For the past seven seasons, the Oakland A's have been defined by their starting pitching, and certainly it seemed at the start of the 2006 season that the team would, once again, be led by their starting five hurlers. Unlike in 2005 when the A's were entering the season having lost three-fifths of their starting rotation (Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Mark Redman), the 2006 A's actually entered the season having signed a free agent starting pitcher and having retained their five from the season before. Esteban Loaiza joined a staff of Barry Zito, Rich Harden, Dan Haren and Joe Blanton to make what seemed on paper to be one of the deepest starting rotations in baseball. To top it off, two pitchers who had spent a significant amount of time in the A's rotation in 2005 (Joe Kennedy and Kirk Saarloos) were still on the team in the bullpen, giving the A's even more depth.
As it turned out, the A's would add even more depth right before the start of the 2006 season and they would need every ounce of that depth to get through the year. Brad Halsey was acquired during the waning moments of the 2006 spring training for Juan Cruz and made the team out of spring training when the threat of an Opening Day rainout caused the A's to carry an extra pitcher. Halsey would end up spending most of the year in Oakland, making seven starts and 45 relief appearances.
The injuries for the A's starting staff began early. Loaiza participated in the World Baseball Classic during the spring and never seemed right at the start of the season. Although he wouldn't go on the disabled list until May 1, he was clearly affected by a strained left trapezius muscle from the outset of the season. He would miss five weeks to the disabled list after posting an 8.35 ERA in his first four starts of the season. Loaiza would make 26 starts for the A's, going 11-9 with a 4.89 ERA. He was solid for the A's at home (7-3, 3.71 ERA), but struggled on the road (4-6, 6.08 ERA). Loaiza won eight games for the A's after the All-Star break and he was the team's best pitcher in August, going 4-0 with a 1.48 ERA. He pitched decently in the divisional round of the playoffs, but bombed in the ALCS, allowing seven runs in six innings.
Kirk Saarloos and Halsey combined to fill-in for most of the missed starts by Harden and Loaiza. Halsey made the aforementioned seven starts and ended up throwing 96 innings between the rotation and the bullpen. Saarloos, who had been a regular member of the A's rotation in 2005, made 16 starts and 19 relief appearances for the A's in 2006. He finished with a 7-7 record, a 4.75 ERA and 121.1 innings of work. Rookies Jason Windsor and Shane Komine both had brief auditions with the A's in July. Both struggled with their command in their two July starts and were sent back to Sacramento for fine-tuning. Windsor would return to Oakland in September as a call-up and would make one more start and a relief appearance.
Fortunately for the A's, the injuries were limited to Harden and Loaiza on the starting staff. Zito, Haren and Blanton all made at least 31 starts and none missed a turn due to injury. Zito and Blanton tied for the team-lead in wins with 16 and both Zito and Haren threw more than 220 innings. Zito had an inconsistent season. He was terrific on the road (10-3, 2.97 ERA), but mediocre at home (6-7, 4.71 ERA). He was strong in May, June and August, but struggled in April and September and had a mediocre July. He won Game One of the Division Series against Minnesota, but was awful in Game One of the ALCS against Detroit.
Blanton may have finished with 16 wins, but he struggled for most of the season to reach the consistency that he had during his rookie season in 2005. He only allowed 17 homeruns, but he gave up 241 hits in only 194.1 innings. He also struck out only 107 batters, although he walked only 58. His inconsistent performance led to him being bumped from the A's playoff rotation, although he did make an appearance as a reliever in the ALCS.
Good-Bye And Hello
As was anticipated all season, the A's said good-bye to the last remaining member of the famed "Big Three" this off-season. Zito signed the largest contract for a pitcher in league history to play for the San Francisco Giants, leaving a void at the top of Oakland's starting rotation.
Starting Pitchers Invited to Camp
Number Of SPs Likely On Roster – 5, although at least one "starting pitcher" is likely to be carried in the A's bullpen as a "longman".
Locks To Make The Team
Rich Harden: Harden will once again enter the season as the ace of the staff, although injury concerns have dimmed his star somewhat. There is no question that, when healthy, Harden is one of the top-five right-handed pitchers in the American League. Even with his myriad of injuries last season, he still managed to strikeout nearly a batter per inning pitched. He also held opposing batters to a ridiculous 618 OPS-against and he was particularly dominating against left-handers, holding them to a .176 batting average against. Harden struggled with his command in his returns from the disabled list, but his control was fine when he was healthy in April. If the A's can get 25 or more starts from Harden in 2007, they will be thrilled. However, with the track record of his last two seasons, the A's know that they can't count on him to be healthy for the majority of the season.
Dan Haren: Haren will take Zito's spot as the workhorse of the staff. In actuality, Haren has already been the workhorse of the staff since arriving in Oakland in 2005. Last year, he led the team with 223 innings pitched and two complete games. He also led the team in strikeouts and he walked only 45 batters. He appeared to wear-down at the end of last season and his homerun totals were a problem. However, there wasn't much to complain about Haren's 2006 campaign and if the A's get similar numbers from him in 2007, they won't complain. Oakland may need to monitor his innings a bit during the season if he appears to be laboring. Haren has thrown 440 innings over the last two seasons, which is among the most of any pitcher in the AL.
