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2/22 ESPN Insider on the A's

OAFC BBS - All Topics: Archive: 2/22 ESPN Insider on the A's
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message   By raiderjohn on Tuesday, February 22, 2005 - 03:54 pm:

Burden falls on Zito, Harden
By Jerry Crasnick, ESPN Insider
Jerry Crasnick Archive

PHOENIX Jason Kendall bears the relaxed, liberated look of a man who's just received his "Get out of Bradenton Free" card. After nine straight losing seasons in Pittsburgh, he looks dapper in Oakland green and gold, and ready to contribute to a winner in any way he can.

Kendall's mission in Oakland is two-fold: 1) The Athletics want him to play up to his career standard and get on base at a clip of .390 or thereabouts; and 2) they'd like him to spend the next eight months doing a mind-meld with their pitching staff.

Even though Kendall is known primarily as an offensive catcher, he takes pride in his defense. He is, after all, the son of a catcher, and aware of the cerebral shortcomings of the men who stand 60 feet, 6 inches away.

"Pitchers are really out there," Kendall said, "so you don't want them to think. You want to do the thinking for them, because they're not very bright. That's just my opinion."

In Oakland, the pitchers are bright enough to know they'll spend a big chunk of spring training fielding questions about whether this team can win without Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder at the top of the rotation. While that's preferable to inquiries about Jose Canseco's book, leaked grand jury testimony or the pluses and minuses of Alex Rodriguez, the routine still has the potential to get old in a hurry.

Soon the focus will shift to holdover Barry Zito and whether he's ready, at 26, to rediscover his 23-5, Cy Young Award form of 2002. The A's claim they're confident Zito is up to the challenge, even though his 11-11 record and 4.48 ERA a year ago weren't exactly inspiring.

The hard part is figuring out what to expect from the rest of Oakland's precocious staff. Judging from the youthful makeup of the rotation in the 2-5 spots, Zito might not be the only one carrying stuffed animals with him on the road this season:

# Rich Harden, at 23, throws in the upper 90s and is the classic power pitcher. Harden was Oakland's best starter after the All-Star break last season, but went only 11-7 because of a bad bullpen and a lack of run support. His 13 no-decisions were two short of Ron Darling's club record.

# Joe Blanton grew up like all boys in Kentucky, with the whimsical notion that he might one day play basketball for the Wildcats. But reality quickly intervened. "I couldn't jump and I couldn't shoot," Blanton, 24, said. "That was my downfall in basketball." So he played baseball at Kentucky with Brandon Webb, went to Oakland in the first round of the "Moneyball" draft, and has spent the past three years refining the command of the four pitches in his repertoire. Blanton has 344 strikeouts and only 70 walks as a pro.

# Dan Meyer, 23, comes from New Jersey and James Madison University, and has a fondness for golf when he's not playing baseball. His former team, Atlanta, is known for making the right calls on which prospects to keep and which ones to discard (with Jason Schmidt being the notable exception). Time will tell if John Schuerholz made the correct call by packaging Meyer for Hudson.

# Danny Haren, 23, is a Southern California kid out of Pepperdine. He throws a sinking fastball and a splitter, and he showed he's not fazed by pressure by pitching 3 2/3 shutout innings for St. Louis in Game 1 of the World Series while the rest of his teammates were getting torched in an 11-9 loss to the Red Sox.

It took chutzpah for GM Billy Beane to trade Mulder and Hudson in the same winter, but he knew it was a long shot to sign either pitcher to a long-term contract, so the double-barreled deals seemed like a sensible way not to prolong the pain. The biggest factor linking Meyer and Haren other than their lack of service time and reasonable price is their propensity for throwing the ball over the plate.

Meyer has whiffed 382 batters and walked 88 in three professional seasons. Last year Haren went 11-4 with 150 strikeouts and 33 walks for Triple-A Memphis. As any sharp baseball executive knows, pitchers with high strikeout totals take luck, defense and other variables out of play, and pitchers with low walk totals make for happy, well-adjusted, gainfully-employed managers.

"When you're a young pitcher and you're not walking guys, you're going to make the other team beat you," Beane said. "It's not rocket science."

Beane plans to talk with all the young pitchers early in spring training, and the message will be the same: Keep pounding the strike zone, and don't be afraid of contact. Your stuff is good enough to win at this level. If you trust it and keep on doing what you've been doing, you'll be fine.

"Are they going to be Hudson and Mulder right off the bat?" Beane said. "No. But Mulder wasn't Mulder his first year, either. He had a five-plus ERA." Mulder was 9-10 with a 5.44 ERA, to be precise, before breaking through as a 20-game winner in his second year.

