It's a simple thing, really.
The Oakland Athletics are not going to score a great number of runs in 2011, for the simple reason that they don't have any great hitters and it's exceptionally difficult to score a great number of runs without a great hitter or three, and the Athletics don't have any great hitters at all unless you count Daric Barton, who plays first base and drove in 57 runs last year.
Granted, the A's have added some offense since last season, with Josh Willingham, David DeJesus and Hideki Matsui coming aboard. But the best (or most reasonable) case scenario has the A's moving from 11th in the league in scoring (last year) to eighth or ninth this year. Middle of the road. If the A's finish this season with a winning record -- something they haven't done since 2006 -- nobody's going to look back and applaud their hitters.
Not loudly, anyway.
If the A's win, it's going to be due to their pitchers. And with all due respect to Andrew Bailey and the restocked bullpen he leads, it's going to be about the starting pitchers.
Last season the A's four top starters -- just in terms of games started -- combined for 113 starts: 33 for Gio Gonzalez, 30 apiece for Trevor Cahill and Dallas Braden, and 20 for Ben Sheets, the disappointing $10 Million Man. Additionally, Brett Anderson started 19 games, Vin Mazzaro (now a Royal) 18.
Now let's look at the A's in their recent glory days, beginning in 2001 when Hudson-Mulder-Zito first spent an entire season together. With those three anchoring the rotation, Oakland's top four starters combined for 133 starts in 2001. And from 2002 through the 2006 -- when the A's last reached the playoffs -- the numbers for the top four were 129, 126, 130, 129 and 125 starts.
Granted, there's not a huge difference between last year's 113 and 2006's 125 ... but if the A's do return to the playoffs this season, it figures to be a close-run thing. And it's not at all easy to get 120-plus starts from your top four guys, because that obviously means four starters averaging 30 starts apiece, and few teams have four starting pitchers good enough or durable enough to hit those numbers. Which is what made those A's so special.
Still, while the current group isn't that good, it might be good enough. Gonzalez, Cahill and Braden all posted ERAs last season well below the league average. The key, though, is probably Brett Anderson. Still only 23, Anderson's got a 3.57 career ERA and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio on the staff. An elbow injury limited him to those 19 starts last season, but he's healthy this spring and pitching well.
If the Rangers don't win this season, it'll be because they couldn't find enough good starting pitching. And if the Athletics win, it will be because their quartet of talented young starters were able to answer the ball at least 120 times.