Mulder to Cards makes A’s rebuilding official

By Kevin Goldstein
December 18, 2004

It's official. The Oakland Athletics are rebuilding.

After failing to reach the postseason for the first time in five seasons, Oakland traded lefthander Mark Mulder to the Cardinals, just two days after dealing another member of its Big Three, righthander Tim Hudson, to the Braves. In return for Mulder, the Cardinals received righthanders Dan Haren and Kiko Calero, as well as prized hitting prospect Daric Barton.

Mulder, 27, will be eligible for free agency following the 2006 season and is coming off his worst season since his rookie campaign. His 17-8 record went with a disappointing 4.43 ERA, including a 6.29 mark in 11 starts after Aug. 1. The A’s were concerned about Mulder's health in the second half after he struggled with hip problems in 2003, but by all accounts he checked out fine. The second overall pick in the 1998 draft out of Michigan State, Mulder owns a career major league record of 81-42, 3.92 in 150 games, all of them starts. In 1003 innings, he has a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 668-298.

Tall (6-foot-6) and athletic, Mulder has excellent control of a four-pitch repertoire, with a low-90s fastball he throws downhill, a power slider, a big breaking curveball and a solid changeup. Mulder will step into the ace role for the Cardinals, a team that had the best record in the National League last season, yet clearly lacked a true No. 1 starter.

Haren, 24, was the Cardinals’ second-round pick in 2001 out of Pepperdine and has spent each of the last two seasons splitting time between Triple-A Memphis and St. Louis. He’s 6-10, 4.85 in his 118 2/3 big league innings, including a 3-3, 4.50 mark in 2004. In 46 innings, he allowed 45 hits, walked 17, and struck out 32. Haren was a factor in the bullpen during the postseason, pitching 4 2/3 scoreless innings in a pair of appearances against the Red Sox in the 2004 World Series.

For Triple-A Memphis in 2004, he went 11-4, 4.15 with a Pacific Coast League-best 150 strikeouts against 33 walks in 128 innings, giving him a career minor league mark of 32-17, 3.15 with an impressive 462-68 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 475 innings. Haren has the size, makeup and pitch combination to become a solid starter in the big leagues, though he'll be hard pressed to match Mulder's achievements. A strong splitter, biting slider and solid-average change complement his 88-92 mph fastball. Most likely moving into the A's rotation for 2005, the move to the American League will unfortunately take away Haren's bat. The West Coast Conference player of the year in 2001 as a pitcher-DH, Haren has hit .277 with five homers in 47 minor league at-bats.

Calero, 29, is the definition of a late-bloomer. The Royals drafted him in 1996 out of Division II St. Thomas (Fla.) in the 27th round, and he spent seven seasons in the organization before signing with the Cardinals as a free agent following the 2002 season.

Since earning a bullpen spot after a strong spring training in 2003, Calero has been one of the Cardinals’ best setup men, despite having his debut season interrupted by knee surgery. In two seasons, he’s 4-2, 2.80 with a sterling 98-30 strikeout-walk ratio and has allowed just 56 hits in 83 2/3 innings. He had some shoulder problems late in the season, but was used heavily out of the bullpen in the postseason, appearing in eight games and going 2-1, 4.82. Calero's fastball isn't overpowering at 88-92 mph, but his slider is a true out pitch that often has opposing batters chasing it well out of the zone. He'll shore up the A's bullpen while also providing some insurance should righty reliever prospects Huston Street and Jairo Garcia require some more seasoning.

Barton, 19, could prove to be the real prize in this deal. While January elbow surgery caused him to miss the first six weeks of the season, Barton was one of the top offensive forces in the low Class A Midwest League, batting .313/.445/.551 in 90 games. Baseball America ranked him the MWL’s No. 2 prospect. The .445 on-base percentage led the league, and his 44-to-69 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 313 at-bats is attractive to Oakland, an organization that covets plate discipline like no other.

Barton already has shown above-average game power and projects to hit 25-30 home runs annually down the road. A 2003 first-round pick (28th overall) out of Marina High in Huntington Beach, Calif., Barton has a career minor league batting record of .306/.436/.480 in 144 games, with 92 runs, 106 RBIs and 17 home runs in 483 at-bats.

For all his offensive potential, Barton has no clear future big league position. He was drafted as a catcher, but his below-average arm and average receiving skills (as well as his polished bat) make a position change likely. He played six games at third base in 2003, and at a listed 6-feet tall, he’s not a prototype first baseman. His lack of athleticism and the A’s improved catching depth–they drafted top college catchers Landon Powell and Kurt Suzuki in 2004–should speed the move to first base or left field nonetheless. Barton is expected to team with one of them (most likely Powell) at Oakland’s new high Class A Stockton affiliate in 2005.