Oakland A's Spring Training Battles: SPs

The weather outside might still be frightful, but spring is just around the corner and that means only one thing: baseball! Every year, we preview the spring training roster battles that will take place during major league camp. While these battles may change based on a late move, most of these scenarios will still hold true. We continue our series with a look at the starting pitching battle.

A Look Back At 2007

Dan Haren was the All-Star game starter for the AL.
The start of the 2007 season for the Oakland A's starting rotation was all about how the rotation was going to look without ace Barry Zito, who left the team in the off-season to sign with the cross-town rival San Francisco Giants. For the first half the season, the answer was: pretty good. Despite a score of injuries that claimed Esteban Loaiza in Spring Training and Rich Harden in April, the A's rotation was one of the best in baseball before the All-Star break. Staff ace Dan Haren was named the starter of the 2007 All Star Game in San Francisco and posted a 10-3 record with a 2.30 ERA before the break. Chad Gaudin emerged during the first half as a starter by posting a 2.88 ERA and winning eight games. Joe Blanton also had a good first half, winning eight games and putting up a 3.28 ERA.

Things fell apart in the second half as the A's were no longer able to cope with the losses of Loaiza and Harden, neither of whom were a factor during the season. None of the A's starters posted an ERA under 4.00 in the second half. Haren's second half ERA was 4.15, Blanton's was 4.89 and Gaudin's was 6.30.

The A's released two pitchers during the second half, Loaiza and Joe Kennedy, and turned to younger pitchers instead, which also helped to inflate the rotation's ERA. Dallas Braden had a 7.03 ERA in 13 appearances (10 starts), after the break, Lenny DiNardo had a 5.27 ERA in 16 appearances (13 starts), Dan Meyer had an 8.82 ERA in six appearances (three starts), and so forth. Thanks to injuries and releases, the A's had 10 different pitchers make starts for them in 2007, and that is despite having three starters who never missed a turn (Haren, Gaudin and Blanton).

Good-Bye And Hello

Kirk Saarloos returns to Oakland.
After saying good-bye to their ace last season when Zito left as a free agent, the A's are once again going to have to answer who will be their new number one pitcher now that number one starter Dan Haren is gone.

The lanky right-hander was dealt in the off-season for a package of six players, including two pitchers who will be competing for a rotation spot this spring: Dana Eveland and Greg Smith. In addition to Eveland and Smith, the A's have also added highly touted prospect Gio Gonzalez from the Nick Swisher trade and veteran Kirk Saarloos on a minor league contract.

Starting Pitchers Invited To Camp

Joe Blanton*
Dallas Braden*
Lenny DiNardo*
Justin Duchscherer*
Dana Eveland*
Chad Gaudin*
Gio Gonzalez
Rich Harden*
Arnold Leon
Dan Meyer*
Henry Rodriguez*
Kirk Saarloos
James Simmons
Greg Smith

*Denotes member of the 40-man roster
Number Of SPs Likely On Roster – 5

Locks To Make The Team

Joe Blanton:
If he is not traded, Joe Blanton will be the A's number one.
Blanton's ears have probably been buzzing all off-season, as he has been the focus of a number of trade rumors. The right-hander became the A's de facto ace when Oakland dealt Dan Haren to Arizona, and he became the team's most valuable trade chip after the team dealt Nick Swisher. The A's have yet to find a trade package to their liking for Blanton, so, for now, he remains the pitcher most likely to head the Oakland pitching staff in 2008.

Blanton had a bounce-back 2007 season after posting an ERA of 4.82 in 194.1 innings in 2006. In 2007, he established a career-high in innings (230), while allowing fewer hits than the year before. He also lowered his walk total considerably (40 from 58) and raised his strike out total (140 from 107). Blanton's ERA was a solid 3.95 and he ranked third in the AL with three complete games. During his three years in the league, Blanton has established himself as a reliable workhorse starter. He has never thrown fewer than 194 innings and he has made at least 32 starts in every season. Blanton may not have the strike out totals of a Haren or the name recognition of a Barry Zito, but he should be a solid presence at the top of the A's rotation, if he isn't traded. He has been given the Opening Day assignment, meaning that both of his first two starts will be versus the Boston Red Sox (the first in Japan, the second in Oakland). Blanton had a good April last year, but he will be tested early this season by the defending World Champs.

