A’s fortunes held in starting pitchers’ young arms
April 4, 2009
OAKLAND ” During general manager Billy Beane’s reign over the Oakland Athletics, the franchise has never been afraid to buck tradition or to challenge conventional baseball wisdom. Beane and his A’s have relished this aura of innovation as it became a large part of the franchise’s identity.
Yet Beane has never really tried anything that seems as risky and audacious as the five very young men making up Oakland’s starting rotation heading into the 2009 campaign.
After blowing up nearly all remnants of the 2006 AL championship series team, culminating with the trades of several key starters last year, Oakland will begin its season at the Los Angeles Angels next week with a rotation that has made a combined 63 major league starts and is the majors’ youngest group by a significant margin.
Fans don’t know them, opponents don’t yet fear them and not even their teammates have any idea how they’ll handle the pressures dropped on them by the A’s.
“It’s hard to say if they’re ready or not, but do I have confidence, absolutely,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki, no veteran himself. “Every time they take the bump, I have nothing but confidence they will do the job.”
Dallas Braden, rookie Trevor Cahill, Dana Eveland, rookie Brett Anderson and Josh Outman will take over on the Coliseum mound where Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Rich Harden, Joe Blanton and several other quality pitchers thrived in the past decade. The rotation has long been Oakland’s bedrock, and the franchise’s development of young starters became the A’s biggest asset.
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Beane’s acumen is about to be tested again. With so many young, unfamiliar faces taking the ball every day, all other questions about the A’s seem relatively meaningless ” even the many questions still surrounding an offense that hasn’t even been good enough to be below average for two straight seasons.
Will Eric Chavez rebound from two injury-plagued seasons? Will Jason Giambi wake the echoes of his MVP days back at first base? Do the A’s have enough hitting to contend in the mediocre AL West? None of it will matter if Oakland’s pitchers don’t grow up more quickly than anybody has any right to expect.
Chavez takes it one step further: He’s already banking on a bullpen featuring closer Brad Ziegler to carry a big burden early in the season.
“I don’t know if (the starters) are ready, but I like the fact that they are youthful,” Chavez said. “Hopefully they’ll stay healthy and give us some innings. With the bullpen that is anchoring the staff ” it’s a pretty good bullpen ” I think that’s going to be a bigger key than the starting pitching. (The relievers) are going to get a lot of work. If they stay healthy and be as good as they can be, regardless of starting pitching we should be fine.”
If only Oakland’s fans could be so confident. While they’ve learned rarely to doubt Beane, even after the GM traded a stunning number of good players while essentially scuttling last season, the A’s dearth of experienced starters makes any prediction about their success this season logically impossible. Justin Duchscherer, the two-time All-Star and only veteran in the bunch, is out until at least mid-May after arthroscopic elbow surgery.
Although the Coliseum fans have booed Giambi for each of his past seven seasons with the New York Yankees, he’s likely to be welcomed warmly when the A’s open their home schedule next Friday against Seattle. The 38-year-old slugger returns to Oakland with 396 homers, 1,279 RBIs, no championship rings and a burning desire to finish his playing career with a little success.
“This team is on the verge of being a really, really good team if those young kids can turn it on,” Giambi said. “Pitching wins in this game. It’s easier to win 2-1 than 10-9 every night. If those young kids can develop fast, we’re going to surprise some people.”
Oakland also will enjoy what’s probably a one-year engagement for Matt Holliday, the power-hitting outfielder who arrived in an offseason trade with Colorado. Holliday can be a free agent after this season, but he’ll be at the center of the A’s effort to improve an offense that floundered for much of last season, even batting .231 after the All-Star break.
During spring training, the A’s signed veterans Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra to bolster the infield. Both should be upgrades on the players who occupied their spots last season, including unhappy shortstop Bobby Crosby.
Manager Bob Geren is aware of his team’s numerous strengths and glaring question marks. On the subject of his youngest starters, he discounts the worries about 21-year-olds Anderson and Cahill by noting their Olympic experience, and by remaining quietly confident in everything around his youngsters.
“We are a very, very strong team,” Geren said. “It’s going to obviously depend on the health of our position players and the strike-throwing of these young pitches, but I think we have a strong team. I think the guys are starting to get healthy at the right time.”