Nationals Rotation Can Look to 1967 Kansas City Athletics for Hope
The 1967 Kansas City Athletics finished the season with a record of 62-99, dead last in the American League. For most of their 13 years in Missouri, the Athletics had been little more than an additional farm team for the New York Yankees, trading their rising young stars to New York for aging veterans.
That's how Roger Maris became a Yankee; he was traded for Hank Baur, Don Larsen, and Marv Throneberry.
But all that changed in the early 1960s when insurance magnate Charlie O. Finley bought the team and began to find, sign, and keep young talent. Seven years later, however, the Athletics were still a losing team. With 99 losses to go along with just 8,900 fans per game, Finley moved his team to Oakland a year later.
Now, 99 losses usually indicates a very bad team. They lost just three less than the 2008 Washington Nationals, believed to be one of the worst teams in more than a decade.
True, they were a very bad team. But they were also very talented. Just like the Nationals, both this year as well as last, they had several young players who would go on to be stars. Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson batted .178 that year. Sal Bando hit .192, Joe Rudi, .186.
But it was their pitching staff that intrigues me.
This is the starting rotation for the Athletics in 1967:
Jim "Catfish" Hunter: 13-17, 2.81 (age 21)
Jim Nash: 12-17, 3.86 (age 21)
Chuck Dobson: 10-10, 3.69 (age 22)
Blue Moon Odom: 3-8, 5.04 (age 22)
Lew Krause: 7-17, 4.28 (age 24)
Now don't let those ERAs fool you. The Athletics' team ERA was last in the league and was a full one-and-a-half runs worse than league-leading Chicago's 2.45. So those ERAs, in 2009, would be in the 4.50-6.85 range.
As these pitchers matured, they got better, and so did the Athletics. They won 82 games in 1968, 88 in 1969, 89 in 1970, and 101 in 1971, winning the American League Western Division crown.
Those five pitchers—Hunter, Nash, Dobson, Odom, and Krause—combined to win 524 games over their careers, but like all young players, they struggled early on.
So let's take a look at the Nationals current rotation, along with their scouting reports from tsn.ca:
Shairon Martis: 5-0, 4.10 (age 22)
"Has a wiry frame and a ton of potential in his right arm. Projects to have above-average stuff for a starting pitcher. A solid mid-rotation guy."
John Lannan: 2-3, 3.89 (age 24)
"Has a quality left-handed arm that relies heavily on pinpoint control. Pitches with a lot of savvy and displays a sound arm capable of logging major innings. A solid mid-rotation starter."
Jordan Zimmermann: 2-1, 5.38 (age 23)
"Is extremely polished and poised on the mound. Throws strikes and generates good movement on his pitches. Can strike a lot of batters out. A future ace."
Scott Olsen: 1-3, 7.00 (age 25)
"Able to crank it up to the mid-90s, his fastball has nasty late movement and a strong slider. He's an intense competitor on the mound and works out of jams. Could be one of the league's better lefties."
Daniel Cabrera: 0-4, 498 (age 28)
"Owns a huge frame with great reach that makes him seem to tower over hitters. Owns a nasty fastball and slider, both with good movement. Can be simply dominant when he gets rolling. As wild and inconsistent as they come. Sometimes totally loses the strike zone. High walk totals hurt him. Can lose focus with both hitters and base-runners."
So the Nationals have right now, one ace-in-the-making, a lefty who could become one of the best in the league, two solid mid-rotation guys, and Daniel Cabrera (who I'm not going to worry about because he isn't long for the Nationals).
The '67 Athletics had the makings of a superb rotation, but not all of them were around when the team won the division a few years later. It took rookie Vida Blue's 24-8, 182 strikeouts that year to make them a champion.
And of course, the Nationals won't have these same pitchers in a few years. And it will take someone like Vida Blue to step onto the mound and dominate the league for them to get close to the title.
Let's see: Who might the Nationals find to plug into that position, someone who could become the savior of the staff?
How about San Diego's Steven Strasburg, who is 12-0, 1.34, with 174 strikeouts in 94 innings. If anyone can duplicate Blue's instant stardom, it's Strasburg.
John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann, and Shairon Martis will be around for the next four to six years. Steven Strasburg—if all goes as hoped—will become the fourth member of that future rotation next year.
That leaves one spot open, and minor leaguers Craig Stammen, Ross Detwiler, or Colten Willems may one day be polished enough to fill it. Or perhaps the team will dip into the free agency pool and sign a veteran pitcher.
Fans of the Kansas City Athletics saw no hope in 1967, but it was just three years later that they became an elite franchise. There is no reason, talent-wise, that the Nationals can't follow that path.
It's hard to have patience, but trust me, in the Nationals' case, it'll be well worth the wait.
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