This is the sixth of a seven-part Around the Horn series that features a position-by-position look at the A's projected starters and backup options heading into the 2014 season. Up next: Starting rotation.
OAKLAND -- The A's are only as good as their pitching staff.
Specifically, Oakland's rotation has been the foundation for back-to-back American League West titles, and it's a big reason why another division crown appears within reach.
The A's march into 2014 without Bartolo Colon, who won 28 games for them over the previous two seasons, or Brett Anderson, who was traded away to Colorado in exchange for another young lefty in Drew Pomeranz.
Yet their rotation is still enviable, mostly because of its depth. Right-handers Jarrod Parker and Sonny Gray will lead a staff that also includes newcomer Scott Kazmir. Righties A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily could very well grab the final two spots, but they'll have plenty of competition.
Pomeranz will be stretched out as a starter during Spring Training in hopes of pushing his way into the rotation, though he's also an option in an already crowded bullpen. The same can be said of another southpaw, Tommy Milone, who lost his place in the rotation in 2013 after struggling to maintain consistency, before returning in a relief role and flashing signs of his old self.
Milone is still regarded as a valuable rotation piece, having collected 25 wins since the start of 2012, and could very well work his way back into the mix with a solid spring showing.
"He could absolutely be right in the middle of it," said manager Bob Melvin. "Having lost his rhythm and having to go back down to the Minors for the first time since he's been up and go back out there and perform like he did shows you a lot about his makeup. There's no question he's a candidate for the rotation."
Right-hander Josh Lindblom, acquired from Texas with Craig Gentry for Michael Choice this winter, will also be under consideration, both for the rotation and the bullpen, though it seems more likely he begins the year in Triple-A Sacramento.
Lindblom was 1-3 with a 5.46 ERA in eight games, including five starts, over three stints with the Rangers in 2013. The starts were his first as a Major Leaguer and his first at any level since 2010 at Triple-A Albuquerque. He also went 8-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 30 games, 18 of them starts, with Triple-A Round Rock last year.
This battle is cause for plenty of intrigue come spring. But also keep a close watch on Kazmir.
The 29-year-old left-hander, signed to a two-year, $22 million contract, enjoyed quite the comeback season last year after spending most of 2011 and all of '12 out of the Majors, having succumbed to mechanical issues. He went 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA in 29 starts for the Indians in 2013, getting his fastball back in the low- to mid-90s on a consistent basis.
The A's brass took note of this and reached out to Kazmir early in the offseason, ultimately showing much faith in the southpaw's ability to maintain success by giving him the largest contract they've ever awarded a starter. But whether he can make good on that deal remains to be seen.
"His body of work last year was good," said A's general manager Billy Beane. "We faced him a couple of times, and one game in particular, his stuff was outstanding, and he finished very, very strong. I think just the advantage of having as much good starting pitching as you can get is something that has helped make us successful."
Kazmir will easily be the eldest of an otherwise young crew. Parker, who turned 25 in November, went 12-8 with a 3.97 ERA over 197 innings in 2013, at one point setting an Oakland record with 19 consecutive starts without a loss. He experienced arm fatigue during the AL Division Series but has since started his normal offseason throwing schedule and is on track for Spring Training.
Gray, too, will enter camp fully healthy, after suffering a fracture to his left thumb in Game 5 of the ALDS. And perhaps no other player on Oakland's roster brings as much excitement to its fan base as this ace in the making.
Following a midseason callup last year, the 24-year-old Gray quickly proved why the A's made him their No. 1 Draft pick in 2011, going 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA in 12 games, including 10 starts. He struck out 67 batters in 64 innings, fanning 12 more in 13 postseason innings.
"He was the crown jewel of all the guys in the Minor Leagues and came up and made an incredible impact right away," said Melvin. "He has a very bright future ahead of him."
Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less