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December 17, 2010

Warning Track Power

Oakland's Armed Robbery?

by Chase Gharrity

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Though the Oakland Athletics won the posting fee sweepstakes for Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakima, the team elected not to sign him. Still, the A’s have been on a mission to add depth to their pitching staff. The odd negotiations with Iwakuma and the Vin Mazzaro trade were enough motivation for Billy Beane to try and add insurance arms, so he signed a pair of injury-prone righties this week: Brandon McCarthy and Rich Harden. Now that the contractual ink has dried, the physicals have been analyzed, and the photo-ops completed, let’s take a look what these new additions can do next year.

McCarthy, a former top prospect in the White Sox system, is coming off a relatively successful season, but it was limited to just nine starts, 11 appearances, and 56 1/3 innings pitched with the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate. The native of Glendale, California battled shoulder issues throughout the season, a common theme throughout his young career. Below is his 2010 line with Oklahoma City:

Age

GS

IP

H/9

HR/9

BB/9

SO/9

SO/BB

LOB%

BABIP

ERA

26

9

56.1

8.1

1.3

1.8

7.0

4.00

79.9%

0.272

3.36

As we can see, McCarthy was very effective when healthy. He had strong peripherals, including an impressive 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. However, his left-on-base percentage and BABIP could raise some eyebrows, especially when those marks were accrued against sub-MLB-quality opponents and in a fairly neutral home park. Playing in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks will help McCarthy, as will Oakland’s fantastic infield defense.

McCarthy posted a 1.96 ERA in 23 innings in four Dominican Winter League appearances, a final tune-up before spring training. He walked three batters and only struck out 11, but most importantly, he pitched pain-free.

There was no shortage of interest in (or physical evaluations of) the right-hander, who was rumored to have been checked out by “at least seven teams.” Though I suppose the Athletics’ health staff hasn’t earned very much trust amongst fans over the years, a new training staff regime leader and a currently non-bothersome right shoulder on McCarthy should give the Athletics a solid backup rotation option.

PECOTA projected a 4.80 ERA and 1.46 WHIP for McCarthy in 2010. After throwing fewer innings in 2010 than 2009, this projection is probably in for some regression. However, with just $1 million guaranteed to the right-hander (plus various performance-based incentives), it’s a worthwhile investment.

Harden is another interesting low-risk, high-reward acquisition. Though he has usually been in the rotation, the righty signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract to work in relief.

Injuries and inconsistent command have kept Harden from reaching his full potential. After a stint in Chicago, he signed with the Rangers prior to the 2010 season. Here are the 28-year-old’s ugly results:

GS

IP

H/9

HR/9

HR/FB%

BB/9

SO/9

SO/BB

LOB%

BABIP

ERA

SIERA

VORP

18

92.0

8.9

1.8

12.5%

6.1

7.3

1.21

73.8%

0.274

5.58

5.22

2.5

He continued to post above-average strikeout rates and below-average walk rates. Harden’s velocity in 2010 was a career-worst, and he had clear struggles with his mechanics while with the Rangers, contributing to the awful year.

Along with the benefit of working in a pitcher’s paradise in terms of both park and defense, working out of the pen should benefit Harden. In his 13 2/3 career relief innings, he has logged 15 strikeouts and a 3.29 ERA (but had seven walks). Finding the strike zone will be critical to Harden’s success.

Harden’s move to the bullpen could also address concerns with the dramatic decrease in velocity he experienced in 2010. Though it’s been proven that a drop in PITCHf/x velocity can be caused by a number of non-important factors, an average fastball and changeup velocity that drops nearly two mph is hard to ignore. The move could give Harden the opportunity to throw his pitches with more effort, giving an extra bit of spice to his heater and helping him make the most of his limited arsenal. Armed with an explosive fastball and a nasty changeup coined the “spuckle,” Harden has just a two-pitch mix, which is hard for a starter to get by on. Given that this arsenal has largely contributed to his success in his first turn against opposing batters (highlighted by the 577 OPS conceded in that split), it would not be surprising if Harden thrives in relief, even with the rumors that he’s still being considered an option for the fifth rotation spot.

 There is no surprise that the A’s felt the need to add some pitching after missing out on Iwakuma. While there have been questions swirling about the sincerity of Oakland’s potentially lucrative addition of the Japanese star, there is no denying that the Athletics have helped themselves out with two lottery tickets in Harden and McCarthy. If just one can stay healthy and pitch close to their potential ability (not a given by any means), their performance should outweigh the monetary cost of both contracts.  

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