A's staff as strong as ever

Scott Ham, who's been writing to me for nearly as long as I've been writing to you, weighed in again Sunday night ...


    Where does Mark Redman fit in the Andy Pettitte/Mark Buehrle equation? And why has a guy who has put up decent numbers for the last couple of seasons been given "only" a $4M a year deal?

    Billy Beane must be a happy camper right now.

What you think about Mark Redman depends, in part, upon how important you think the 2001 season is when evaluating a pitcher's 2004 prospects. Redman spent half of 2001 on the DL, and didn't pitch particularly well when "healthy."

Let's just look at the last two seasons, though: ERA, Win Shares, and (just for fun) 2004 salary, as determined by contracts signed within the last couple of weeks, with the dollars prorated.

Pettitte 3.73 27 $10.5M
Buehrle 3.85 30 $ 6.0M
Redman 3.91 21 $ 4.0M

Looking just at the ERA's, Redman would seem to be underpaid, compared to Buehrle and (especially) Pettitte (and yes, I know that Pettitte and Buehrle aren't exactly analogous, because Buehrle's not been eligible for free agency yet). Looking at the Win Shares, though, the salaries seem to make a bit more sense. Why does Redman have fewer Win Shares than both Buehrle (despite posting a nearly identical ERA) and Pettitte (despite pitching significantly more innings, because of Pettitte's DL stint in 2002)?

Because of the Tigers, and Comerica Park. Actual wins don't have much to do with Win Shares, but wins are a small component of the method, and Redman went 8-15 while pitching for the Tigers in 2002. On a related note, Redman did roughly half his pitching that season in Comerica Park, which was probably the best pitcher's park in the American League that season. And Redman took advantage; his Comerica ERA was 3.30, but on the road it was 5.07.

Pro Player Stadium is a good pitcher's park, too ... and so is Redman's new home in Oakland (yes, he's one lucky southpaw that way). He's a good pitcher with a real good chance to post a sub-4.00 ERA, but I would say that $4 million per season is just about right, in today's environment. The answer may be different a year from now, but at this moment I'd rather have Pettitte or Buehrle than Redman.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that 1) Billy Beane got a good deal, but we shouldn't assume he got a great deal, and 2) Redman's not exactly a Cy Young candidate. So what is he?

He's one hell of a fourth starter, that's what. What's more, indirectly he gives the A's one hell of a fifth starter: Rich Harden.

As good as the A's have been over the last four seasons -- they've averaged 98 wins in that span -- they've rarely been blessed with an effective fifth starter. Below are the numbers posted by the pitchers who have ranked fifth on the team in games started in each of the last four seasons:

2000 Omar Olivares 4-8, 6.75
2001 Gil Heredia 7-8, 5.58
2002 Aaron Harang 5-4, 4.83
2003 John Halama 3-5, 4.22

Those numbers are misleading, but before I explain how they're misleading, let me first point out the obvious trend: down. As in, the Athletics' fifth starters seem to have been better in each season, from Olivares and his 6.75 ERA in 2000 to John Halama and his 4.22 in 2003.

Why are the numbers misleading? Because, of course, the A's have used a lot of fifth starters, and to this point we've ignored them. In 2000, for example, Barry Zito replaced Olivares in late July and pitched brilliantly down the stretch, 7-4 with a 2.72 ERA (no other Oakland starter was even in the threes). Also, in 2003, Halama and Harden tied for fifth with 16 starts apiece (I chose Halama because he spent all season with the A's).

But as you can see, the Athletics' fifth starters have either stuggled to win (Halama and Harang), racked up a high ERA (Heredia), or both (Olivares). They've never ended a season with five starters having pitched effectively for the whole season.

Not that many teams do. It's exceptionally rare, which is why you don't even notice when a team's No. 5 starters struggle; it's expected. But what if you did get solid numbers from all five guys? Wouldn't that be a huge advantage?

In fact, that was perhaps the biggest key to the Marlins' success last season. Once A.J. Burnett went down (with an injury) and Dontrelle Willis came up (from the minors), the Marlins had five good starting pitchers. That was more than the Braves had, or the Cubs or the Giants.

The A's could have a staff like that, only better. If Harden's able to jump right into the fray -- as Hudson, Mulder, and Zito did -- the A's will have the best fifth starter in the majors and the best rotation in the division (if not the league). Will this offset the losses of Ramon Hernandez and Miguel Tejada?

Yes, I think it will. Well, this and the additions of Bobby Kielty and Mark Kotsay, who turn the league's worst outfield into something that, at the very least, isn't an embarrassment to the general manager.

With most of the tumult in the West apparently concluded, it looks to me as if the A's are going to run their postseason streak to five years.


One note of caution about the A's, though ... Barry Zito is slipping. In fact -- and here's the part of this column where you think I'm kooky -- he started slipping in 2002. When he won the AL Cy Young Award.

Let's look at just the stuff that Zito can control with any degree of significance:

HR/200 BB/200 K/200
2001 17 75 191
2002 21 66 159
2003 16 73 127

Zito's allowing roughly the same number of home runs, and very nearly the same number of walks. But his strikeouts are dropping precipitously, and that's a big red flag in the wonderful world of pitching statistics. Yes, everybody likes to talk about throwing fewer pitches and using the guys behind you and it all sounds so logical, but you show me a pitcher with a lousy strikeout rate and I'll probably show you a pitcher with a lousy ERA.

Of course, Zito won the Cy Young in 2002, then posted a still-good 3.31 ERA in 2003. How'd he do it? He was very, very lucky. Hit-lucky. In both seasons, only 25 percent of the batted balls in play fell in for hits. That's exceptionally low unless you're a knuckleballer, and Zito's not. In 2004, it's likely that somewhere between 28 and 30 percent of the balls in play will become hits, and because so many balls will be put into play -- remember, he's not striking out many batters -- his ERA will go up, too.

With all this in mind, my friend Joe Sheehan over at Baseball Prospectus recently wrote something I wish I'd written, because it combined elements of brilliance and bravado that even the best of us rarely achieve. In a nutshell, Joe argued that when the A's traded Ted Lilly (to the Blue Jays), they traded the wrong man. They should have traded Barry Zito.

No, not because Lilly's a better pitcher. Lilly's a good pitcher, and you have to like his strikeout rate. But Lilly's almost 28 years old, and his 178 innings last season were a career high (and by a hefty margin). Zito, meanwhile, hasn't spent a single day on the disabled list since he arrived in the majors, and has started 35 games in each of the last three seasons.

Rather, because there's apparently a large gap between Zito's value and his ability. In exchange for Lilly, Billy Beane was able to get Bobby Kielty. But what might he have gotten for 2002's Cy Young?

Sounds crazy, I know. But if Zito turns out to be just the fourth- or fifth-best A's starter in 2004, even Beane himself might think back, and wonder.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.