Oakland A's Spring Position Battles: SP

The Oakland A's had one of the top - and one of the youngest - starting rotations in baseball last season. Can the A's starters repeat their 2012 success? Who will be the team's fifth starter? Chris Biderman takes a look at the spring battle for Oakland's starting rotation.

A Look Back At 2012

The production from the Oakland A's starting rotation was emblematic of the team's playoff run in 2012, as an array of young arms kept the A's in a number of games and became one of the better young staffs in baseball.

Brandon McCarthy was very effective when healthy.

There was no shortage of obstacles, either. Three of the staff's veteran arms missed chunks of the season for various reasons, forcing the team to rely heavily on rookie arms that came into the season virtually untested. Over the last decade and then some, Oakland had been known for its ability to develop young pitchers. But when camp broke, there were a lot of unknowns heading into the year.

Brandon McCarthy was the only holdover from the 2011 rotation. The A's spent the winter trading away starters Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill. At McCarthy's side were newcomers Bartolo Colon, Tom Milone and Graham Godfrey to start the year, with the A's only needing four starters through the first couple weeks of the season, which featured a quirky schedule with a trip to Japan and a slew of off-days.

When a fifth starter was finally needed towards the end of April, Tyson Ross joined the fold. He was coming off of an injury-riddled 2011 that put his standing with the depth chart in question. He didn't do much to cement himself in the A's plans, going 2-11 overall with a 6.45 ERA in 2012. Ross struggled with fastball command, often leaving balls up on the zone, and consistency on his breaking pitches.

Godfrey turned out to be a placeholder for rookie Jarrod Parker, who had the promise of being one of the better young starters in baseball after being acquired in the Cahill trade with Arizona. Parker had been coming off "Tommy John" surgery in 2010 and spent 2011 in the minor leagues before making a couple of appearances in the big leagues late in the year.

Although he projected to break camp with the A's when spring training started, Parker struggled with his command and wound up walking too many hitters to make the Opening Day roster. He started the year in Sacramento, making four starts before getting the call to the big leagues to replace Godfrey in the rotation. With the River Cats, Parker walked just six hitters in 20.2 innings and improved his control and feel.

Jarrod Parker had a strong rookie season.

Parker went on to have a very solid rookie campaign with Oakland, throwing 181.1 regular season innings, allowing 166 hits while striking out 140. Godfrey would receive a few chances to stay in the rotation, but he struggled and found himself back in Triple-A where he threw well for most of the season. Godfrey didn't make it back to the show because of the emergence of A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily and a late-season knee injury, however.

Griffin and Straily both started the season with Double-A Midland and wound up in the big leagues in the summer months. They were roommates with the Rockhounds, and used one another as motivation and a source of confidence on their equally unlikely rise up the organizational ladder.

In Griffin's seven starts in the Texas League, he had just a 0.88 WHIP in 43.1 innings with an absurd 6.29-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio before getting the call to Sacramento in May. In 10 starts there, his numbers predictably dropped slightly thanks to the better hitting environment of the Pacific Coast League, but he remained just as effective. He wound up making his splash in the majors in late-June – and having a historic first season.

Griffin's .875 winning percentage (7-1 record) was the best in Oakland history, and third in the organization's history for a pitcher making at least 15 starts. It was also the second-best mark in the majors over the last 17 seasons, behind only Cliff Lee's 2008 season when he went 22-3 for the Indians. Griffin got the no-decision in Game 4 of the divisional series against Detroit, allowing two runs on seven hits in five innings, before the A's rallied for three runs in the ninth to force Game 5.

A.J. Griffin had a historic rookie season.

Straily's season was historic on a different level. He finished his minor league season leading in all minor leaguers in strikeouts with 190 in just 152 innings. He made his major league debut on August 3. Straily only ended up making seven starts over two major league stints, finishing 2-1 with a 1.32 WHIP and 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

His whiff numbers at the minor league level – however impressive they were on par with some of the game's top strike-out pitchers, such as Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander. But with a fastball that rarely exceeds 92, Straily isn't expected to rack up those types of strike-out numbers in the big leagues.

Milone one of the A's most consistent performers throughout the season and led the team in innings with 190. However, his home and road splits were a little concerning in the early going considering his high fly-ball rate and the advantage it gave him in Oakland compared to other parks. But his calling card is his control and lack of walks. He allowed just 1.71 walks per nine innings. Milone never had an ERA over 4.00 during any month of the season. He did show some wear in September, however, allowing hitters a .366 average and .411 BABIP. Despite those numbers, he did well in leaving runners on base and had a 3.98 FIP.

