One consistent feature of Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics teams is that the personnel is never consistent. Rare is the player who stays with the club in the same role for more than a few years at a time. The middle of May is one time when the ever-evolving rosters often seem to see big changes; Beane spends several weeks figuring out what he has and then starts making the tweaks that will help Oakland to a playoff berth.
This year, Beane got started a bit earlier than normal. May 9, to be exact. He made two moves, one forced by injury and the other a gamble on upside. Dan Straily, who has made 41 starts for the A's over the last three seasons, was optioned to Triple-A after channeling injured teammate A.J. Griffin's ability to give up home runs. His spot will be taken by Drew Pomeranz, who made an impressive start in emergency duty during Wednesday's doubleheader. In addition, relief pitcher Ryan Cook was placed on the DL after leaving his outing in the doubleheader with forearm tightness. To replace Pomeranz and Cook in the bullpen, Joe Savery and Fernando Rodriguez were promoted from Sacramento. Between those two and Dan Otero, the long-relief role will be taken care of.
What prompted these moves? What did Beane see that led him to make these particular changes at this particular time? It most likely started with the rotation, where the A's had two groups on opposite ends of the success spectrum. On the Kershaw end of the spectrum, Oakland has Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir and Jesse Chavez, who have combined to allow negative-three runs this year. On the Blanton side of the spectrum, there was Dan Straily and Tommy Milone, two guys who seemingly couldn't buy an out but had an embarrassment of riches when it came to accruing baserunners. Beane chose to demote Straily, for a couple of reasons.
Straily has struggled this year (4.93 ERA in seven starts, 77 ERA+), and it's been almost entirely because of home runs. His rates of strikeouts, walks and hits are all either normal or slightly improved, but he's given up nine dingers in 38⅓ innings. Fluctuating home run rates are often good bets to regress back to normalcy, but there are a couple of red flags with Straily. As you may remember, he began his career by allowing 11 long balls in 39⅓ frames in 2012; at the time it also seemed like a fluke, but now we have repetition (while keeping in mind that his largest sample, in 2013, registered a fairly average home run rate). Additionally, his fastball has been two miles slower this year (88 mph, down from 90 last year and 91 in 2012). This also might just be an early-season blip, but his heater was already of dubious quality before and a noticeable loss of velocity turns it into a serious negative. The lack of a good fastball to set up the secondary pitches also reduces their effectiveness, so Straily really needs to figure out how to make that pitch work if he's ever going to be a reliable Major League starter.
Of course, the A's could also have demoted Milone, who had a 5.86 ERA (65 ERA+) in his first five outings prior to Friday's eight-inning gem. Milone just looked all wrong in those five starts; his strikeouts were down, his walks and hits were up, and he wasn't fooling anybody. But Susan Slusser suggested that cutting Straily over Milone was simply a timing issue, since Milone was on turn to start on Friday and Straily just went Wednesday. The decision made Beane look like a genius when Milone shut down the Nationals in a scoreless, two-hit performance.
Theoretically, Straily could return after 10 days and only miss one start, so this move isn't necessarily permanent and he could easily find himself back in the Majors before long. This is simply a way to get Pomeranz a couple of starts at the expense of a guy who could use a quick breather, without disrupting the order of the rest of the rotation. If the southpaw excels in his new role, however, he would likely stick there.
While Straily's struggles opened the door for a change, Pomeranz forced this move on the field. He showed that he could retire Major League hitters by posting a 1.98 ERA in 13⅔ innings out of the bullpen. He showed promise in his spot start against the Mariners, tossing five sparkling innings with two hits and no walks. He'll need to work up his pitch count over his next several outings, but this is a big step for Pomeranz. He washed out as a starter in Colorado multiple times, and his prospect sheen was starting to wear off. He only throws two pitches, but that's only a problem if it doesn't work. If he can seize this opportunity and put up a couple more good games, he can absolutely stick in the rotation.
It's this kind of challenge that helps keep Beane's young players motivated and continues the cycle of success. Straily was held accountable for his poor performance, but he also must know that turning things around in Sacramento will earn him a quick trip back to where he wants to be. Milone knows that he's next on the chopping block if he doesn't settle down, because Beane isn't afraid to go with the hot hands in his pitching staff and there is always someone gunning for his spot. And Pomeranz had his success rewarded without having to wait several months to earn his way up some pecking order of seniority. The guys who are playing best will get the innings.
Of course, pulling Pomeranz from the bullpen and losing Cook to the DL opened up a pair of spots in the relief corps. This wasn't the worst thing in the world, because the pen has had its struggles and a little shake-up can sometimes help wake everyone back up. Rodriguez and Savery are both quality arms with massive strikeout potential who belong in the Majors, and it's a testament to Beane's foresight and accrual of pitching depth that he is able to call up a pair of hurlers on a whim with full confidence in their abilities. The organizational depth has not been exhausted, as Evan Scribner and Eric O'Flaherty are still waiting in the wings, but the first wave of reinforcements has arrived. Rodriguez ended up making his debut on Friday in relief of Milone, and he looked fantastic in his mop-up appearance. His fastball averaged 93.6 mph, his curveball looked sharp, and he tossed a clean inning.
So, what did Beane accomplish in his first big roster shuffle of the season? He pulled the plug on one struggling youngster and installed an even-higher-upside youngster in his place; if Pomeranz fails, then switching back is easy, but if he succeeds then the rotation goes from good to great. The risk is tiny, and the potential reward is massive. Beane also absorbed what should have been a major injury and instead turned it into an opportunity for two intriguing but flawed relievers -- both Rodriguez and Savery are susceptible to high walk totals, but they are also high-octane guys who could make big differences in Oakland if they are only given a chance.
The best part of these moves is that the A's didn't have to rack up a poor record in order to force them. They're still in first place, but Beane didn't allow himself to be satisfied with early success if there was the chance to improve the team for the next four months. Oftentimes, these moves by Beane are the result of a long losing streak, but this year he didn't wait for things to go pear-shaped before replacing the rotten apple in the bunch. The message to the A's players is both clear and balanced -- performance is the only way to stay on this team, but second chances abound if you can fix what ails you in the minors.