A's need their young arms to hold up
Oakland relying on its now all-rookie rotation to get it to the postseason
Oakland Athletics starter Brett Anderson sat in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium last week with the resigned look of a player who desperately wants to contribute but can't provide a lick of assistance to the cause. Anderson might be tempted to laugh over this latest twist of fate, except that laughing ranks somewhere between pitching and breathing on the list of activities that cause him discomfort.
After an arduous recovery from Tommy John surgery, Anderson was rounding into form when he slipped on the mound in Detroit and strained his right oblique muscle. Now he's out for the rest of the regular season while a bunch of newcomers will try to fill the void. Anderson is no workout warrior, so he's looking for an explanation that can't be found by surfing "House'' or "Grey's Anatomy'' repeats.
"I thought you had to be shredded and ripped to have an oblique injury, so it's kind of a mystery,'' he said. "Maybe I need to spend more time in the food room.''
While Anderson sits, watches and heals, several members of his peer group will be entrusted with pitching Oakland to its first playoff appearance since 2006. Along with a killer schedule, a toasted bullpen and a massive slump by team home run leader Josh Reddick, it's just another obstacle for an A's team that collects setbacks like badges of honor.
The A's, 3-5 on a challenging road trip to Detroit, New York and Texas, are trying to fend off the Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays for the second American League wild-card berth with a rotation that's getting greener by the day. Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, Travis Blackley and Dan Straily have combined for 103 career big league starts. That total leaves them only 387 behind Andy Pettitte, who leads active pitchers now that Jamie Moyer has retired (we think).
If someone told you in the spring of 2011 that a precocious rotation would be pitching for a contender in Oakland this season, you might have said, "Sure,'' and reeled off the names of Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Anderson, Dallas Braden and Brandon McCarthy. That was before "Moneyball'' earned an Oscar nomination and general manager Billy Beane embarked on his latest retooling project. The A's sent Gonzalez to Washington and traded Cahill to Arizona last December, and Parker, Milone and reliever Ryan Cook were among the return haul.
Attrition has been a prominent theme in the Oakland rotation this summer. Bartolo Colon received a 50-game suspension in late August for a failed drug test. Two weeks later, McCarthy suffered a fractured skull on an Erick Aybar line drive through the box. Then, Anderson slipped at Comerica Park and walked gingerly off the mound to the trainer's room. Just like that, manager Bob Melvin was flexibility-impaired.
"We went very quickly from thinking, 'What are we going to do with all these starters?' to 'OK, we're down to five,'" said Oakland assistant GM David Forst.
If the A's make the playoffs and Anderson is unable to return, they could become the first team in history to start exclusively rookies for the entire postseason. As it stands, Milone made the 80th start by an Oakland rookie Tuesday night in Texas. That blows away the previous rookie record of 69 starts set by the 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers.
It takes a village to assemble a staff that can compete this effectively on the fly. Beane and Forst made the trades for Parker and Milone and acquired Blackley, a former top Seattle prospect with a lengthy injury history, on waivers from San Francisco in May. Scouting director Eric Kubota and his crew selected Griffin in the 13th round out of the University of San Diego and landed Straily as a 24th-round pick out of Marshall. Gil Patterson, Oakland's minor league pitching guru, molds the kids in Stockton, Midland and Sacramento, and pitching coach Curt Young instills confidence in them once they arrive in the big leagues.
Parker, 23, is the golden boy of the group. He was a big-time prospect out of Indiana who spurned a scholarship from Georgia Tech to sign with Arizona for a $2.1 million bonus as the ninth pick in the 2007 draft. But his ascent up the chain stalled when he blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery in 2009. The experience helped strengthen him mentally and prompted him to make a change or two to his repertoire. Midway through last season, Parker added a two-seam fastball to his arsenal, and he sinks it effectively to both sides of the plate.
"I never take anything for granted now,'' Parker said. "If you can go through that monotonous rehab the way I did, pitching here doesn't seem like such a huge feat. It helped me put things in perspective a little bit.''
Griffin, 24, is the surfer boy and free spirit in the bunch. He grew up in El Cajon, Calif., and was a big Trevor Hoffman fan as a youth. He throws a changeup but concedes it's not in Hoffman's league.
"I don't even think they're in the same solar system, man,'' he said.
Griffin is supremely confident, very energetic and chattier than his fellow starters. His given name is Arthur Joseph, but very few people refer to him that way.
"Just my girlfriend and my mom when she's mad,'' Griffin said. "She hasn't been mad with me lately. It was more when I was younger. I guess I was kind of a smart-a--.''
The kids use the spacious dimensions and vast foul territory at O.co Coliseum to their advantage and stay aggressive in the strike zone. Milone ranks third in the league behind Colon and Minnesota's Scott Diamond with 1.8 walks per nine innings. Among the 14 AL teams, only the Yankees, Tigers, Rangers and Mariners have issued fewer walks than Oakland's staff.
Melvin and Young have seen some yellow caution flags of late. Griffin has failed to survive the fifth inning in two straight starts, and Milone was cuffed around for 40 hits in 26 innings before a strong outing Tuesday night. The Oakland starters have three quality starts in eight games on this road trip, and Melvin has gone to the bullpen with mixed results. Sidearmer Pat Neshek allowed game-tying homers during dispiriting losses Saturday in New York and Tuesday in Arlington.
The starters' workloads and pitch counts need to be closely monitored now. After throwing 136 innings in the minors last year, Parker is at 190 1/3 innings and counting. Although the other starters' increases aren't quite as pronounced, they have experienced off-the-charts stress while facing Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano, and Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre on the current 10-game trip.
It helps that the kids exude a certain calm beyond their years. The A's also have a loose, relaxed, clique-free clubhouse environment, and the rookies don't have to walk on eggshells or adhere to a tightly wound structure when they get the call from Triple-A. They just show up every five days and pitch.
"With some young kids, you can see the white in their eyes when they're on the mound,'' said outfielder Jonny Gomes. "But these guys aren't like that. They literally just buzz-saw through the center of lineups. And I'm out there thinking, 'You're not that old. You have this dude's baseball card somewhere in your bedroom.'''
The A's are inexperienced on both sides of the battery. In August, they traded veteran Kurt Suzuki to Washington and bequeathed the catching duties to former Nationals prospect Derek Norris and veteran backup George Kottaras. Norris, 23, delivered a very simple and direct message to his fellow stretch-drive apprentices as the dog days of summer commenced.
"I told them, 'You're not up here because of what you can do. It's because of what you've been doing. So just keep doing the same thing. Don't change anything,''' Norris said.
Maintaining the proper focus is easier said than done when the tension mounts, the Angels are charging hard and every pitch could decide a season. Oakland's youthful starters have thrived while pitching in the moment. They have eight days to show they can survive a pennant race without a net.