Five Questions: Oakland A’s

Here we go again.

Another off-season, another round of dizzying roster changes for the Oakland Athletics. If they were written off after losing Miguel Tejada following the 2003 season, what calamites can we expect this year now that Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder have been traded? Flooding? Check. California, especially southern CA, has had much more rain than normal. Higher gas prices? Check. While prices are not the highest ever when adjusted for inflation, all those people with their Hummers trapped in the surging waters alongside puny Cadillac Escalades are down-grading their vacation plans from 24 days in the Caribbean to 23 days. Democrats embracing Governor Schwarzenegger? Check. Looks, swagger, muscles, charisma up the wazoo, no more nauseating re-runs of Kindergarten Cop on TBS. What’s not to like? The A’s dropping into the second division, finishing below .500, and bringing about the end of the Billy Beane era in Oakland? Sorry, that’s a calamity I’m not prepared to predict.

Nonetheless, it’s possible. In fact, if I was to offer up an Officially Endorsed Cliché for the 2005 A’s, it’d be that “Anything is possible.” They could win 94 games. They could win 78 games. They could win 86 games. They could win 71 games. They could win 99 games. They could win 91 games. They could win . . .

Editor’s Note: I put a stop to this rambling. John went on for 1,248 more words, for crying out loud! People complain that what non-mainstream media outlets need most are editors. Rest assured, that is not a problem here at THT with regards to Mr. Gizzi or any of our writers. The “Five Questions” part about this essay will begin shortly, that is to say, once I’m done here. Which I am.

1. What happens to the rotation now that Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Mark Redman are gone?

Let’s ask that again!

2. What happens to the rotation now that Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Mark Redman are gone?

You’re probably thinking, “Umm, that’s only one question just presented two times.” It is true. But there is no bigger question facing the A’s, so we’re doubling it. Anyhoo, we all know about the fundamental paradox that is the expression “pitching prospect.” We all know that for every Roy Oswalt, there are five Bud Smiths. Only, the A’s are doing something few teams have done over the years: introducing at least two, and in all likelihood three, unproven starters in their rotation. It’s true that Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, and Dan Meyer have talent. So did Rick Ankiel, Sam Militello, Scott Elarton, Carlos Hernandez, Brandon Clausen, Ed Yarnall, Ryan Rupe, et al, et al, et al. It’s also a well-known fact that even pitchers who have gone on to have brilliant careers were not so good their first-time around. Think Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mulder, and many others.

These pitchers below had talent, too, and they were being counted on not only as individuals but also as a group.

2004: Baltimore Orioles

                 IP    H  BB    K  HR  ERA+
Matt Riley       64   60  40   60  11   85
Erik Bedard     137  149  71  121  13  104
Kurt Ainsworth   31   39  20   20   6   49

Admittedly, those are small sample sizes. But that’s the point in this case, and in most of these cases below. All three of those pitchers, in particular Ainsworth and Riley, were expected to contribute to the new-look Orioles, who had upgraded their offense by adding Tejada and Javy Lopez. Ainsworth was coming back from arm problems, and Riley had battled injuries and wildness in his past. Hopes were high, though, for Ainsworth, and Riley was a top prospect who had supposedly escaped the injury nexus and was poised to break out in 2004. He didn’t, and neither did Ainsworth, and the Orioles, not expected to contend but expected to be close to contention, bashed their way to 78 wins.

GRADE: F

2003: San Francisco Giants

                  IP    H  BB    K  HR  ERA+
Jesse Foppert    111  103  69  101  16   85
Jerome Williams  131  116  49   88  10  133
Kurt Ainsworth    66   66  26   48   7  112

More encouraging, but only slightly, because injuries ruined Ainsworth and Foppert’s seasons, and Ainsworth was eventually swapped to Baltimore. Fortunately for the Giants, they had Barry Bonds, Jason Schmidt, and a deep bullpen—and quite a bit of luck—so they posted 100 wins despite the injuries.

GRADE: C

2002: San Diego Padres

                   IP    H  BB   K  HR  ERA+
Jake Peavy         97  106  33  90  11   85
Oliver Perez       90   71  48  94  13  109
Dennis Tankersley  51   59  40  39  10   47
Alan Embree        28   23   9  38   2  406(!)

(OK, so Embree is there as a tribute to small-sample sizes, and because I had to share my bewildering joy of seeing a 406 ERA+. Take that, Pedro Martinez and your pathetic 285 ERA+ in 2000!)

