Oakland A's: Young Pitching Wave Has Team Ahead of Course

Ray YockeContributor IJuly 14, 2009

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 11:  Trevor Cahill #53 of the Oakland Athletics pitches against the Minnesota Twins during a Major League Baseball game on June 11, 2009 at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

The Oakland A’s enter the All-Star break coming off a nightmare first half, one in which nothing has gone as planned. And despite their win-loss record, that’s actually a good thing.

Billy Beane built these A’s with offense in mind, loading up on veteran sluggers who were supposed to take pressure off the team’s young pitchers. However, while Oakland’s hitters have failed to show up so far, their pubescent pitching corps has arrived en masse.

Until Josh Outman blew out his elbow last month, Oakland’s starting rotation featured four rookies, a strategy usually reserved for teams looking to who want to finish in dead last.

And while the A’s may currently be in last place, they don’t figure to stay there for long. The team’s young starters have been just as good as advertised, which is saying something.

Before any of them had made their major league debut, the trio of Cahill, Anderson, and Mazzaro were already being compared to Hudson-Mulder-Zito, creating a sea of unreal expectations. Yet despite the pressure placed on them, they’ve each pitched well enough to guarantee a spot in next year’s rotation.

Dallas Braden has been the team’s ace this season, and team gray beard Justin Duchscherer is on his way back to fill Outman’s spot. Even Gio Gonzalez still holds some promise, in spite of his immaturity and an ERA that looks like a Salvador Dali painting.

Oakland is also assembling an army of young pitching in the minors (Simmons, Ross, de los Santos, Ynoa), which they can call up or trade away for hitters down the road. Unfortunately, the latter seems more likely, given the organization’s eternal lack of offense.

As good as the A’s have been at consistently churning out young pitchers, they’ve been equally poor at producing hitting prospects. This year’s team wouldn’t have been any worse had they combined bat day with helmet day and let the fans take some hacks.

Finding cheap offense has become harder and harder for the A’s: As Beane’s lieutenants move on to other teams and the word of “Moneyball” continues to spread, unearthing on-base savants has became more and more difficult. Teams like Boston and Toronto now target the same types of players as Oakland, but with more money to spend on them.

Castaways like Matt Stairs, John Jaha, and even Jeremy Giambi are now harder to come by, which makes it even more important for Oakland to develop offense from within. Allowing players like Carlos Pena and Nelson Cruz to get away, or letting Daric Barton and Travis Buck rot in Triple-A, are the kinds of missteps the A’s can’t continue to make.

Beane & Co. will have to find a new inefficiency in the market, which will be the key to their sustained success. For several years, defense was the new black, which brought the likes of Mark Kotsay and Jay Payton to the East Bay.

The current A’s seem to be a hybrid of several recent market trends, combining slick fielders (Ellis, Cabrera) with on-base sluggers (Giambi, Cust) and injury-prone veterans who make Carl Pavano look like Cal Ripken, Jr. (Garciaparra.)

What the A’s have working in their favor is that offense is easier to find than pitching, a lesson which Texas re-learns annually. Old, slowpoke sluggers who may have another 30-homer season left in their bat will always come cheaper than former aces with another 20-win season left in their arm.

So while this year’s hitters may have Billy Beane looking for a “wrap it up” box once the trade deadline passes, 2009 should be looked at as a blessing in disguise for Oakland.

Thanks to their young pitchers taking over sooner than expected, the A’s rebuilding plan has been accelerated, and the team should be a contender for the 2010 AL West crown.

The Oakland Sports Examiner, new columns every Tuesday and Thursday.


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