The inevitable growth pains at the front end of the staff prompted Beane to fortify his bullpen by adding Kiko Calero from St. Louis in the Mulder deal and acquiring Juan Cruz from Atlanta in the Hudson trade. Calero held opponents to a .176 average last year, and Cruz threw 72 innings and made significant progress, even though Atlanta manager Bobby Cox helped by limiting his exposure to high-pressure situations.

The new relievers will join Ricardo Rincon, Chad Bradford and Justin Duchscherer as part of Oakland's middle-setup contingent. The depth of the pen will give Oakland manager Ken Macha the luxury of not having to push his starters, and put less of a strain on closer Octavio Dotel, who pitched more than an inning eight times after joining the A's from Houston by trade in June.

Although Beane doesn't pretend that Oakland's bullpen has the same anxiety-producing potential as Anaheim's killer Frankie Rodriguez-Brendan Donnelly-Troy Percival contingent of a couple of years ago, he's trying to cultivate that same shutdown mentality in Oakland. "If you have guys who are good and can throw multiple innings, it's quite a weapon," Beane said. "It's intimidating."

The wild cards in the equation are Huston Street and Jairo Garcia, who have a chance to force their way into the picture with impressive springs, but could just as easily begin the season in Triple-A.

When pitching coach Curt Young talks about acquainting Oakland's young pitchers with the "A's way," he's talking primarily about an organizational throwing program that's been devised to keep pitchers healthy and productive. But this spring will be about more than long-toss and side sessions. Geezers like David Wells, Tom Glavine and Al Leiter can tinker away in spring training and ignore the results, but the A's want their kids to build confidence with success against hitters they'll be facing during the regular season. In this respect, the Cactus League box scores out of Phoenix will be a little more relevant than in some places.

Once the season starts, the A's will pick their spots in letting Meyer, Haren and Blanton work out of jams. "It's hard to tell any pitcher, 'OK, you've pitched well for five innings and now you're done,'" Young said. "We'll get reads off personalities and body language, and we'll learn about guys when we feel it's time for them to come out of the game."

If the A's plan to contend in the American League West, the kids will have to assert themselves quickly. Get beyond the front five, and Macha's main options are journeyman Seth Etherton and 36-year-old Japanese righty Keiichi Yabu. The lack of depth in the rotation is every bit as pronounced as the dearth of experience.

Still, Kendall is upbeat about his new team's prospects. After reading newspaper accounts, poring over statistical profiles and doing a little reconnaissance on the new guys, Kendall is convinced they're for real. "They're capable of a lot of special things," Kendall said. "They're capable of taking this team to another level."

Dotel, Oakland's energetic closer, seconds that emotion. He's gone from disappointed over the departure of Mulder and Hudson to intrigued by the adventure that lies ahead.

"When the trades happened, I felt a little bit bad," Dotel said. "But now we have to move forward with what we've got. And what we've got is pretty good."

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message   By raiderjohn on Tuesday, February 22, 2005 - 03:56 pm:

History doesn't favor Meyer, Blanton
By Rob Neyer, ESPN Insider
Rob Neyer Archive

It's not precisely true that the Oakland Athletics' fortunes in 2005 will hinge solely upon the performances of rookie starting pitchers Dan Meyer and Joe Blanton. While Blanton is expected to fill a rotation slot, and it's hoped that Meyer will, the A's do have options if one or both pitchers don't work out. Nevertheless, it's not easy to see the A's winning without healthy contributions from one or both rookies.

And of course there's nothing quite so exciting as a young pitcher with a great arm who hasn't yet been exposed to major league sluggers in July. For every team that finished in last place last season, you'll find thousands of fans who say, "If only our young pitchers come through this season �"

But how often do rookie pitchers actually come through? Or, more specifically, how often do highly touted pitchers like Dan Meyer and Joe Blanton actually come through?

John Sickels rates Dan Meyer as the seventh-best pitching prospect in the game; he lists Blanton as the 20th-best. John's been writing books about minor-league players for a long time and, using the lists he's compiled since 1995 � and tossing in Eddie Epstein's list in the 1994 edition of the Minor League Scouting Notebook � gave me nine years of pitching prospects. From there, I looked at pitchers ranked Nos. 5-9 (for Meyer) and Nos. 16-20 (for Blanton; there weren't as many comparables for Blanton because in some years Sickels' list didn't include more than 15 pitchers).

With all those in hand, I eliminated everybody who didn't pitch at least 100 innings in Double- and/or Triple-A in the season that merited top-prospect status. The result is 19 Meyer-like pitchers (Group B) and 12 Blanton-like pitchers (Group D).

Got all that? Don't worry, I'm about to actually tell you something.

Fifteen of the Group B pitchers pitched in the majors the next season, and compiled a 4.71 ERA.

