Who Will Be In The Starting Rotation?
Going into spring training, the Oakland A's rotation seemed relatively set. The top four starters were presumed to be Justin Duchscherer, Sean Gallagher, Dana Eveland and Dallas Braden. The battle for the fifth and final spot was supposed to be the biggest battle of the spring, with Gio Gonzalez leading a pack of candidates that included Josh Outman, Jerome Williams, Edgar Gonzalez, and three youngsters, Vince Mazzaro, Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson.
Almost immediately things went awry for Oakland's projected starting five. Duchscherer went down with an elbow problem before games even started and his rehab attempts have ended in surgery that will keep him out at least six weeks. Gio Gonzalez was putting in a strong bid to be the A's fifth starter, but his spring was side-tracked in mid March when he started experiencing shoulder discomfort. Gonzalez is working his way back onto the mound, but he won't have enough time before the start of the season to build his pitch count up for the starting rotation. He is still a candidate for the A's bullpen or to go to Sacramento at the start of the year to be stretched out for a rotation spot later on.
Gallagher, Outman and Eveland have had all tumultuous springs and their ERAs are northwards of 4.50. Eveland appears to have a spot sown up, but Gallagher and Outman are battling for the other spot. Outman pitched well on Tuesday, while Gallagher struggled in his last outing. Dallas Braden, who was set to be the A's fourth starter at the start of spring, has pitched well and is now slated to be the team's Opening Day starter.
The talk of the A's camp has been the three young starters – Mazzaro, Cahill and Anderson. Mazzaro was the early star, not allowing a run over his first 8.2 innings. He faltered in his final two outings and was sent back to minor league camp, but he has probably positioned himself to be an option early in the season should any of the A's starters get injured. Cahill was also dominant early and while he has had a few one-inning blow-ups lately, overall he has held his own. Anderson has been outstanding, leading the team with a 2.86 ERA in 22 innings.
The A's were hoping to be able to keep Cahill and Anderson back in the minor leagues for the first part of the season, but with the injuries to Duchscherer and Gio Gonzalez and the struggles of veteran non-roster pitchers Jerome Williams and Edgar Gonzalez, the A's have no choice but to debut their young stars at the beginning of the season.
Oakland could also explore making a trade for a back-of-the-rotation spot, although the news that Duchscherer's elbow surgery revealed no major damage may help the A's decide not to make a trade. If Opening Day was today, Oakland would be going with a rotation of two 21-year-olds (Cahill and Anderson), two 25-year-olds (Eveland and Braden) and one 23-year-old (Gallagher) or one 24-year-old (Outman). There are organizations with Double-A rotations with average ages older than that projected group's. It remains to be seen how effective the rotation will be. Even the Big Three had veterans like Kevin Appier and Gil Heredia as rotation-mates. When the A's start a losing streak, they won't have an obvious choice in the rotation to be a "stopper."
Whither the Bullpen?
With a young starting rotation, the A's are going to be leaning heavily on their bullpen this season. It was thought to be the strength of the team going into the spring, but as we near Opening Day, the A's ‘pen has as many questions as any other part of the team.
The bullpen was supposed to be anchored by two 2008 rookie stars, Brad Ziegler and Joey Devine. Ziegler hasn't pitched much this spring because he was with Team USA during the WBC, although he should be ready for Opening Day. However, Devine left Monday's game with a reoccurrence of an elbow problem that has plagued him all spring. The fireballer missed a big chunk of last season with an elbow/forearm problem, as well, and this injury could keep him out awhile. With Huston Street in Colorado and Devine on the DL, Ziegler looks to be the A's everyday closer, which will limit when the A's can bring Ziegler into games in the seventh and eighth innings.
Another option for saves for the A's will be veteran Russ Springer, who signed with Oakland just before the start of spring training. Springer hasn't been exactly lights out this spring, but he is a veteran and probably isn't too concerned about his results. He should be fine in the later innings for Oakland. Santiago Casilla, one of the few holdovers from the A's 2008 Opening Day bullpen, has had a terrific spring and could be in-line for a few save opportunities in Devine's absence.
Michael Wuertz was another veteran who was brought in just before the start of camp to bolster the A's bullpen. He is out of options, so the A's are almost guaranteed to carry him at the start of the season, but he hasn't exactly earned a spot on the mound. In 10 innings, he has allowed 10 runs, although he does have 12 strike-outs. Jerry Blevins came into the spring a virtual lock for a spot as the A's main lefty reliever, but he has struggled with his velocity for most of the spring, although he is pitching better lately.
