Oakland GM Billy Beane is in the midst of a “scorched earth” off-season for the ages. Gone are rotation stalwarts Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder in seemingly now-for-later trades with the Braves and Cardinals, respectively. The line of analysis in most circles in that the A’s now lack the pitching to return to the postseason. I’m not so worried.

Consider what Hudson and Mulder combined for last season:

Innings    Runs/Game
414.1        4.37

That’s a pile of innings, but considering that the AL R/G in 2004 was 5.01 they aren’t, name value aside, elite-level innings. Last season, the only pitchers to make starts for the A’s were Hudson, Mulder, Barry Zito, Rich Harden, Mark Redman and Kirk Saarloos. Of those, only Zito and Harden will be a part of the 2005 rotation. Put another way, here’s what the A’s have lost:

Innings    Runs/Game
628.0        4.64

And here’s what’s returning:

Innings    Runs/Game
402.2        4.60

The incumbent starters, on balance, were better than what’s been cast aside. I’m one who thinks Zito has been squarely overrated for most of his career, but I think he’s better than the 4.90 R/G he posted last season. I also think Harden, a lavishly talented young arm, will see a performance boost as he scoots another year closer to what should be his prime seasons. That’s to say, I think Zito and Harden will be better in ’05 than they were last season.

It’ll be easy to look at what Mulder does in the upcoming season (I’m anticipating improvement) and assume that hurts the A’s. On one level it does, but on another level it doesn’t. For Oakland, the real measuring stick is the run-prevention skills they lose from last season. The bar for replacing Mulder’s innings from a year ago isn’t terribly high. It’s neither here nor there what he does in 2005 in the other league and half a continent away. Will either Dan Meyer or Dan Haren approximate Mulder’s innings? I think it’s more of a likelihood than one might think.

Haren posted a career 5.4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minors, which is both excellent and rare. His stuff doesn’t titillate scouts quite like Mulder’s does, but the record of performance is there. In many instances, I’m willing to haltingly write off four-pitch, command guys who thrive in the minors despite a middling repertoire. However, I’m not so willing to dismiss a young pitcher who whiffed more than five times as many as he walked. He’ll open the season in Oakland’s fourth or fifth slot, so he certainly won’t match Mulder’s innings, but I’ll be less than shocked if he paces the ’04 Mulder on a runs-per-game basis.

Meyer is another guy I like quite a bit. He’s a command specialist whose peripherals aren’t quite as strong, but his stuff is generally regarded as being a tad better. His numbers slid just a bit in a 61-inning stint at Triple-A Richmond last season, but on the whole he has an impressive record of performance. Again, it’s not unreasonable to think he’ll be a suitable proxy for last year’s Mulder model.

The real test for the new economy-class Oakland rotation will be in replacing Hudson’s innings. I foresee improvements in Zito and Harden, solid performances from Haren and Meyer and perhaps a “better than Redman” season from Joe Blanton. In short, here’s how the rotation might stack up, in an “algebraic inequality” sense, against last year’s:

Starter   2005     < or >      2004

1         Zito       <         Hudson
2         Harden     >         Mulder
3         Meyer      >         Zito
4         Haren      <         Harden
5         Blanton    >         Redman

On a slot-to-slot basis, that’s three possible improvements, and I don’t think those are wildly optimistic projections. On a “runs prevented” basis, they don’t figure to have any one pitcher who matches Hudson’s work from last season, but as a unit they may force a wash or even come out narrowly ahead.

That’s to say nothing of the refurbished bullpen. Out are Arthur Rhodes and Justin Lehr, who combined for 71 1/3 innings and 5.30 R/G. In are Kiko Calero and Juan Cruz, who in tandem last season worked 117 1/3 innings with a 2.91 R/G. That’s a massive upgrade right there. Throw in highly promising Rule 5 selection Tyler Johnson and an expected improvement from Octavio Dotel, and the A’s figure to have a notably improved relief corps in the upcoming season.

I expect, on balance, the Oakland pitching staff to be improved despite the conspicuous departures of Hudson and Mulder. Additionally, I expect the offensive attack to be marginally improved with the addition of Jason Kendall and an anticipated full season from Eric Chavez. Additionally, it won’t surprise me if Nick Swisher comes within hailing distance of Jermaine Dye‘s thoroughly overrated “comeback” season in 2004.

That’s not to say I expect Oakland to be in the postseason. The AL West figures to be hotly fought, and this is not, as currently assembled, a great team. Last season, the A’s posted a Pythagorean record of 86-76 (against an actual record of 91-71) and recorded a run differential of just +51 (worse than that of the Rangers, Phillies, Cubs, Giants and Padres, among others). It’s entirely conceivable that the 2005 A’s will be a better team on a component level and finish with a worse record than they did last season.

This club has concerns and weaknesses, but they haven’t been hopelessly shanghaied by the loss of 66.7% of the Big Three. In fact, they may be a better team because of those deals.

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