- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PHOENIX -- Oakland A's pitcher Dallas Braden is a master of the offseason getaway. Last year he traveled to Amsterdam, where he made snow angels in Dam Square and toured the Medieval Torture Museum. This winter he spent three weeks roaming Japan and Thailand, where he experienced the thrill of feeding a baby tiger and riding around the jungle on the back of an elephant.
Braden was accompanied by his close friend and fellow free spirit, San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson, the man who struck out Nelson Cruz for the final out of the 2010 World Series. On several mornings Braden rose to the sound of "The Beard'' cackling gleefully. As recurrent wakeup themes go, it was a lot more enjoyable than Bill Murray being roused by Sonny and Cher at 6 o'clock in "Groundhog Day.''
"There were days when we'd wake up and he just started laughing,'' Braden said. "I was like, 'What?' And he would say, 'You threw a perfect game and I won the World Series. That's not funny to you?'''
During their conversations, Wilson recounted the Giants' entire championship odyssey -- from the team's late-season National League West title push to the magical October run all the way through the ticker-tape parade. The more Wilson reflected on his experience, the more life-altering and vivid it appeared in Braden's imagination.
"You could hear it in his voice,'' Braden said. "It's something that can never be taken away from you. Never, never, ever, ever. Was I jealous? Yeah, I was 100 percent jealous. I was 4 million percent jealous.''
Is the Giants' magic formula powerful enough to span the Bay Bridge? Braden and his teammates will embark on their own voyage of discovery Friday, when they begin the regular season against Seattle at Oakland Coliseum.
As the Giants prepare to defend their title, a similar sense of purpose is evident in Oakland's camp, where the Athletics will try to make the playoffs for only the second time in eight seasons. In Oakland, expectations spring from dominant young starting pitching, a deep and potentially airtight bullpen, solid defense and (they hope) enough offense that the bats don't get in the way.
The A's laid some solid groundwork last year while posting an 81-81 record, the team's first .500 finish since 2006. A rotation led by right-hander Trevor Cahill and lefties Braden, Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez finished with an ERA of 3.47, marking only the second time in 18 years that an American League starting contingent logged an ERA below 3.62. Oakland's rotation also led the majors with 103 quality starts and held opponents to a league low .243 batting average and .373 slugging percentage.
This year Oakland's young starters -- and new No. 5 man Brandon McCarthy -- will have to produce without the luxury of sneaking up on people. The Big Four adorn the cover of the team media guide, and Oakland is a trendy pick to unseat Texas as AL West champion and make some noise in October.
Longtime fans in Oakland have seen some terrific staffs through the years. Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman and Vida Blue helped make the A's a perennial threat in the early 1970s. Mike Norris, Rick Langford & Co. showed serious promise before Billy Martin pitched them until their elbows and shoulders cried out for mercy in 1980. Dave Stewart and Bob Welch led the charge for three straight pennant winners from 1988 through 1990. And, of course, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson paved the way for an extended run of success in the early 2000s.
Time will tell if the group assembled by general manager Billy Beane has staying power. But it'll be fun to watch these guys try.
"I hear everybody talking about our ERA and this and that,'' said A's catcher Kurt Suzuki, "but you didn't have to look at the numbers. You just watch them pitch. These guys are good. They're really good.''
For the uninitiated (i.e., East Coasters and ball fans without the MLB TV package) here's a handy primer on Oakland's top four:
"He's the most left-handed of all of us,'' Braden said of the staff's only returning right-hander and Opening Day starter.
Cahill, 23, exudes a certain adolescent goofiness, but it conceals a major league intellect. At Vista High School near San Diego, Cahill ranked fifth in a class of about 650 students and scored 1,950 out of 2,400 on his SATs. He was on his way to Dartmouth to play baseball when the A's chose him in the second round of the draft and signed him for a $560,000 bonus.
Cahill, who is partial to classic rock, ranks Led Zeppelin among his favorite bands and warms up during games to the accompaniment of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit.'' His nickname is "Pterodactyl,'' or "Dactyl'' for short.
During an interview in spring training, Braden observed that Cahill is "23 going on 12'' and resides "on another planet.'' As if on cue, Cahill walked into the clubhouse and accused a clubhouse attendant of "sniffing'' his sliding pants.
"He's a different bird,'' Braden said. "He's without a doubt the smartest dumb kid you'll ever meet in your life.''
Cahill began last season on the disabled list, lost his debut 10-2 to Toronto on April 30 and still managed to go 18-8 and make the All-Star team. With his bowling ball sinker, he produced the fifth highest ratio of ground balls to fly balls in the game. He's right up there with such old reliables as Hudson, Derek Lowe and Jake Westbrook in his ability to keep his infielders engaged.
"His first two years with the organization, we probably didn't get three words out of him,'' said Keith Lieppman, Oakland's player development director. "But there's this transformation when he takes the mound. When he's out there with his good stuff, he just attacks. You can see his confidence build as the game goes on.''
