Outman Making A Strong Case For Oakland

With Justin Duchscherer and Gio Gonzalez hurting, the race for a spot in the Oakland A's Opening Week rotation is suddenly wide open. Although much of the attention has been paid to some of the A's youngest pitchers, Josh Outman – only 24 himself – has quietly put together a strong spring in his bid to break camp with the A's as either a starting pitcher or a reliever.

There is a reminder of how Josh Outman joined the Oakland A's sown to the back of his jersey. When Outman was called-up to the big leagues last September, the A's issued him the number 55, which was the number worn by Joe Blanton, the man Outman was traded for mid-season 2008. The 55 doesn't look quite the same on Outman. Blanton is a burly right-hander who stands at about 6'3'' and weighs around 240 pounds. Outman is a lefty who is listed as being 6'1'', 185, although both numbers might be slight exaggerations.

Outman was a bit of an unknown when he arrived in the Blanton deal. The headline prospect in the trade was second baseman Adrian Cardenas, but it quickly became apparent that the A's had something in Outman. After the trade, Outman was sent to Double-A Midland. Right away, the A's moved Outman out of the bullpen, where he had been pitching for Double-A Reading in the Phillies organization, into the starting rotation. Outman made four starts for the Rockhounds, posting a 4.26 ERA before being promoted to Triple-A Sacramento. With the River Cats, Outman did a mix of starting and relieving, and he posted a 1.76 ERA and struck-out 15 in 15.1 Triple-A innings.

That performance earned Outman an audition with the A's in September. He quickly drew notice for his velocity, which was clocked regularly in the mid-90s, unusual for a left-hander. He also flashed a sharp breaking slider and a good curveball. Outman held his own in his first taste of big league baseball. He posted a 4.56 ERA in 25.2 innings with 19 strike-outs. Outman continued his mix of starting and relieving with the A's, starting three games and relieving in two.

Since the start of spring training, Outman has been on a throwing schedule that would allow him to stretch out his pitch count for the starting rotation, although he is still being considered for both a starting role and a spot in the A's revamped bullpen. In 12.2 innings, Outman has a 2.13 ERA, second-best only to Brett Anderson among the A's starting pitching candidates. Outman has struck-out 10 and has yet to allow a homerun.

For most of Outman's career, he has been a starting pitcher, but his ability to also pitch in the bullpen makes him a valuable commodity for an A's pitching staff that has been ravaged by injuries in recent years. Although Outman prefers starting, he is happy to play any role the A's need him to in order to stick in the big leagues.

"I think I am a starter at heart," Outman said.

"Over my whole career, I've done a lot more starting than relieving, but once I got settled into the bullpen, I didn't have any problem with it and if I can pitch for Oakland and help them out in the major leagues in any way I can, I'll be happy."

Outman path to professional baseball was a bit of an odd one. In high school, he utilized an unorthodox throwing motion that was developed by his father. The motion got results, but it scared off many of the major collegiate programs. Outman attended Central Missouri State and pitched with the unorthodox motion for awhile, but then switched to a more traditional one later in his collegiate career in order to draw interest from major league teams. Although Outman employs the more traditional motion now, he hasn't ruled out someday using the old motion again if major league teams were more accepting of it.

"I think there is potential for it, but it is out-of-the-norm. I don't know if the game is ready for something that different," Outman said.

"My dad started the idea of finding a way to pitch with a motion that would allow for the same accuracy and velocity, but would take the stress off of the pitching arm. That's the idea behind it. My dad is onto it and there is a slow shift in baseball to use something different, especially with all of the injuries. I think that it is just sort of a waiting game until there is enough interest in it for someone with a major league team to really start investigating."

The Phillies took Outman in the 10th round of the 2005 draft and he immediately starting piling up the numbers, posting ERAs under 3.00 at short-season A, Low-A and High-A, before hitting his first speed bump at Double-A in 2007. In the early part of the 2008 season, the Phillies surprisingly decided to move Outman into the bullpen, and he made 28 relief appearances for Double-A Reading before the trade. Outman is grateful that he has had the opportunities to pitch in the rotation and in the big leagues with Oakland.

"I was a little shocked [when he first heard about the trade]. I definitely wasn't expecting anything like that. I guess because I was drafted by the Phillies, I had always envisioned making the big leagues with Philadelphia," Outman said.

"I couldn't have asked for a better opportunity. After I got over the shock factor and got settled in and everything, it was the best thing that could have happened to my career at that point."

Putting on a big league uniform for the first time is something that Outman will never forget.

"It was a surreal feeling the first time I put on an Oakland A's uniform. It was pretty awesome just to have a major league uniform on and for a team that I actually like quite a bit as a little kid," Outman said.

The biggest knock on Outman's game has always been his command, and it is likely the reason that the Phillies moved him into the bullpen in 2008. He has averaged more than four walks per nine innings in 442.1 career minor league innings, although he improved on that number considerably with Oakland, averaging under three walks per nine innings at all three levels he pitched at with the A's.

Outman knows that to earn a permanent spot in the big leagues, he will need to erase the erratic command label from his scouting report.

"I'm always looking to improve my command. It's always been something that has followed me throughout my professional career, that I have command issues. I don't think I really do anymore, but it is kind of a stigma that I have to slowly get away from," Outman said.

One of the qualities that Blanton brought to the A's was his durability. Outman has been similarly durable throughout his career, making at least 27 appearances in each of his three full professional seasons. While the A's don't expect Outman to fill anything more than Blanton's old uniform number, they would be thrilled if Outman could be that reliable starter who takes the ball every fifth day, or the rubber-arm lefty reliever who makes 60 appearances a season. With a good start to this spring already under his belt, Outman may have a chance to play a significant role on the Oakland pitching staff in 2009.

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