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Testing Oakland’s Pitching Depth

June 10, 2011

Sometime next week the Oakland Athletics will learn what’s in store for Brett Anderson as the star left hander will visit Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion on his ailing elbow. Anytime a pitcher, let alone one of the up and coming young starters, needs to visit the famous doctor it typically does not result in good news. Anderson is likely facing Tommy John surgery which has a typical recovery period of 12-18 months. Before the injury Anderson was just 3-6 in 13 starts. In 83.1 innings of work he pitched to a 4.00 ERA with career highs in H/9 (9.3) and BB/9 (2.7).

The A’s already are without one of their starting pitchers for the remainder of the 2011 season, as Dallas Braden underwent successful surgery in early May on his left shoulder after making just 3 starts (1-1, 3.00 ERA, 18 IP). He underwent a similar surgery to that which New York Mets starter Johan Santana went through last summer. Santana has not yet returned to the mound but according to most reports may arrive at Citi Field within the next 5-6 weeks.

That kind of absence places Braden’s return somewhere just before Anderson’s. Assuming both player’s rehab goes as planned this would put them both back in the rotation potentially as early as June, but more likely right around the 2012 trade deadline.

Entering the 2011 season one of the perceived strengths of the Athletics team was going to be its starting pitching depth. Yet the team has suffered from one injury after another, decimating that depth and leaving many to wonder what course of action the team will take from here.

Tyson Ross was initially chosen to replace Braden in the rotation after starting the season working out of the bullpen. He made 6 starts (31.0 IP) in which he went 2-2 with a 2.61 ERA before straining an oblique. He likely won’t return until July. 

This past December the team signed veteran (and oft injured) righty Rich Harden to a contract with the expectation that he’d compete for a job out of Spring Training. Yet, during the Spring he began to suffer from lat soreness and only recently began to throw off a mound again. The team has not set a timetable for his return.

Another offseason signing, Brandon McCarthy, managed to at least make 9 starts (63.2 IP, 1-4, 3.39 ERA) before his injury. A stress related reaction in his shoulder will keep him out of action at least until the end of this month.

The team was forced to then move onto Josh Outman and Guillermo Moscoso. Outman previously underwent Tommy John surgery himself, missing the end of the 2009 and all of the 2010 seasons. He had gone 4-1 through 8 starts (37.2 IP) with AAA Sacramento prior to being called up and in 3 starts (15.2 IP) since he is 1-0 with a 4.02 ERA. Outman, however, has fewer than 100 career innings pitched in the Majors prior to the surgery and it remains to be seen how his arm will hold up over the remainder of the season. Moscoso, meanwhile, is similarly inexperienced having only 11 career appearances (none of them starts) in the Majors prior to the start of the season.

Bobby Cramer is the only other player on the team’s 40-man roster to even start a game in the minor leagues this year. However, he is more likely to be designated for assignment to make room for a starting pitcher than he is to actually be called upon to start a game for the A’s in the coming months.

At this point it would be safe to speculate that the organization will likely look to acquire a starting pitcher before this summer’s trade deadline. Entering 2011 the apparent depth was perceived as a strength but the team is pushing its limits at this point, despite the typical strong seasons delivered thus far by Trevor Cahill (6-3, 85.0 IP, 2.65 ERA) and Gio Gonzalez (5-4, 75.2 IP, 2.62 ERA). Beyond the pair, however, how the starting pitching holds up over the remainder of the season is anyone’s guess. Acquiring a stopgap, or at least some help, actually seems unlikely considering the team’s current position.

Nearing mid June, the A’s currently sit in last place in the American League West. Only Kansas City and Minnesota hold worse records in the AL. Mired in a nine game losing streak the team responded by firing manager Bob Geren and replaced him with Bob Melvin for the remainder of the season. But changing a team’s leadership can only go so far and there is no guarantee that the team will turn things around going forward. The team’s pitching was supposed to carry an uncertain offense but injuries have allowed the offensive woes to become a bigger spotlight and ultimately a larger cause for concern by most A’s fans.

Shortstop Cliff Pennington currently leads the team with a .264 batting average. As a whole they are batting just .239/.305/.348 (OPS of .653, OPS+ of 82). Left fielder Josh Willingham is the only player even in shouting distance of 10 HR. Kevin Kouzmanoff was the starting third baseman on Opening Day and now the 29 year old veteran has been sent to AAA for the first time since the 2006 season.

With the upcoming trade deadline roughly 7 weeks away, it would seem as though the most likely route that GM Billy Beane and the organization will take will more closely resemble a calculated firesale than a concerted effort to make the team better right now. There are going to be numerous players who, despite the fact that they’ve underperformed in 2011, will draw some interest from other teams around the Majors. Willingham has already been rumored to be a candidate with the Phillies, Reds, and Braves as possible destinations. Kouzmanoff could potentially be had at a reasonable cost to a team in need of help at third like the Marlins. Outfielders David DeJesus, Coco Crisp, or Ryan Sweeney could all potentially help a team in need. As could relievers Grant Balfour, Michael Wuertz, Craig Breslow, and potentially Brian Fuentes.

We know that Beane will not trade them all. That’s never been his plan of action to actually conduct a full firesale at the trading deadline. But he does choose to make calculated decisions with these moves as shown by a few of the more recent deals he has made.

July 2009 he dealt left fielder Matt Holliday before he reached free agency to the Cardinals for Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortenson, and Shane Peterson. The following December Wallace was traded again, to the Blue Jays for Michael Taylor. He’s since been moved a third time, to the Astros where he’s now their starting first baseman. Taylor, meanwhile, is batting .321/.380/.476 in AAA and will likely find his way into the team’s outfield plans sometime later this summer. Mortenson only made one start before being dealt to the Rockies and Peterson is batting .308/.394/.517 alongside Taylor in Sacramento.

July 2008 he dealt Joe Blanton to the Phillies for Outman, Adrian Cardenas, and Matt Spencer. Outman, of course, we discussed earlier. He has looked good at times, both before and since the surgery, but he’s still unproven. Cardenas is currently splitting most of his time in the outfield or DH’ing in Sacramento while hitting .343/.416/.461 with more walks than strikeouts. He’s primarily been an infielder throughout his minor league career but with Jemile Weeks at second base the team has moved Cardenas around in order to keep his bat in the lineup. Like Weeks, who just made his debut this week, Cardenas could force his way to Oakland before the season concludes.

Each deal has produced a player who is either currently impacting the team’s roster or soon will be. This July we may see a few moves from Beane, but expect them to replenish minor league depth rather than making a move that will dramatically change the makeup of the A’s team right away. Such are the constraints of managing with a limited budget. But Beane has long been considered a mastermind when working in such conditions. This season, however, is looking to be an interesting test case for him in a market unlike what we’ve seen in recent years.

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