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Athletics 2014 season review: Drew Pomeranz, the next big thing?

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I love Oakland thiiiiiiiiiiiiis much.
I love Oakland thiiiiiiiiiiiiis much.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Billy Beane hasn't made a major move in a few days, so it looks like it's time to get back to our Oakland Athletics player review series. Today we'll look at our first pitcher on the list: No. 13, Drew Pomeranz. It's unusual to have a pitcher come up this early, since they generally have higher uniform numbers, and indeed we'll see seven more position players before we get to our next hurler.

Player profile

Name: Drew Pomeranz, aka Pom
Position: LHP, starting and relief
Stats: 20 games (10 starts), 69 innings, 2.35 ERA, 64 Ks, 26 BB, 7 HR, 3.77 FIP
WAR: 1.5 bWAR, 0.7 fWAR
How he got here: Acquired from Colorado Rockies prior to 2014
2014 Salary: $505,000
2015 Status: Pre-arbitration, under team control
2015 Salary: Estimated $505,000

Season summary

In December 2013, the A's finally got tired of waiting for Brett Anderson. He was once their ace of the future, but the lefty had missed most of the previous three seasons to injury and Billy Beane decided to cash in on his remaining value rather than wait around and see it melt away with more stubbed toes and sprained nose hairs; the only bone in Anderson's body that consistently works properly is his funny bone. So, he was shipped off to Colorado in return for a lottery ticket named Drew Pomeranz, another left-handed former top prospect who had fallen out of favor and needed a change of scenery.

It was a classic challenge trade, lefty starter for lefty starter, and the A's came out on top by a mile. Anderson made eight starts for the Rockies, which was exactly his annual average from the previous three years combined, and he managed to hit the 60-day DL twice in the same season for two completely different injuries (broken finger, back surgery), which is an impressive feat on its own. Meanwhile, Pomeranz and his big curveball thrived away from Coors Field, first in a relief role and then in the rotation. His season was interrupted by a self-inflicted injury, but he helped the 2014 team and showed flashes of star potential for the future while putting up a better season than Anderson himself. He just turned 26 and has at least four more years of team control, and he's a prime candidate for a breakout season in 2015.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's look back at Pom's 2014 campaign. He was expected to start the year in Triple-A stretching out to start games, but he forced his way onto the Opening Day roster as a long reliever thanks in part to a huge spring in the Cactus League (20 Ks to 3 walks in 12⅔ innings). He was effective out of the pen during the first month of the season, racking up a 1.98 ERA in nine games and recording as many as eight outs in a single appearance. He did serve up an extra-inning walk-off homer to the Angels, but he did far more good than bad overall.

By early May, Dan Straily pitched his way out of the rotation and Pomeranz got his chance. He didn't disappoint, as each of his first three starts lasted for exactly five shutout innings. He got knocked around a couple times after that by the powerful Blue Jays and Angels, but he bounced back with two seven-inning gems against the Yankees and those same Angels. It looked like he was developing into a legitimate starter.

And then, it went wrong, because this was the 2014 A's and everything went wrong eventually. On June 16, he got torched for eight runs by the Rangers and then fractured his pinkie finger punching a chair in frustration. Oh, the irony of the guy acquired for the fragile Anderson suffering such a fluky injury. By the time he came back, the A's had acquired Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, and Pom had to start all over in Triple-A. He was unspectacular in Sacramento, posting a 3.69 ERA in eight starts, but he made it back up to Oakland for three more appearances down the stretch. Two of those games were vintage Pom starts: 5⅓ innings and an unearned run, and five shutout innings. The other outing featured three scoreless innings of relief. In those last three games, he faced 50 total batters and retired 41 of them, including 16 strikeouts.

His splits in the rotation and bullpen:

Pom, 2014 starter: 10 games, 52⅓ innings, 2.58 ERA, 50 Ks, 20 BB, 5 HR
Pom, 2014 reliever: 10 games, 16⅔ innings, 1.62 ERA, 14 Ks, 6 BB, 2 HR

* Note that his low opponents' batting average (.205 as starter, .200 as reliever) came courtesy of a .244 BABIP. That's an awfully low number, and it's something to keep an eye on as he tries to repeat his success next year.

It's natural to wonder what would have been if Pom hadn't carelessly hurt himself. Would he have turned into a No. 2/3 starter for the rest of the year? Would he have delayed the need to make the Shark/Hammel trade so early, letting Beane wait for the market to develop and possibly get better value? Would he have eliminated the need to pay dearly for Jon Lester? My instincts say no because Beane wanted more experienced and reliable veterans, but it's certainly possible. As it is, though, Pom's season was a success by any possible measure, as he proved himself at the MLB level and established himself as an up-and-coming piece for Oakland's rotation in 2015 and beyond. He's young, even younger than his 26 years suggest since he got such little work in Colorado, and he's under team control for a while. He could be the next big thing.

2014 season grade, relative to expectations: B+ ... I hoped for someone who would come up and go through the struggles of a young, inexperienced pitcher, preferably coming out looking strong at the end. I got the strong part, but without many of the struggles -- seven of his starts were good, one was meh, and only two were poor. He exceeded all reasonable expectations on the field. He could have earned an A by winning the fight with the chair and emerging unscathed so that he could have had a full season in the bigs.

2014 season grade, overall: B ... On the larger scale, he only threw 69 innings, so it's hard to grade him much higher than this. But they were good innings, so you can't really dock him too much either. He could have earned an A by breaking 100 frames while keeping that ERA below 2.50, or by getting closer to 150 innings and keeping it under 3.25.

Video highlights

Let's start with Pom's first start of the season, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Mariners. He served as something of a stopper in this one, shutting down Seattle in the series finale to avoid a four-game sweep -- the A's had allowed 18 total runs in the first three games.

Here's what he looks like when he has his strikeout stuff working. Actually, most of his eight Ks in this game came on fastballs, often elevated Doolittle-style. He doesn't get one on a curve until later in the contest, and it's nice to know that he can get outs with his fastball when necessary so that his curve doesn't have to do all the work.

This start shows the best and the worst of Pomeranz. He loads the bases in the first inning on a single, a walk, and a HBP, but he also strikes out the side, including one K with the bases juiced. Control can be a problem for Pom now and then, but it's good to see him turn around and get out of trouble by missing bats. If you're going to give out guaranteed baserunners via walks, then it's best if you can also rack up guaranteed outs on Ks rather than playing Russian roulette with batted balls.

And hey, he can field his position. Here he knocks down a comebacker, but then has the presence of mind to follow up on the play, pounce on the ball, and deliver it to first in time for the out. It could have been prettier, but it also could have been way, way uglier.

***

Billy Beane turned one year of a perpetually injured Brett Anderson into five years of a promising, similarly young lefty starter. The first of those five years produced enough to make the trade a success already, and now the A's have another strong starter to slot in behind whichever of Sonny, Shark and Kazmir are still in Oakland come April. Not a bad year for Pom Pom Pom, Pom Pom-er-anz.