"Pitchers" -- that’s it! When I wrote the title I couldn’t think of the word and who has time to edit? I certainly, don’t even if, placement of the commas is, wrong. So once upon a time, I gave my updated analysis of several young position players and today I look at several of the A’s young pitchers who showcased their wares during the 2016 season...
Sean Manaea: Wheat!
When Manaea first arrived to Oakland, what concerned me was not so much that he struggled (mightily), but rather that his stuff didn’t appear to be as advertised. He threw 93 MPH, not "upwards of 97 MPH" and his slider looked more like a work-in-progress than like a wipeout pitch.
Fast forward to the second half of 2016 and here’s what we saw: Manaea displayed a pretty devastating changeup and the ability to throw strikes, two strengths that were not really part of the scouting profiles that gushed far more about his pure velocity and his slider.
In fact, Manaea’s fastball command and his changeup are enough to get him pretty far, and the slider adds a third "weapon of bat destruction" that allows him to dominate, not just succeed, on a good day.
I think that if he stays healthy (and his "forearm tightness" DL stay scared the bejeebers out of me — oh come on, auto-correct, "bejeebers" is so a word — Manaea is a legitimate #2 SP whose best comp is probably a slightly poor man’s CC Sabathia. And prior to 2013, when he started to lose significant velocity, Sabathia was a great comp to have.
Jharel Cotton: Wheat
Let’s keep in mind that as exciting as Cotton’s inaugural stint with the A’s was, it represented only 5 starts and all 5 came in September (assuming you’re willing to count his final start as being on September 31st). There is a wise baseball adage, "Never fall in love in March or September," which explains why the Todd Linden and Daric Barton Hall-of-Fame wings are so sparsely attended.
Cotton will probably not retire with a career ERA of 2.10 unless he is called by the priesthood this winter. However, he has enough going for him to continue to succeed at the big league level.
His changeup is certainly a special pitch, and any time you lead with a pitch that is among the better ones in the league, you have a chance to succeed. What is discussed less is that Cotton’s fastball is legitimate, averaging 92.3 MPH and able to hit 94 MPH more than just occasionally. This immediately separates Cotton from the likes of Dillon Overton, Tommy Milone, and other soft-tossers whose "plus changeup" can only get them so far. (In Overton’s case, "so far" is usually somewhere between 400-450 feet, often to left field.)
Also encouraging is that Cotton is not a two-pitch pitcher, having unleashed a big curve and a cutter, each inconsistent but also at times very effective. With 4 BBs in 29.1 IP, Cotton proved he can throw strikes, so now you’re looking at a 4-pitch pitcher with good velocity, a "plus" pitch, and control.
Where I worry is that to my eyes, Cotton’s fastball doesn’t have terrific movement. The main reason it is so difficult to hit is that batters are forced to be on guard for the changeup that comes out of the same arm slot. If batters are guessing fastball and guessing right, though, I don’t think Cotton’s velocity alone is going to save him. Perhaps this explains his HR tendencies, which will likely follow him so long as he throws a lot of strikes and has a fastball batters can track when they’re sitting on it.
A comp for Cotton? I see him as a #3 SP whose stuff reminds me of early James Shields. In his heyday (hay? cotton? I’m about ready to bale), Shields was far more than a #3 SP, but I’m not sure Cotton will settle into being more than a mid-rotation fixture. Maybe somewhere between Jeremy Hellickson (similar profile but with a fastball sitting more like 90-91 MPH) and 2011-2014 Shields (he was actually really good before he became a 19-game loser and laughingstock).
The good news is that a mid-rotation fixture describes a really valuable pitcher, which is why I’m quite bullish on Cotton overall. And his ceiling is probably higher, given that his stuff is legit and he appears to have the makeup to match. And as Cindi will tell you, makeup is really important.
Andrew Triggs: Slight Wheat
I really want Andrew Triggs to be special. He showed, in his unexpected stint as a SP, that he could be. I keep hoping that my reluctance to fully embrace Triggs as a SP going forward is just reflective of my bias against sidearming pitchers sustaining success as SPs over time.
It is difficult for a sidearming RHP to face lineups that are predominantly left-handed, face them 3-4 times through the order, and not ultimately get beaten down by the splits and the "now I pick up the arm slot" factor.
As a result, you can name few SPs who drop down as far as Triggs does. Justin Masterson? He did have a couple very good seasons, but in between he has had an awful lot of bad ones. And mostly it is because LH batters have hit .288/.369/.374 against him (he has held RH batters to a .223/.308/.272 line). As a SP you just can’t hide from your weakness.
There is hope, though, in that Triggs mastered LH batters pretty well in the small sample he had a chance to show, especially during his starts. Still, overall LH batters hit .277/.333/.387, RH batters .235/.278/.346, and as a SP Triggs is going to face lineups that are stacked lefty against him.
