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Position Battles: Athletics Fifth Starter

The A's have been aggressive this offseason, adding David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, and Hideki Matsui to their lineup and Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour to their bullpen. Two additions that may have gone overshadowed are the signings of Rich Harden and Brandon McCarthy, a pair of talented but injury-prone pitchers who will battle it out for the last rotation spot along with a few others. An archive of over 50 position battles that I have identified are accessible over at MLBDepthCharts.com.  

Brandon McCarthy vs Rich Harden vs Bobby Cramer vs Tyson Ross vs Josh Outman

Tale of the Tape

McCarthy: 27 years old, $1MM salary 2010 stats: 4-2, 3.36 ERA, 56.1 IP, 51 H, 11 BB, 44 K in 11 games (AAA) 2011 Outlook: Favorite, along with Harden, to be #5 starter

Named the 49th best prospect in the minors by Baseball America prior to the 2005 season, McCarthy debuted later that season as a 21-year-old for the White Sox and posted a 4.17 ERA in 10 starts. After spending the 2006 season in the White Sox bullpen, he was traded to Texas, where he spent the past four seasons. His time with the Rangers was disappointing as he made just 44 big league starts in between elbow and shoulder injuries. While he didn't make it back to the majors in 2010, he showed enough in nine starts and two relief appearances for Triple-A Oklahoma City that six other teams were reportedly interested in his services. The A's thought enough of him to offer a big league deal worth a guaranteed $1MM with another $1.6MM in incentives. 

Harden: 29 years old, $1.5MM salary 2010 stats: 5-5, 5.58 ERA, 92 IP, 91 H, 62 BB, 75 K in 20 games (18 starts) 2011 Outlook: Favorite, along with McCarthy, to be #5 starter

Like McCarthy, Harden made his big league debut at age 21 and stayed healthy throughout his second season, making 31 starts and tossing 189.1 IP for the A's in 2004. While his first stint with Oakland can be considered a success based on his overall numbers (36-19, 3.43 ERA from 2003-2008), he made just 32 starts in three injury-plagued seasons from 2005-07 and was eventually traded to the Cubs in July 2008. In 38 starts over 1 1/2 seasons with Chicago, Harden was 14-10 with a 3.31 ERA, earning him a $6.5MM deal with the Rangers in 2010. Things did not go well in Texas, however, as Harden missed time with a gluteal strain and put up mediocre numbers for the first time in his career. He was removed from the rotation in September and left off the postseason roster. The A's are hoping a return to Oakland will revitalize his career, although a return to the rotation is no sure thing. He will prepare to be a starter in Spring Training but is open to pitching out of the bullpen, where he could benefit from a lesser workload.   

Cramer: 31 years old, $425K salary 2010 stats: 2-1, 3.04 ERA, 23.2 IP, 20 H, 6 BB, 13 K in 4 starts 2011 Outlook: Underdog, More likely to provide Triple-A depth

The left-hander made quite a journey in 2010, making his big league debut shortly after finishing up an impressive stint with Quintana Roo of the Mexican League, where he was on loan from the A's. He was returned to the organization in August, posting a 1.94 ERA in seven Triple-A starts before getting the big league call in September. Cramer is unlikely to beat out Harden or McCarthy for the final rotation spot but he'll likely be first in line should the team need an extra starter at any point during the season. 

Ross: 23 years old, $425K salary 2010 stats: 1-4, 5.49 ERA, 39.1 IP, 39 H, 20 BB, 32 K in 26 games (2 starts) 2011 Outlook: Underdog, More likely to start season in Triple-A rotation

The prospect rankings have been released and Ross is the organization's top pitching prospect, according to Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. The right-hander was actually on the team's Opening Day roster last season, making the jump from Double-A to the big league bullpen. After a three month stint with the team, he was optioned to Triple-A so he could continue his development as a starter. Ross was shut down after just six starts, however, because of a sprained elbow ligament. He'll be in big league camp again this year hoping to make the team as a starter this time around. With the big league rotation in good shape and plenty of solid candidates for the final spot, it is more likely that Ross heads back to Triple-A where he can gain some valuable experience before returning to Oakland. 

Outman: 26 years old, $425K salary 2009 stats: 4-1, 3.48 ERA, 67.1 IP, 53 H, 25 BB, 53 K in 14 games (12 starts) 2011 Outlook: Dark-horse candidate, More likely to start season in Triple-A rotation

Well on his way to establishing himself as a very good big league starting pitcher during the 2009 season, Outman was shut down with an elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery. Now he'll need to re-establish himself during Spring Training, having not pitched in a game since June 2009. In all likelihood, the A's aren't going to throw him right back into the big leagues but a good month or two in the minors will put him back on the team's radar. 

Final Word

Harden and McCarthy are injury risks but the A's are counting on at least one of these guys staying healthy and solidifying the back of the rotation. If both manage to stay away from injury, I think McCarthy gets the spot in the rotation with Harden getting a shot out of the 'pen. Depth is important, especially for a team that used 10 different starting pitchers last year, so having Cramer, Ross, and Outman as options could end up being a big part of the team's success. 

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