Farewell to Spring
We have reached the end of the beginning, the final game of Spring Training in Arizona. The Oakland Athletics will soon board a plane back to the Bay Area to take on their interleague rivals the Giants in a final three-game exhibition. All that stands in their way now is the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are sitting atop the Cactus League with a commanding 21-7 (.750) record. In this contest of meaningless games, the D'Backs are the undisputed champs. The A's are holding at 11-14 (.440).
When the A's first met the D'Backs in a split-squad game at the beginning of March, their bright-eyed prospects were treated to the first start of 200-million-dollar reptile Zack Greinke, who toyed with them for two shutout innings in what would become a 6-3 loss (recap). The A's prospects have thinned out, but questions remain, foremost among them the viability of the pitching rotation behind ace Sonny Gray. The collective ERA of the A's pitchers this spring now stands at 6.25, or 28th out of 30 (schadenfreude alert: the Giants are 29th with a 6.87 ERA). The front office has shown its displeasure. After several poor outings, Jesse Hahn was optioned yesterday to Nashville, making Felix Doubront the surprise 5th starter. With Kendall Graveman and Chris Bassitt locked in spots 3 and 4, that leaves the biggest question mark of all, Rich Hill, who was given a guaranteed rotation spot after signing with the A's for $6 million on the strength of his devastating four starts for Boston late last season.
Rich Hill will take the mound today against Arizona. Hill has pitched in three Major League games this Spring, accumulating 7.2 innings of work and an alarming 15.26 ERA, by far the worst of the starters (Doubront sports a 6.19 ERA). After struggling to find his form against Cactus League opponents, Hill turned to the minors to refine his mechanics, pitching in two minor league games. There he still issued a troubling series of walks and beanballs, but also finally raised his strikeout tally and pitched three "really good, much more aggressive" innings in his second start - albeit after surrendering four earned runs in the two preceding innings. Has Hill finally rediscovered the magic that briefly elevated him to a Kershawian level of dominance, or will this start become another, increasingly desperate round of experimentation before he plays for keeps next week against the White Sox?
Opposite Hill, Shelby Miller will take the ball for the D'Backs. Miller, the D'Backs' no. #2 pitcher behind Greinke, has pitched a masterful Spring, owning a 2.16 ERA in 16.2 innings over four games and significantly improving with each outing. He will be looking to put a cherry on top of a successful March and to carry that momentum with him into the regular season. Miller has the run support he needs to do just that: the Diamondbacks have outhit the rest of MLB this spring, with an impressive collective slash line of .319/.374/.530/.905, and a commanding lead in hits (358), runs (214), and RBIs (202). The A's, in comparison, hover between 7th and 11th in those categories.
Today's lineup for the A's:
Also eligible: Maxwell, Lambo, Butler, Phegley, Canha, Chapman, McBride
Bullpen: Doolittle, Schuster
Today's lineup is no doubt one variant of what we will see this April. With Reddick, Valencia, Vogt, and Semien where they were last season, they now are supported by the hard hitting Khris Davis in left field and Chris Coghlan at DH. That shifts Billy Butler comfortably to the bench. Joining him is Mark Canha, who may eventually switch between first base, left field, and DH, but who has struggled at bat this spring (.194/.275/.306, .581 OPS). While Marcus Semien has generally improved his fielding, despite committing a few errors, he also yet to find his form on offense, batting a paltry .188/.231/.208, .439 OPS, only slightly better than a convalescent Coco Crisp. The rest of the offense, while not spectacular, is solid. Josh Reddick (.415/.510/.634/1.144 ) and Jed Lowrie (.400/.455/.700/1.155) in particular have been outstanding. The A's have not put up the gaudy numbers that the D'Backs have this spring, but come next week Oakland has the better-than-average offensive potential they need to support the pitching staff.
It is the pitching staff, though, that is worrying. Hill is supported today by a paper thin bullpen of Sean Doolittle and Patrick Schuster. Doolittle has a decent 3.60 ERA after five innings of work, but appears ready for the regular season. Schuster, who signed with the A's this past November after bouncing around the minors with different organizations, will likely start the season in AAA. He has pitched excellently thus far, sporting a 1.13 ERA in 8 innings, which puts his production between John Axford (3.52 ERA in 7.2 innings) and Dillon Overton (0.00 ERA in 6 innings - Ryan Madson, Ryan Dull, and John Axford all have a 0.00 ERA after 7, 9.1, and 7.1 innings respectively). The bullpen today is good, but there is no room for error. The A's potentially plan to allow Rich Hill to pitch at least five or six innings - no matter what the results - in a final push to prepare him for his impending start next week. Schuster can come in as setup man, and Doolittle can close. Let's hope that Hill delivers them a game they can save.
Today's lineup for the Diamondbacks:
Peralta RF Drury RF
Conspicuous by their absence are first baseman slugger Paul Goldschmidt, who is presumably being rested ahead of Opening Day, and centerfielder A. J. Pollock, who has struggled with elbow soreness all spring. Socrates Brito has productively replaced Pollock in center, while alternate third baseman Phil Gosselin will fill in for Goldy today at first. Catcher Wellington Castillo will get some rest at DH, allowing Tuffy Gosewisch (what a name!) to fill in behind the plate. Gosewisch and left fielder Tomás are the only two players on the squad today batting under .300 this spring - and that includes Miller. Jean Segura has been astoundingly productive at bat, posting an elite slash line of .527/.544/.800/1.344. The Diamondbacks are going all in this year behind Zack Greinke. Their lineup behind their stars is not particularly deep, but while those stars stay healthy, they will be formidable. Goldschmidt might be sitting out today, but the challenge could scarcely be greater for Rich Hill and the A's defense.
Let's go, Oakland! Play ball.