Justin Duchscherer:
Justin Duchscherer is moving into the rotation.
Duchscherer missed much of last season with a hip injury that eventually required surgery. He made only 17 relief appearances for the A's in 2007 after appearing in at least 53 games for the A's in each of the past three seasons. Duchscherer was one of the American League's top set-up men in 2004-2006. He has recovered fully from his hip injury, but he will be returning to the A's as a starting pitcher rather than as a reliever. The A's and Duchscherer feel that the schedule of a starting pitcher will be easier on his body, as he has struggled with injuries to his back, hip and elbow as a reliever with Oakland.

Duchscherer hasn't started a game since 2003, when he had three late-season starts for the A's after winning the PCL Most Valuable Pitcher award for Triple-A Sacramento. He also started two games for Texas in 2001. Duchscherer was a starter for most of his minor league career, making 152 starts out of 170 career minor league appearances. He had a lot of success as a starter in the minors, but scouts always questioned whether Duchscherer had the arsenal to be a major league starting pitcher, as his fastball rarely tops 88 MPH. Since becoming a reliever, however, Duchscherer has improved his curveball and added a cut-fastball, two weapons that should help him make-up for his mediocre velocity. It remains to be seen how he will handle the rigors of starting physically, but if his body holds up, Duchscherer could be an above-average starting pitcher based on his track record in the bullpen. If he falters, the A's can always move him back into the bullpen.

Chad Gaudin:
Chad Gaudin had two off-season surgeries.
Gaudin had a breakthrough season as a starting pitcher in 2007. After a solid season in the A's bullpen in 2006 when he posted a 3.09 ERA in 64 innings, Gaudin won a starting rotation spot after injuries gave him an opening. The diminutive right-hander quickly solidified his spot in the rotation by posting ERAs of 2.54 and 2.15 in April and May, respectively. He was in the discussions for an All-Star spot, as he had an 8-3 record and a 2.88 ERA at the break. Things fell off dramatically for Gaudin during the second half of the season, however, and he went 3-10 with a 6.30 ERA. It was revealed during the off-season that he was throwing with an injured left hip and right foot during the second half of the season, injuries that may have contributed to his struggles after the break. Gaudin had surgery to fix both injuries in mid-December and he is expected to be a few weeks behind the rest of the A's starters this spring. Because of off-days, Oakland won't need a fifth starter until April 15, and the A's may choose to DL Gaudin for the first two weeks of the season so that they can carry an extra reliever.

Gaudin proved last season that he can be a reliable starter, as he made all 34 of his starts and finished just below the 200-inning barrier (199.1). His strike out totals were good, and he finished second on the team in Ks with 154 and averaged almost seven per nine innings (6.95). His control, however, was poor and he led the team in walks (100) by a large margin. Control was an issue for Gaudin in the bullpen, as well, and he will need to cut down on his walk totals to be a successful major league starter long-term. He has arguably the best stuff of any A's starter save Rich Harden, so with some refinement to his command, he could take a big leap forward in 2008.

Rich Harden:
Will Rich Harden be healthy this season?
Harden has been a source of frustration and disappointment for A's fans since the second half of the 2005 season when he started having injury problems. Those injuries haven't abated since then, as he has been limited to nine and seven appearances in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Harden gave the A's only 25.2 innings last season as he struggled with shoulder and elbow problems. He was as effective as ever during that time – he posted a 2.45 ERA and held opposing batters to a .202 average – but his impact was minimal as he was hardly on the field.

