Cockcroft: Oakland Athletics preview

Each year, Billy Beane, the "Moneyball" general manager, gets put to the test. Operating on a small budget, in the bottom 10 in baseball in six of the past seven years, the Athletics have nonetheless managed four division titles, one wild card and an average of 95 wins per year during that span. All that despite the team losing Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi and Jason Isringhausen (after 2001), Ramon Hernandez and Miguel Tejada (after 2003) and Jermaine Dye, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder (after 2004). This mass exodus of talent can solely be attributed to the fact that the A's couldn't offer them salaries competitive with the rest of the league.

This year, however, one might wonder whether 2007 will prove the true test of Beane's mettle. So many of his critics claim Beane was lucky to have developed three pitchers of the caliber of Hudson, Mulder and Barry Zito, and now the third, Zito, is gone, since signed by the San Francisco Giants. Zito managed 102 wins from 2000-06, by far the most of any Athletics pitcher during that span.
Following his departure, the A's didn't add a single rotation candidate to take his spot. Instead, Oakland will count on a group composed of hurlers who are tall on potential and short on experience.. Having won 30 games, a href="javascript:newWin('http://insider.espn.go.com/mlb/players/fantasy?statsId=7180')">Rich Harden will enter the season as the A's most experienced starter, while the rest of the rotation candidates combined have won 110 games for Oakland, only eight more than Zito had for his career.

That's not a knock on the talent levels of Harden, Dan Haren (28 wins) or Joe Blanton (28). Perhaps the new "big three" for the A's, Haren and Harden, really, are separated only by two wins in their Oakland careers, the "D" in the latter's name, and, most significantly, the Harden's shaky injury history. Both possess ace-caliber potential, meaning a full 30-start season from Harden could more than make up for Zito's absence. A rebound from Blanton, who allowed a whopping 241 hits in 2006, would also help matters.