The son of Oklahoma State baseball coach Frank Anderson, he's polished beyond his 23 years. Anderson throws a hard slider that bores in on right-handed hitters and makes life a miserable, bat-jamming ordeal. In his two big league seasons, righties are hitting .246 with a .296 OBP against him. Anderson is also adept at throwing his fastball for strikes. But like former A's pitcher Ben Sheets, he has a love-hate relationship with the changeup.
It's an understatement to say that Anderson is a stickler for detail. He reportedly arranges his lip balms in meticulous order in his locker stall, and clings to multiple routines during games that dictate how and when he'll grab a cup of drinking water. Anderson claims to have a "full-fledged'' case of obsessive compulsive disorder.
"Dallas is more of a perfectionist, where his shoes have to be here, or if he throws a pitch he has to work on it 10 times,'' Anderson said. "Mine is on a whole different level. You'd have to film me during the game to really understand it. I sound like a weirdo explaining it. But if you think it helps get you outs, it probably does.''
McCarthy, who broke in with the Chicago White Sox organization, sees Anderson at work and thinks of another lefty with a much craftier repertoire.
"He reminds me of Mark Buehrle,'' McCarthy said. "He looks like he doesn't care, but you know that underneath there's a lot of stuff churning. He really gets after it.''
Outfielder Carlos Gonzalez was traded twice before finding his niche as an MVP candidate in Colorado. Giovany Aramis Gonzalez did his namesake one better. He broke into pro ball with the White Sox in 2004 before hop-scotching to Philadelphia and back to the White Sox in trades. He finally landed with Oakland as part of a deal that sent Nick Swisher to Chicago in 2008.
Gonzalez quietly made 33 starts, won 15 games and logged 200 innings last year while relying on a low-to-mid 90s fastball and a curveball from hell. His teammates pay it the ultimate compliment: Even when opposing hitters know the Gio bender is coming, they still can't hit it.
"He'll be an obvious Cy Young candidate when it all comes together,'' McCarthy said. "He's right up there with the [David] Prices and [Jon] Lesters. His stuff is an absolute joke.''
Gonzalez, 25, is gregarious, extroverted and still figuring out how to harness his energy on the mound. With help from Braden, he's learned the value of pitch efficiency, averaging a manageable 16.8 pitches per inning last year compared to 18.5 in 2009. He has also come to grips with the notion that a few changes of scenery aren't a comment on his ability or his future.
"I think it's a confidence thing for him,'' says longtime A's broadcaster Ray Fosse, the catcher on those dominant Oakland teams in the early 1970s. "In his own mind he was probably saying, 'Wait a minute. If I'm this good, why am I going so many different places?' But he's settled in here now, and his stuff is unbelievable. He could be a No. 1 -- easily.''
You might remember him throwing a perfect game against Tampa Bay in May, hugging his grandmother in a moving postscript, and inadvertently inspiring a T-shirt craze by cautioning Alex Rodriguez to stay off his mound. Opponents aren't always thrilled with Braden's act, but he regards brashness as a survival skill: Don't judge me, he seems to be saying, until you've faced the heart of the Boston Red Sox's and New York Yankees' batting orders with a fastball that averages 86-87 mph.
Braden is OK with those 5.28 strikeouts per nine innings, even if he might not set a Sabermetrician's heart ablaze.
"I understand the value of just missing a barrel,'' Braden said. "I don't need to miss your bat. I want you to hit it. I want you to hit it weakly to one of my stud defenders behind me, and we're just going to keep getting outs. If I waste time trying to swing-and-miss-pitch guys, pretty soon I'm walking hitters, my pitch count is up and I'm out of there by the fifth inning and I've done nobody any good.''
A seasoned veteran at age 27, Braden went 11-14 with a 3.50 ERA last year while ranking 86th out of 92 qualifying starters in run support. That could be a recurrent theme for Oakland's staff this season, unless Josh Willingham, David DeJesus and Hideki Matsui can significantly upgrade a lineup that ranked 11th in the league with 663 runs scored in 2010.
As the questions play out, Oakland's starters continue to focus on the things they can control. Like inventing new pitches to augment their repertoires. Or honing their pickoff moves. Or fielding their positions. Or finding new and innovative ways to bust each other's chops. Baseball's truly great staffs have a synergy forged through internal competition that brings everybody's performance up a notch.
"Obviously we've set the bar fairly high for ourselves,'' Braden said, "but that's what the game is all about. It's about getting better, evolving and trying to best yourself and make tomorrow way better than yesterday. We do have pressure, but it's welcome pressure.''
Now that they've learned to walk in the major leagues, Oakland's starters are out to prove how fast they can run. Yesterday was pretty darned good. There's no telling what fun new storylines tomorrow might bring.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick
Expectations are high in Oakland, thanks in large part to the top four starters in the A's rotation.