Colon had also been in the conversation of most consistent starters for the A's, but finished the year suspended for testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone on August 22 for 50 games, ending his season. The right-hander had been having a resurgent 15th year in the majors, throwing a ton of strikes while keeping hitters off balance with his varying grips on his fastball. He finished at 10-9 with a 3.43 ERA before his suspension. He was the first of two veterans the A's would lose for the season.

The second was McCarthy, who was shelved for good after needing emergency brain surgery when he was hit in the head with a comebacker off the bat of Erick Aybar on September 5. It turned out to be the last pitch he threw as a member of the A's.

McCarthy came into the season as the A's ace and veteran voice of the pitching staff. Having dealt with a rash of injuries in past, he had experienced as much adversity as anyone and was a quality influence in an otherwise inexperienced clubhouse. His 3.04 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 123 ERA+ made him a significant part of the rotation when he was healthy. But he struggled with a shoulder injury that held him out nearly two months from mid-June to August 10, and then he missed the final month of the season after being hit by the line-drive.

Brett Anderson made a quick return from "Tommy John" surgery to come back and help the A's get to the postseason. In a truncated season, Anderson posted a 4-2 record with a 2.57 ERA and 156 ERA+. The hard-throwing left-hander joined the rotation the day before news of Colon's suspension and a couple weeks before McCarthy's injury sidelined him for the year.

Anderson allowed just two runs in his first 26 innings, but then had to leave a game in Detroit on September 19 with a strained right oblique. He didn't make any more regular season starts, but came back to have an outstanding outing in Game 3 of the division series, where he allowed two hits in six innings, in a game the A's took 1-0 while avoiding elimination.

Travis Blackley was also a solid contributor to the A's rotation and to their bullpen. Picked up from the Giants early in the season, Blackley filled a variety of roles, making starts, pitching in long-relief and coming in to face lefties.

Blackley made 15 starts for the A's in 2012, posting a 5-4 record and a 4.54 ERA. He was more effective out of the bullpen (2.86 ERA in 28 innings), but the innings Blackley gave the A's as a starter were invaluable as the injuries mounted.

Good-bye And Hello

McCarthy left Oakland to join Arizona, signing a 2-year, $15.5 million contract after combining to make a little more than $5 million with the A's in his two seasons. However valuable his presence was to the team's young staff, his injury history weighed too heavily for the A's to offer him the same money as the Diamondbacks. The rise of Griffin and Straily, along with the progression of Parker made his loss more palatable.

The A's traded Tyson Ross to San Diego.

Godfrey was traded by the A's to complete the deal to Boston for Sandy Rosario (who was re-signed by Boston after Oakland placed him on waivers, then selected by the Cubs after he was waived by Boston and finally added by the Giants after being waived by Chicago.). Godfrey's lack of explosive stuff gave him a razor-thin margin of error at the big league level, and his inability to control his pitches from leaking up in the zone ultimately cost him a spot on the A's 40-man roster.

The A's also traded Ross this offseason to acquire a couple of prospects for depth. The former second-round pick (along with first base prospect A.J. Kirby-Jones) netted Oakland lefty Andrew Werner and infielder Andy Parrino from the Padres, both of whom are likely to start to the season with Triple-A Sacramento and could see some time in Oakland at some point this season.

After Ross struggled as a starter, the A's decided to make him a reliever. His effectiveness dropped significantly during the second and third times through the lineup. Ross still had a plus fastball and slider, making him an optimal candidate to become a late reliever, or even a closer should he refine his command.

Werner has eight major league starts under his belt allowing 45 hits in 40.1 innings for San Diego. His repertoire is similar to Milone's, although he's more apt at getting ground balls.

Colon was a free agent in the off-season and was re-signed by the A's to a 1-year, $3 million deal. He will have to miss the first five games of 2013 because of his suspension, which should have him on the roster by the first weekend of the season.

Starting Pitchers Invited To Camp

Brett Anderson*
Bruce Billings
Travis Blackley*
Jesse Chavez*
Bartolo Colon** (restricted, not on 40-man roster)
Sonny Gray
A.J. Griffin*
Tommy Milone*
Garrett Olson
Jarrod Parker*
Dan Straily*
Andrew Werner*
Michael Ynoa*

*Denotes player on 40-man roster

Numbers Of Starting Pitchers Likely On Roster: 5

Locks To Make The Team

It hasn't been announced, but all signs are pointing to Anderson being the Opening Day starter, especially after general manager Billy Beane said Anderson would open the season in the rotation – barring any setbacks. The A's could have elected to start Anderson slowly in the minors and not let his innings build up too soon.