Harden is healthy and throwing in A's camp and is aiming to be the A's other starter in Japan after Blanton. He worked hard this off-season with current A's bullpen coach Ron Romanick, who worked closely with Harden in his capacity as the A's Minor League Pitching Coordinator throughout Harden's time in the minor leagues. Harden came out of those workouts with a few tweaks to his mechanics that he hopes will help keep him healthy. From the A's perspective, anything they get from Harden will be a bonus. They know that when healthy, he is one of the elite starting pitchers in the American League. If the A's can get 25 starts from Harden this season, they could surprise a lot of people. However, it is unlikely that anyone is counting on that to happen. The A's have added a lot of starting pitching depth this off-season and have a number of candidates to step-in for Harden if (or when) he is injured.

Favorites For The Final Spot

Lenny DiNardo: DiNardo, who signed a one-year, $900,000 contract in the off-season, will almost certainly make the A's Opening Day roster. Whether it is as a starter or a reliever that remains to be seen. This is a much different position than the one DiNardo found himself in when he was claimed off of waivers by the A's on the first day of last season's Spring Training. He was expected to start the season in Triple-A, but when injuries opened a spot in the bullpen, he hung on as a long reliever. After two months in the bullpen, DiNardo moved into the starting rotation in late May, where he remained (for the most part) until September, when he was moved back into the bullpen. DiNardo finished the year with an 8-10 record and a 4.11 ERA. He had a 4.93 ERA in 20 starts and a 1.82 ERA in 15 relief appearances.

DiNardo is a finesse pitcher who generally throws in the mid-80s. He uses a deceptive, sidearm throwing motion that generates good sink on the ball. That sink helped DiNardo induce 27 double-plays and more than two groundball outs for every fly out last season. DiNardo needed those groundballs, as he was often working out of trouble thanks to his 50 walks and only 59 strike outs in 131.1 innings. Similar to Gaudin, DiNardo started off the season well (2.72 ERA before the break), but his poor control caught-up to him late in the season (5.27 ERA after the break). He will need to limit the free passes in order to earn a permanent spot in the A's rotation. He figures to act as a swingman for the A's once again in 2008. Regardless of whether he starts the season in the rotation or the bullpen, he is likely to see time in both roles during the course of the year.

Dana Eveland: Eveland was one of six players acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Dan Haren in late December. The big left-hander is on his third organization, having been traded from Milwaukee to Arizona before the 2006 season. Eveland missed much of last season with a finger problem that limited him to 37.2 innings split between the major and minor leagues. He was able to make-up for some of that missed time during the off-season, when he threw 61 innings in the Mexican Winter League. Although Eveland's season was short in 2007, it served as a microcosm of his career to date. The 24-year-old had a 1.65 ERA in 32.2 innings in the minor leagues and a 14.40 ERA in five innings with the Diamondbacks in the majors. His ERA in Mexico was a sparkling 2.51.

Eveland's career has followed that same pattern. He has dominated the minor leagues, posting a career 2.61 ERA in 413.2 innings with 406 strike outs and only 127 walks. It has been a different story in the major leagues for Eveland, however, as he has a career 7.55 ERA and 58 strike outs and 39 walks in 64.1 innings, mostly in relief. Eveland has been back-and-forth between the majors and minors since 2005, but he is still young (he will be 24 throughout the 2008 season). He has a good four-seam fastball that sits in the low-90s and can hit 94, a slider, a change-up and a curveball. Scouts have worried about Eveland's body throughout his career (he weighed as much as 260 last season), but he has been injury-free with the exception of last season. The A's believe that some of Eveland's troubles in the majors thus far in his career can be traced back to nerves. If Eveland pitches in camp with the same confidence and command that he has displayed in the minor leagues, he is going to be hard to keep out of the starting rotation. He has one option remaining, so the A's can send him back to Triple-A if they want to. However, he has logged more than 130 innings at that level and likely doesn't have much more to learn at Triple-A.

