A's taking it slowly with their pitching staff

PHOENIX -- Oakland manager Bob Melvin pushed some of his young pitchers harder than he would have preferred in 2012, but it all worked out in the end. The Athletics captured their first American League West title since 2006, and Melvin won his second manager of the year award in recognition of his fine work.

As the A’s gear up for another 162-game war of attrition with the Rangers and Angels, they’re keeping a close watch to make sure the staff avoids the dreaded year-after effect.

Early in the offseason, pitching coach Curt Young called several of the team’s starters and relievers and told them to delay their winter throwing programs. Starter Tommy Milone, who typically begins throwing in mid-December, waited until after New Year's to play catch for the first time. He didn’t begin throwing off a mound until late January -- about 10 days before he reported for spring training.

The A’s are easing Milone and Jarrod Parker into the mix in the Cactus League, and they’re also taking it slowly with relievers Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Jerry Blevins. Grant Balfour is out up to six weeks after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee to repair a torn meniscus last week. Oakland’s bullpen ranked 10th in the majors with 512 innings last season, and the relievers pitched a lot of high-stress innings when the A’s were scrambling to overtake Texas and win the West.

“We’re very aware who the guys were innings-wise that we have to be careful with," Melvin said. “Each individual is different, too. You may have a guy that you need to be a little bit careful with, and another guy who needs the constant work to keep sharp. I don’t think there’s any science to it."

The A’s went to great lengths to protect their young starters a year ago, but they eventually ran out of security blankets. When Bartolo Colon incurred a 50-game suspension for PED use, Brett Anderson suffered an oblique injury and Brandon McCarthy took a line drive off the head, Melvin was forced to give the kids the ball and keep running them out there.

• Milone, acquired from Washington in December 2011 in the Gio Gonzalez deal, threw 196 innings between the regular season and the playoffs. That was up from 174 the previous season.

• Fellow rookie A.J. Griffin’s innings increased from 160 to 189, and Dan Straily's workload also jumped by 30-plus innings.

• Parker, the former Arizona prospect who came to Oakland in the Trevor Cahill trade, took the biggest, more worrisome leap. After missing the entire 2010 season because of Tommy John surgery, he threw 136 innings in 2011. Last year, he emerged as Oakland’s best starter, and the A’s rode him for 215 innings between the regular season and postseason.

• Melvin also had to use the bullpen more than he wanted, especially down the stretch. Balfour made a career-high 75 appearances at age 34, and he and Cook both appeared in five straight games against Texas and Seattle in the final week of the season.

“I’ve never pitched anybody five days in a row before," Melvin said, “but we had to run the table at the end to win the division. They all stepped up. We’re aware of those things."

Milone, 26, encountered a “dead-arm" phase for four or five starts in August and September but worked through it. Now he’s ready to go and hoping to notch his first career 200-inning season.

“When you go through some things and your arm is tired, you feel like you’re not going to get back to normal again," Milone said. “But when you take that much time off, it just rejuvenates you. It helps tremendously."

The A's have some depth to work with in the rotation. They re-signed Colon to a one-year, $3 million deal, and he joins Anderson, Parker, Milone, Griffin and Straily to give Oakland six starting options. In addition, Travis Blackley is available as a starter or a long reliever.

Melvin and the Oakland front office know there’s a fine line to be drawn in mapping out a game plan. They want to exercise caution not to overwork the young pitchers without excessively coddling them. The Nationals encountered the same questions with Stephen Strasburg last year, and Cincinnati will have to address the issue during Aroldis Chapman’s transition from the bullpen to the rotation.

“You don’t want to be babied, but at same time they’re making an investment in you," Griffin said. “They have to protect their investment, but the competitor in the pitcher is always going to come out. Whenever they tell me it’s my turn to pitch, I’m ready to go."