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Oakland A's rotation: Is Barry Zito the 6th starter now?

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Scott Kazmir may have made his final start in an Athletics uniform on Saturday if he is traded before Friday. Is Barry Zito the one to take his place?

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As the trade deadline approaches and with Scott Kazmir as one of Oakland's key trade pieces, there may soon be a new vacancy in the Oakland rotation. At the moment, it appears Barry Zito is a realistic, if not the leading candidate, to be the next starting pitcher called up from Triple-A after Chris Bassitt if the A's don't acquire other starting pitchers in July.

Kendall Graveman and Drew Pomeranz pitched well enough to earn rotation spots out of spring training, so Zito headed to Triple-A Nashville to start the season, hoping to continue his spring training success. Later, Jesse Chavez had pitched well enough out of the bullpen for him to take over Kendall Graveman's spot in the rotation when Graveman was demoted.

By the time the A's decided that Pomeranz was going to be more useful to them in a struggling bullpen than as a starting pitcher who more often than not could not escape the sixth inning, Zito also was faltering. He had a 5.29 ERA through May 21. Kendall Graveman had returned to form with Nashville and he returned to the A's on May 23 to fill Pomeranz's spot, again leaving Zito on the outside looking in.

Just behind Graveman was Chris Bassitt, who owns a 3.71 ERA in Nashville and is expected to be recalled as the fifth starter in place of Jesse Hahn next weekend. He has done well in three spot starts for Oakland as well as in several relief appearances.

But now Zito has thrown nine quality starts out of his last 10 tries for Nashville for a 2.30 ERA, lowering his season ERA to 3.57. In that span he has struck out 44 and walked 20. As A's special assistant Grady Fuson told Athletics Farm's Bill Moriarity:

I'm proud of what's happened the last month or so. You know, the first five or six starts he made, you just kind of went, "Ugh, here we go." Not the command that he's used to throwing with, and we all know the velocity's down. But he's been grinding through it and he's been working at it. I know [pitching coach] Don Schulze and [manager] Steve Scarsone say he's been a tremendous citizen. And I would say his last five or six starts have been off the charts. He's been efficient, he's been pounding the strike zone and his breaker's been more consistent. His changeup still kind of comes and goes, but he's been really good.

Is he the next one up? Let's cross out our other options.

Zito vs. the 40-man roster

After Bassitt, the other options on the 40-man roster have all suffered injuries of one sort or another. Sean Nolin has been on the minor league disabled list since July 2 was a left shoulder injury, says Athletics Farm's Bill Moriarity. A.J. Griffin was still rehabilitating a shoulder strain and was not throwing as of July 9, writes Susan Slusser for the San Francisco Chronicle. Recent acquisition Cody Martin has been less than stellar in three Triple-A starts for the Sounds. Arnold Leon has been moved to the bullpen.

The other possible option would be to put Drew Pomeranz back in the starting rotation, but he has not pitched more than two innings since his last start on May 18 and would need to be stretched out again.

Off the 40-man

Nashville's other choices are Brad Mills, Zach Neal, and Nate Long. Mills has struck out 68 and walked 36 in Nashville to a 4.20 ERA, but he has conceded 16 runs in his last three starts. Neal has bounced between Double-A and Triple-A, and has a 3.53 ERA in 12 appearances for Nashville. Long was only recently promoted to Triple-A, and in his last three starts has struck out 14 and walked six.

All that's left, then, is Barry Zito. Barry Zito who has been great in his last 10 starts. 2002 Cy Young Award Winner Barry Zito. World Series champion Barry ZIto.

How does this work for Barry Zito?

Even if Barry Zito is called up, there is no guarantee he stays with Oakland for the rest of the season. The pitchers on the 40-man roster will return from their injuries. The A's may acquire other starting pitchers at the deadline to supplant Zito.

But whether Barry Zito gets a long-term call up or only a brief stay works out for him either way. Even a short stay gives him the chance he has wanted, to show that he can still pitch against major league competition. Whether he stays with Oakland for the season or is released and gets picked up elsewhere, he'll know whether he has what it takes.

Barry Zito is Oakland's sixth starter right now because starters three (Hahn), four (Parker), six (Griffin), and seven (Nolin) are broken. Zito's next scheduled start for Nashville is Wednesday in Colorado Springs. If there's a Scott Kazmir #hugwatch this week, it just may start with word that Zito has been pulled from that start.