Oakland A's Spring Training: Gio Gonzalez Emerging as Ace, Choice Turning Heads

Brandon McClintock@@BMcClintock_BSNCorrespondent IMarch 9, 2011

The biggest competition this Spring in Athletics camp was supposed to be the battle for the fifth starter spot in the rotation. Gio Gonzalez, however, has taken center stage in his appearances this spring and created a competition with fellow rotation-mates Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson for the team's number one spot.

While Trevor Cahill emerged as the team's ace last season, and Brett Anderson has been hyped as being the pitcher eventually poised to take over the team's role as the ace of the staff, Gonzalez did not spend the offseason sitting back, content in his role as the number three pitcher. Instead Gonzalez spent the offseason working on his legs, abs and his balance.

"I wanted to get myself ready for Dallas Braden, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill," Gonzalez said. "They're always ready. I figured, '"Hey, why not join them?'"

The difference from a year ago is amazing. Last spring Gio was competing with Trevor Cahill for the fifth spot in the rotation. Gonzalez eventually won that competition, thanks in part to an injury that would land Cahill in Sacramento for a pair of tune-up starts to begin the season. Gonzalez is guaranteed of a spot in this year's rotation, allowing him to relax and work on fine-tuning his pitches for the regular season.

"You still have to go out there and try to perform," Gonzalez said. "At the same time, I don't have to kill myself like I did last year."

So far, the results have been dominant. In two appearances Gonzalez has pitched a total of five innings and compiled the following line: 0.00 ERA, zero hits, zero runs, zero earned runs, 10 strikeouts, two base on balls and a 0.40 WHIP.

According to Oakland backup catcher Landon Powell, Gonzalez can be unhittable, as he has been so far this spring.

"His stuff is electric. When he spots his fastball and gets ahead in the count, the curveball is unhittable," Powell said.

In his spring debut, Gonzalez threw 25 pitches as he shut down the Cincinnati Reds, striking out five batters. Of his 25 pitches, 17 were thrown for strikes and he reached 95 MPH on the radar gun.

"That was amazing," manager Bob Geren said of Gonzalez's outing. "He was sharp as can be."

Following Gonzalez in the game was Brett Anderson, who many scouts and baseball writers had slotted ahead of Gio in the rotation. "Yeah, Gio totally screwed me on that one," Anderson said with a grin. "How am I supposed to follow that?"

And so was the case in Gonzalez's second appearance this spring, three more scoreless innings and five more strikeouts.

Trevor Cahill (8.10 ERA, 10 hits, six earned runs, 1.80 WHIP in 6.2 innings over three games) and Brett Anderson (7.20 ERA, seven hits, four earned runs, 1.60 WHIP in five innings over two games) will likely wind up the two candidates competing for the Opening Day start against Felix Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners. If Gonzalez continues to dominate the Cactus League, it will be hard for manager Bob Geren to overlook Gio for the honor.

As Gonzalez continues his maturity and development as a major league pitcher, he could very well wind up the ace of the Athletics' elite rotation.

Gonzalez recognizes that while he has enjoyed early success, it is still very early and he must keep working to improve on his craft.

"I hope I don't peak too soon. I've got a lot of work to do. I've still got a lot of room for growth, mentally," says Gonzalez.

Fifth Starter Update

Rich Harden has been improving from his early spring injury and has been able to throw pain free from 120 feet twice in his most recent spring workouts. The next step for Harden is to throw from the mound and throw a live batting practice. Harden is at least still a week or two away from making his Cactus League debut, leaving him little time to jump back into the competition.

Josh Outman, who looked impressive in his bullpen sessions early on, has been anything but impressive in his three appearances so far. This spring Outman has yielded six runs and 11 hits while walking six in 4 2/3 innings. If Outman does not rebound in his next few appearances he will likely find himself starting the season in Sacramento to continue improving his control and gaining more game experience.

Tyson Ross followed up Gonzalez's impressive performance against the Brewers with three scoreless innings of his own. In three appearances so far Ross has a perfect 0.00 ERA with six hits and six strikeouts in 6.2 innings.

Brandon McCarthy has pitched twice this spring, compiling five innings allowing only two runs (3.60 ERA) while striking out four.

Rounding out the A's competition for the fifth spot, Bobby Cramer has an impressive 1.29 ERA in seven innings, allowing only four hits while striking out one.

Michael Choice Turning Heads

Choice spent the offseason working with Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim outfielder Torii Hunter, and the results have been impressive in his first Spring Training. So far in 16 at-bats Choice has six hits for a .375 AVG.

Choice has been impressing veterans and scouts alike with his time in the batting cage, but also with his preparation and approach to his first Cactus League camp.

"Nothing fazes him," manager Bob Geren said. "I've never seen anyone that played at basically one of the lowest levels come up here and be so comfortable. You'd never know that he had never been here before. He gets good jumps on balls in the outfield, he's been aggressive at the plate, he's swung at strikes for the most part. He looks pretty advanced based on his experience level. What you see and then knowing what he's done, experience-wise, they don't match. He's way ahead of that."

Coco Crisp, who will eventually be replaced by Choice in centerfield (possibly as early as next season), added this about the rookie:

"He seems to have a good head on his shoulders," Crisp said. "From the baseball standpoint, you'd think he's been here for a couple years. Inside the clubhouse, he's very quiet and humble."

"He puts a lot into his swing," Crisp added, "but it doesn't look that way. It's hard but effortless. He's just a natural baseball player."

"From what I've seen, he definitely has the ability to be something special. I'm not sure how that's going to translate."

Crisp was not the only person at A's camp to comment about Choice. Oakland A's Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, on hand as a special instructor for Spring Training has also taken note of Michael Choice.

"He's got all the tools, and he's just here at camp to develop and make all those things come out," Henderson said. "I'm very impressed with him, especially the power that comes out of him. He's a real nice player, goes about his business the right way. He's very smart, he observes a lot and that's a good sign."

Upon being drafted last season, Choice declared that he would be in the Major Leagues within two seasons. While at the time it seemed like a long shot, Choice seems to be headed in that direction.

"It might have been a little premature to say I'll be in the big leagues in two years, but it's still a goal," he said. "It's a good goal to have because that's extremely fast. If I can get there in that time, then great. If I can't, I'll keep working as hard as I can."

Brandon McClintock covers the Oakland Athletics and Major League Baseball for BleacherReport.com. You can follow him on Twitter:     @BMcClintock_BR.


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