A's staff may be AL's best

A's starting quintet gets a 5-star rating

The following is the first in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: starting rotation.

OAKLAND -- At this time last year, with the smoke from the shocking December trades of Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder barely cleared, the A's starting rotation consisted of veteran lefty Barry Zito, young righty Rich Harden and three big question marks.

Now the question regarding the rotation is this: Is it the best in the American League?

The White Sox, who recently added Javier Vazquez to a starting staff that rolled to the World Series, probably have the edge at this point, but that the A's are even in the conversation speaks to how extreme Oakland's mound makeover has been.

Those three big question marks of early 2005 turned into right-handers Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and Kirk Saarloos, and while Harden spent a sizeable chunk of the season on the disabled list, Zito re-emerged as an ace, anchoring what evolved into a rotation as strong as most in the league. And thanks to the surprise signing of free-agent righty Esteban Loaiza, it should be even stronger -- if everyone stays healthy -- in 2006.

"Our rotation looks incredible right now," veteran catcher Jason Kendall said the day Oakland added Loaiza. "Every fifth day there's going to be a stud going out there for us."

Added Zito, who is entering the final year of his contract and has been mentioned in myriad trade rumors: "It could be a pretty special group."

Assuming Zito does indeed return, he'll again be the headliner. The 2002 AL Cy Young winner struggled with inconsistency in 2004 and got off to a rough start in 2005, going 0-4 with a 6.60 ERA in April. But beginning May 1, when he got his first win of the year, Zito went on a four-month tear in which he was 12-6 with a 2.77 ERA and a .197 opponents' batting average.

Zito, who started throwing a slider for the first time in his career in 2005, was named AL Pitcher of the Month for July, when he went 6-0 with a 2.51 ERA -- and he was even better in the dog days of August, posting a 2.13 ERA in six starts. That he won only two games in August underscored something of a theme for Zito, who went 14-13 with a 3.86 ERA overall.

In 14 of Zito's 35 starts, he received one run of support or less; he was 0-11 in those games. In the 21 starts in which he got two or more runs, he went 14-2.

"He could have won 20 games," Kendall said. "He definitely pitched like a 20-game winner. And what he did in the clubhouse was even more impressive, if you ask me. He had a [heck] of a year, and I think he'll be even better next year."

The pitcher most influenced by Zito, who turns 28 in May, was Haren, who was picked up from St. Louis in the Mulder trade and handed the No. 3 spot in the rotation. His first full year as a big-league starter did not go well early on, and he feared being sent to the Minors after going 1-7 with a 4.87 ERA in his first 10 starts. But thanks to several skull sessions with Zito, Haren turned his season around and went 13-5 with a 3.33 ERA in his final 24 starts.

"I had pretty much lost all confidence at one point," admitted Haren, 25. "But Barry kept picking me up, telling me to believe in myself, and that was huge for me."

Blanton, Oakland's top pitching prospect heading into the 2005 season, experienced a similar turnaround. He went winless in his first 10 starts and had a 13.25 ERA in May before going 5-1 with a 2.06 ERA in June to earn the first of his two AL Rookie of the Month awards. He was 5-7 with a 4.44 ERA in 17 starts before the All-Star break and 7-5 with a 2.65 ERA over 16 starts thereafter to finish 12-12 with a 3.61 ERA overall.

Run support was also an issue for Blanton, who turned 25 in December. He got two runs or less in 19 of his 33 starts, he was the starting pitcher in six of the 12 games in which the A's were shut out, and he finished with the sixth-worst support in the league at 3.93 runs per game.

"Joe pitched like a man," Kendall said. "You'd never think he was a rookie if you didn't already know it."

Harden, who was on the DL from May 14 to June 21 with a strained oblique muscle, didn't make a start after Aug. 20 because of a strained lat muscle. He still managed to win 10 games, though, and his 2.53 ERA was the lowest among A's starters. At 24 years old, he's regarded as one of the most electric young pitchers in the game.

Oakland Athletics
Starters: Staff may be AL's best
Bullpen: A's have depth, versatility
Catchers: A's confident at catcher
Corner IF: Chavez in his prime
Middle IF: Crosby, Ellis a solid duo
Outfielders: A crowd in center
DH/Bench: Bench could be deep

"If Rich stays off the DL [in 2006] and pitches like he did when he was healthy [in 2005], the sky's the limit," said A's pitching coach Curt Young. "He just gets better and better all the time, and as scary as it sounds, I don't think we've seen the best of him yet."

Saarloos, who won the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation with a solid spring, also won 10 games for the A's, making him one of the more pleasant surprises of the year. But with Loaiza now in the fold, Saarloos heads back to his bullpen roots; he was a closer in college and worked mostly in relief while with the Astros in 2003.

"That's why getting Loaiza was such a great move," said A's manager Ken Macha. "It made our rotation and our bullpen better."

Loaiza, a righty with a nasty cutter who was the AL Cy Young runner-up in 2003, went 12-10 with the Nationals in 2005 and is excited about returning to the American League.

"Everything's still fresh," he said on the day he signed with Oakland. "I know the hitters, I know the parks. It should help a lot."

That same day, Loaiza talked about wanting to help the A's win the World Series. At this time a year ago, such talk would have been met with laughter. Now, thanks to the best starting rotation the A's have had since Hudson, Mulder and Zito were perennial Cy Young candidates, it's a legitimate goal.

"I think we stack up with just about everyone on the mound," Macha said. "And with a little more punch on offense [the A's traded for five-tool outfielder Milton Bradley last month], we've got quite a few guys who could win us a lot of games."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.