said Blanton. "I think it was about 2011 I had an elbow injury and it was the first time I got here. I started taking workouts more serious - things I needed to do to be right. It was a progression from there.
"You start working out and you realize your diet needs to change when you get a certain age and you can't eat the way you used to. It was really a slow progression. It wasn't really one of those things where last year I came into spring 30-pounds lighter than the year before."
Blanton said he found out about his release from the Angels last Wednesday after throwing in five spring games with a 7.08 ERA. A few organizations came calling, but it was a return to the injury-impacted A's that gave him the best shot at a potential return to the majors.
With 10 seasons under his belt, Blanton quickly becomes the most experienced starter in an Oakland organization that's become so reliant on young starting pitching during its run to two-consecutive AL West titles. With Parker's injury, 24-year-old Sonny Gray becomes the de facto ace in front of Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone. Blanton has tallied nearly 1,600 innings during his 10 big-league seasons. With the A's from 2005 to 2008, Blanton averaged nearly 33 starts and 206 innings per season.
Setup man Ryan Cook is also in Sacramento and he threw in a simulated game at Raley Field on Monday. He was placed on the A's 15-day disabled list with shoulder discomfort on March 21 and the team hopes to get him back in the coming week. Until then, Pomeranz will bide his time in the A's bullpen before likely returning to the starting rotation with Sacramento when Cook is activated.