When the A’s arrived in Phoenix for spring training in late February, they were expected to have two rookies on their 25-man roster: starting pitcher Joe Blanton and outfielder Nick Swisher. Both players were 2002 first round draft picks who had risen through the A’s system at roughly the same pace and who had received some playing time in Oakland at the tail-end of the 2004 season.
Then came an injury to reliever Chad Bradford and suddenly rookie reliever Huston Street was also given a spot on the Opening Day roster. Street was a 2004 supplemental first round draft pick who had been promoted three levels during his first professional season in 2004. The team had high expectations for Street, but many expected that he would at least spend some time in AAA-Sacramento in 2005.
The A’s fourth rookie got a late beginning to his major league season. First baseman Dan Johnson did all he could in 2004 to earn a spot on the 2005 roster. He won the Pacific Coast League MVP and was impressive during a stay in the Mexican Winter League. Johnson had a strong spring training, but with veterans Scott Hatteberg and Erubiel Durazo ahead of him, Johnson was returned to AAA to start the season. He excelled again for the River Cats in April and May and eventually got the call when Durazo went down with an injury. Let’s take a look at how each rookie has performed this season:
*Note that Keiichi Yabu, while technically a rookie, isn't under consideration for this article due to his veteran status in Japan.
Blanton, like Swisher, was one of the featured draft choices in the book “Moneyball”, so his tenure with the Oakland organization has always been high-profile. The Kentucky grad caught everyone’s attention in 2003 when he dominated the Midwest and Texas Leagues. Coming into the 2004 season, he was widely considered one of the top pitching prospects in baseball and was, unquestionably, the A’s top starting pitching prospect. Blanton’s 2004 campaign for Sacramento was somewhat disappointing, as he struggled with the homerun ball and a mid-season dead-arm period. However, he was impressive in two late-season relief appearances for Oakland, so expectations for the big right-hander were high going into the 2005 season.
Blanton got his season off on the right foot with a solid April. Despite not earning a win during this month, Blanton was one of the A’s best pitchers. He posted a 2.07 ERA with one complete game and he allowed only 26 hits in 30.1 innings pitched. However, there were a few disturbing trends in Blanton’s performance in April that may have been precursors to a disappointing month of May. First, Blanton wasn’t making hitters miss enough of his pitches. He had only 10 strikeouts in those 30.1 innings. Second, he had allowed one homerun in every April start except one. His final April start – a 4.2 inning effort where he allowed four runs and eight hits – was the beginning of a string of bad outings that lasted throughout the month of May.
The month of May was a forgettable one for Blanton. After a decent six inning effort against the New York Yankees at the Stadium, Blanton failed to go five innings in any of his next four starts. He hit rock-bottom in a May 25 start against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays where he went only a third of an inning before being yanked. He followed it up five days later with a mediocre 4.2 inning outing in a game the A’s would win with a ninth-inning rally and some extra-inning heroics. After that start, Blanton was in danger of being pulled from the starting rotation.
If Blanton goes on to be an All-Star caliber starting pitcher, he may look back at his start against Toronto on June 4 as one of the turning points in his career. On that date, Blanton found himself with an 0-5 record and an unsightly 6.66 ERA. He must have been thinking “here I go again” when Vernon Wells and Alexis Rios took him deep for solo shots in the first and second innings, respectively. However, Blanton dug deep and allowed only two more hits and no more runs over seven strong innings. The A’s would rally late and Blanton would earn his first major league win, a 5-2 decision.
Blanton has been consistently good since that start. He has gone fewer than seven innings only once and he has two eight inning efforts. Twice he took no-hitters into the 5th inning of games. Since the start of June, Blanton is 5-2 with an ERA just over 2.00. His strikeouts have increased and his homeruns have gone down. He even won the AL Rookie of the Month for his efforts in June.
Thus far, Blanton has shown tremendous poise for a rookie starter. He controls the running game well for a young pitcher and he has shown the capacity for working out of some very tough jams. He still performs better at home than on the road, something that is common for rookies. However, his home/road splits become a lot more even when you take out that horrific start in Tampa. In the first half, Blanton has lived up to his reputation of being a workhorse pitcher who doesn’t walk a lot batters and works quickly. He may not be the number one ace that some predicted he would be back in his breakout season of 2003, but Blanton has certainly shown during this first half that he is more than capable of being a solid middle of the rotation starter.
Like his fellow 2002 draft pick Blanton, Swisher had been etched into the A’s Opening Day roster since the end of the 2004 season. The brash young outfielder was coming off of a solid 2004 campaign for Sacramento that saw him hit 29 homers in only 125 games. He also went on to hit two homers in a short September stint with Oakland. Swisher struggled through much of spring training, but the A’s stuck with him and gave him a spot in the line-up every day.
Swisher responded to that faith by posting a good first week of the season. He homered twice in the second game of the season, a 9-0 win over Baltimore. However, he struggled for much of the rest of April, hitting only one more homerun and finishing the month with a .218 batting average. Swisher didn’t have a chance to redeem himself in May, as he crashed into the rightfield wall on May 1 and he was out for three weeks with a shoulder sprain.
He returned to the line-up on May 25, but didn’t make his presence felt until five days later. On May 30, Swisher ignited what eventually was a remarkable turnaround to the A’s first half of the season. Batting with two-outs and two-strikes in the bottom of the ninth inning against Tampa Bay closer Danys Baez, Swisher grounded a sharp single up the middle to keep the game alive. Oakland would eventually score two in that inning to tie the game and would win in the 11th inning. That game snapped an eight-game losing streak for Oakland and was the start of a streak of six wins in seven games for the A’s.
