Jesse Hahn made his second start for the Triple-A Nashville Sounds on Wednesday, and for the second time he threw six scoreless innings against minor league competition. It took him 90 pitches this time, but he only walked one batter (on a close 3-2 pitch) while striking out six. According to Nashville Sounds play-by-play man Jeff Hem, Hahn dialed up to 96-97 mph on his fastball and had his "nasty" curve working. Here's a look at his line from each game:
Hahn, 4/08: 6 ip, 0 runs, 5 Ks, 3 BB, 2 hits, 74 pitches
Hahn, 4/13: 6 ip, 0 runs, 6 Ks, 1 BB, 4 hits, 90 pitches
A bit of background to catch you up: The 26-year-old Hahn has the ability to be a No. 2 starter. The right-hander had a strong partial-season debut for the Padres in 2014, and he was even better in 16 starts for the A's last year. In 170 career MLB innings (30 games, 28 of them starts), Hahn has a 3.23 ERA (116 ERA+) and encouraging peripheral stats. The problem has come in the form of injuries -- he had Tommy John surgery before he ever threw a professional pitch, and his 2015 campaign ended in July due to a forearm/elbow problem.
A's fans spent all winter holding their breaths that Hahn wouldn't need a second TJS operation, and they were able to exhale when he showed up this spring looking and feeling completely healthy. However, he had some rust to shake off after his long layoff, and his command of his pitches wasn't quite up to snuff. Oakland decided to let him work out the kinks in Triple-A to begin the year, partly because journeyman Felix Doubront looked good enough to hold down the No. 5 starter role in the interim. Then Doubront went down on the last day of spring training and needed his own TJS procedure. Rather than mess with their plan for Hahn, though, the A's elected to call on lefty Eric Surkamp to take over the fifth spot until further notice.
That leads us to the question of the day: When should the A's call Hahn back up from Triple-A?
Evaluating Eric Surkamp
In order to bring Hahn back, someone else has to be removed. The top four guys in the rotation aren't going anywhere: Sonny is a lock, Hill looked superb in his second outing, and Bassitt and Graveman both have sub-3.00 ERAs after a pair of starts each. That leaves Surkamp, the emergency fifth starter.
Surkamp hasn't been bad in his first two games, but he hasn't done anything to identify himself as a long-term, must-keep kind of guy either. He's in that Brad Mills zone. In his first game, his defense repeatedly let him down and he would have made it through five innings without question if they had made the routine plays behind him. In the second game, he didn't finish the fifth simply because he couldn't record that final out. But the important thing is he kept his team in the game both times, rather than giving up a bunch of runs. His lines:
Surkamp, 4/08: 4⅓ ip, 2 runs, 2 Ks, 1 BB, 4 hits, 1 HR, 81 pitches
Surkamp, 4/13: 4⅔ ip, 2 runs, 1 K, 4 BB, 5 hits, 0 HR, 96 pitches
Not great outings, but not disasters either. Good enough that he can make another start if you want your promising youngster to get more reps in the minors, but also pedestrian enough that he isn't forcing you to keep him in the rotation. And that brings us to the underlying question, which is: What specifically are the A's looking for out of Hahn before they bring him back? Do they want to see a certain number of good starts, or perhaps something more abstract that doesn't directly show up in the box score?
It might not be as simple as just Hahn vs. Surkamp, though. Surkamp is out of options, and sending him down to Triple-A would mean passing him through waivers and possibly losing him. While that may not seem like a big deal right now, there's no way to know what bad news the future could bring -- if you dump Surkamp to bring up Hahn today, maybe another starter goes down with an injury next week and you wish you still had the serviceable southpaw around to fill in.
Could Surkamp simply move to the bullpen rather than being waived? Sure, in theory. He could fill the swingman role that Doubront was meant to hold, as the long reliever who can make a spot start when needed. But again, who do you cut to make room? The pen is made up mostly of quality veterans who are locked into the roster, and Fernando Rodriguez is out of options and would surely be lost if he was exposed to waivers. Ryan Dull is the only reliever who can be optioned to Triple-A, but so far this year he has retired 18 of the 19 batters he's faced (including 7 strikeouts) and it would be tough to justify sending him down after his hot start.
One more consideration is that the A's won't necessarily need their fifth starter again until April 24, as they have another off-day coming on Monday*. If they do decide to skip that spot the next time through the rotation, then that would mean Hahn probably has one more start coming in Triple-A on April 18 no matter what happens with Surkamp.
* Note: There's no guarantee the A's will opt to skip the fifth starter due to the off-day, but I am going to operate under the assumption that they will do so in order to buy time for this roster decision.
And now we wait
There are 11 days until a decision absolutely needs to be made. In the meantime, Surkamp could be available out of the pen once or twice, while Hahn gets one more tuneup in Nashville. Once April 24 rolls around, though, the A's will have three options:
Option 1: Leave Hahn in Triple-A for now, let Surkamp start on April 24 at Toronto.
Option 2: Bring up Hahn, send Surkamp to bullpen, stash Dull in Triple-A.
Option 3: Bring up Hahn, waive Surkamp, and hope you don't need another starter until either Henderson Alvarez is ready for action or Sean Manaea is ready to debut.
Things can change over these 11 days. Someone else can get hurt, whether in the rotation or in the bullpen. Hahn could get shelled in his start on the 18th. Dull could run out of magic and begin looking temporarily expendable. But all else equal, these are the three choices the A's can currently expect to face.
If not for the upcoming off-day, I might lean toward Option 1. It sounds boring, but the A's need to be planning for 162 games here, not making win-now moves in early April. However, if Hahn is lights-out again in his next outing for the Sounds, then I don't think you can justify leaving him down there any longer. We know he's healthy, we know he's good when he's on his game, and he currently appears to be on his game. This isn't a matter of waiting for him to develop and become MLB-ready, like Manaea or Dillon Overton. Hahn has already succeeded at the highest level before, and this is a matter of going through a quick tune-up to get back to that point. Three straight quality starts would seemingly satisfy that requirement.
No, if Hahn is good again on the 18th and nothing else on the roster has changed then I think the A's need to go with Option 2. I know, Dull deserves better. But if you think Surkamp is underwhelming, then consider that the next emergency option after him (35-year-old gascan Chris Smith, perhaps?) would probably be even worse and we might have to live with that inferior hurler for much longer than two or three starts. If it comes down to a choice of keeping everyone or losing someone from a thin depth chart, then I'll opt to keep everyone. And if it comes down to wasting one quality pitcher in Triple-A, then I'll keep the high-upside starter in the bigs over the strong middle reliever. Let's not lose sight of the forest (i.e., the rotation) for the trees (the bullpen).
And now, we wait and see, both in terms of what happens over the next 11 days and what decision the A's make when April 24 finally rolls around.
(Note: There is an alternate scenario I haven't discussed. The A's could stick with the fifth starter on April 20 at Yankee Stadium, where it's preferable to have a left-hander starting to combat a ballpark that is friendly to lefty hitters. That would push Chris Bassitt to a start against righty-heavy Toronto instead of lefty-heavy New York. I didn't discuss this because I don't like that plan as much as the options I presented above.)