Foresight and Oakland's Starting Rotation

Foresight: If you have it, then you already know that I will make at least one fat joke about Colon.

With the Oakland Athletics in the midst of a run of success so extreme that even ESPN has taken notice, the common question is, "Is this team for real?" Here at Athletics Nation, we have talked at length about the uncertainty heading into the trading deadline (buyers or sellers?), as well as the obvious areas around the diamond which are in need of improvement (SS, 3B, catcher, entire ballpark). There isn't a whole lot else to be said about those topics until after July 31. The Cubs are rebuilding; do you think Michael Choice and Ian Krol would be enough to pry the aging Wrigley Field away from them? Or am I totally misunderstanding the term "rebuilding?"

One part of the roster which isn't getting a whole lot of attention at the trading deadline is the starting rotation. Let's see, 5 good starters, most of them young, 3 more coming off the DL next month, another one ready in AAA...yep, Oakland is pretty much set when it comes to starters. No need to add one, and no way they're trading one of their rookies at this juncture. Are things really that cut and dried, though? Let's take a quick look through Oakland's top 10 starting pitchers. Because, yes, Oakland has at least 10 guys who could start Major League games right now if healthy. Screw you, American League.

Let's start with the list, just to get all the names out there. These are listed in alphabetical order so that you can't read anything into how I've placed them:

Brett Anderson
Travis Blackley
Dallas Braden
Bartolo Colon
A.J. Griffin
Brandon McCarthy
Tommy Milone
Jarrod Parker
Tyson Ross
Dan Straily

Sorry, Graham Godfrey, you just...aren't on the list. Are...are you haggling with me? I don't care if you got the win in the AAA All-Star Game a couple weeks ago. You pitched one inning and gave up a hit to a guy named "Leslie." You know who else pitched in that game? Zach Duke. You made me think about Zach Duke. That's why you aren't on the list.

OK, security just escorted Godfrey out of this conversation. Who is left?

Tommy Milone

Milone is a rookie, but he's not exactly a youngster (in a good way). He's 25, and here are his innings pitched over the last 3 seasons:

2009: 151.1 (in High-A ball)
2010: 158.0 (in AA)
2011: 174.1 (in AAA/Majors)

As of right now, he is at 121.1 innings. The ZiPS projection system estimates that he will throw another 71 innings, and finish around 192. The AHHALL projection system estimates that Milone will make about 13 more starts, which could average around 6 innings each (he is currently averaging about 6.39 innings per start) for a total of 78 innings. Either way, he is unlikely to surpass 200 innings this year, which is a good thing. His arm should enter uncharted territory sometime in September, but the season should end before he has a chance to go too far and risk overworking himself (a huge concern with rookie starters). Based purely upon workload, I am totally comfortable with Milone taking his regular turn for the rest of the season. That is one rotation spot locked up.

Jarrod Parker

Hey, did you hear the one about how the Yankees got so thoroughly dominated by Parker that they had to go trade for Ichiro Suzuki in their own unique form of emotional eating? Seems like it was just yesterday that that happened, but it really wasn't. It was two days ago. And yet, here I am, about to tell you how Oakland shouldn't lean too heavily on Parker for the rest of the season. Let's play the same game that we just played with Milone, and look at Parker's innings pitched:

2009: 97.1 (mostly AA, before tearing his UCL)
2010: 0 (missed entire season after Tommy John surgery)
2011: 136.1 (AAA for all but 5 of those innings)

He's thrown 119.2 innings in 2012, split between Oakland and Sacramento. After 2 or 3 more starts, Parker is going to match his career high in innings. Honestly, I don't want to see him go past 160, which would probably only take him 7 or 8 more starts (or, around the end of August). It's tempting to get caught up in the rush of contending, and to want to throw everything into this one shot at glory. But if you squint really hard and look all the way to that other coast, you'll see another team who is having an even better year (Washington), and who has an even better pitcher (Strasburg) on a very comparable leash. Sure, Parker is nearly a year ahead of Strasburg in the recovery process, but do you really want to take that chance? Out of all of Oakland's young pitchers, Parker is the one who is consistently referred to as a "future ace," or having "ace-like stuff." I want the team to go to the playoffs this year, but I'm not willing to risk Parker's health in any way. I hope he is shut down after August, with absolutely no exception.

A.J. Griffin

Like Milone, Griffin's arm is probably stronger than the average rookie's. He was already 22 when he was drafted in 2010, and then proceeded to throw 160 minor-league innings last season. This year, at age 24, he has 124.2 innings under his belt (30 of those coming in the Majors). Considering that Griffin only makes starts of exactly 6.0 innings, the rest of his season is remarkably easy to project! Let's see, about 13 more starts, at 6 innings apiece...he should throw about 78 more innings! Do you want Griffin throwing 212 innings this year, given his limited professional experience and a career-high which is 50 innings shy of that total? I sure don't. I'd give him a longer leash than Parker, since he doesn't have the injury history, but I'd still consider shutting him down sometime in September. Man, September might totally suck without Parker and Griffin.

Dan Straily

Ahh, that's right! Reinforcements are on the way! Straily is just killing it in AAA, striking out freaking everybody and finding the cure for earned runs and...

2009: 59
2010: 146
2011: 160.2

Aw, crap. He's a youngster, too. And, at 126.1 innings so far in 2012, he's even further toward matching his career high than the others. Sure, Oakland could bring him up, squeeze a few starts out of him, and give him his first MLB experience, but is it even worth it? There's no one struggling in the current rotation, and Straily will be ready for a late-season shutdown even sooner than Griffin. Do you want him pitching more than, say, 180 innings this year (taking him into mid-September)? Do you think an extra 20-30 regular season innings from Straily will make the difference in 2012? (And that's before you even count the innings he'd have to throw in the postseason. As a rookie.)