The A's are hoping for 30+ starts from Brett Anderson.

Although the sample was very small, the metrics say that Anderson pitched at the highest level of his four-year career in 2012. He regained the velocity on his fastball and tilt on his breaking pitch, which may have been the initial cause of his elbow injury. The lefty only threw 60.1 innings last year while coming from surgery, and should benefit greatly from a full off-season program. But that doesn't mean the team won't keep a steady eye on his progression and limit his innings early in the year.

Parker will likely be the No. 2 starter behind Anderson. The two could become one of the more formidable top-of-the-rotation combinations in the American League if they are able to stay healthy. Parker has some of the best stuff of any right-handed starter in the organization and will benefit greatly from another full off-season coming off his Tommy John back in 2010.

An increased groundball rate would help Tom Milone this season.

Parker's biggest indicator is his command, which would get away from him at times last year, leading a led to a walk rate of more than three per nine innings. But as the season wore on, Parker began to vary the speed on his pitches - including throwing fastballs with both a two-seam and four-seem grip – while including his slider and using his very good changeup as his top strikeout offering. One thing to look for could be the expanded use of his curveball, which he used rarely as a get-over pitch in the second and third time in the lineup. If he is able to gain confidence in the curve, it will be another weapon for him and allow him to become a true four-pitch pitcher.

Milone should come into the season feeling very good about his 2012 and hope to take another step in his progression. Despite being so reliant on the fly ball, he should benefit from a better defensive outfield. To take a significant step forward, he will need to induce more ground balls, especially on the road. Hitters had a .316/.352/.854 slash line against him in their home parks, leading to an ERA that almost doubled his home clip. Perhaps the addition of a two-seam fastball to pair with his cutter could help cut down on the 15 long balls he surrendered to right-handed hitters.

Favorites For the Final Spots

Colon won't break camp in the rotation because of the five remaining games left on his suspension, but he should figure into the rotation for a majority of the season if he's able to stave-off injury. The right-hander was a strike-throwing machine for the A's last year, throwing an incredible number of fastballs while nibbling on the corners by varying his grips.

Can Bartolo Colon be as effective without the juice?

It's tough to project how a player coming off a PED suspension will respond, especially if the drugs played a significant role in his success. Colon will turn 40 in May and could run into trouble if he sees any decline in his stuff. He allowed 17 home runs in 152.1 innings, was significantly better at home and saw a pretty drastic decline in the second half – although he said recently it was because of the potential suspension weighing on his mind.

Oakland does have some depth as an insurance policy should Colon fail to replicate the success he had for a majority of 2012. But he was re-signed largely because of his success in the Coliseum and veteran leadership he brings to an otherwise very young staff.

Of anyone on the A's starting staff, Griffin will have the biggest bout with regression in 2013. As outstanding as his season was, the metrics say he benefited from a good deal of luck and will have to deal with hitters having a far more vast scouting report. He became notable for his big and slow curveball to pair with his outstanding control, leaving many to make the comparisons to a right-handed Barry Zito.

Although his curveball was very good, history has shown it's tough for pitchers with a similar pitch have had trouble maintaining it year-after-year. Deception is key, but when there's more than a 20-MPH difference in the curve from his fastball, hitters will be able to look for it and sit more often. A key for Griffin in 2013 will be the improvement of his slider and changeup, allowing him to vary his offerings and become less reliant on the curveball.

Battling For A Spot

Straily figures to be in the conversation for a rotation spot all spring, but will have a similar battle with regression as his former roommate Griffin. Straily's strikeout numbers are sure to slip a little as scouting reports become more advanced. The metrics say Straily's 3.89 ERA was misleading.

Dan Straily will need to rely on his defenders more in the big leagues.

While the right-hander struck out 32 hitters in his 39.1 innings, his FIP was significantly higher than his ERA (6.48) and he gave up more than 2.5 home runs per nine innings. If he's going to become a quality major league pitcher, he will have to evolve by becoming far less reliant on strikeouts and able to induce weak contact. While he has three good pitches, none are considered great strikeout pitches at the major league level, which caught up to him during some of his starts last year. Walks were also a problem, averaging 3.66 per nine frames.

Blackley will be stretched out as a starter this spring, although he is expected to be in the A's bullpen if all goes according to plan. The A's place a high value on Blackley's ability to increase his pitch count quickly and he will serve as an emergency sixth starter out of the bullpen for the A's again this season. Should injuries strike the A's top-five starters, Blackley will be one of the first pitchers considered as a replacement.

