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