Spring Training Battles: Starting Pitchers

As spring training draws near, we will be taking a look at the guys battling for a spot on the 25-man roster. Although the Oakland A's currently appear to have their 25-man roster set, injuries or trades could open up a spot before Opening Day. In the third of our series, we look at the five starters in the A's camp who will be hoping to find their way onto the crowded A's starting rotation.

There is perhaps no area of the Oakland A's current 25-man roster that is more set than the starting rotation. Before the off-season began, the rotation appeared to be a question-mark for Oakland, as there were rumors that the A's were going to deal starter Barry Zito. However, the A's decided not only to hang onto Zito, but they also added a starter in free agent acquisition Esteban Loaiza. Loaiza's addition and the non-trade of Zito pushed fifth starter Kirk Saarloos and spot-starter Joe Kennedy into the A's bullpen, giving the A's essentially seven starters on their 25-man roster.

With that being the case, there is little chance that any of the five minor league starters in the A's camp this spring will land in the A's rotation by Opening Day. However, in a long season, injuries and trades can open up spots in even the deepest rotations. Tim Hudson, Zito and Rich Harden all made their major league debuts mid-season as a result of injuries to and underperformance of members of the big league starting rotation. In addition, it appears likely that 2006 will be Zito's last season in Oakland, which would mean that a spot in the A's rotation would be up for grabs in 2007.

So what should you look for out of the five minor league starters that the A's will be bringing into spring training this year? Well, for one, you could be looking at a preview of the Sacramento River Cats' starting rotation. You could also be looking at the next Seth Etherton (a guy who comes up mid-season to make a few spot starts) or the next Harden (a promising rookie who pitches so well in AAA that the A's have to make room for him on the major league roster mid-season). Here's a breakdown of all five:

Dan Meyer, LHP

As was the case last season, trained A's prospect watchers will have their eyes firmly affixed on two men in particular this spring: Meyer and Daric Barton. Last year, Meyer and Barton were most well-known for their roles in the trades of Hudson and Mark Mulder. This year, the storyline is a little different. Barton is coming off of another outstanding season and has firmly ensconced himself into the A's plans for 2007. Meyer, on the other hand, had a terrible year, due in large part to injuries, and he is looking to re-establish himself as the future lefty in the A's rotation.

Many prospect publications have pushed Meyer way down on the list of A's prospects, but we are not ready to give up on the young left-hander just yet. There was a very good reason that Meyer was one of the best pitching prospects in baseball coming into last year and one injury-marred campaign doesn't erase that. The A's coaching staff (and prospect watchers) will be looking at Meyer closely this spring to see if he has regained the velocity and movement that he had on his pitches when he was with the Atlanta chain, but was missing last season with the A's.

They will also be looking to see if he has improved his control. Last year, Meyer walked nearly four and a half batters per nine innings, way up from his normal total of two per nine innings. He struggled a bit with his control in AAA at the end of the 2004 season, so that is somewhat of a concern. Meyer has great stuff when healthy, however, so if he is 100% and can find the control that he has had through much of his minor league career, he could have a huge season in AAA. Of this group, Meyer is the most likely candidate to force his way onto the A's roster during the 2006 season because of his talent. However, a 2007 rotation spot is more likely, especially if he has a big and healthy year in AAA.

Shane Komine, RHP

Komine was the feel-good story at the tail-end of the 2005 season, and he'll be looking to continue that momentum in camp this spring. Komine missed the last half of the 2004 season and the first half of the 2005 campaign while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He appears to have made a full-recovery based on his performance for Midland down the stretch and in the playoffs and his outstanding work in the AFL. Komine will be pitching at the AAA level for the first time this season, and he is expected to be in the River Cats' starting rotation.

Long-term, Komine's future may be in the bullpen. He has the stuff to be a starter – mid-90s fastball, good curveball, decent change-up – but he has had significant injury problems both as a pro and as a collegiate player, so the A's may decide that the bullpen will protect his arm more. Komine could be quite a weapon for the A's as a set-up man in the future, similar to the Angels' Scot Shields, who can overwhelm hitters at the end of games with his starting pitcher's repertoire. For this year, anyway, Komine should be given a chance to prove himself as a starter, and he will be looking to make a strong impression on the A's coaching staff, who will be seeing him in major league camp for the first time.

Chad Gaudin, RHP

Gaudin, like Komine, will be looking to make a good impression this spring. The 23-year old right-hander has the most major league experience of any of these five starters. However, he is also the youngest of the five, so the A's can afford to be more patient with his development. Gaudin was outstanding in AAA last year, but had a rough time of it at the major league level. He was especially bad against the A's, who tattooed him for seven runs in one-plus innings in a short June 5 start in Oakland.

Gaudin's future may be in the bullpen, as well, although he has had success as a starter in the minor leagues. He dominated right-handed hitters in the minors last season (.205 BAA), but struggled against lefties (.309 BAA). His control has been markedly better in the minors than it has during his major league appearances, so Gaudin will be looking to show that he can throw strikes and attack hitters this spring. As we have said before, he was an intriguing off-season pick-up and it will be interesting to see how the A's develop him this season.

John Rheinecker, LHP

Rheinecker has seemingly been on the A's prospect lists forever, which is never a good sign for a prospect because it means that he hasn't had that break-through season yet. Rheinecker may have missed his break-through moment last year when he injured his index finger on his throwing hand and missed the last four months of the season. He was throwing well before the injury, although his strikeouts were down, but it isn't clear whether he has fully recovered from the irritated tendon. Rheinecker was slated to pitch in the Dominican Winter Leagues, but he had to pull out before the season began because he was still unable to grip the ball properly.

The A's staff knows Rheinecker quite well by now, so he will be looking to show the A's brass that he is healthy. He will also be looking to show the A's that he can be effective against left-handed hitters because, at this point in his career, his future may lie in the A's bullpen as a lefty specialist.

Adam Johnson, RHP

Johnson is another new face in camp. He was signed from the Independent Leagues at the tail-end of last season and the A's saw enough in him to bring him back on a minor league contract this off-season. Johnson was the second pick overall in 2000, but he has only nine major league appearances under his belt. The Minnesota Twins rushed him to the big leagues after just a little more than a year of minor league experience and he didn't fare well, posting an 8.28 ERA in 25 innings in 2001. He struggled in AAA in 2002 and 2003, posting ERAs in the mid-5.00s and walking nearly three and a half batters per nine innings. He got a brief call-up with Minnesota in 2003 and allowed eight runs in 1.1 innings of work.

Johnson is a low-risk, high-reward sort of signing for the A's. Although his opportunity to be a star in the major leagues has almost certainly passed him by, he still has a chance to contribute on the major league level if he can rediscover the stuff that made him a top draft choice. The A's are hoping that they can find some juice left in Johnson's 92-MPH heavy sinking fastball that made him such a success at Cal-State Fullerton. They have some reason to be optimistic, as Johnson made a marked improvement after being with the A's organization last year. His first two starts with the River Cats were bad (11 runs in 7.2 innings), but he was outstanding in his next two starts (four runs in 14 innings). He also had a good K:BB ratio, striking out 17 and walking only four. Johnson could eventually find himself as a middle reliever in the big leagues if he can use his sinker to induce a lot of groundballs and keep his walks to a minimum.


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