A's youngsters facing crucial stretch

A's youngsters facing crucial stretch

OAKLAND -- Different year, same situation.

While big league baseball's contenders are grinding through the dog days of August, hoping to bolster their chances to make a spirited run into the postseason and beyond, the A's -- for a third consecutive season -- will be on the outside looking in.

The rebuilding process, started by general manager Billy Beane not long after Oakland was swept by the Tigers in the 2006 American League Championship Series, continues.

Having dealt outfielder Matt Holliday and shortstop Orlando Cabrera before Friday's non-waiver Trade Deadline, the A's sat 19 1/2 games out of first place in the AL West place on Monday.

What does that mean for fans? It means plenty of Pennington, oodles of Everidge and waiting for Wallace.

Cliff, Tommy and Brett, respectively, are among the A's prospects who started the year in the Minor Leagues but figure to get extended auditions with the big boys before everyone adjourns for the winter.

"You have to be careful about judging players when they play sporadically," Beane said upon naming Pennington, a former first-round pick, his starting shortstop in the wake of the Cabrera deal.

He could have been speaking of any number of young players who'll be trying to secure some semblance of a big league future in Oakland over the next two month.

"Young players develop at different rate," Beane said, "and it helps knowing they're going to be in the lineup every day."

Pennington knows he will. Everidge, a 26-year-old first baseman/late bloomer, has been a lineup regular since being promoted from Triple-A Sacramento early last week. And Wallace, a third baseman acquired in the Holliday deal with the Cardinals, has only veteran Adam Kennedy -- who will be a free agent this winter -- blocking his path to the bigs; Wallace will be in Oakland this year.

"It is similar to last season," A's manager Bob Geren said. "Young guys are going to get a great opportunity to show the coaches and the front office what they've got."

Similar, but not identical. Where Oakland stands in the AL West right now is a far cry from where it sat at a similar juncture last season.

The A's were among the game's surprise teams heading into the 2008 All-Star break, hanging tough with the Angels in the division, their optimism further buoyed by their history as a second-half team.

The players had every reason to think they'd be playing meaningful games down the stretch after a year out of the hunt.

Then came the trades of right-handers Rich Harden and Joe Blanton, two of the team's top three starters. What followed was a precipitous -- and predictable -- plummet in the standings that ultimately left Oakland with virtually the same unsavory record it had posted the previous year: 86 losses and a third-place finish.

Injury problems, through which the club had so gamely fought in the first half, were a factor in the fade, too. Key players dropped like flies, eventually taking All-Star starter Justin Duchscherer out of the mix, and when it was all said and done, the A's had used the disabled list an Oakland-record 25 times.

Health again has been a major issue for the A's. Duchscherer and projected closer Joey Devine haven't pitched because of elbow injuries, emerging star left Josh Outman's season ended with an elbow issue of his own, and third baseman Eric Chavez was a non-factor before submitting to season-ending back surgery.

The difference between this year and last is that there's quite a bit more reason for hope, and much of that hope stands atop the pitcher's mound. In 21-year-olds Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill, 22-year-old Vin Mazzaro, 23-year-old Gio Gonzalez and 25-year-old Dallas Braden, Oakland currently boasts a very young and talented rotation that should be together for several years.

Each of them has shown flashes of brilliance, each has been through his share of struggles, but nobody in baseball denies the promise of better days to come.

"I know it must be hard on the fans to lose like they have," said former A's first baseman Carlos Pena, "but if they can be patient with that pitching staff, my goodness. Every day they send a kid out there with the kind of stuff to dominate. It's just a matter of time for those guys.

"If they can develop some position players around those starters, and I've heard they do have some good prospects, I'd be surprised if they're not a very good team in a year or two."

That's been plan all along.

"Look, I hate to lose more than anybody," Beane said. "A GM's job is to build a winner, and I'd like to win every year. But my job is also to pave the road to sustained success, and as painful as losing can be at times, I do think we're on the right road."

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