Long-term, Peavy and Perez have been fine and are on the cusp of even more greatness (Super Greatness!). But we’re talking about these pitchers do in their first extended taste of the bigs. The difference here, as opposed to the Orioles and Giants, is that Peavy and Perez were not necessarily counted on to lead the Padres’ rotation. Tankersley was up in May, got pasted, came back in September, and got pasted. He participated in the neighborhood softball tournament, hit a few 10-year-olds, and got pasted. The Padres were coming off a 79-win season in 2001, and, with talented arms like those three—and Ben Howard—in the system, the 2002 season was supposed to be better. For a variety of reasons, it wasn’t—the Padres lost 96 games—and while Perez was decent, Peavy and Tankersley did not help much when they were called up.

GRADE: D+

2001: Kansas City Royals

               IP    H  BB    K  HR  ERA+
Dan Reichert  123  131  74  120  26   87
Chris George   74   83  18   32  14   87
Chad Durbin   179  201  58   95  26   99

This team is the straw-man of an already straw-man-like argument, but it’s here for a reason. George, like Meyer, was a Grade A prospect without tremendous stuff. Reichert, like Danny Haren, was embarking on his second full major-league season—a season after young pitchers have absorbed the usual thrashings of rookiedom. Durbin was a modest prospect who had only one good season, at Double-A Wilmington, before getting cuffed a bit at Triple-A—similar to what Blanton has done—but was called up to the show anyhow. Similar to what happened in San Diego, the Royals were coming off a surprisingly successful season that saw them win 77 games. Optimism abounded, due in no small part to a growing collection of talented young arms in the system. Due in no small part to that trio above, the Royals lost 97 games in 2001.

GRADE: F

We could continue this tour of teams debuting multiple rookie/young pitchers, but we’ll instead turn to the 1990s, to the A’s themselves. Early in the decade, before grunge, before reality TV, before steroid-abuse mania, before Moneyball (yes, there was a time before Moneyball), before Bruce Chen, and before the arrival of the Isringhausen, Pulsipher, and Wilson Hype Machine, there was a West Coast version, going by the name of Dressendorfer, Slusarski, Van Poppel, and Zancanaro. Their rookie years?

               Year   IP    H  BB   K  HR  ERA+
Dressendorfer  1991   34   33  21  17   5   71
Slusarski      1991  109  121  52  60  14   73
Van Poppel     1993   84   76  62  47  10   83
Zancanaro      Never made it

Dressendorfer never made it back, Slusarski did but was just as terrible, and Van Poppel was never effective as a starter. (Zancanaro is reportedly dominating his beer league, which is even less impressive than it sounds, because it’s a lite-beer league.) At least Isringhausen became a competent closer, and even Wilson has made a decent career of himself, though Pulsipher’s career, we assume, is over. (One should never count out left-handed pitchers.) The A’s Formerly Fab Four? Blech.

I’ve deliberately glossed over a trio of young arms who fared OK in their debuts: Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. Except out of those three, only two of them stepped right into the majors and pitched well. We’ll include Rich Harden, too.

        Year   IP    H  BB    K  HR  ERA+
Hudson  1999  132  121  62  132   8  149
Mulder  2000  154  191  69   88  22   87
Zito    2000   97   64  45   78   6  174
Harden  2003   74   72  40   67   5   95

Two very good, one bad, one more bad than good. What, then, can we expect from Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, and Dan Meyer? Below are their minor-league numbers for 2004. (Haren’s stats are from his last full season in the minors and from the big leagues over the last two years.)

          Level   IP    H  BB    K  HR   ERA
Haren       AAA  128  136  33  150  19  4.15
             ML  118  129  39   75  13  4.85
Blanton     AAA  176  199  34  143   6  4.19
Meyer    AA+AAA  126  112  37  146   7  2.50

While Meyer’s numbers explode at you, Haren is easily the most polished of the three. Given his minor league peripherals (5:1 K/BB ratio, 41 homers allowed in 474 innings), his improving major-league command (fewer hits, more strikeouts allowed his second go-round), and the fact he’s already taken some lumps at the big-league level, he could post a sub-4.00 E.R.A. with good ancillary numbers. In fact, if Mulder’s second-half collapse (“struggles” do not represent the despair of his performance) in 2004 represented not a fluke but a trend, Haren could out-pitch Mulder in 2005. Anecdotally, there was no trace of the polished, effortless Mulder of 2002, 2003, and the first half of 2004.

Meyer’s future would seem to lie somewhere near Brad Radke’s and Roy Oswalt’s. Nice territory. Only, how did they do in their first season?

         IP    H  BB    K  HR  ERA+
Oswalt  141  126  24  144  13  166
Radke   181  195  47   75  32   87

One up, one down. Is the pattern clear enough yet? It’s a crapshoot. Radke was a high-school pick who put up impressive (but not as impressive as Meyer’s, incidentally) minor-league numbers (3.20 ERA, 3:1 K/BB ratio). But he didn’t adapt to the majors until his second season (115 ERA+), a not unfamiliar pattern. Oswalt was drafted out of college and succeeded immediately. Putting aside Oswalt’s tenacity—his Dreaded Intangibles—and considering simply the sheer volume of failed pitching prospects, it easily could have gone the other way: Radke as the effective phenom, Oswalt as the neck-whipped rookie.

