Oakland A's Camp Notes: Starting Pitchers Shine

PHOENIX – When the A's traded away Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Mark Redman, many around baseball figured that Oakland would struggle with its starting pitching in 2005. And while it is too early to tell exactly how the young A's starting pitching staff will fare this season, if their recent spring performances are any indication, Oakland may once again be among the league leaders in pitching.

Before Oakland's game on Saturday – a 7-6 win over the Chicago White Sox – A's manager Ken Macha was quoted as saying that the A's were still operating on "Plan A" for their starting pitching rotation going into the start of the regular season. "Plan A" has the A's breaking camp with Barry Zito, Rich Harden, Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and Dan Meyer as the A's five starting pitchers.

It also calls for the A's to have at least two more pitchers start the season in AAA-Sacramento who could be called upon to fill in at the major league level, if necessary. Currently, it appears that those pitchers are Seth Etherton, Kirk Saarloos and Jim Serrano. Macha also noted that both Justin Duchscherer and Keiichi Yabu, who are expected to start the season in the bullpen, should be able to make a spot start if necessary. Macha reiterated that the "Plan A" rotation isn't set in stone and that Etherton, in particular, is still very much in the running for a rotation spot.

Assuming that the A's do go with the "Plan A" starting rotation, they have to be feeling confident about those pitchers based on their recent spring performances. Staff aces Barry Zito and Rich Harden have been nothing short of brilliant so far this spring. Zito, who entered camp proclaiming that the 2005 season would be the best season of his career, has yet to allow a hit over six innings pitched. He has been aggressive with the hitters and has kept his pitch count low by getting ahead in the count. Harden has been almost equally brilliant, allowing only one run over seven innings pitched. He has struck out seven and walked only one batter over that span. Harden has also worked efficiently. In his most recent outing on Saturday, Harden needed only 52 pitches to work his four innings.

The A's other three starters – Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and Dan Meyer – have been impressive this spring, as well. With the exception of Meyer's first spring outing, the trio has combined to allow four runs over 13 innings. Meyer was rocked in that first spring outing, allowing seven runs in two innings. However, after a counseling session with Harden and Zito, he bounced back to shut-out the Giants over three innings pitched in his last outing. Blanton has been very impressive this spring, save for a two-pitch sequence against the Chicago Cubs in his first appearance when he hit Nomar Garciaparra and allowed a homerun to Aramis Ramirez on consecutive pitches. Other then that, Blanton has allowed no runs, two hits and a walk over five innings pitched. He has limited batters to a .176 BAA so far this spring. Haren has yet to walk a batter over his five innings worked and has allowed two runs and five hits over that span.

Seth Etherton is still giving a strong push for a starting spot. After a mediocre first outing that saw him allow five runs in two innings (only one was earned), Etherton bounced back to mow down the Royals in his outing on Friday. The former Angels' first round pick struck out six in only three innings worked, allowing one run. Etherton leads the team with eight strikeouts this spring. He is signed to a major league contract, so the A's would risk losing him on waivers if they decide to assign him to AAA at the end of camp.

Veteran Relievers Struggling

Just as the A's starters have inspired some measure of confidence so far this spring, there has to be a little concern over the performance of some of the A's veteran relievers. Closer Octavio Dotel, in particular, has struggled this spring, posting two bad outings against only one good performance. In his most recent outing, Dotel gave up four runs in only 2/3 of an inning. He appeared to be elevating all of his pitches, but most especially his slider. Dotel is working on a new release point with his slider which is should give his slider more bite and movement. The new release point appeared to be working well against the Cubs earlier in the week, but his slider was flat on Saturday. The A's are being careful not to overwork Dotel, who struggled with elbow tendonitis last season.

Lefty specialist Ricardo Rincon has been shaky this spring, as well. He has allowed four runs in 4.1 innings pitched, including a long homerun by left-handed hitter AJ Piersyznski, who is not known for his power. Rincon has struggled with his control, walking four batters, and that has to be a concern to the A's, as the portly lefty often got himself in trouble last season by walking or falling behind hitters.

Juan Cruz has allowed two runs and five hits in only three innings worked. However, he has struck out four and walked only one. Keiichi Yabu, who is expected to be an innings-eater and occasional spot starter out of the bullpen this season, has struggled a bit with his command as he learns the American baseball strike zone. Yabu had given up four runs in four innings pitched coming into Saturday's outing. However, he turned in easily his best performance of the spring on Saturday, working two shut-out innings against the White Sox. He allowed only a single over that span.

Other Camp Notes

Prospect Daric Barton made his spring training debut on Saturday. Barton, who has been waylaid this spring by a sore right elbow and an appendectomy, walked in his only at-bat. He eventually came around to score the A's winning run.

Pre-season American League Rookie of the Year candidate Nick Swisher has been struggling at the plate so far this spring. Swisher had off-season thumb surgery and wasn't able to swing a bat until a few weeks before the start of camp. He has appeared to be off his rhythm at the plate and has been taking extra batting practice to try to get his stroke back. Swisher leads the team with 24 at-bats and has managed only three singles and three walks over that stretch. He has also struck out a team-high 10 times.

Catcher Kurt Suzuki continues to draw praise from A's coaches for his solid play behind the plate. Suzuki threw out another runner trying to steal on Saturday and has gunned down five runners so far this spring.

Reigning PCL MVP Dan Johnson has displayed an eagle eye at the plate this spring. The lefty slugger has drawn five walks and has yet to strike out in eight games played. He is hitting .333. Johnson has also made a couple of nice plays at first base. The Nebraska alum is not known for his defensive prowess, but he has been working hard with A's infield coach Ron Washington this spring to improve his range at first. Johnson isn't likely to make the A's roster out of spring training (he is blocked at first and DH by Scott Hatteberg and Erubiel Durazo), but he should make an appearance in Oakland at some point in 2005 and is considered a strong candidate for the A's starting first base job in 2006.

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