Potential Unit-A's pair generates buzz

Potential Unit-A's pair generates buzz

LAS VEGAS -- Less than a month ago, A's general manager Billy Beane all but ruled out the chances of his club signing a veteran free-agent pitcher to help lead a young but unproven starting staff.

So when one of the representatives for free-agent lefty Randy Johnson last week said that he'd had preliminary conversations with Oakland's front office, it probably meant that he'd called the A's, not the other way around.

But as Day 1 of the annual Winter Meetings at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino rolled on, Johnson-to-the-A's was a fairly hot topic -- mostly because such a pairing appears to make some sense.

The A's have a deep pool of Minor League starters, headlined by 2008 U.S. Olympians Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson, and Vin Mazzaro, but the big league rotation is loaded with question marks and inexperience.

Ace Justin Duchscherer, the team's lone 2008 All-Star, made a successful transition from the bullpen to starting last season but saw his season cut short by a right hip injury that required surgery for the second consecutive year.

None of the young candidates to start 2008 with the team, including righty Sean Gallagher and lefties Dana Eveland, Dallas Braden, Gio Gonzalez and Josh Outman have made 30 starts in a Major League season.

And righty Jerome Williams, who was signed to a Minor League deal on Monday morning and invited to Spring Training, spent 2008 in the Dodgers' farm system and made a combined eight starts in 2006-07.

"When I look at their starting pitchers, with all those puppies, I see a potential disaster," said a longtime scout for a rival American League team. "There's a lot of talent there, and the Minor League guys are potentially spectacular, but I think they're a little crazy if they don't get some veterans in there.

"To me, Randy Johnson would be a nice fit. He's a one-year guy, he's a local guy and he'd be a huge drawing card because he's [five victories away from] locking in that Hall of Fame vote with his 300th win."

Johnson, 45, starred at Livermore High School, about 30 minutes southeast of Oakland.

One snag, of course, could be Johnson's asking price. Coming off a season during which he went 11-10 with a 3.91 ERA in 30 starts for the Diamondbacks while making about $15 million, he's reportedly looking for something in the neighborhood of $10 million.

"In this economic climate, he's probably going to have to come down from that," said an agent not affiliated with Johnson who requested anonymity.

The agent said Johnson seems a better fit for a team that fancies itself a serious contender in 2009.

"Just chasing 300 wins isn't going to get enough butts in the seats to justify that kind of outlay," the agent explained. "So you'd better need him for another, bigger reason. Like putting you over the top."

Beane, who declined comment on the Johnson rumor, said on Nov. 12 -- the day the A's traded for All-Star slugger Matt Holliday, parting with lefty starter Greg Smith in the process -- that the possibility of signing a veteran free-agent starter to buy his pitching prospects more time to develop was "highly, highly unlikely."

He also tempered any expectation that Cahill, Anderson or Mazzaro might claim a starting job in the big leagues right out of camp next spring. The bulk of their experience is at the Class A and Double-A levels.

"Young pitching is probably the strength of the organization," Beane said. "Ideally, you'd like these kids to get their feet wet at every level, but I feel at some point those guys are due to break through, whether it's spring or April, May or June.

"If given the option between going with young, talented guys or someone you just want to plug in there, you'd probably go with the young, talented option."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.