Of the 40 players on the Oakland Athletics' current roster, only 25 of them were in the organization on the last day of the 2014 season. Looking back just 10 months at the 25 players on the 2014 Opening Day roster, only 12 of them are still with the club. Granted, that number is a bit higher if you factor in the five guys who opened the year on the DL -- Parker, Griffin, Cook, Gentry, and O'Flaherty -- but 17-of-30 still means that nearly half of last year's April squad is gone.
My point is that Oakland's roster is a body in constant state of flux, never the same as it was yesterday and virtually impossible to predict for tomorrow. When considering what it might look like in the future, the only guarantee you can count on is that it will definitely look different than it does at that moment. There's no way to know what names will be on it, and it's possible that we haven't even heard of them yet. The only players in the world who you can bet won't be on the A's are the ones who currently are.
Trying to predict what the A's will look like two months from now, when we're gearing up for the regular season, would be difficult. There's still a month to add new players, and then another month for all of them to get hurt in exhibition games and require replacements. A lot can change. But trying to predict what the A's will look like a year from now, when they're preparing to start the 2016 season, is a Sisyphean task. You can keep rolling that boulder up the hill day after day, starting over after every new transaction causes it to roll back down again, right up until Beane trades the boulder for a bag of gravel and some cement. You could be just as productive sitting outside and watching your Astroturf grow.
Buuuut, it's January, and there hasn't been a trade in nine days, so we're totally going to guess anyway. Let's begin by looking back at the 2014 rotation, as well as the likely 2015 unit. Those who have moved on to other teams have been crossed out.
2014 Opening Day:
1. Sonny Gray
2. Scott Kazmir
3. Jesse Chavez
2014, Game 162:
3. Sonny Gray
4. Scott Kazmir
Swingman: Drew Pomeranz
2015 Opening Day, current estimate:
1. Sonny Gray
2. Scott Kazmir
3. Drew Pomeranz
4. Jesse Chavez
5. Jesse Hahn
... though Chavez could go to the bullpen in favor of Sean Nolin, Kendall Graveman, or Chris Bassitt.
Those are the names we're working with, and as you can see there are actually quite a few familiar ones in this area of the team. Four of the five likely starters were here last year, even after losing three others to free agency and trades. And given the relative youth in this unit, it's possible that it will stay more static than the lineup and the bullpen. Perhaps the "whoever is here now will be gone tomorrow" strategy won't work here after all.
The next step is to consider what each of these pitchers will do in 2015 and how that might affect their 2016 statuses. Here are my guesses:
- Sonny will have the good year we're all expecting. It might be regular-good, it might be ace-great, but he'll stay healthy all year and be a star (maybe even an All-Star!). He'll still be young, entering 2016 at age 26, and he'll still be cheap, since he won't even be eligible for arbitration yet. Since the A's will still likely (hopefully) be competitive, he doesn't fit the profile of a guy Beane would trade. He's exactly the guy Beane needs to keep around when he's aiming for the playoffs, because he needs the surplus value of a star on an inordinately small salary. Sonny will still be here, and he'll still be good.
- Kazmir will be a free agent at the end of the year, so his performance is irrelevant to this discussion. If he's good, he'll sign elsewhere on a multi-year contract for his mid-30s. If he's bad, then we probably won't want him back. I think he'll be more like his second-half self than the All-Star we saw in the first half, but that he should be able to match the 105 ERA+ he posted last year. The only way he can affect things is if he is traded at the deadline for a younger starter, but I think it's more likely that he'll be here all year. If he does stay, I'm confident that he'll pitch well enough to net (and reject) a qualifying offer, earning the A's a draft pick.
- Pomeranz is going to break out. I just feel it in my bones. A lot of people don't buy into him as a starter because of his limited repertoire, among other reasons, and their argument is better than mine. My argument is basically "I believe" and then a bunch of GIFs of sweeping curveballs. But we know full well that unexpected things happen in this sport, so if you want to make a realistic prediction then you have to make some unrealistic calls. I'm guessing that he'll learn how to navigate that third time through the order and become a guy who can not only put up zeroes but also pitch deep into games. He'll be a No. 2/3 guy by 2016. And if not, then something even crazier will happen; just remember the next guy on the list.
- Chavez turned heads last year, but he came back to Earth in July. The only reason that we don't remember the decline phase as well is because Beane cut it short before Chavez's ERA had a chance to fatten up on more five-inning, four-run starts. Now that he's got a 146-inning season under his belt, though, I think the 31-year-old hurler will be able to complete a full year in the rotation -- if needed. I expect that he'll settle in as a solid No. 4/5 guy, who will be average a lot of the time but will sprinkle in some gems. The thing is, the A's might be able to do better than that a year from now.
- Hahn will spend all year in Oakland's rotation. That's my guess. He was good in a dozen starts for the Padres last season, so he's already made the proverbial jump to MLB. He may be really good in 2015, or he may be ordinary as he struggles with growing pains (or more literal pains, since he's injury-prone), but he'll stick in Oakland and he'll still be in the mix in 2016.
