The Oakland A's starting rotation finished the 2010 season with the best group ERA of any rotation in the American League at 3.47. The A's also led the league in shut-outs and batting average against. Despite those great numbers, many are expecting the A's pitching staff to be even better in 2011, thanks in large part to the assumed maturation of the team's top four starters: Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden. All under the age of 28, the A's Fab Four will take the bulk of the team's innings this season, if all goes according to Oakland's master plan. But who will be the A's Fifth Beatles in 2011?
The candidates for the final spot in the A's rotation are plentiful. Spurred by the fact that 10 different pitchers made starts for the A's in 2010, the Oakland front office stacked the spring training roster with pitchers who could compete for the fifth starter's role. Some of the candidates were already in-house: Bobby Cramer, Tyson Ross and Josh Outman each made starts for the A's at some point over the last two seasons. Others were brought in as free agents: Brandon McCarthy and Rich Harden were signed to major league deals after spending the 2010 season in the Texas Rangers' organization. There are also a few darkhorse candidates who could factor into the race should injuries begin to pile up (namely Guillermo Moscoso and Yadel Marti).
Given that the team needed 10 different starters to get through last season, chances are that more than one pitcher from this list will ultimately play a significant role in the A's rotation. In fact, in many ways the A's are already planning for that scenario. Oakland's Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi, in an interview with OaklandClubhouse last month, described the A's pitching depth in discussing the team's decision to bring back the oft-injured Harden: "I think you have to go in hoping that you get 20-25 Rich Harden starts, which is actually very, very valuable, and have the depth to work around that if there are times during the season when he needs time off to recover. And I think we do have that depth."
That depth as it relates to Harden is already being tested. On Thursday morning, the team announced that Harden would be shut-down from his throwing program for two weeks with soreness in his lat region. That inactivity could prevent Harden from winning the fifth starter spot, a spot that he would clearly be the favorite for if he were to stay healthy. Harden struggled in 2010 with the Rangers, but he and A's pitching coach Ron Romanick both believe that Harden will be able to return to the form he had with the A's back in 2008, when he had a 2.34 ERA in 77 innings before being traded to the Chicago Cubs.
If Harden doesn't win the job out of camp, the competition intensifies. McCarthy, the former Texas and Chicago White Sox starter, has the most major league starting experience of the remaining candidates. Once considered one of the top young starters in the American League, McCarthy has fallen on hard times of late thanks to a series of injuries. He made 17 starts for Texas in 2009, but was limited to only 56.1 innings – all at Triple-A – in 2010 thanks to shoulder problems. The 6'7'' right-hander made four starts in the Dominican Winter League this off-season and is reportedly healthy. He will be stretched out as a starter, but could also be considered for a spot as a long reliever in the A's bullpen. McCarthy has a minor league option remaining, as well, so if he doesn't win a big league job out of camp, he will serve as insurance for whoever does win that fifth starter job while at Triple-A Sacramento.
Of the remaining candidates for the fifth starter spot, Cramer had the most starts for the A's in 2010 with four. Ironically, he wasn't even pitching for the A's organization for the majority of the 2010 season. The A's had lent him to the Quintana Roo Tigres of the Mexican Summer League, but after he won the Mexican League's Pitcher of the Year award and posted a 1.94 ERA in seven starts for Sacramento, Cramer was called on to be the team's fifth starter in September. He acquitted himself well, posting a 3.04 ERA in 23.2 innings.
Cramer has an injury history of his own, having battled numerous arm problems throughout his professional career, but he made 31 starts and threw 200 innings last season without missing a start. Should he win the job, Cramer will give the A's the unique distinction of having four left-handers in the rotation. Despite pitching in the big leagues last season, Cramer is attending his first big league spring training this year and has the fewest number of big league innings of any of the A's main fifth starter candidates. Like fellow lefty Braden, Cramer relies on keeping hitters off-balance and a solid off-speed pitch to get outs.