Battling For The Final Spot

Dallas Braden:
Dallas Braden starred for Sacramento.
At the start of the 2007 season, Braden was a young pitcher trying to reclaim his prospect status after a shoulder injury robbed him of his 2006 campaign. By the end of the year, he had logged 72.1 innings in the major leagues. In between, he saw time at Double-A and Triple-A and in both the A's rotation and bullpen. Much like Eveland, Braden was dominant at the minor league level in 2007, but struggled badly in the big leagues. In 13 minor league starts, Braden posted a 2.84 ERA and struck out 87 in 76 innings. He even had a brilliant 17-strike out performance for the Sacramento River Cats on August 27. In the majors, it was a different story, however. He went 1-8 with a 6.72 ERA and allowed nine homers.

There is little question that Braden was rushed to the big leagues last year. The A's were decimated by injuries when he got the call in late April and were looking for lightening in a bottle. He was only 23 for most of the season and had yet to pitch in Triple-A when he made his debut. At times during his major league stint, Braden looked ready to handle the competition. However, in almost all of his outings, he would have a sequence where three or four straight batters would square him up and he would come unraveled. He had a tendency to elevate his pitches when he was in trouble, which led to some big flies. On the positive side, Braden struck out nearly seven batters per nine innings and had a better than two-to-one strike-out-to-walk ratio in the bigs. He also pitched well in limited action as a reliever, allowing two runs in 8.1 innings. Braden's future might be in the bullpen as a lefty specialist. He held major league left-handers to a .214 average in 2007. Righties hit him at a .324 clip.

Braden still has work to do on refining his command within the strike zone to be less hittable. He has an above-average change-up, but he has only average velocity, so he can't afford to miss up in the strike zone. If he dominates this spring, Braden could win a spot in the A's rotation. However, it is more likely that he will begin the year in Triple-A, where he can work on refining his game. He figures to see some major league time during the season, either as a starter or a reliever.

Dan Meyer:
Dan Meyer was finally healthy in 2007.
Like Braden, Meyer was just looking to prove that he was healthy at the start of the 2007 season. After two injury-plagued campaigns in 2005 and 2006, Meyer had surgery to remove a bone chip in his throwing shoulder. He spent the first few weeks at Extended Spring Training and after one start with Double-A Midland, Meyer was promoted to Triple-A Sacramento, where he would become one of the top pitchers in the PCL. In 21 starts for the River Cats, Meyer went 8-2 with a 3.28 ERA and 105 strike outs in 115.1 innings. It was that kind of performance that the A's had expected from Meyer when they acquired him in the Tim Hudson trade in December of 2004. Meyer got his long-awaited call to join the A's in mid-August. He was sent back to Triple-A after one start, but rejoined the A's in September. Like Braden and Eveland, Meyer struggled during his time in the majors, allowing 16 runs in 16.1 innings.

Before the start of Spring Training, it was believed that Meyer was out of options. However, last week Meyer was informed that he had one more option year because he missed most of the 2006 season with injury. This was probably not welcome news for Meyer, but it does give the A's somewhat of a reprieve as they try to assemble their major league roster. Meyer will be given a chance to win the fifth starter spot, but if he doesn't, the A's will no longer be obliged to keep him in the bullpen or risk losing him to waivers. Like Braden, Meyer has to work on locating his pitches better to major league hitters. He has good stuff and excellent movement on his pitches. In the minors, he got a lot of swings-and-misses on pitches out of the strike zone. In the majors, hitters weren't biting as often on his out-of-the-‘zone offerings. His velocity was mostly back to normal last season and his stamina was good considering the time he had missed in previous seasons. Similar to Eveland, Meyer has logged a lot of time in Triple-A and probably doesn't have much more to learn at that level. Unfortunately for Meyer, he may have to log more time in Triple-A until an injury opens a spot in the A's rotation for him. Fortunately for Meyer, with the A's track-record with injuries lately, he will likely see some significant time in the majors this season.