Looking to Make An Impression

Former first-round pick Sonny Gray has progressed well through the A's system and could become a wild card in the battle for rotation spots this spring. There is little doubt about his ceiling, which projects to a top-two or three starter in a big league rotation. The 23-year-old has a similar build and repertoire to Tim Hudson, working with a hard sinking fastball and breaking ball. After being drafted 11th-overall in 2011, the former Vanderbuilt standout debuted in full-season ball with Double-A Midland that same summer, making five starts and striking out 18 strikeouts in 20 innings.

Sonny Gray worked on mechanical changes last season.

Gray struggled with fastball command out of the gate last year, but continued to improve before being promoted to Sacramento to make two starts in his first full season as a pro. After pitching three seasons in college, Gray came to the A's at an advanced level. His very high ground ball rate and power stuff highlights his appeal, and has the potential to translate to big leagues more than Straily or Griffin.

It's been reported that Gray is getting rave reviews early on in camp. If he's able to iron out the command issues he faced during the first half of 2012, there's an outside chance he could surpass Straily on the ladder and earn more consideration for a rotation spot than initially expected. Cahill and Anderson made fewer starts than Gray at Double-A and Triple-A before making their major league debuts, so the A's have shown a willingness to throw youngsters into the fire despite not getting many innings at Triple-A.

Werner comes to the A's from San Diego in the Ross trade, having made eight starts in the big leagues. He struggled on paper, but also showed signs of promise. The soft-throwing left-hander put together a decent strikeout-to-walk ratio considering his stuff, while showing a keen ability to induce ground balls. Considering the A's lack of left-handed starters outside of Anderson and Milone, Werner brings some appeal as a depth piece. He figures to likely start the season with Triple-A Sacramento, but could vault himself into a bullpen discussion with his effectiveness against left-handed hitters.

Werner has already proven he can overcome adversity after being overlooked out of the University of Indianapolis and spending two seasons in an independent league before making the Padres after an open tryout. The southpaw has a deep pitching arsenal and the ability to mix speeds on his pitches, despite not throwing very hard.

Andrew Werner made a quick rise from the independent leagues to the big leagues.

Jesse Chavez was claimed off waivers by the A's from Toronto late in the 2012 season. The hard-throwing right-hander made four disastrous appearances out of the bullpen for the A's late in the season, but he fared better in two starts for Triple-A Sacramento.

The A's like Chavez's stuff and he can both start and relieve. He will be stretched out as a starter and should be part of the River Cats' rotation to begin the year. He will need to show his command has improved over his time with the A's last season, however.

Bruce Billings spent almost all of last season with Sacramento (he made two relief appearances for Double-A Midland to start the year). The right-hander was quietly the workhorse of the River Cats' staff, as he racked up 133 innings and posted a 3.98 ERA.

Billings has a quality fastball and his command was much improved last season. He wasn't added to the 40-man roster this off-season, but Billings should be one of the A's top options for a promotion should injuries strike in Oakland this season.

Left-hander Garrett Olson signed with the A's as a minor league free agent this off-season. The former Baltimore Orioles top prospect has spent parts of six seasons in the big leagues. He has never developed into the ace the Orioles believed he'd be thanks to command issues. However, Olson still has intriguing stuff and the A's have done well with reclamation projects in the past.

Here For The Future

Can Michael Ynoa stay healthy this season?

Michael Ynoa was added to the 40-man roster this offseason to avoid being eligible for the Rule 5 draft and is attending his first major league camp this spring. He's currently getting over a case of the chicken pox and looking to partake in his first full pro season after undergoing "Tommy John" surgery after nine innings in the Arizona Rookie League in 2010.

The A's signed Ynoa as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican to an unprecedented $4.25 million deal. The 6'7'' hurler was compared by many to Felix Hernandez initially, but that talk has cooled since Ynoa's pro career has been slowed drastically by injuries.

After spending 2011 rehabbing, Ynoa threw 30.2 innings in short-season ball in 2012, and remained healthy despite putting up less than stellar numbers (6.46 ERA, 1.83 WHIP). But the 21-year-old showed some of the explosive stuff that scouts praised initially when he was signed.

Oakland added Ynoa to the 40-man roster in order to make sure their initial $4.25 million investment didn't go to waste. The organization is hoping he can stay healthy enough to pitch a full season in 2013. Before he can really work on progressing as a pitcher, he has to prove he can build the stamina to stay on the mound.

If Ynoa pitches well this spring, he will likely get his first full-season assignment with Low-A Beloit. With his team option clock now ticking, Ynoa will need to make significant progress each season to reach the big leagues before his options are up.

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