Things are going well for the A's in the early season. In particular, Oakland's rotation has been stellar — Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez, and Dan Straily have all pitched exceptionally well in their first few appearances of the year, while Tommy Milone had the misfortune of getting rained out and then skipped the first time through the order, allowing five runs in as many innings last Friday in Oakland's 6-4 loss to
Felix Hernandez Seattle. Still, five runs in five innings marks the worst start the A's have gotten in this year's 13 games, a stat that 29 other big-league teams would probably like to call their own.
But unfortunately for the A's, having a phenomenal core of young pitchers isn't always sunshine and roses. We've already seen one young star, Jarrod Parker, fall victim to injury. AJ Griffin is out for at least another several weeks, as well. In terms of health, though, the pitcher Oakland needs to worry about most is Sonny Gray, who has never pitched a full MLB season. Jesse Chavez is also a concern, despite his age — the 30-year-old has never thrown more than 130 innings in a season, having spent the vast majority of his career as a reliever. Dan Straily and Tommy Milone, while young, have slightly more experience as starters and have racked up high inning counts in seasons past, and are therefore less of a potential issue.
The thing the Oakland most needs to avoid is a scenario akin to the one the Washington Nationals and their young phenom Stephen Strasburg faced at the end of 2012. On September 8, the first-place Nationals and their 6.5-game cushion in the National League East were a postseason shoo-in. Everything was in its right place as the organization became truly competitive for the first time in the post-Expos era, representing the potential beginning of a long-lasting competitive window.
Yet on September 8, then-Washington manager Davey Johnson informed Strasburg that his season was over. The 24-year-old was 15-6 with a 2.82 FIP on the year, and was averaging more than 11 strikeouts per nine innings. He wasn't hurt — the Nationals just didn't feel comfortable pushing him much further than the 159.1 innings he had already thrown. The shutdown resulted more from the fact that Strasburg threw only 38 innings the year prior in his comeback from Tommy John than from his age, but all the same: young pitchers with the potential to win Cy Young Awards need to be used prudently.
The result was predictable. Sliding Gio Gonzalez into the number one spot for the NLDS against St. Louis was hardly an issue, but using the likes of Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler in Strasburg's stead made an obvious difference. The Nationals lost, 3-2, ending the capital city's best shot at a championship since 1924.
While Gray has been fortunate to avoid major injury (the last time injuries forced him to miss a significant chunk of the season was his sophomore year at Smyrna High School), the A's should still be careful with innings increases. The good news is that Gray threw a very healthy 182.1 innings in last year's regular season, which he split between AAA Sacramento and Oakland, and that figure jumps to 195.1 if you include his two playoff starts against Detroit. Increasing his regular-season workload to around 200 innings is both reasonable and likely. If he makes 30 starts in 2014 and averages between six and seven innings, he'll could easily be at 200 by the time October rolls around.
The same is true for Chavez, though again it's less clear how a 30-year-old with a decade of professional baseball should be treated. There's also the reality that while Chavez is pitching remarkably well, he's not a part of the team's long-term vision in the same way Gray is. Chavez is a nice pickup, another "where did Billy Beane find this guy?" type, while Gray is supposed to anchor the rotation for years to come, and allowing him to see a vast innings increase from 2013 to 2014 is not in the organization's best long-term interests. Whether or not the Verducci effect is real, workload has to be considered for players who have never served a full year as major-league starting pitchers.
The problem isn't so much the regular season. The postseason is where Chavez and especially Gray (more realistically, Beane and Melvin) could run into issues — if by some miracle Oakland doesn't face Justin Verlander in the ALDS and advances, Gray could suddenly face the prospect of reaching 230 innings in the ALCS.
The A's could cross that bridge when they come to it. Alternatively, they could take steps during the regular season to ensure that come October, Gray and the rest of the staff can pitch as long as the A's are playing without having to worry about their future and the team's wisdom in allowing a prized asset throw 50 innings more than he has in his career. In "win-now" mode, while your first priority is to play well in the regular season and win the division, postseason considerations have to play a role in team strategy.
The A's have a few options: do nothing, skip starts occasionally, limit innings without skipping starts, or shut Gray and Chavez down for a brief stretch once or twice over the course of the season. Given that Griffin is coming back presumably within the next month, skipping starts could be an appealing option with six MLB-caliber starters in the organization. If Gray's turn get skipped just once every other month, that's 20 innings over the course of the season that he doesn't pitch. Shutting them down is less appealing. There's also the prospect of limiting Chavez and/or Gray to six innings no matter what, which would ensure their totals stay well short of 200 innings prior to the playoffs. Oakland's bullpen is certainly good enough that most nights, it might not matter much if a productive Sonny Gray goes six or eight innings.
Personally, I'm most inclined to occasionally skip starts for either or both of the two. This is all extremely pre-emptive, and the solution could simply be skipping Gray a few times over the course of the season, rendering it a non-issue. I'm inclined to think that Melvin should find ways to skip Chavez or Gray from time to time, but the bullpen's strength also makes the prospect of a simple six-inning limit intriguing, and Melvin could even pull his starter after five innings if the A's have a reasonable lead.
The whole scenario is somewhat idealistic, obviously, as it ignores the inevitability of another A's starter suffering an injury at some point this season. All the same: If you were Billy Beane or Bob Melvin, how would you handle the situation? Skip starts? Limit innings? Comment below, and vote in the poll!