As Blue Jays fans we're very familiar with the story of one Jose Bautista, who at age 29 suddenly became an elite baseball player after years of filling the role of mediocre (at best) utility player. In many this raised the questions "can this happen again?" and "if this can happen again, who are good candidates to make such drastic improvements late in their careers?". Many were also skeptical about the sustainability of Bautista's breakthrough and about the sustainability of breakthroughs like his in general, dismissing it as a fluke. With the 2011 season Bautista just had, the group of skeptics has decreased in number sharply, but that doesn't mean we should expect Bautista-like breakthroughs from similarly aged players to happen with any kind of regularity. He's a special kid, Jose is.
But, haven't we already seen somewhat similar late-career breakthroughs by Alex Gordon and Jacoby Ellsbury? I say somewhat similar in that both were a bit younger than Bautista at the time of their elite seasons, and because they were also more highly regarded than Bautista was at the time of his breakout. The guy I want to discuss here is more similar to Bautista in that, while he was well-regarded as a prospect, he was not expected to be good, much less one of the best in baseball at his position. The fact that Brandon McCarthy's position is on the mound, as a starting pitcher, should not hurt the comparison with Bautista, I think. The two have another important thing in common, which is contract status. McCarthy has only one season left before he hits free agency, leaving Billy Beane in the same situation Alex Anthopoulos was in a year ago: should he believe the season was a fluke or should he believe that McCarthy is now actually elite and offer him a sizable extension?
If you didn't know that McCarthy's season was that special, I should probably inform you that his FIP was best in the American League among qualified pitchers. His FIP- (park and league-adjusted FIP) was 7th best in MLB, his xFIP- was 12th. Depending on your view of what constitutes an "ace", McCarthy either was an ace, or a very strong number two in 2011. For those who were still worried about Oakland's home park effect: McCarthy's road FIP was 2.94, his road xFIP 3.40. That's very good, and you can be sure that kind of performance would net him a sizable contract in free agency, should he repeat it.
As a Jays fan, it's easy to like McCarthy's new pitching style: he throws strikes, gets groundballs, limits the runs he gives up while working quickly through the opponent's line-up. In fact, McCarthy's new pitching style seems to completely copy Roy Halladay's (pre-2010) pitching style. Sinker, cutter, curveball, all thrown for strikes. The one difference is that McCarthy's curve didn't get anywhere near the number of whiffs Halladay's curve got the past season. His cutter, though, was more whiff-a-licious, which is even more impressive considering that Halladay got to face pitchers and McCarthy never did (he missed the whole interleague period).
While considering potential contract offers, Beane's probably worried about that one other important thing that Halladay has but McCarthy doesn't: durability. McCarthy missed more than a month with a shoulder trouble, and he's had shoulder problems many times before. Someone with as tight a budget as Beane has might not want to commit the kind of money McCarthy will probably command to an injury prone player. And there's another thing to consider: the Athletics' depth at the starting pitcher position, with Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, Jarrod Parker, Sonny Gray, Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock, Guillermo Moscoso, Josh Outman and Tyson Ross also potentially in the mix for starts in 2013 and beyond.
With all the attention Yu Darvish got, that Prince Fielder is getting, and that Matt Garza might still get if trade talks heat up, nobody seems to be talking about what will happen to Brandon McCarthy. Extension, trade or free agency? Let's speculate!