Another southpaw, Outman, will be a major player in the A's fifth starter race. Outman won the A's fifth starter spot in 2009 with a good spring and he wound-up posting a 3.48 ERA and striking out 53 in 67.1 innings that season before he was shut-down with a sore elbow that resulted in Tommy John surgery. Outman's rehab concluded at the end of the 2010 season and he was able to throw in live games during the A's fall Instructional League, so he should be able to participate in spring training with few restrictions.
Before the injury, Outman had excellent pure stuff, and surprising velocity for a left-hander of his size (he is listed at 6'1''). Assuming he comes back with that same level of stuff, he could be the leading candidate for the spot. However, many pitchers struggle with command issues while coming back from Tommy John surgery. The A's may also want to limit Outman's innings in 2011 to build him up for a full 2012 season, so starting him in Triple-A on a modified starter's schedule or in the bullpen could provide the A's with an opportunity to keep him under 30 starts and 200 innings.
Ross, like McCarthy, is a towering right-hander who has had his share of injury problems during his short career. Ross, the A's 2008 second-round pick out of Cal, was a surprise member of the Oakland bullpen at the start of the 2010 season, but he was a starter throughout his collegiate and minor league career. When he was sent down to the minor leagues by the A's in July, Ross was moved into the Sacramento starting rotation. He pitched well for the River Cats (3.55 ERA and 30 strike-outs in 25.1 innings), but Ross was sidelined after only six starts with a shoulder strain. He rehabbed the shoulder during the off-season and enters camp healthy.
Although Ross made 26 appearances (including two starts) for the A's last season, he is still in the learning stage of his professional career. Ross has had only one full season in the minor leagues (2009 when he made 27 starts for High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland) and he has never thrown more than 170 innings in a season in his career. Ross has had minor arm problems dating back to college and is coming off of a season in which he threw only 64.2 innings total. This is all a long way of saying that should Ross win the fifth starter spot out of camp, he will likely be on an innings limit for most of the season. There is also a case to be made that the soon-to-be 24-year-old needs more seasoning in Triple-A before becoming a full-time big league starter. That being said, of this group, only Harden has better pure stuff than Ross.
The two other starters in A's camp are new to the organization: right-handers Guillermo Moscoso and Yadel Marti. Neither pitcher is a serious candidate to win a rotation spot this spring, but both could position themselves for a look down-the-road should the A's experience the same level of injuries they did in 2010.
Moscoso was acquired in a trade by the A's from the Rangers for minor leaguer Ryan Kelly in January. The Venezuelan right-hander made 22 starts and one relief appearance for Triple-A Oklahoma last season, posting a 5.18 ERA in 123.1 innings. He pitched well this winter for the Caracas Leones of the Venezuelan Winter League, putting up a 2.66 ERA in 40.2 innings, mostly as a starter. Moscoso was once a top prospect in the Detroit Tigers chain and has some experience relieving in addition to starting. He has made 11 major league appearances, all in relief.
Marti is the only non-roster starting pitcher invited to big league camp. The A's signed the former Cuban national team ace to a minor league contract last year. Before signing with Oakland, Marti made eight starts in the Mexican Summer League last season, posting a 4.19 ERA in 43 innings for Veracruz. The 5'11'' right-hander made the World Baseball Classic All-Tournament team in 2006 as a reliever and was a star as a starter for the Cuban team during the 2007 World Cup. Marti defected from Cuba in 2008 and played in the Dominican Republic and in Mexico over the past two years. He is a big wildcard in A's camp, as Marti has never played affiliated baseball and he is 31 years old, but he has experience pitching against high-level competition on some big stages.
Given the A's injury history over the last few seasons, chances are that the fifth spot in Oakland's rotation will be filled by more than one pitcher over the course of the season. In addition, Anderson and Braden are coming off of injury problems in 2010, so their innings may be monitored closely over the course of the 162-game schedule. Consequently, how these pitchers perform in camp could go a long way towards determining not only who breaks camp with the A's on April 1, but also who the team turns to when the first DL stint is announced.