Rookie Andrew Bailey came to camp as a non-roster player, but he may leave camp as part of the A's bullpen. The Wagner alum has been the A's best pitcher this spring. In 10.2 innings, he has not allowed a run and has given up only five hits and two walks while striking out eight. Since converting from the rotation to the bullpen midway through last season with Double-A Midland, Bailey has been nearly unhittable. If he isn't with the team on Opening Day, he is likely to get some time in the big leagues the moment the A's have an opening in the bullpen.
Outman could be another candidate for the bullpen should he lose his battle with Gallagher for the rotation. Another candidate might be Gio Gonzalez, who won't be ready to throw starter's innings at the beginning of the season, but may be healthy enough to contribute relief innings in the early going. Gonzalez excelled in a few relief outings late in the 2008 season with Oakland, although the A's still think that he has a promising future as a starter. It isn't yet clear whether the A's will carry six or seven relievers at the outset of the season, although given the youth of the rotation, it seems more likely that the A's will go with seven bullpen arms.
Who's on the Bench?
If the A's do carry 12 pitchers, they will have room for only four position bench players. One of those bench players will be a back-up catcher. Landon Powell will be that back-up, unless a side-strain keeps him out of the line-up at the start of the season. If he can't go, Curtis Thigpen (acquired by the A's from Toronto last week) will fill in for Powell. The other lock for the A's bench is veteran Nomar Garciaparra, who was signed to be a back-up corner infielder and right-handed DH.
The A's could go a number of different directions for the final two spots. One of the spots will need to be a middle infielder. Cliff Pennington, Jack Hannahan and Bobby Crosby are all still battling for that spot. Crosby is the favorite for the spot because of his contract, but Hannahan and Pennington are more reliable defenders in the infield and Pennington brings a speed element to the bench. The other spot will be a back-up outfielder. Rajai Davis is the favorite to win that spot, although Chris Denorfia has had an outstanding spring and could force his name into the discussion for that last spot, as well.
This bench leaves Daric Barton back in Sacramento. In addition, Rule 5 pick Ben Copeland has been sidelined since mid-March with a shoulder injury that he sustained crashing into a wall in a spring game. Copeland is likely to start the season on the A's disabled list, which would allow Oakland to get a longer look at him in a rehab assignment at extended spring training and with Triple-A Sacramento. He was hitting .182 at the time of his injury.
How's the Health?
The A's entered camp optimistic that this season would be the year that the team broke free of its recent run of major injuries. That hasn't come to pass thus far. We have detailed the injury woes involving the pitching staff.
On the position-player side, the biggest health story at the start of camp surrounded the status of Eric Chavez, who has been hampered for the past three seasons with shoulder and back problems. Chavez has only appeared in eight games this spring (17 at-bats), but he has recently been able to play some innings in the field and could be ready to go on Opening Day. Look for Garciaparra or the other back-up infielder to spell Chavez frequently during the first month of the season as Chavez gets his playing legs back under him. He will be a player to monitor closely all season, health-wise.
Second baseman Mark Ellis was a health concern this spring, as well. Coming off of shoulder surgery to his throwing arm, Ellis has been able to hit throughout spring training, but he only recently has begun playing in the field. He appears to be ahead of where Chavez is at in terms of his readiness for Opening Day, but it is of some concern that he has hit only .186 in 43 at-bats this spring.
The A's have a number of other injury-prone players on their potential roster. Garciaparra, Crosby and Jason Giambi all have histories of injury troubles and they will need to be monitored closely throughout the season. The A's have set team records the past two seasons for roster moves at the Triple-A level and that could continue in 2009, as the A's shift players back and forth to account for injuries in the big leagues.
Can the A's Contend?
This is clearly the biggest question of the spring and the picture isn't much clearer heading into Opening Day than it was on February 28. The A's have added two veteran players in Orlando Cabrera and Garciaparra since the start of spring, and those two players should help the A's withstand injuries better than in years past. Off-season acquisitions Giambi and Matt Holliday will certainly help improve the A's offense, although Giambi's bat has looked slow this spring. But it remains to be seen whether having Giambi or Jack Cust in the field will be a significant detriment defensively.
They say that pitching wins championships, and while the A's certainly have a talented pitching staff heading into Opening Day, they are short on experience and the A's have learned that young pitchers can have a lot of ups and downs over the past two seasons. Not having a veteran like Duchscherer or last year's number one starter, Joe Blanton, at the top of the rotation could hurt the A's. The one thing that is working in the A's favor is that the division rival Angels are facing similar injury problems with their starting rotation.
To contend, the A's will need their young starters to pitch more like veterans early on in the season and they will need their new offensive acquisitions to perform. Full seasons from Eric Chavez and Mark Ellis, and a quick recovery from Justin Duchscherer should go a long way towards giving the A's a chance to contend.
A's Still Facing Lots Of Questions
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