If Triggs’ best comp is Masterson then he can get a SP job in the big leagues for 5-6 years. The trouble is that Masterson isn’t really very good. I do think Triggs’ floor is as a quality reliever and that alone assures him of "wheat" status. As a SP, I still would need to see more sustained success before I was ready to put my biases behind me and anoint Triggs "The Exception" — which is what I hope his nickname will turn out to be.
Daniel Mengden: WhaffCheat
In my player analysis, Matt Olson won the "toughest call" award and similarly Mengden has shown me enough to like and enough not to like that I enter the off-season truly agnostic about his future.
I have leaned "bullish" on this bulldog, and I like Mengden’s changeup. His fastball velocity is fine (92.2 MPH) and everything he throws has excellent movement. I also tried to view everything I saw this year in the context of his being a bit worn down from a long season by the time we saw him.
However, there are aspects of Mengden’s game that concern me a lot. The main one is that ultimately he didn’t really show good command of any pitch, most especially his slider and curve, but also his fastball. His stuff moves enough that he can miss the outside corner with a fastball that runs up and in to generate a swing-and-miss. But he can also just bounce a slider pitch two feet outside or yank a fastball that starts off the plate only to move farther off the plate for an easy take.
What ended up happening to Mengden is that he threw an awful lot of balls that were easy takes, and I am not sure that his skill-set includes the ability to command his stuff. On the flip side, the stuff is good and with the cutter Mengden has 5 pitches he can legitimately throw at any time. With great command that might lead to comps such as Yu Darvish, but with poor command it leads to comps of "lots of guys you’ve never heard of."
The "bulldog" factor (never underestimate a bulldog) makes me still lean slightly wheat, but right now I view Mengden only as a #5 SP due to the inherently wild inconsistency you get with shaky command. I see a lot of long counts, 20 pitch innings, and working out of jams, in Mengden’s immediate future, and I think whether he moves it up a notch to be a solid #4 SP, or just fades away, is hard to predict.
Perhaps his best comp right now is someone like Luis Severino, another live arm who just hasn’t been able to translate quality stuff into actually getting a lot of batters out. With a fastball that averaged 96.1 MPH this season, it’s going to be a while before teams give up on Severino even if he keeps putting up 5.83 ERAs or allowing HRs every 6.5 IPs, and Mengden too has good enough stuff overall to warrant multiple looks and chances — but he is going to have to command his stuff far better before he can be any good.
Jesse Hahn: Slight Chaff
At this point, Hahn is practically the definition of an enigma. He came back healthy and throwing hard, and he was just awful. Awful in his first stint with the A’s, awful in his second stint, and frankly not even very good at AAA (1-7, 4.32 ERA, with 34 BBs and 46 Ks in 67 IPs).
I don’t know how much of Hahn’s 2016 struggles related to routine (a rainout interrupted Plan A and he just never got into a good rhythm) or a rough season getting more and more into his head. I suspect that he is better served throwing power sinkers at 92 MPH than ramping it up to 95 MPH so his velocity, while reassuring, might not actually have served him well. I have never liked his big curve, which Hahn seems to love, because he always throws it exactly the same way at exactly the same speed and if you’re not out in front it is the type of curve that lops into the strike zone far more than it breaks sharply, and as a result it is actually very hittable.
To me, Hahn is a classic "change of scenery" guy who probably won’t make it in Oakland but might emerge for someone else. A fresh start might benefit both sides and quality stuff is certainly still there somewhere.
His best comp right now? I would say Ubaldo Jimenez but I don’t want to get Buck Showalter too excited.
Raul Alcantara: Chaff
There were some things to like about Alcantara’s September stint with the A’s, once he relaxed and stopped alternating hitting batters with serving up HRs. Alcantara’s 4-seam fastball got its share of swings and misses, and his control sharpened as he settled down and settled in.
Ultimately, though, Alcantara’s fastball didn’t wow me despite its reasonably strong velocity (averaging 93.1 MPH). There was something a bit flat about his arsenal that makes me think he can be "serviceable" but probably not much more than a suitable fill-in when you can’t deal with any more of Eric Surkamp. I like him better than Ross Detwiler or Zach Neal, but that’s damning with faint praise.
I do think Alcantara, who is out of options, would be a decent long reliever and spot starter if the A’s wanted to stash him in the bullpen. But now you’re talking about a very fungible position on the roster. His best comp? Maybe Colin Rea? Or Justin Nicolino? Or...about 50 other people you might or might not have heard of until they actually have a good season?
Zach Neal: Filler Chaff
But seriously, thanks for all the innings.