Oh, Inverted World: Your 2009 Oakland Athletics
The times, they are becoming quite different.
Anyone who has been watching the A's post-2006 has probably noticed a theme. And that theme has been "All Pitching, All the Time." Simply put, the A's have struggled to score runs in the recent past.
Throughout the struggles on offense, however, the pitching remained steadfast. After Barry Zito, last of the vaunted Big Three, left to doggedly pursue mediocrity in San Francisco, Dan Haren, Joe Blanton & Co. (including the usual one or two starts per season from Rich Harden) rose to the occasion and provided quality innings.
It's perhaps not so unbelievable that the A's flirted with respectability for certain stretches of the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
These, however, are not those A's.
Billy Beane decided to retool the organization via the much-discussed trades of the post-2007 winter and mid-2008 season. The end result? A minor-league system replete with quality pitching prospects and a big league rotation thinner than Grandpa's hair.
But he wasn't done yet; a trade and various free agent signings during this past winter and early Spring Training brought veteran offensive presences like Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera, and Nomar Garciaparra to the lineup.
And so the plan became clear: Throw together five talented but vastly inexperienced starting pitchers, and assemble a dangerous lineup to support them. Finally, after years of the pitching carrying the offense, the roles have been reversed.
As Spring Training comes to a close and we near the de facto national holiday that is Opening Day, the A's rotation picture has become much clearer. Brace yourself; it might get ugly.
Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill, Dana Eveland, Brett Anderson, and Josh Outman were announced on Apr. 1 as the winners of the rotation sweepstakes, and contrary to the date, it appears that the Athletics brass was not playing a practical joke.
Between them, the Oakland rotation has amassed 63 career big league starts. Eveland, no one's idea of a veteran presence, provides over half of those starts with 35. Braden, perhaps only a very inebriated man's idea of an ace, is slotted to take the mound on Opening Day.
However, it may not be as bad as it looks. Even though Cahill and Anderson are barely of drinking age, they are also 11th and seventh, respectively, on Baseball America's Top 100 list.
Cahill, with his heavy sinker and wicked curve, has been mentioned in the same breath as Brandon Webb. Anderson, a lefty, has less impressive stuff than Cahill but has shown an almost uncanny ability to locate his pitches.
The rest of the rotation isn't exactly made up of Jeff Weavers, either. Braden rebounded from an unlucky 2007 to have a competent 2008, and has added a cutter to his repertoire. Eveland showed flashes of dominance in his first full season.
Outman, besides having the best pitcher's name in the history of baseball, also possesses a respectable fastball-slider combo.
If that isn't enough to put some spring in an A's fan's step, there's also the luxury of pitching depth. Gio Gonzalez, Sean Gallagher, and Vin Mazzaro are very young and immensely talented, and each will likely spend time in the bigs this season.
Still skeptical? Then remember that the A's play in the woeful AL West. The Angels have rotation injuries of their own, and are bound to see an offensive backslide with the loss of Mark Teixeira and the decline of Vlad Guerrero. The Rangers are the same—all hit, no pitch.
And the Mariners...well, the Mariners need some time to recover from the Bavasi era.
Suffice to say, the West is winnable for the A's.
The formula for success as Oakland starts the season sounds easy enough, but could prove difficult to execute on the field: The kids need to pitch well early and often.
To take some of the pressure off, Beane assembled a fairly deep bullpen. New relievers Russ Springer and Michael Wuertz join a group that already included Santiago Casilla, Brad Ziegler, and (occasionally) Joey Devine. Reports indicate that All-Star Justin Duchscherer may rejoin the bullpen when he returns from the DL.
And still more arms (Drew Bailey, Jerry Blevins, Jeff Gray, and Ryan Webb) drew praise during spring. The 'pen may well prove to be a strength during 2009.
As for offensive support, Oakland appears more formidable than in years past. Giambi (first/DH), Holliday (LF), and Jack Cust (OF/DH) round out the power providers. And if Eric Chavez—reportedly ready for Opening Day—can even approximate his injury-sapped 2005 numbers, he will be a considerable upgrade over Jack Hannahan at third.
Surrounding these middle-of-the-order thumpers are promising young hitters looking to build off of their 2008 numbers (CF Ryan Sweeney and C Kurt Suzuki), a once-promising young hitter looking to restore some luster (RF Travis Buck), and a middle infield that makes up for less-than-stellar offense with exceedingly stellar defense.
The bench, with Garciaparra, Bobby Crosby, and speedster Rajai Davis, is deep.
In the final analysis, the A's will need a fair number of things to go their way if they are to be true contenders for the World Series crown.
However, with a weak division and whole lot of upside, this A's team—a team so different from others of recent memory—might find its way back to the postseason. Hey, if the 2008 Angels can win 100 games, anything's possible.
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