Kirk Saarloos: Saarloos returns to Oakland after a year with the Cincinnati Reds. Saarloos, who spent the 2004-2006 seasons with the A's, was dealt to Cincinnati before the 2007 season. He was expected to be the Reds' fifth starter at the time of the trade, but he struggled during Spring Training and was sent to the bullpen. He struggled with the Reds throughout the season, posting a 7.17 ERA in 42.2 innings, mostly in relief. Cincinnati even sent him back to Triple-A for a time, where he had a 3.95 ERA in 41 innings. Saarloos signed a minor league contract with Oakland this off-season and was invited to Spring Training.

Saarloos was a valuable "jack-of-all-trades" for the A's in 2005 and 2006. He won 10 games and posted a 4.17 ERA as the A's fifth starter in 2005. In 2006, he won seven games and saved two games as a swingman between the starting rotation and the bullpen. In a lot of ways, Saarloos is the right-handed version of Lenny DiNardo. Both are finesse pitchers who rely heavily on getting ground-outs to overcome their control issues. Saarloos is a pitcher who is heavily dependent on his defense, and the Reds' defense wasn't very good last season. Still, his groundouts-to-flyouts and his homeruns-per-nine-innings ratios have been trending the wrong ways over the past two years. At the time of Saarloos' signing with the A's, many assumed that he would automatically take a spot in the A's rotation. However, Saarloos isn't on the 40-man roster, so he will need to standout this spring to be added. The A's could also choose to keep him as a longman in the bullpen if they feel they need an experienced arm to fill that role.

Greg Smith:
Greg Smith played at Double-A and Triple-A in 2007.
Like Eveland, Smith was one of the six players acquired by the A's in the Dan Haren trade. The left-hander Smith came to Oakland after a three successful seasons in the Diamondbacks' chain, during which he went 31-14 with a 3.27 ERA in 352.2 innings. In 2007, Smith split his season between Double-A and Triple-A and went 9-5 with a 3.54 ERA in 122 innings. He then appeared in the Arizona Fall League, where he went 2-2 with a 2.61 ERA in 20.2 innings. In 2005, Smith was the Pioneer League Pitcher of the Year and in 2006 he won California League post-season All-Star honors. He was 14-4 with a 2.55 ERA in 2006, including 9-0 with a 1.63 ERA in the California League, and he was on the Team USA club that qualified the US for the Olympics that season.

The Louisiana native doesn't have overpowering stuff, but he has been able to find success in the minor league thanks to his above-average location. He works well on the edges of the strike zone and does a nice job of mixing his pitches and keeping hitters off-balance. Smith has developed a reputation for being a hard worker and for having a competitive mindset that has allowed him to pitch better than his raw stuff would project him to. Of the pitchers seriously competing for the fifth starter's spot, Smith is probably the biggest long-shot to start the season with the A's because he has the smallest amount of Triple-A experience and isn't on the 40-man roster. Smith, who will be 24 throughout the season, made 10 starts for Triple-A Tucson in the PCL last season and, barring a standout spring, will head back to the PCL at the start of the season. He will be a pitcher to watch this season and should be able to position himself for a call-up with a strong start with the River Cats.

Looking To Make An Impression

Gio Gonzalez:
Gio Gonzalez is the A's top pitching prospect.
Of the four lefties the A's acquired via trades this off-season, Gonzalez is the most highly rated on nearly every prospect chart. The 22-year-old was acquired from the Chicago White Sox in the Nick Swisher trade in January. Gonzalez is coming off of a standout season in Double-A, where he posted a 3.18 ERA and struck out 185 batters, the most in the minor leagues. He has been a strike out machine throughout his minor league career, whiffing 577 batters in 492.1 innings. Gonzalez was a supplemental first round pick of the White Sox in 2004 out of a Miami-area high school. He moved quickly through the Chicago chain, making 13 starts at High-A at the end of his first full season in the minor leagues as a 19-year-old. Gonzalez was traded that off-season to Philadelphia in the Jim Thome trade. With the Phillies, Gonzalez had the only down year of his minor league career, posting a 4.66 ERA as a 20-year-old in Double-A. He was dealt back to the White Sox after that season in the Freddy Garcia trade.