There are real reasons to be worried about Blanton. The PCL is a hitter’s league, but those numbers are not encouraging. The good news is that Blanton kept the ball in the park and maintained an excellent K/BB ratio. The bad news is that, in addition to all those hits, he also gave up 19 unearned runs, making his performance look better than it actually was. His strikeout rate dipped from 2003, when he fanned more than a hitter per inning. Finally, having good control is not the same thing as having good command. Mastering the latter takes time, as Greg Maddux will tell you. While Blanton could emerge as a league-average starter in 2005—and the A’s will take that—it’s far more likely that he is going to spend much of his summer in Sacramento.

In fact, if recent history and the overall mind-numbing collection of rookie corpses from baseball history are guides, then only one of the three new-comers will contribute immediately at the major-league level. Two? There’s an outside shot. All three? I’d like to see that! The A’s do have some depth—Keiichi Yabu, Justin Duchscherer, Seth Etherton—but depth is not the same thing as quality. The A’s bullpen, however, is both deep and talented. In years past, especially the last two years, the A’s have lacked relievers who consistently miss bats. Not so this year. Need an over-powering ace reliever? Octavio “I do tend to hang a few sliders but am overall pretty impressive!” Dotel at your service. Want some gas setting up? Welcome, Kiko Calero, Huston Street, and Juan Cruz. How about a soft-tossing situational tandem? Hello Ricardo Rincon and Chad Bradford. A dependable long/swing man? Justin Duchscherer reporting for duty. If everything breaks right, the A’s bullpen will be among the best in the majors.

Wait, I’m not done yet. What should concern A’s fans is not so much the New-And-Unproven Three, but the fact that the third member of the Threesome Formerly Known As The Big Three, Barry Zito, was not great last year. If you’re a believer in DIPS, then you think that he was unlucky. If you’re a believer in anecdotal evidence, then you are less sanguine. Though Zito’s strikeout rate improved last season, it came at a cost: increased pitch counts that often saw him reach 100 by the sixth inning. Subsequently, a tired Zito would make one bad pitch in the seventh, give up a three-run homer, and the A’s would lose 4-2 because of their moribund offense. Myriad theories have been offered to explain what happened last year, but in the end it does not matter what went wrong. What matters is that Zito is not the (relatively) sure thing Hudson is. In a rotation featuring Harden, Mulder, and Hudson, the A’s could afford a less-than-stellar Zito. In a rotation featuring three unproven commodities, the A’s need him to regain his ace form.

Of most concern? Back in 2000, when the A’s introduced Zito and Mulder to the AL, they had a thumping offense that scored 947 runs, third-most in the AL. That will not happen in 2005.

3. Will the A’s ever put together an above-average offense?

Probably not this year. Top-to-bottom, the lineup looks OK, if somewhat short on power. On the other hand, where’s the upside?

Legend:
A = 2005 50th percentile VORP
B = 2005 90th percentile VORP  
C = 2004 VORP

Player               A     B     C
Mark Kotsay       22.5  47.9  45.3
Jason Kendall     22.8  54.5  47.5
Erubiel Durazo    24.7  49.0  57.2
Eric Chavez       45.2  74.0  45.5
Bobby Crosby      27.3  49.6  23.0
Eric Byrnes       48.5  16.1  33.1
Nick Swisher       8.6  34.4  23.3 (Dye)
Scott Hatteberg   11.1  36.3  28.1
Keith Ginter      12.8  42.0  27.7

If we are to believe those 50 percent PECOTA’s, the A’s offense will regress considerably, as six players are projected to lose half or more of their VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) from a year ago. Probably that won’t be the case. Some will be worse, some will be about the same. But better? Doubtful. Mark Kotsay, Jason Kendall, Erubiel Durazo, Eric Byrnes, Scott Hatteberg, and Keith Ginter are as good as they’re ever going to be—and in some cases, far better than they’ll likely be in 2005. To put it another way, many of those players would have to duplicate their success in 2004 to reach their 90th percentile PECOTA projections in 2005—a percentile they essentially reached a year ago. A repeat performance? Not bloody likely. Even if Chavez does have that MVP season we’ve all been waiting for—hey, Adrian Beltre finally did it—it will be mitigated by across-the-board declines of other players. The only person we can reasonably expect to improve is Bobby Crosby, but it won’t be until 2006 that he emerges as a multi-pronged nightmare. In 2005, expect a .260/.340/.470 line.