Swisher was a busy man in the month of June. He played in all but two games and was a strong contributor in the A’s huge June. Swisher posted an 813 OPS and hit six homeruns, putting him at the top of the AL leaderboard for rookies. He became the first Oakland A’s player since Ruben Sierra to homer from both sides of the plate in the same game in the A’s 16-0 whitewashing of the Giants. He has continued that strong play into July. In nine games, Swisher has hit two homers, has driven in seven runs and has a 1.002 OPS.
Despite missing almost an entire month with that shoulder injury, Swisher is second on the A’s in homeruns with 11 and he leads all rookies in that category. On a team that is starved for power, Swisher has provided much-needed pop at the bottom of the order. He has also shown a flare for the dramatic, as he has been in the middle of a number of the A’s late-inning rallies. His performance in the A’s final game of the first half against the White Sox might be a good summary for his entire first half performance. He failed to drive in runs in his early at-bats, but he regrouped and hit a clutch solo homer in the ninth to give the A’s a two-run lead and then knocked in the game-winning run in the 11th inning with a double.
Swisher has struggled from the right-side of the plate and still has the occasional lapse defensively, but, otherwise, he is fulfilling most of the expectations that were levied on him as the season began. He probably won’t hit for a high batting average, but Swisher could realistically surpass Bobby Crosby’s rookie total of 22 homeruns from last season.
There have been very few collegiate closers who have received as much ink as Street received coming out of Texas last season. Street was simply light’s out for the Longhorns during his three years with the team and many thought the A’s got a steal when they took him with the 40th pick. He backed up that hype in an amazing 2004 professional debut that saw him start at low-A Kane County and end in AAA-Sacramento. Along the way, Street posted a 1.38 ERA. Coming into the 2005 draft, both the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox drafted relievers they hoped would be the “next Huston Street”.
Coming into this spring, the general consensus was that the A’s wouldn’t rush their future closer. After all, Oakland was scheduled to have a veteran bullpen led by incumbent closer Octavio Dotel, new acquisitions Kiko Calero and Juan Cruz, and holdovers Chad Bradford and Ricardo Rincon. Injuries and ineffectiveness, however, quickly changed the A’s thinking. Bradford went down early in camp with a back injury that would shelve him for three months. Suddenly the A’s had an open spot in the bullpen and Street took advantage. He dazzled in early spring training games and impressed the A’s coaching staff with his poise.
When he made the Opening Day roster, many thought that Street would be eased into major league life by working primarily in non-pressure situations. However, an injury to A’s set-up man Kiko Calero and the ineffectiveness of set-man Juan Cruz quickly forced Street into tight late-inning situations. Street performed well in those situations, allowing only four runs in 12.2 innings in April. He got even better in May, posting a 1.20 ERA in 15 innings pitched. It was in May when his role took on a whole new focus. On May 18, Dotel went on the DL with a season-ending elbow injury and Street was quickly pushed into the closer’s role that he seemed destined to fill.
Despite being the team’s closer on May 18, Street wasn’t actually given a save opportunity until June 2, due to the team’s struggles. He converted four saves over the next two weeks, but then was sidelined for ten days with a tender hamstring. Street returned on June 30 with a shut-out inning against Seattle. He had his first blown save since being named closer on July 5, but it was a tough-luck blown save, as an error allowed the tying run to score. Street converted a save against the Chicago White Sox on July 8, but had his biggest test two days later. He blew a two-run lead in the bottom of the 9th against Chicago to send the game into extra-innings by allowing his first major league homerun and a two-out, game-tying double. Street recovered to throw a scoreless 10th and when the A’s took the lead in the top of the 11th, he gutted out a tough bottom half of the 11th to earn the win. His 3.1 inning performance was the longest of his major league career and gave the A’s a much-needed boost going into the second half of the season.
Street’s two blown saves this past week serve to show that he is, in fact, human. However, they are really the only blemishes in what has been a remarkable rookie season for the rookie reliever. Even after allowing two runs yesterday, Street’s ERA is still a sparkling 1.67. He is striking out batters at an impressive rate (44 strikeouts in 43 innings) and he is holding opposing batters to a .196 clip. Street has shown tremendous maturity for a player one year removed from college and he should be a strong contender for the AL Rookie of the Year award if the A’s give him more save chances in the second half.
During the A’s struggles in May, it was many an Oakland fan’s mantra that Johnson should be given a chance to play at the major league level. The PCL MVP became a fan favorite with a strong spring training and his impressive play for Sacramento. He was given a chance at the major league level at the end of May when Durazo went down with an injury and he hasn’t disappointed. Since arriving on the major league roster, Johnson has been in the line-up practically every day, taking over the starting first base duties from incumbent Scott Hatteberg. He has held his own with the glove at first, but he has also done an excellent job replacing the production of the injured Durazo.
Johnson’s first at-bat resulted in a walk and that is probably indicative of his performance since joining the team. He has had very few bad at-bats and has walked more times then he has struck out (19:14), a remarkable feat for a rookie power hitter. Johnson has also shown himself to be a good situational hitter. He currently leads the A’s in efficiency for getting a runner in from third with less then two outs, something that Oakland has struggled with over the past few seasons. Johnson’s power numbers took awhile to get going, but lately he has shown the homerun stroke that he had in the minor leagues. Johnson hit his first major league homerun against Seattle on June 21 and he has hit three more since then. He has also hit seven doubles and currently sports a respectable .453 slugging percentage and an 832 OPS.
Johnson has been moved around in the batting order from fifth to eighth and has done best in the fifth and seventh slots. His .291 batting average is second on the team behind shortstop Bobby Crosby and his .379 on-base percentage is third. Johnson has had a few rookie lapses in the field, but he has primarily done a good job at first. He may spend the second half of the season in the lower third of the A’s batting order if Oakland can acquire another power hitter, but he appears to be rounding into a future middle of the order force for the A’s.