Gonzalez is a source of some controversy in the scouting world. Some scouts look at his diminutive frame (5'11'', 185) and his reliance on secondary pitches and see a pitcher who tops out as a back-of-the-rotation starter. Others look at the fact that he can add and subtract off of his low-90s fastball, spin an above-average curveball and his history of throwing at least 120 innings a season and see a guy who could be a future ace in the major leagues. The A's see him in the latter category and are hoping that he will be a foundation for their rotation for the next several years. For this year, the A's would be happy to have Gonzalez see some significant time in Triple-A and force his way into the major league rotation sometime during the season by posting big numbers with Triple-A Sacramento. The A's won't rush Gonzalez, but they won't hold him back, either. As soon as he looks like he is ready for the major leagues, he will get the call.

Here For The Future

Henry Rodriguez: Rodriguez was added to the A's 40-man roster this off-season after a strong year for Low-A Kane County. It was the Venezuelan native's first season with a full-season affiliate, having spent the 2006 season with the Arizona A's of the AZL. Rodriguez posted a 3.07 ERA in 99.2 innings for the Cougars in 2007. He struck out 106 and held opposing batters to a .214 average. Rodriguez struggled with his command, however, walking 58 batters. That continued into the winter leagues, where Rodriguez walked 29 in 44.1 innings in the VWL.

Rodriguez has arguably the best fastball in the A's system. The 21-year-old regularly throws in the upper-90s and he has been known to hit triple digits on occasion. He also features a good change-up and is working on a curveball. Whether Rodriguez sticks as a starter long-term or becomes a reliever will depend on his command. He has a tendency to overthrow when he is trouble, which leaves his pitches up in the strike zone. If he can rein-in his emotions, Rodriguez could be a special pitcher. He will be 21 throughout the season and should start the year in High-A Stockton.

Arnold Leon: The A's first splash in the international free agent market this off-season came when they signed Leon out of the Mexican League. The 19-year-old first opened eyes when he went 3-0 with a 1.94 ERA in 41.2 relief innings for Saltillo in the Mexican Summer League. The A's scouted him during the Mexican Winter League, and acquired him when they determined that his stuff matched his stats. The A's then invited the youngster to major league camp to get a closer look at him.

Leon reportedly has a fastball that ranges from 88-93 with good secondary stuff and above-average command. He acted as a reliever in both the Mexican Summer and Winter Leagues, but the A's intend to stretch him out to be a starter this season. Depending on how he looks this spring, he will either be sent to High-A or Double-A at the start of the season.

James Simmons: Simmons was the A's first-round pick last season after starring for UC-Riverside as a junior. Many scouts believed that Simmons had the best fastball command of any 2007 draft pick. The A's felt that his command was advanced enough that he could be challenged by a higher level right off the bat. The team sent him to Double-A Midland, making him the first A's pitching draft pick to be sent directly to a level above High-A since Mark Mulder was sent right to Triple-A after signing. Simmons acquitted himself well at Double-A. He worked mostly as a reliever, as the A's looked to limit his innings after the long collegiate season, and he posted a 3.94 ERA in 29.2 innings. The A's then challenged Simmons again by sending him to the Arizona Fall League, where he allowed three earned runs in 9.1 innings of relief work.

Simmons' fastball sits between 88-93 with plus-location. He also features a good change-up and he is working on a slider. Simmons has an easy, over-the-top delivery that he repeats well. The A's are likely to send Simmons back to Double-A Midland at the start of the season, where he will be in the starting rotation.

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