Ten of the Group D pitchers pitched in the majors the next season, and compiled a 5.30 ERA.

Five of the Group B pitchers totaled at least 100 innings in their rookie seasons, and only two of the Group D pitchers pitched at least 100 innings.

Remember, we started with 31 pitchers; only seven of them pitched 100 innings in the majors the next season � and of those seven, only three were actually good. They're so rare that it's worth looking at each of them.

In 1996, Matt Morris went 12-12 in the Texas League, and the rest of his numbers weren't all that impressive, either. But he was only 21 that season, he'd been the Cardinals' first-round draft pick just a year earlier, and in 1997 Sickels named Morris the No. 7 pitching prospect in the minors. Morris spent the entire '97 season in the majors, and went 12-9 with a 3.19 ERA.

In 2000, Roy Oswalt went 11-4 with a 1.94 ERA for the Astros' Round Rock affiliate in the Texas League. The Astros made him start a few Triple-A games the next spring � by the way, Sickels had ranked him the No. 7 pitching prospect � but he reached the majors on May 7, wound up 14-3 as a rookie, and of course he's been a star ever since.

Again, both Morris and Oswalt were No. 7s, just like Meyer.

Only one Group D pitcher a) pitched 100 innings, and b) pitched well, and it was another Astro. In 2001, Carlos Hernandez went 12-3 with Round Rock, and Sickels named him the No. 15 pitching prospect in the minors. In 2002, Hernandez went 7-5 with a 4.38 ERA with the major league Astros.

But again, those pitchers are certainly the exceptions. Here are the Group B pitchers who didn't pitch at all in the majors the next season: Matt Riley, Ryan Anderson, Brandon Claussen, Jeff Heaverlo, and Adam Wainright. Here are the Group B pitchers who pitched in the majors the next season, but didn't pitch 100 innings: LaTroy Hawkins, James Baldwin, Jeff Suppan, Livan Hernandez, Nerio Rodriguez, Brian Rose, Octavio Dotel, Ed Yarnall and Kurt Ainsworth. And here are the Group B pitchers who did pitch 100 innings, but didn't pitch well: Frankie Rodriguez, Rocky Coppinger and Ramon Ortiz.

Group D pitchers who didn't pitch in the majors the next season: Marc Barcelo and Brad Thomas. Group D pitchers who pitched in the majors the next season, but not 100 innings: Terrell Wade, Ugueth Urbina, Odalis Perez, Ted Lilly, Jesus Colome, Bud Smith (who did pitch well in 85 innings, and tossed a no-hitter), Kurt Ainsworth and (again) Kurt Ainsworth. Group D pitcher who pitched 100 innings, but didn't pitch well: Colby Lewis, who went 10-9 in 2003 but also posted a 7.30 ERA (worst ever for a 10-game winner).

I listed all those pitchers not to bore you, Dear Reader, but rather to make it dead clear that the success stories represent a distinct minority. Of course, many of these pitchers did eventually establish themselves as good major league pitchers. But even Morris and Hernandez suffered serious injuries during (Hernandez) or shortly after (Morris) their rookie seasons.

Rookie starting pitchers rarely make significant contributions, and that's true even of the highly regarded rookie starting pitchers. For most of them, the best case is that they don't get hammered or hurt, and are able to contribute at some point in the not-distant future.

It should be said, in fairness to Dan Meyer and Joe Blanton, that both have some things that most rookie starters don't have.

You remember those Group B pitchers, all of them top prospects? Their composite statistics include 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings, and 2.6 strikeouts for every walk. Meyer, meanwhile, struck out 10.4 batters per nine last season, and posted nearly four K's for each walk. Blanton's 7.3/9 strikeout rate wasn't anything special (by the standards of his peers), but his 4.2 K/W ratio was outstanding, even better than Meyer's.

Also, while some of the prospects in the study pitched few or zero innings in Class AAA, both Meyer and Blanton have already been successful at that level.

Those are points in their favor. But all those other prospects had various points in their favor, too. And while it's true that everybody's different, it's also a fact of baseball life that the odds are against any young pitcher. The odds are against either of Oakland's rookies winning even a dozen games, and they're greatly against both of them doing it. Which is why I have to assume the Orange County Angels are, for the moment, the best team in the American League West.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message   By bfriend on Tuesday, February 22, 2005 - 04:06 pm:

were those subliminal &#65533 messages? Or just plain old swearing text subsitutes.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message   By raiderjohn on Tuesday, February 22, 2005 - 05:17 pm:

Probably a picture or ad, that i could not paste accurately here.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message   By chrishorvath on Tuesday, February 22, 2005 - 06:45 pm:

It might have been a link.

Thanks for posting the Neyer article. I miss reading his stuff since ESPN made it exclusive.

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