Favorites For The Final Spot
He struggled as a starter with the A's last season, posting a 5.68 ERA in seven starts, and that could work against him in his battle for the fifth starter's spot. However, he, like Kennedy is left-handed, and the A's are believed to prefer to carry at least one southpaw in the rotation. Like Kennedy, Halsey is better against right-handed batters then he is against lefties, so any bullpen role for Halsey will likely be as a long-reliever and not as a specialist.
Halsey's minor league track record and his 2005 campaign with Arizona suggest that he is a better starting pitcher then what he showed with the A's last season. If he can demonstrate that in camp, he could have a strong chance at a fifth starter spot if Kennedy struggles. Even if he doesn't win the job at the outset, he could make himself a leading candidate to join the rotation when the first injury strikes.
Like Halsey, Windsor's minor league track record suggests that he is a much better pitcher then his major league exposure last season would lead you to believe. He struck out more than a batter an inning last season and walked only 42 in 151.1 innings. Windsor also demonstrated in 2006 that he could finish an entire season as a starting pitcher after having to be shut down early with arm fatigue in 2005.
Windsor's stuff isn't over-powering, but when he is on his game, he can be very difficult to hit because he mixes his pitches well and has good location. He has been working on speeding up his delivery to the plate and on refining his secondary pitches. Because he doesn't throw hard, Windsor doesn't have a large margin for error, as he discovered in the big leagues last season. However, the A's are high on his future, as was indicated by the Saarloos trade, which was done, in part, to give Windsor a chance to make the big league roster. He will have to dominate this spring to make the starting rotation, more than likely, but if he has a solid spring, he will likely move into the A's bullpen as their long reliever. From there, he could become Option 1A for the A's in case of injury if he pitches well out of the bullpen.
Battling For The Final Spot
Komine turned 26 in October and due to his injury history (he also had shoulder and elbow troubles in college), he may be best suited for the bullpen at the major league level long-term. However, he has been very effective as a starter throughout his career, so the A's should give him an opportunity to remain as a starter, at least at the outset of the season.
Komine's biggest problem last season was that his velocity fluctuated from start to start. This may be a lingering issue related to his recovery from Tommy John surgery. If he can keep his fastball at the 90-92 MPH level, he could emerge as a solid starter, as his power-curve and his command is major league quality. Komine will enter camp behind Windsor and Halsey in the competition for the final spot, but he could move up quickly with a strong spring.
Looking To Make An Impression
With the seriousness of the injury and the struggles of the last two seasons, Meyer isn't likely to be a serious candidate for a starting rotation spot this spring. However, if he demonstrates that he is healthy and throwing well at the start of the minor league season, he could force the A's to make room for him at the major league level by mid-season. When healthy, Meyer is capable of being a top-of-the-rotation starter at the major league level. If he can regain some confidence this spring and carry that into the minor league season, he could be a factor for the A's this year. He will turn 26 in July, so he is likely entering his final two seasons as a "prospect" at the minor league level.
Derek Thompson: Thompson will be a wild card this spring. The former Dodgers and Indians farmhand has battled a litany of injuries throughout his career. He has had Tommy John surgery twice and has had problems with his knees during his career. In 2005, the southpaw made his major league debut as a 24-year-old and was solid for the Dodgers, posting a 3.50 ERA in 18 innings before injuring his elbow and having Tommy John surgery for the second time. He was expected to start the 2006 season in the Dodgers minor league system, but he left the organization unexpectedly early in the season.
At one time, Thompson was a very intriguing prospect. However, with his injury troubles, it is hard to know what he has to offer. He will be looking to prove to the A's that he is healthy and that he has the desire to pitch this spring. If he can show something this spring and start strong in Triple-A Sacramento, he could be part of the conversation as an in-season injury replacement.
Here For The Future
Braden has a solid slider and an excellent screwball to go along with a mid-to-high-80s fastball. He has maintained a very high strikeout per nine innings ratio throughout his minor league career and his control has been generally good. Braden induces a lot of groundballs and is very good at keeping the ball in the ballpark. His shoulder injury last season is a concern, as his delivery is considered high-stress. He also isn't a fireballer, so there will always be questions about whether he can survive as a starting pitcher. However, Zito proved how effective a soft-tossing left-hander can be when he has a strong secondary pitch. Braden won't turn 24 until August, so he will likely spend most of the season at Triple-A Sacramento, although he could be in-line for a mid-season call-up if he dominates at Triple-A.
Storyline To Watch
Joe Kennedy's performance this spring will set the tone for the bottom-half of the rotation, while Rich Harden's health will set the tone for the top of the rotation. How each of these pitchers look during spring training will have a dramatic effect on the rest of the starting pitchers in camp. If both perform as expected, the A's "fifth starter competition" will be short-lived. If Harden is not healthy and Kennedy struggles, it will open the floodgates for the other pitchers in camp to compete for open spots.