- Graveman, Nolin, and Bassitt, listed in order of how much I like them as starters, will jockey for any remaining opportunities. Graveman will be the one who sticks, though not necessarily above a No. 4/5 level. He might steal Chavez's job out of spring and push him to the pen, or he might have to wait until someone else gets hurt, but he'll get his shot and he'll take advantage of it. Nolin will essentially take Milone's role, the extra lefty who spends some time in Oakland over the years but also has long stints in Triple-A when everyone else is healthy. I'm convinced that Bassitt will end up in the bullpen by the end of the season, if not from Day 1, and nothing will change my mind on that until I actually see him succeed as a starter. I can't wait to see how wrong all of these predictions turn out to be.
Of that list, someone will likely get hurt. Possibly more than one of them. Someone might even need Tommy John. There's no way to guess who, though, and none of them have any specific red flags like Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, with their elbow problems in the ALDS just months before their season-ending injuries. Kazmir is the biggest obvious risk, but he stayed healthy for all of 2014 so he's earned the benefit of the doubt for now. Just know that one of those predictions up there will probably get thrown in the trash at some point due to a faulty cog in an arm.
Speaking of Kazmir, he factors into this in another way. With his $13 million coming off the books, some money might go back into the free agent market to pull a new starter. It's possible that Beane will focus more cash on his position players, since Ben Zobrist will be gone and Josh Reddick will be a trade candidate with only one year of team control remaining (not to mention the re-breakout season I think he'll have). But Beane has added free agent starters on an annual basis -- Ben Sheets, Brandon McCarthy, Bartolo Colon twice, Kazmir -- and given his general success in that area I don't expect him to stop giving a short-term deal to an out-of-favor or under-the-radar vet every winter. The question is, who will that be next year?
The free agent starting pitching class will be even stronger next year than it was during this offseason. It could be led by David Price, Zack Greinke, Jeff Samardzija, Jordan Zimmermann, Jonny Cueto, and Rick Porcello. After them come Doug Fister, Mat Latos, Mark Buehrle, and Ian Kennedy. But they'll all be expensive. Here's the list of names to focus on, the old and the injured and the underrated:
Tim Lincecum (nope nope nope)
(There are other guys I left off for various reasons, like Bedard, Buchholz, Burnett, Colon, Hudson, etc., because I think they'll either retire or be otherwise unavailable to us.)
The ones who jump out at me from that list are Dickey, Iwakuma, and Norris. Chen and Leake might be too young to sign short-term here, while Masterson will probably either wash out or earn a bigger deal from someone. The others are just too risky and/or uninteresting.
Iwakuma is probably a long shot given the previous history between him and the A's front office, effectively delaying his arrival in MLB for a year, so we'll cut him from the list. Toronto has a club option on Dickey, and given that they'll also lose Buehrle they might choose to keep the knuckler around for one more year. So, we'll go with Norris as our random veteran free agent, on a two-year deal for ages 31-32. He's been worth an average of 1.8 bWAR the last three years, and actually graded out slightly better than Kazmir last season by that measure, but without the All-Star fanfare. Also, his name is Bud, in a clubhouse that has Sonny and Ike and Coco already. He'll fit right in.
So, without further ado, here is your 2016 Oakland A's rotation:
2016 Opening Day, my optimistic and pointlessly early prediction:
1. Sonny Gray
2. Drew Pomeranz
3. Jesse Hahn
4. Bud Norris
5. Kendall Graveman
Depth: Jesse Chavez (bullpen), Sean Nolin (Triple-A), A.J. Griffin (Triple-A)
That could end up being a good rotation. It's got an ace in Sonny, and it's got my optimistic visions of Pomeranz and Hahn rounding out a strong top three. It's got a solid vet at the back-end in Norris, and a solid youngster at No. 5 -- and if Graveman doesn't pan out, then replace him with Nolin instead, with the added benefit of getting a second lefty in there. Through it all, Chavez has got everybody's backs as a valuable swingman, who can step in and provide capable starts when needed and perform as the long man in the pen when the rotation is full. In this scenario, Bassitt and Parker have settled in permanently as relievers.
Abandon all hope ye who enter this paragraph.
Then, of course, there's the Darkest Timeline. That's the one in which the lineup goes full Mariners, with across-the-board underachievement, and/or full Rangers, with across-the-board injuries. I guess that's called going full second-half A's. Ugh. Anyway, in this timeline Hahn tears his UCL, and Beane sells high on the team control of Sonny and Pom to re-stock for his next run in 2017. Meanwhile, rather than getting Norris in a move to be competitive, Beane goes after Dickey, who had a slightly below-average year in Toronto for some explainable reason and had his option declined. Beane signs the 41-year-old knuckleballer to a one-year deal with an option during a rebuilding year, because of course he does. Dickey can't go in the opener because of, I don't know, a sore knuckle, so he's pushed back to the No. 2 spot. Parker and Griffin return strictly as relievers. And that's the story of how Jesse Chavez becomes our 2016 Opening Day starter. Try explaining that to your 2012 self.
2016 Opening Day, Darkest Timeline:
1. Jesse Chavez
2. R.A. Dickey
3. Kendall Graveman
4. Sean Nolin
5. Zach Neal*
* Random prospect you've never heard of.
We won't talk about the Darkest Timeline. Stick with the happy one.
In today's reality, the A's have a half dozen young starters, and most of them are relative unknowns right now. One thing that will make 2015 exciting is watching all of these new guys develop and improve, and only after that will we really know how the 2016 team might shape up. Who do you believe in for 2015? Who will still be around in 2016, who will be traded, and what new faces do you boldly predict will wash up on our island?