A's 2005 Pitching Staff Starting To Take Shape

Numerous Japanese media outlets are reporting that the Oakland A's have come to an agreement with Japanese starting pitcher Keiichi Yabu, pending a physical. Yabu, a 36 year-old righthander, is scheduled to take a physical on Tuesday and, if all goes well, his signing should be announced on Wednesday, according to the same Japanese media outlets. Assuming the signing goes off without a hitch, what impact will Yabu's addition have on the A's starting rotation in 2005?

Rumors of Yabu's signing first surfaced on Thursday evening when A's radio announcer Marty Lurie mentioned on his program that the A's had reached an agreement with an unnamed Japanese starting pitcher. That report was seemingly confirmed over the weekend when Japanese media outlets, including Japan Today, the Japanese Times and JapaneseBaseballPlayers.com, reported that the A's and Yabu had reached an agreement. Most outlets are reporting the terms of the deal as one-year/$1 million, but some have reported that the deal is actually a two-year deal, with the second year being contingent on the A's exercising a team option.

In any case, Yabu should be a relatively low-cost, veteran addition to the back-end of the A's rotation in 2005. Yabu is an 11-year Japanese League veteran, spending all 11 years with the Hanshin Tigers. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 1994 and has a career record of 84-106 with a 3.57 ERA. He went 6-9 last season with a 3.02 ERA. Yabu threw 116.1 innings, allowing 108 hits, eight homeruns and 36 walks. He struck out 75 batters. Yabu, a fan favorite in Japan, has always been a groundball pitcher and has consistently had ERAs in the 3.00s. Jim Albright of BaseballGuru.com translated Yabu's Japanese numbers last season to the MLB equivalent of 7-8 with a 4.74 ERA over 133 IP.

So what type of impact can Yabu be expected to make on the A's roster next season? Well, for one thing, he should allow the A's to give Dan Meyer more time in AAA. Meyer has had less than a half-season of experience at AAA, so the A's would like to have him spend at least the first half of the season in Sacramento refining his game. Yabu will also give Oakland more depth in the starting rotation to guard against injury and under-performance from some of the younger additions to the new starting five.

Yabu will join minor league free agent signee Seth Etherton, rookie Joe Blanton and, possibly, a healthy Kirk Saarloos in competition for the fourth and fifth slots in the A's rotation, behind locks Barry Zito, Rich Harden and Danny Haren. While the A's will certainly not have the same talent level in their rotation as they did last season, they will have a lot more depth. Last season, the A's rotation was rocked by injuries and over-work because the team was very thin both in the bullpen and past the five starting regulars in the rotation. Next season, the A's should be better able to withstand injuries and heavy workload.

The bullpen will be deep both at a major league level and with major league-ready talent in AAA. Five of the six spots are already sown up, barring any last minute changes. Octavio Dotel will return as the team's closer. New acquisitions Kiko Calero and Juan Cruz will act as the team's primary 7th and 8th inning set-up men. Chad Bradford and Ricardo Rincon will return as the team's righthanded and lefthanded specialists, respectively. The sixth spot will likely go to incumbent long-man Justin Duchscherer, who handled the job extremely well last season. However, he will probably have to compete with waiver wire acquisition Tim Harikkala, Rule V draft choice Tyler Johnson and rookies Chris Mabeus and Huston Street for that last spot. There is a small chance the A's will start the season with seven men in the bullpen, but the A's have traditionally gone with six men.

Harikkala, a righthanded middle reliever who spent last season in Colorado, signed a split contract with the A's in December, so he can be sent to AAA as insurance if he doesn't make the 25-man roster. Johnson, a promising lefthanded relief prospect, will have to be offered back to the St. Louis Cardinals if he doesn't make the 25-man squad, unless the A's make a trade with the Cardinals to retain his rights. Mabeus and Street can be sent to AAA without penalty if they don't make the team. Consequently, the RiverCats could boast a major league-caliber bullpen of Street, Jairo Garcia, Mabeus, Harikkala, lefthander Ron Flores, and former Expo Britt Reams, all of whom will be insurance against injury and ineffectiveness in the A's major league bullpen.

The A's 2005 starting rotation should have depth on both the major and minor league levels, as well. Rotation anchors Zito and Harden have been relatively injury-free throughout their careers, unlike last season's top two starters (Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson) who were both coming off of injuries at the start of 2004. Third starter Danny Haren is young and healthy and should be good for 25-33 starts.

The A's will have four players competing for the final two spots in the rotation during spring training. Yabu, if signed, will have the upper-hand, as he will be the only one with a major league contract over the minimum. Based on his Japanese League history, Yabu should be counted on for Mark Redman-like numbers next season. He has had a few minor injuries over his career, but nothing that has kept him out for long periods of time. Etherton will also be a factor in the spring training battle for a rotation spot. The former Angels' first round pick was signed to a major league minimum contract over the off-season. He would have to clear waivers if he didn't make the 25-man roster out of spring training, but there is a good chance he would clear if he was designated late in the spring. Etherton's once promising career has been derailed by arm and knee injuries, but he still could be an effective starter if healthy. He could win a back of the rotation spot with a strong spring.

The other two candidates for a starting spot will be Blanton and Saarloos, Blanton probably has the inside track for the fifth starter spot because he has been groomed to make his debut this season and he probably wouldn't have a lot to gain by spending a second season in AAA. Saarloos, who filled in for an injured Hudson in 2004, is a wildcard candidate for a starting spot in 2005. The righthander was designated for assignment in October after missing the last two months of the season with an elbow injury. It was feared that Saarloos was going to have to undergo Tommy John surgery in the off-season, but recent reports indicate that Saarloos avoided going under the knife and could enter spring training healthy. If that is the case, he could give the A's depth both as a starter and as a reliever, as Saarloos has been effective in both positions over his brief career. As he already cleared waivers in October, he would not have to be offered on waivers if he doesn't make the 25-man roster.

Assuming that Zito, Harden, Haren, Yabu and Blanton win starting roles, the RiverCats' rotation could feature Etherton (if he clears waivers), Saarloos, Meyer, and lefthander John Rheinecker, all of whom are capable of filling in for an injured starter at any time. A's relievers Duchscherer and Cruz are also former starters who could fill in a rotation spot if any of the starting five were to go down with an injury.

There are still six weeks until pitchers and catchers report, plenty of time for Billy Beane to make more moves. But at this moment in time, the A's are positioned to have one of the deepest major and high-level minor league staffs that they have had in a long time.

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