Oakland Athletics: Who Should Be the 5th Starter?

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Oakland Athletics: Who Should Be the 5th Starter?
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Jason Hammel was acquired to be a steady back-of-the-rotation arm, but has struggled mightily with the A's.

Jason Hammel was having a career year for the Chicago Cubs when he was traded to the Oakland Athletics on July 5. He's been a completely different pitcher since then, raising questions about whether the A's should be looking for another pitcher to round out their top-tier starting rotation.

General manager Billy Beane gutted the farm to get Jeff Samardzija and Hammel, who was 7-5 with a 2.98 ERA at the time of the trade. He's 1-5 with a 6.75 ERA since coming to Oakland, with only 32 innings pitched over seven starts.

Another trade for Jon Lester forced Jesse Chavez, who began the year brilliantly but struggled over his last few starts, into the bullpen. Drew Pomeranz was also a very good pitcher earlier in the season until he landed on the disabled list in June, then didn't have a roster spot when he recovered.

Hammel's major league experience means the A's can't send him down to Triple-A Sacramento without his consent, as noted by Athletics Nation's Jeremy F. Koo. Given the amount of teams who might be interested in taking a flier on Hammel, it's unlikely he would accept assignment and would therefore become a free agent.

The A's will likely call up Pomeranz when rosters expand on September 1, opening up a debate on whether he, Chavez or Hammel should be Oakland's fifth starter. Each player was successful in the beginning of the season but has fallen on hard times since.

 

Jason Hammel

Beane dealt 2012 first-round draft pick Addison Russell, 2013 first-rounder Billy McKinney and Quadruple-A pitcher Dan Straily for Samardzija and Hammel. While Samardzija was certainly the bigger name, Hammel was supposed to be an upgrade over the mediocre Brad Mills.

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Hammel strung a couple good starts together against the Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins, but was hit hard by the Atlanta Braves in his last outing.

On the periphery, Hammel looked nearly as good as "Shark" at the time of the trade. He was allowing just over one baserunner per inning and had a 4.52 K/BB ratio. Since coming to Oakland, though, his K/BB has plummeted to 1.24 while his WHIP has swelled to 1.88.

Looking at Hammel's track record, it's easy to recognize his first-half dominance as an aberration. Other than an injury-shortened 2012 campaign, the right-hander has never had an ERA below 4.33 or a WHIP under 1.39 since entering the league in 2006.

Hitters had a ridiculous .138 Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) against Hammel in April, by the far the lowest in the majors. He also stranded 94.1 percent of his baserunners, which, like the low BABIP, is more an indication of his early luck than actual skill.

The point? Hammel's recent struggles aren't hiccups by a quality pitcher, they're regressions toward the season-long expected result for a player who has been mediocre at best throughout his career.

 

Jesse Chavez

I analyzed the reasons for Chavez's decline from one of the league's hottest pitchers to a long reliever a couple weeks ago, but here's the Cliff Notes version: His early stats were misleading (like Hammel's), hitters eventually figured out his new approach on the mound and he isn't built to last a whole season as a starter.

Chavez has pitched well since moving to the bullpen after the Lester deal, giving up two earned runs in 9.2 innings. The A's have used him for one inning at a time as well as longer stints, like when Chavez threw three innings in Hammel's last start on August 15.

A decreased workload out of the bullpen could be enough rest for Chavez to regain his form as a starter. His 6'2", 160-pound frame can't eat up innings like Hammel, who is four inches taller and 65 pounds heavier. 

Chavez thrived as the A's long reliever in 2013 and has pitched well since re-entering the role this month.

Whoever the fifth starter is, they won't get a chance to pitch until August 26, per the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser. The A's can afford to skip Hammel's spot in the rotation with two off days this week, so they'll throw Sonny Gray, Jon Lester and Scott Kazmir against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim over the weekend.

 

Drew Pomeranz

Like Chavez, Pomeranz was a long reliever thrust into a starting role when Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin underwent Tommy John surgery before the start of the season. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2010 draft, Pomeranz bombed to the tune of a 4-14 record with a 5.20 ERA and 1.54 WHIP in parts of three seasons with the Colorado Rockies but thrived after switching from Coors Field to O.Co Coliseum.

Pomeranz replaced Straily as a starter in early May after a month of dominance out of the bullpen and proceeded to twirl gems for a month until he broke his non-throwing hand punching a chair after a rare bad start. He allowed one earned run or less in five of eight starts, but Beane had acquired Hammel and Samardzija by the time he fully recovered from the injury.

Pomeranz shut down the Seattle Mariners in his first start with the A's.

The only thing left for Pomeranz to do is continue playing well in Triple-A, which he has done. He's averaging more than a strikeout per inning and pitching deep into games, something he rarely did with Oakland due to struggles with his command and concerns about his durability.

Pomeranz is riding a hot streak of three consecutive wins and has given up more than two runs just once in seven starts. He's earned a serious look from the A's brass after his inevitable September call-up.

 

Verdict

Who Should the A's Fifth Starter Be in September

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Hammel has one more chance to prove the doubters wrong this month. If he can't give the A's a quality start, it may be time to start looking elsewhere.

Chavez will likely be the next option should Hammel flop because he spent more time as a starter in the bigs this season. He's likely to get a few more relief appearances before Oakland's roster expands, giving him the opportunity to further boost his profile.

This leaves Pomeranz with the short end of the stick despite his steady performance throughout the season. He hasn't done anything wrong besides punching a chair in a fit of admitted stupidity. But Oakland still doesn't really have a spot for him, so he's likely to be a long reliever in September and not join the A's if they make the playoffs.

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