PHOENIX -- Oakland Athletics pitchers are dropping so fast you’d think Billy Martin was back from the dead, running the show and slagging starters with his usual win-now aplomb.
Just when you didn’t think the news couldn’t get any worse for them, they had to make the announcement today that staff ace Jarrod Parker is done for the season as he heads for his second Tommy John surgery. And with that done, we need to start talking about whether the A’s will even get back to the playoffs at all, because their planned rotation has seemingly gone to pieces inside of a week.
A's infirmary ward
This news comes after the A’s had already confirmed that No. 4 starter A.J. Griffin will start the season on the DL with elbow tendinitis. Free agent Scott Kazmir, the presumptive No. 3, was already a roll of the dice after his huge comeback last season following two years away; he was scratched today from his scheduled start for triceps stiffness. And the No. 2? Sonny Gray just had to have surgery on his left (non-throwing) thumb, but last October’s rookie hero is already lined up to be the Opening Day starter now that Parker is done for the year.
With that much damage done, who’s left, and can the A’s win the division with it? Last year’s A’s rotation led the AL West with 92 quality starts, but that was with Parker and Bartolo Colon leading the way with 23 apiece. It’s hard to see how they’ll get that kind of work from what’s left. Assuming Kazmir is in working order by the start of the season to follow Gray in the rotation, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone are reliable enough inning-eaters to hold down two slots, but neither managed to get to six innings allowing three runs or fewer in even half of their turns in 2013.
Most April schedules might invite skipping the fifth slot, but the A’s don’t have that going for them, so you’ll see former Indians prospect Drew Pomeranz (snagged from the Rockies this winter in a deal for oft-absent Brett Anderson) or long man Jesse Chavez getting looks not as insurance policies, but as immediate answers. I’m a big fan of Pomeranz as the best possible answer, and he might be able to stick ahead of Straily or Milone.
Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system pegs him for a 3.87 ERA and 4.18 FIP, plus 8.1 strikeout per nine innings, which sounds just like what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, he’s also been under doctor’s orders as recently as last season, missing time with biceps tendinitis.
Lack of depth exposed
So we’re already talking about a lot of games in danger in the fifth and sixth innings, which is going to put a lot of games in the hands of guys such as Chavez, Dan Otero and Fernando Abad. They were already nice live arms to have in low-leverage situations, but they’re suddenly almost as important as the back end of the rotation. And that’s what you’re going to beat the Angels’ retooled rotation with? Or the Rangers'? It’s a long season, but it’s going to have to be to get Griffin back and perhaps Pomeranz up to speed to give Oakland a strong quartet to contend with.
Big picture, two broader questions emerge, the first related to my recent experience at the SABR Analytics Conference here in Phoenix. Stan Conte, the Dodgers' director of medical services, observed injuries are already at record highs, and that 2012 featured an extraordinary number of Tommy John surgeries in part because of an incredible seven "corrections" or second Tommy John surgeries that year. Even allowing for improved diagnostic procedures to explain some of the injuries, this is getting ugly -- fast -- and especially for the A’s.
The second factor is that this serves as an immediate reminder of how every team’s winter shopping list can’t stop at five or six pitchers for stocking their rotations. Every team needs to think in terms of going eight deep because the chances one guy could miss a month, another an entire year, and somebody else might simply pitch poorly is a real-world scenario all 30 clubs have to confront, not just mull as a contingency.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.