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Barber: Can Luzardo, Puk, Montas and Manaea be A’s Big Four?

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I’m almost 800 miles from Mesa, Arizona, as I write this, but I’m getting kind of fired up about the A’s. Specifically, I’m palpitating a little over the potential of Oakland’s young starting pitchers.

They are generating some buzz, for sure. USA Today, for example, just published its rankings of “names you need to know for the 2020 season” — guys who played more in the minor leagues last year than they have ever played in the majors. The A’s Jesus Luzardo was No. 4 on the list, and fellow left-hander A.J. Puk was No. 12.

Frankie Montas didn’t qualify for the rankings, but the 26-year-old has just 29 MLB starts under his belt; his best days lie ahead. And even Sean Manaea, who started the 2019 American League wild-card game, is 28 and aiming toward his peak.

There could scarcely be a more positive development for the A’s, considering how long it’s been since starting pitching was a team strength. The rotation definitely hasn’t been bad the past couple years. In fact, it has been pretty solid. But Oakland hasn’t had a lot of blue-chip arms to start games. The A’s pitching success has largely been the result of some brilliant and exhaustive maneuvering by manager Bob Melvin and pitching coach Scott Emerson, and of a deep bullpen that has given Melvin’s starters the luxury of clocking out after five or six innings.

That A’s bullpen still looks good, and the lineup should be stacked. Imagine how far this team could go with a formidable rotation.

There are some fine young candidates. Manaea, the most established of the quartet, was 4-0 with a 1.21 ERA after missing most of the 2019 season following shoulder surgery. Montas would have been an All-Star last year if one of his urine samples hadn’t tested positive for a banned substance called Ostarine; he was 9-2 with a 2.70 ERA at the time of his suspension.

Luzardo and Puk are the least experienced, but neither did anything on the mound last year to dim his professional prospects. The A’s called up Puk on Aug. 20 after a 15-month rehab following Tommy John surgery. Luzardo, who missed time after straining his throwing shoulder in spring training a year ago, got the call on Sept. 9. Both pitched out of the bullpen in 2019. Puk was good. Luzardo was dazzling.

This year, both will get at least a chance to join Manaea, Montas and reluctant media sensation Mike Fiers in the A’s starting rotation.

The convergence of all these young arms elicits an obvious comparison. Wind the clock back 20 years to the era of the Big Three — Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder — in Oakland.

Zito and Mulder were both rookies that season. Zito joined the A’s after the All-Star break and went 7-4 with a 2.72 ERA. Mulder wasn’t nearly as effective his first year, going 9-10 with a 5.44 ERA in 27 starts. But everyone could tell he was on the cusp of a great career. It was Hudson’s second season in the big leagues, meanwhile, and he finished second in Cy Young voting after going 20-6.

Something massive was forming. The next season, 2001, Mulder-Hudson-Zito combined to win 56 games. From 2001 through 2004 — before the A’s shipped Hudson to Atlanta and Mulder to St. Louis — the trio combined for 198 wins.

Could Montas-Luzardo-Puk-Manaea have that sort of impact?

The potential is there. Manaea and Montas have already shown they can thwart big-league hitters. Puk, whose lean 6-foot-7 frame and plus velocity conjure comparisons to Randy Johnson, was the sixth overall draft pick in 2016. Any team would love to have him. And Luzardo, stocky and goggled and chill, might be the most electrifying young pitcher in baseball.

We can’t get ahead of ourselves, though. There is no red carpet to a major-league pitching career.

For one thing, MLB teams are notoriously cautious in integrating young pitchers. In the NFL, 22-year-old rookie quarterbacks are routinely pushed into the starting lineup. In baseball, the guys who throw the ball are increasingly tended like hothouse flowers.

Zito was just a couple months past 22 years old when he made his major-league debut. Mulder was 22 when he made his. Hudson was 23. Manaea and Puk both were 24 when they debuted, and that isn’t uncommon today, even among hot prospects.

It seems highly improbable that the newer crop of A’s pitchers will ramp up as quickly as the old Big Three. By 2001, when all of them were in their second or third season, Hudson, Mulder and Zito combined for 679 innings. THAT’S not gonna happen in Oakland, or anywhere, in 2020. It’s a stat from a bygone era.

But it isn’t just the raw innings. MLB teams are careful with young starting pitchers these days. The A’s took that approach with Luzardo and Puk last year. I can’t imagine they would tax Luzardo with a heavy innings count this year, and there are signals that Puk might begin the season in Triple-A.

“I know innings pitched is a thing we’re gonna have to look at with Puk and Luzardo, how many innings do we want them to go?” Emerson told me Jan. 24, on the eve of A’s Fan Fest. “But a lot of that, too, for me is based on rest. I want guys on the mound fresh. When you’re fresh, you feel good about yourself. So we might be a little bit creative with a combination of guys.”

Of course, a lot of that tentativeness has to do with risk of injury. Zito, Hudson and Mulder scarcely missed a start during their time in Oakland. (Zito didn’t miss even one.) That type of durability was rare then, and is rarer now. Pitchers throw harder these days, and work harder at things like spin rate. Their arms are more vulnerable.

That’s obvious when you look at the A’s young pitchers. Puk, Luzardo and Manaea all have been set back by significant injuries in the past two years. Montas has never thrown more than 137 innings in one year, across all levels of competition. Projecting their health over the next few seasons is much trickier than projecting their value on the mound.

That shouldn’t diminish anyone’s excitement over these developing arms. The possibilities are incredible. Just understand that a lot can happen before the A’s claim another Big Three or even a Big Four.

“With Luzardo and Puk being big prospects with high expectations, the thing that comes with that is you gotta do it on the field,” Emerson said. “But it’s gonna be a lot of fun to watch guys go out on the field and do it as starters.”

Yes, it is. The question is who we’ll be watching over the next couple of years, and how frequently.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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