Travis Blackley

Alright, so it's now mid-September, and so far only Milone is still pitching. How about Blackley? He's technically a rookie, I think, but he's also 29 years old. I could give you an innings breakdown over the last 3 seasons, but it wouldn't be very telling. He was mostly a reliever in 2009 and 2010, and he appears to have pitched in Australia last year (the good news: he was probably good enough to start there). So, Blackley is a total wild card. I would tell you that he isn't very good, but there he is, every fifth day, being really good. I would tell you that this won't last, but I would have told you that a few weeks ago, and yet it has lasted. I'm done trying to predict Travis Blackley, because he is no longer who you thought he was. He is no longer Travis Blackley: Waiver Wire Reliever. He is now Travis Blackley: Solid Starting Pitcher. His 2.63 FIP (counting his crappy innings with the Giants) and his 3.22 K:BB (that's just for his 8 starts for Oakland) suggest that his success is sustainable, and even the less favorable stats (3.92 xFIP, which thinks he will give up more homers; and 4.03 SIERA, which is just being an asshole for no reason) agree that he is probably a serviceable starter. With a career-high of something like 170 innings which he won't come close to matching this year, but at least 4 years removed from being a regular starter, can Blackley continue making quality starts for the rest of 2012? Shit, I don't know. Sure, why not. Makes about as much sense as everything else he's done this year.

So, now we have two starters locked in for the rest of 2012. Who else will fill in?

Tyson Ross

HA, just kidding. He only made the list because 10 sounds better than 9. Should only take injuries to 6 other pitchers for Tyson to get the call. Next!

Brett Anderson

On Saturday, Anderson threw 35 pitches in a rehab outing with Stockton. His results were pretty terrible, but that's not the point. The point is that he's pitching again in real games against real hitters. The larger point is that, at his current pace, Anderson will be ready to join the team before the 2012 season is over. It is vitally important that he do so, because getting in some MLB innings now is better than waiting all the way until next April before finally getting to test his arm against Major League hitters. It is easy to forget that, out of all the talent on this staff, Anderson might still be Oakland's best pitcher. He's only 24 right now and he's already thrown 371 innings with a 115 ERA+. Injuries have gotten in the way, but his elbow is fixed now. Anderson is a strike-throwing machine who is going to be a joy to watch over a full season. When he is ready to return to action, it should be about time to shut down one of the youngsters.

Dallas Braden and Brandon McCarthy

Both pitchers are at least throwing, according to Susan Slusser. Neither is on a time-table at this point, but Braden is expected to start a rehab assignment next week and McCarthy's shoulder is still holding his arm to his body, so both of them seem like decent bets to return by the end of the season. Will Braden be any good after nearly 2 full seasons off? How long will McCarthy hold up after his second DL stint of the season? Your guess is as good as mine, but the bottom line is this: When the time comes to make tough decisions about shutting down rookie pitchers on a contending team, the returns of these veterans are going to make those decisions a whole lot easier (and potentially, make the ensuing on-field results a whole lot more enjoyable).

Bartolo Colon

As with a good family-style meal, the dust has settled, and we are all left staring at Bartolo Colon. Did he finish that entire roast? I wasn't looking, but I mean, it's gone now, and he has that shit-eating grin on his face. I think he ate the whole thing. I'm not even mad, just impressed.

The A's are going to need 5 starting pitchers to finish out the season, and if they're still in contention at that point, none of them can be Graham Godfrey or Tyson Ross (or Bruce Billings, who has been surprisingly effective in Sacramento). Not all of the current starters can continue past mid-September. By my count, there are 2 spots locked up with Milone and Blackley. There is another spot reserved for Anderson, and two other veterans on the road to imminent recovery. That's everyone. So, here's the question: Do you keep Colon, or deal him at the deadline?

The answer to that question is going to involve many more questions. First, who would you trade him to? No NL team is going to want a pitcher who looks like he might strain an oblique every time he attempts a bunt. And AL teams? Sure, perhaps you've heard of Baltimore, Chicago, Toronto, Boston, and Cleveland. You know, the teams that Oakland is directly competing against for the Wild Cards. Do you want to make one of those teams better right now in exchange for a non-impact prospect? Didn't think so. And even if you could find a trade partner for Colon, do you still really want to trade him? Before I started writing this post, my answer was an emphatic "yes!" Too many pitchers, not enough space. But, as Atlanta demonstrated this year, pitching depth can vanish in the blink of an eye. Those three pitchers recovering from injuries? They could all suffer setbacks. Or they could come back and all suck for the rest of the year (which is actually kind of likely). Those rookies? They could all fade in August, as rookies are wont to do, and start getting hammered (and not the fun kind). Travis Blackley? That fairy tale could end at any moment. The clock strikes midnight, like, every day. Have you seen him today? He could already be a pumpkin.

Sure, there is a lot of depth, but there are also a huge number of question marks. Up to this point, things have been running awfully close to "best-case scenario" for Oakland's rotation. A couple of guys have gotten hurt, but pretty much everybody has met or exceeded expectations outside of those brief injuries. Do you want to cash in on that depth, knowing that everything around it could fall apart at any moment? Do you still want to trade Colon to make space, knowing that you might be grasping for Godfreys or overworking Parkers later on as a result?

Colon might only be the 5th or 6th best healthy starter on the roster at this moment, but I have a feeling that if the A's are playing meaningful games in late September, he will be a big reason why. And I don't mean that as a fat joke.

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