In a season where two Oakland Athletics starting pitchers haven't thrown a single pitch in the majors while they recover from surgery, the A's sit just 1½ games back of the second American League wild card. In a year in which Oakland has had to use nine different pitchers to start games, they rank second in the AL in ERA, and third in ERA+, a stat that adjusts for their pitcher-friendly home park. This all coming immediately after the A's dealt the established Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez in exchange for prospects. How have they pulled this off?
The key has been that most of those nine pitchers who have started games for Oakland are talented. That's a simple (and obvious) enough explanation, but how is it that the Athletics have so many major-league-ready arms, despite dealing a pair this winter, while losing another two -- Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson -- to major arm surgeries?
Some of these pitchers were already A's, others were signed as free agents -- both notable and under-the-radar acquisitions -- and others still were part of the return for the shipped-out starters.
Brandon McCarthy was already in place, but injuries have limited him to just 14 starts and 90 innings. He's been effective, though. He's also one of the only names in the rotation that would have been recognizable to the casual fan heading into the season.
Bartolo Colon isn't one of the mystery men, but he seemed like it while a free agent until late January last winter. He succeeded in his return campaign to the majors in New York in 2011, and Oakland was able to secure his follow-up for just $2 million on a one-year deal. Colon leads the A's in innings and starts, and is second among rotation regulars with a 111 ERA+, thanks to ridiculous command. Possibly emboldened by the vast outfield space behind him, Colon has thrown 70-percent strikes, and is walking a ridiculously low 1.4 batters per nine innings.
Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker are second and third in starts, respectively. The 25-year-old Milone was part of the Gio package, and he's been average -- but healthy -- in his first full season. Milone was a 10th-round pick of the Nationals in 2010, who developed into the #13 prospect in their talented system before he was traded. Parker, who came to the A's in the Cahill deal, is the better known of the pair, as the 23-year-old was the #26 prospect on Baseball America's pre-season list. That's nothing new, as he's been in the top 50 five times since become a first-round draft pick in 2007. Things started out sketchy, as far as his peripherals were concerned, but he's now striking out seven batters per nine, with the lowest home-run rate in the league.
Tyson Ross and Travis Blackley have also logged double-digit in starts in 2012. Ross has bounced between the majors and minors since 2010, but he's one of the few weak points in what has overall been a strong mix of veterans and kids. Ross' 6.35 ERA and 1.2 K/BB in 62 innings were unexpected given his success in Triple-A, but it's of little consequence when the A's can simply turn to someone like Blackley. The A's had the Australian Blackley around in 2010, but released him at year's end. After a pit stop in Mexico, a return to Australia, and a short stint across the bay in San Francisco, Blackley ended up back in Oakland. After 11 starts, he owns a 108 ERA+ and 2.9 K/BB, on the strength of control that presented itself only this year. Even if it's temporary -- and it would be a shame, given his world-spanning story -- Blackley has been a significant help to the A's in holding the line while dealing with injuries.
This isn't the end of what the A's have, either. Brett Anderson is due back from his rehab assignment after one or two more starts for Sacramento; even if they need to take it easy in his return from Tommy John, there are plenty of arms to compensate for that. A.J. Griffin was part of the cavalry, but a shoulder strain has derailed his 2012 for now. That's a shame, given the sleeper prospect had posted a 3.5 K/BB, and rotation-leading 164 ERA in his first 44 major-league innings, following domination of the PCL in Triple-A.
Last, there's Dan Straily, who has scuffled a bit in his first two MLB starts. Even with that, Straily was leading professional baseball in strikeouts when he was called up, despite being a total unknown heading into 2012. Your team wishes its dozenth option to start was Dan Straily.
Brandon McCarthy is a free agent at year's end, and Bartolo Colon will be as well. Yet, look at the rotation the A's will likely deploy in 2013, even if they were to lose both. This likely isn't some one-year thing, as the Athletics have been building depth for some years now. There's no need to focus on the future just yet, though, not with all of these pitchers working for them in the present, in a season that might just result in their first playoff berth since 2006.