Fifth-starter competition set to begin
Lefties Outman, Gonzalez to pitch in A's Cactus League opener
PHOENIX -- The competition for the No. 5 spot in Oakland's starting rotation officially starts Wednesday, when the A's open Cactus League play against the host Brewers in the sleepy suburb of Maryvale.
Many of Maryvale's residents -- and Brewers faithful -- are retirees who moved into the area for their twilight years, but on Wednesday, they'll be watching a pair of kids just getting started.
Josh Outman, 24, will start for the A's and be followed by fellow left-hander Gio Gonzalez, 23, with each scheduled to work two innings.
Outman and Gonzalez are considered the top candidates for the fifth-starter job, and if one claims it, the other might still end up breaking camp with the club as a long reliever.
"They're both candidates for either spot," Oakland manager Bob Geren said Tuesday morning.
Acquired in the July 2008 trade that sent Joe Blanton to the Phillies, Outman made his big league debut with the A's on Sept. 2, throwing two scoreless innings out of the bullpen. His second appearance also came in a relief role, but he was moved into the starting rotation on Sept. 13, allowing a run on four hits and two walks to beat the Rangers for his first Major League win.
Outman didn't win again, going 0-2 with a 4.96 ERA over three subsequent starts, but he impressed Oakland with his poise and power arm; he throws a low- to mid-90s fastball that several scouts have described as "heavy."
"Josh has a pretty good idea what he's doing out there -- pretty advanced for [a 24-year-old]," offered Oakland pitching coach Curt Young. "I think he could be successful in any role we put him in."
In four Minor League seasons after being selected by Philadelphia in the 10th round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, Outman went 35-18 with a 2.99 ERA over 107 appearances, including 67 starts.
"My goal is to make the team," Outman said. "I prefer starting, but I have no problem pitching in the bullpen if that's what they ask of me."
Gonzalez, one of three players acquired in the January 2008 trade that sent Nick Swisher to the White Sox, had pitched out of the bullpen only three times in 114 Minor League appearances before making his big league debut with the A's last August.
A Pacific Coast League All-Star at Triple-A Sacramento, Gonzalez was handed a spot in the rotation upon his arrival in Oakland, but his outings got progressively messy, and he was moved to the bullpen after going 1-4 with a 9.32 ERA over seven starts.
He finished the season with three scoreless relief outings and spent the offseason working on a new changeup and, more important, a new mental approach. Geren and Young said Gonzalez seemed to do everything in a hurry last year, so the hurler has been trying to back off a bit without sacrificing the intensity required to compete at the game's highest level.
"It's easier said than done," Gonzalez said earlier this spring. "[Last season] I was over-reacting, over-analyzing, over-everything. ... But you have to be in control of your emotions."
Geren likes what he's seen thus far during bullpen and batting practice sessions, and he's "anxious" to see Gonzalez in his first game action of the spring.
"Mentally and physically ... he's trying to slow everything down a little bit," said the skipper.
Outman said he's enjoying his first Spring Training with the organization, noting that it's considerably more relaxed than the camps he attended with the Phillies. And as he takes the mound on Wednesday, he'll be taking to heart what he heard from Geren before the team's first workout on Feb. 14.
"Geren said he's looking for strikes, and that's just what I want to do," Outman said. "Throwing strikes has been an issue for me at times."
Throughout his Minor League career, Outman had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of roughly 2-to-1, and he struck out 19 and walked eight over 25 2/3 innings in his month with the A's.
Most successful big league power pitchers have a ratio closer to 3-to-1. To that end, Outman has shortened the backswing of his arm after he separates his pitching hand from his glove.
"He worked on it at home, and he feels that it will help improve his command," Geren said.
Command was a big issue for Gonzalez during his time with the A's last season; he struck out 34 and walked 25 over 34 innings. Those numbers will have to improve dramatically if he's to beat out Outman and the other candidates for the No. 5 spot, including Edgar Gonzalez (no relation), Jerome Williams and a pack of gifted prospects.
"It's not just throwing strikes. It's throwing quality strikes," Gio Gonzalez said. "A fastball at the waist on a 2-1 count might be a strike, but it's not a quality strike. It's probably going to get crushed."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.