ap photoRising star Sonny Gray will be counted on even more for the A's this season with Jarrod Parker lost for the year.

ap photoRising star Sonny Gray will be counted on even more for the A's this season with Jarrod Parker lost for the year.

Pitching and health will determine if A’s can three-peat as AL West champs

Pitching has long been the backbone of nearly every championship baseball team. A quality cadre of starters and a reliable bullpen can mask quite a few weaknesses. Now that the A’s are faced with the prospect of being without projected Opening Day starter Jarrod Parker all year, without A.J. Griffin for at least a few weeks, the road to a third consecutive American League West title got a lot bumpier.

Fortunately for Oakland, they’ve got a world-class pitching coach Curt Young, who, should the A’s do what so many were predicting they’d do — win the West again — before the Parker-Griffin word got out, will be the team’s true MVP.

Scott Kazmir was brought in to replace Bartolo Colon, essentially. And maybe he’ll still be able to do that to a degree. But a mid-spring scratch related to anything arm-related is never a good omen. Kazmir did return to spring action Saturday, but his health is an issue that needs monitoring the rest of the season.

When dealing with the A’s, it’s always best to assume the worst.

That’s pretty much what general manager Billy Beane and his accomplished brain trust started doing several years ago when they began placing an obvious emphasis on depth and versatility. Prior to that, they were, for one reason or another — and one was certainly financial in that they had to roll the dice on injury risks they could acquire on the cheap — a team frequently devastated by a key injury or three.

So Beane seemed to essentially assume the worst: “We’re the A’s, we get hurt a lot, so we’d better be well-insured.”

And look what that approach has done for them. The past two seasons, the A’s suffered plenty of injuries that would have devastated less realistic and self-aware clubs. But these A’s didn’t take a dive. They thrived. Cashed in some insurance policies, so to speak. Their depth and versatility allowed them to roll right along and to the division crown.

This is a little different. It’s not nearly as easy for teams to acquire, cultivate and retain depth and versatility on the mound — especially in the rotation — as it is among young, hungry position players. A lot of those kinds of position players can be found on the waiver wire or in the lower tiers of free agency, or in the farm system.

Not so with decent starting pitchers, so with one news release sent out Monday regarding Parker’s surgery and Kazmir’s scratch, combined with Griffin’s issues, the AL West power structure appeared to change dramatically.

“Appeared” is the key word, though. Look around the division. The Los Angeles Angels have two very good starters atop the rotation, a pretty good No. 3 and two guys named, huh?

The Seattle Mariners? Can Robby Cano pitch? If he can’t, they’re in trouble no matter how well he hits. There just isn’t a lot of pitching there that screams championship. And Texas? History is history, and in Texas, there’s very little history of pitching carrying that team through the dog days and beyond.

Care for some real history? Look up what Young has done throughout his career. Yes, he’s had some truly gifted young starters with whom to work: Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Rich Harden, Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and those of a more recent vintage. But he’s also made damn fine use of lesser lights with far less talent than the aforementioned former stars, and that’s been a big part of why the A’s are always competitive.

He’s also had to deal with the loss of those aforementioned stars. Regularly. But give him a new batch of arms and poof! He’s turned them into a cohesive, productive crew.

He’ll do it again this year, Parker or not. Kazmir or not. Young will find a way, and because we already know the A’s are well-prepared to handle to loss of some position players along the way, what appeared to be a sign of potentially impending doom isn’t.

Young will find a way with a Jesse Chavez here, a Tommy Milone here, an as-yet-unmined diamond in the rough there. Hell, give him Sonny Parker, Dan Straily and three guys who have to five-and-dive. Young’s got a hell of a bullpen to carry the rest of those games and, eventually, a third consecutive division flag.

Mychael Urban, a longtime Bay Area-based sportswriter and broadcaster, is the host of “Inside the Bigs,” which airs every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon on KGMZ “The Game” (95.7 FM).Jarrod ParkerMychael UrbanOakland A'sOakland Athletics

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