Introducing the A’s new “Big Three”

If anyone didn’t know how invaluable young, healthy power pitching arms at affordable prices can be, they were reminded when Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Johnathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner led the Giants to San Francisco’s first championship. The Phillies have a dominant rotation, but one could easily argue the Giants have as good a starting five as there is in baseball. All four aforementioned hurlers come into the 2011 season at age 28 or younger, with sustained future success a strong probability. As lucky as the Giants are, there is another group of young and cheap power arms in the Bay area. Dallas Braden (age 27) threw a perfect game and ended 2010 with a 3.5 ERA, but I don’t even see him as a top 3 starter on a vastly underrated A’s staff. Brett Anderson (23), Gio Gonzalez (25) and Trevor Cahill (23) have a legitimate shot at becoming this decades version of Oakland’s “Big Three,” and can have the A’s in contention for years, just like the original version did at the turn of the millenium.

In case you’re not familiar, Oakland’s original “Big Three” consisted of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Cy-Young winner Barry Zito (yes, once upon a time he was a good pitcher). They appeared together in Oakland’s rotation from 2000-2004, winning the AL West in 2000, 2002 and 2003 and the wild card in 2001. Although the A’s did have offensive stars such as Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez and Jason Giambi during parts of this stretch, it is widely acknowledged that the trio of pitching aces were the driving factor towards their continued success.

Oakland led the American League with an impressive 3.56 ERA and boasted 3 players in the top 13 among those who qualified for the ERA title. Trevor Cahill led the way, placing fourth with a 2,97 ERA in only his second big league season. Gio Gonzalez bursted on to the scene posting a 3.23 ERA in his first full season and Dallas Braden threw up a very respectable 3.5 ERA in his second full season starting campaign. It’s amazing to me that they were this successful without the pitcher I view as the best of the bunch for more than half a season.

Brett Anderson was a darkhorse fantasy sleeper for many baseball followers (including myself) coming into the 2010 season. Instead owners had to settle for 112 IP’s of 2.8 ERA and a 1.26 Whip, as Anderson battled elbow tendinitis for almost all of the first half of the season. He was drafted by the Diamondbacks in the second round in 2006 and was traded (along with current Rockie star Carlos Gonzalez) for Dan Haren when his salary began to price itself out of Oakland. After splitting 2008 between high A and AA ball Anderson spent all of 2009 in Oakland winning 11 games while fanning 150 batters (against only 44 walks) in 175 IP’s as a 21 year old. Elbow issues behind him Anderson will look to take his rightful place at the head of this talented young class of Oakland hurlers in 2011. I expect several seasons of around a 3.2 ERA, 190 K’s and a 1.2 Whip in his future.

Cahill was also a 2nd round pick in 2006 (by the A’s) and teamed with Anderson on the US staff in the Beijing Olympics. He features a low 90’s sinking two-seam fastball which he used to dominate batters en route to an amazing 18 wins and a sub 3.0 ERA (in 196.2 IP’s) at the ripe old age of 23. Although he has the stuff to be a strikeout guy, Cahill prefers to pitch to contact and reminds me a bit of a young Brandon Webb. Though a tremendous pitcher in his own right, I think he may have peaked with a tremendous 2010 and think he’ll end up being the “least” valuable of the big three going forward. Still he should consistently post ERA’s in the low 3’s and around a 1.2 Whip for years to come.

Gonzalez, like Anderson is a southpaw strikeout artist, K-ing 171 in 200.2 IP’s in 2010. Although I list him third, he has the potential to be the best of the bunch – though I’d still give the nod to Anderson for highest ceiling. It’s hard to understand why Gonzalez has already been traded 3 times. Before coming to the A’s organization he had bounced between Chicago (where he was drafted in the 1st round by the White Sox in 2004) and Philly, being part of packages that fetched Jim Thome and Freddy Garcia. Even more curiously the Athletics were able to obtain him (and others) for Nick Swisher. Could you imagine Gonzalez as the *5TH* starter in that Philly rotation! Perhaps the White Sox were scared off by his penchant for free passes. His command was the only thing stopping him from becoming an ace and he improved it to an acceptable level last year enabling his monster breakout year. Although his command issues will be a concern entering 2011, (and likely make him the least consistent of the 3) Gonzalez possesses the kind of shutdown lefthanded arm that scouts cherish above all else. As scary as it sounds I can see improvement from 2010 and he could be battling John Lester and teammate Anderson for best lefthanded starter in baseball in a few years (Once CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee are past their primes).

Whether or not you agree with GM Billy Beane’s OBP obsessed offensive strategy, one can’t deny that he is golden when it comes to acquiring and maximizing the potential of dynamic young pitchers, and then trading them for valuable prospects before they become expensive. Anderson himself was traded for A’s Dan Haren, who was acquired for original big three member Mark Mulder. It is unfortunate that the fate of the current three will likely be the same: I’m sure in a few years they’ll all be traded out of Oakland for someone who toes the rubber of a high school mound in 2011. Such is the nature of business in Oakland, but it should be fun to watch the current big three blossom together for a few years in the Bay

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