As the A's continue to build what they (and all of us fans) hope is going to be a dynasty that peaks in 3-7 years the core of the team is going to be the starting pitching, which has been the symbol of the A's since Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson were on the staff.
However, many of the young future cornerstones, especially Trevor Cahill and Vince Mazzaro, struggled in 2009.
The A's are presumably looking to improve next year, as the "building" begins to take hold. Thus, the rotation will need to improve on 2009's struggles.
SInce there are so few guarantees as to who will break camp in the rotation, I decided to take an admittedly premature look and suggest an Opening Day 2010 rotation.
Brett Anderson is already one of the better lefty starters in baseball, and he's only 21. He very well could be a legitimate ace in 2010.
With a nice fastball, two excellent breaking pitches, and a solid changeup, Anderson has more than enough stuff to match up well with anyone in the majors down the line.
He also has sparkling command (3.33 K/BB), and even gets a good number of ground balls (50.9 percent).
Anderson is the A's No. 1 for 2010, and, barring injury or trade, he should hold that role for the better part of the next decade.
Braden missed most of the second half with an infection, but was quite the revelation in the first half.
For years, I had claimed Braden had #2 starter potential, and he finally silenced the naysayers and proved me at least somewhat right in 2009.
Like Anderson, Braden is a lefty with good control, walking just 2.77 batters per nine. However, he gets fewer strikeouts, and his fastball and slider aren't as good as Anderson's.
Braden's changeup and screwball, which are tough to distinguish from each other, are his biggest help on the mound, helping him offset the mediocrity of his other pitches. He's a flyball guy, but that plays fine in the spacious Coliseum.
He probably will never be an ace, but Braden could have a long, Jamie Moyer-esque (okay, maybe not THAT long) career as a No. 2-No. 3 starter with more guile than stuff.
A few years back, Gio Gonzalez was a below-average but usable Double-A pitcher with the Phillies, a guy who got a lot of strikeouts but was too inconsistent to be a true asset at the level.
The next season, he repeated the level in the White Sox organization, and dominated.
In 2008, Gio was traded to the A's, who gave him his long-awaited Triple-A look. He immediately reverted to the same inconsistent pitcher he was in 2006 in Double-A.
In 2009, he came back out and dominated Triple-A.
See a pattern?
Gio Gonzalez, for whatever reason, takes a long time to acclimate to new levels. He's an emotional guy, and he struggles with his control and "feel." It seems like he needs awhile to get in a comfort zone, rather than being "the new guy."
Where am I going with this? Well, I'm saying that Gio Gonzalez will be a usable but inconsistent major league starter in 2010, and will then break out in 2011.
He has nothing left to prove in Triple-A, and even started to put a few things together in the majors late last year. Expect No. 5 starter-ish results from Gio early on, but look for some growth as the season wears on. He should be a quality No. 3 by season's end.
Yes, I'm aware he's hurt.
Outman likely won't be back for a few months once the season starts, but I'm putting him here as if he was healthy. Later on, I'll reveal a "sixth" starter who I think should be fifth until Outman returns.
Outman had a nice start to last year before going down with Tommy John surgery, showcasing mid-90's heat and two superb secondary pitches.
His control isn't quite there, and his mechanics need some smoothing, but he has excellent potential if the surgery doesn't take any toll on his stuff or command.
James Simmons, 5.72 Triple-A ERA and all, is the fifth starter.
Trevor Cahill and Vince Mazzaro both had very poor seasons last year, struggling in just about every part of their game.
Both are being counted on to be significant parts of the rotation when the A's are supposed to contend in 2011 and beyond.
Both have less than a year of Triple-A experience.
Why not send them down to Sacramento to open the year to regain some confidence and add some polish? Cahill has never even pitched in Triple-A; he sure could use it.
But why Simmons?
First off, his season wasn't nearly as bad as that ERA indicates, as his FIP was actually 3.99.
Secondly, Simmons, an extreme flyball pitcher, would work well in the Coliseum, and despite his flyball tendencies, he did a nice job limiting HRs last year (.60/9 IP), something Cahill and Mazzaro struggled with.
Finally, Simmons is only looked at as a future No. 4-No. 5 guy, so the "messing him up" downside is less than that of Mazzaro or Cahill. Heck, Simmons also has more Sacramento starts than either.
A control guy with a nice fastball, good changeup, and a slider that took a big step forward last year, Simmons has some potential, and, at the very least, can keep the seat warm while Mazzaro and Cahill take some refresher courses.
Who, you ask?
Kyle Middleton is a 29-year-old independent league signee who was originally drafted in the 49th round (!) of 1999 (!!).
After spending a decade in the Kansas City and Houston organizations, Middleton was toying around in indie ball when the A's signed him late last year.
Cast in a starting role for the first time since 2006, the big righty dominated the Double-A Texas League down the stretch, posting a 2.69 ERA and a WHIP below 1 in nine starts.
Middleton is a big guy who throws a high-80's fastball consistently in the bottom of the zone. This leads to lots of grounders and very low walk totals.
That skillset makes him a perfect option to make 10-20 starts while Outman rehabs and Mazzaro and Cahill get some seasoning.
At Middleton's age, there's no downside, and who knows, maybe he succeeds and the A's have a trade chip on their hands at the deadline.