Oakland looks to have a very good pitching staff for 2006. The starting five of Zito, Harden, Haren, Loaiza and Blanton matches up favorably with any AL staff, and a bullpen that boasts ROY Huston Street and four or five above average setup men will be a boon to a team that was completely scuttled by blown games only two years ago. Add the stellar defense that GM Billy Beane has assembled behind them, and Oakland may not be allowing very many runs this season. Oakland is a trendy pick to go deep into the playoffs, but this might be their year to break out of the playoff funk. Pitching is key, and they are as deep as they have ever been in that regard.
1 - Barry Zito
Zito seemed to get back on track last season after a below average 2004. If you look at some of his season by season numbers, he's had a fairly consistent career, with 2004 being the exception.
He was more hittable for some reason in 2004, but he regressed to his mean in 2005, posting much better numbers. 2006 is his walk year, which always seems to get that little extra out of players, but PECOTA isn't high on him. They predict a 4.01 ERA, which seems mostly based on a .272 BABIP, which I personally disagree with. Zito has shown an ability to limit BABIP to around .240. Rob Neyer speculated that it's due to his huge curveball acting like a knuckleball, in that batters cannot get solid wood on the ball when the curve is working.
I'd look for a good year from Zito. Good enough to likely ensure he prices himself out of Oakland's budget, unfortunately. Unless he takes a "hometown" discount, or Lew Wolff and Billy Beane free up some cash, he'll be gone. I don't think he'll be traded, though. Oakland's front office has made it pretty clear that they're trying to win this year. Zito is an important part of that plan.
2 - Rich Harden
Harden had a wonderful 2005 campaign going until injuries sidelined him twice. An oblique injury and a lat strain limited him to only 128 innings with a 2.53 ERA. He limited batters to measly .562 OPS, and struck out 8.51 per 9 innings. He seemingly has made a full recovery in the offseason, and has pitched well this spring. His fastball is back on track, and the ghost-pitch/spluckle that he embarrassed hitters with is still a part of his arsenal.
PECOTA has him projected as the best starting pitcher on the A's staff, with a 3.51 ERA. This seems like a conservative estimate to me. While there is really nothing in the PECOTA peripherals that I disagree with, it seems to be a lowball estimate for Harden. Bill James and ZiPS have him pitching better, but PECOTA is as close as you can get to a gold standard.
If he can replicate some of his 2005 numbers, he'll have an incredible year. I'm not going to jinx him by mentioning the award named after Denton True Young, but don't be surprised if Harden is in the running, if he's healthy.
3 - Dan Haren
Haren had a consistent, quality year for Oakland in 2005. He had two average months to begin the season, ran into some tough offenses in July (TOR, CWS, TEX, TEX, CLE), then was lights out for the last two months.
He wasn't all that fortunate to post a 3.73 ERA on the year, with an average strand rate and BABIP (.273). He limited batters to a .709 OPS, and showed good control, posting a K/BB ratio of just over 3.
Haren looks primed to have a great 2006 season, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if he outperforms every one of his rotation-mates except Harden. PECOTA has Haren coming in with a 3.91 ERA, which I really don't agree with. His peripherals are good enough to at least equal last year's performance, and with an additional season of maturation, he can only improve. He did post sub-3.00 ERAs for the last two months of 2005, which is somewhat telling.
4 - Esteban Loaiza
I have no idea how Esteban will do. His career path has been so random I don't know how anyone can guess as to what kind of season he'll have. It's as if you took the career records of Johan Santana, Jose Lima and Mark Redman, put them into a hat, and pulled out one or two years from each. Loaiza has had a couple very good years, a couple awful ones, and a few average ones. What kind of pitcher will he be for the A's this year? Your guess is as good as mine.
PECOTA thinks it'll be an average season for Loaiza, with an ERA of 4.02, but I have a feeling it'll either be .75 runs lower than that, or .75 runs higher. I don't foresee an average season for him.
Loaiza will benefit from having Oakland's excellent defense behind him, as will all the pitchers, but it may be what saves him the most. His BABIP has been over .300 every year of his career (except the fluky 2003 season), which indicates to me that he either allows a very high number of line drives, or the defense behind him was sub-par. This season will likely tell us which it is. If Loaiza has a good year, you can bet that the Oakland defense is a major reason.
5 - Joe Blanton
I'm worried about Blanton. His strikeout rate has plummeted in the majors, and his BABIP was second lowest in the AL last season, behind only Barry Zito. Blanton is not the type of pitcher that would likely be able to limit BABIP. He's been lucky. An ERA of 3.53 in 2005 is deflated by his good fortune. Look for a decline for Blanton, unless his strikeouts per 9 increase, and his control improves. Baserunners are not his friend, and will hurt him when some of those hits fall in this season. Oakland may have the best defense in baseball, but a .241 BABIP is sure to rise for 2006.
PECOTA agrees with me on the future of Blanton, predicting a jump in ERA to 4.26 for 2006. Blanton will still be effective, but don't look for a repeat of 2005. It's still good production from a #5 starter, though.
The only weakness to the 2006 Oakland bullpen seems to be that Manager Ken Macha would like a second lefty out of the pen. He may get his wish, as lineups for opening day have not yet been finalized, and there are a couple lefties still in camp (Ron Flores, Brad Halsey) who could snag the 25th roster spot.
The closer position will be filled by a steady incumbent for the first time since the Dennis Eckersley days. Reigning rookie of the year Huston Street will bring his filthy slider and 95mph heat to the ninth inning all year long, which should add a ton of stability to the back end of Oakland games. Street limited opposition to a meager .194 batting average last season, on the strength of a 8.27 K/9 ratio, well within closer territory. Street may regress slightly in the ERA department this season due to a low BABIP and few HR allowed, but should be just as dominant.
Setting things up for Street will be All-Star Justin Duchscherer, Kiko Calero and Jay Witasick. Duchscherer, Calero and Witasick limited opposition to hitting just above the Mendoza line, and struck out 210 batters in 204.2 innings.
The A's also have lefty Joe Kennedy as a LOOGY/long relief/spot starter. He was still a starter last season, and has had time to acclimate to a relief role now. Over the past three seasons, lefties have only managed to hit .226 off of him, and he's posted a 2.73 ERA as a reliever.
Kirk Saarloos moves from the #5 starter spot he admirably filled last year to the bullpen. Saarloos may be a huge surprise coming out of the pen for the A's. He induces a huge numbers of groundballs and double plays. He also is hard to hit the first time through the order, allowing just a .250 average over the past three years to batters he faced in the first inning, and has posted a 2.85 ERA in a relief role.
It certainly seems to me that the A's fortunes are in good hands with the pitching staff this season. The only pitfalls would be sophomore slumps from Street and Blanton, and a possible random season from Loaiza. There is so much pitching waiting in the wings, though, that even that wouldn't derail them for long.