As for this year’s would-be Rookie-of-the-Year, Nick Swisher, he is not a sure thing to beat Dye’s modest contributions. While rookie hitters are more reliable than rookie pitchers, this is like getting a raise from $12,000 a year to $12,300: I’d rather have a six-figured salary, just as the A’s would rather have a corner outfielder who can mash. Since I’m an English major and since the A’s are a mid-market team, we’ll take what you can get. Swisher is likely to have a productive, Brad-Wilkerson-type career. But it’s hard to ignore Swisher’s .380 slugging percentage at Double-A Midland in 2003, even though he did post a .937 OPS in Sacramento in 2004. His 2005 performance is a mystery, fancy projection systems be damned.

On the topic of corner outfielders, the A’s were determined to trade Byrnes over the off-season. Simply because he has not been dealt yet does not mean he won’t get dealt eventually. Who would take over? Bobby Kielty or Charles Thomas, who as a regular makes a terrific fourth outfielder. Kielty can hit left-handed pitching (.967 OPS in 2003, .829 in 2004) but is hopeless against north-paws (.656 OPS in 2003, .564 in 2004). You want to save some money, Mr. Beane? I could slug .254 against right-handed pitchers. Then there is the worrisome matter of what else the A’s would lose if Byrnes was no longer around, but of course there’s no way to measure the Dreaded Intangibles that Byrnes brings to the club. This is not to suggest that those intangibles do not exist.

A .254 slugging percentage is measurable enough, however. If the A’s trade Byrnes, if Kielty continues to flail away, and if Thomas proves to be a fluke—that .445 slugging percentage as a rookie is less impressive when you consider he was 26-years-old—then the A’s are left with a dead spot from a corner outfield position in a lineup that already features below-average production at first base and right field. For a team with one star—Chavez—and eight complementary players, it’s best to have those complementary players be as good as possible. Byrnes is not Gary Sheffield, but Kielty is not Byrnes. Overall, the A’s 2005 offense is what it has been for the last three years: mediocre-to-below average, even when adjusted for their home ballpark.

4. So where will Zito, Dotel, and Durazo end up after the all-star break?

Many wags and pundits in the mainstream assumed the A’s were starting over when they unloaded Mulder and Hudson. That’s not the case. If two of the rookies break through, the A’s will contend in the AL West. But if that doesn’t happen, things will be fluid. No matter what happens, I guarantee that Dotel will be traded. Of Zito and Durazo I am less sure, but if the A’s are floundering and out of the race, they won’t need a one-dimensional, arbitration-eligible DH. It’s debatable whether they need him right now, especially when Dan Johnson could seemingly step in and do passable job. Contending teams who can’t use a veteran like Zito and an occasional masher like Durazo—or Byrnes, assuming he hasn’t already been traded—wouldn’t be contending teams if they didn’t know how to spot useful talent. They’ll make offers, and Beane has never been known to turn down value.

In some ways the current state of the A’s parallels the downward cycle they went through before Billy Beane arrived. Already by 1991 there were signs that the mini-dynasty of the late 1980s was coming to an end. Though they put one more big year together in 1992, immediately after the dark days set in for A’s fans: six straight losing seasons from 1993-1998. To some degree, the failure of the organization to develop any pitchers during this time was to blame, though of course there were other factors.

The thing is, from the pitching perspective, they thought the future after Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, and Mike Moore was somewhat secure, because they had all those prospects coming up, especially Van Poppel and Dressendorfer, who, unfairly or not, drew favorable comparisons to Roger Clemens. Similarly, if Meyer and Blanton and Haren don’t pan out, the A’s could be looking at some lean times, because there simply isn’t enough front-line hitting talent in the system to compensate for below-average pitching. Long-term, it’s difficult not to have faith in Beane to move quickly if things don’t go well in 2005. Short-term, it’s going to be an interesting year in Oakland, because, perhaps more than any other team in the majors, for the A’s—cliché/pointless repetition alert!—”Anything is possible.”

5. Really, though—how are the A’s going to do this year?

“I can’t tell.”
“You can tell me, I’m an A’s fan.”
“No, I mean I’m just not sure.”
“Can’t you take a guess?”
“No.”
“Please?”
“OK.”
(Cue bouncing tumbleweeds.)
“Well?”
“Oh, right. Let’s assume that Harden wins the Cy Young, Zito is above average, Haren emerges, and Meyer and Blanton don’t pan out. So I’ll say 88 wins.”
“Eighty-eight wins? You’re just parroting what PECOTA thinks.”
“It is true, but unlike that computer-generated forecast, I think the Angels will win more than 83 games.”
“How many more?”
“Enough to keep the A’s home in October.”
“What if they want to go to Europe instead?”
“It’s a free country.”
“The most free country in the world, Billy!”
“The name’s John, and dude, I was being ironic.”
“What’s that about Steve Austin?”
“We’re done here.”

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