Thank goodness for Rich Hill. Without him, the Oakland A's could be challenging the Twins for the worst record in the league.
The 2016 A's have been about what we thought they'd be, for the most part. The bullpen has been good, the offense has been decent at times, and the defense has been Custian. That's most of the recipe of a .500ish team, if you add in a competent rotation. But the inexperience and injury risk of Oakland's starting five made their performances the biggest unknown entering the season, with the question being how far they could carry the team. The answer to that question has been a swift kick to the shin.
There was always a chance that the rotation would struggle and turn the A's into an also-ran, but what has happened instead has been beyond any reasonable worst-case scenario. Here is what the depth chart looked like during the spring, with their 2015 ERA+ marks:
1. Sonny Gray, 149 (dependable ace)
2. Rich Hill, 283 (high upside bounce-back)
3. Jesse Hahn, 121 (young up-and-comer)
4. Chris Bassitt, 114 (young up-and-comer)
5. Kendall Graveman, 100 (young up-and-comer)
6. Felix Doubront, 70 (reliable backup depth)
[7. Sean Manaea (upcoming prospect)]
[8. Henderson Alvarez (DL, returning midseason)]
The optimistic plan included Sonny being awesome at the top, Hill building on his 2015 success, and the trio of youngsters filling in the rest of the spots. If anything went wrong with one of them, there was always Doubront ready to step in and at least eat innings. Good ol' trusty Doubront. Not a bad safety net all things considered. And then if help was needed later in the summer, Manaea and/or Alvarez could be midseason reinforcements. It wasn't a perfect plan, but it was well within the bounds of reason.
What has transpired since has been sheer horror. Bassitt and Doubront have both bowed out with Tommy John surgery, with the latter going down on the last day of spring training. Hahn's spring was so bad that he got sent down to the minors, and for various reasons that aren't all his fault he ended up making five starts down there. Without all of those guys, by the fifth game of the season the A's were already reaching beyond the depth chart we thought they'd need, with minor league journeyman Eric Surkamp getting the emergency nod. Now Sonny is on the DL after getting crushed in his first nine starts, and the team is reaching down off the map to find minor league organizational filler to make spot starts and absorb innings. The full carnage, with their ERA+ marks and/or their injury fates:
1. Sonny Gray, 65 (15-day DL)
2. Rich Hill, 183
3. Jesse Hahn, 99
4. Chris Bassitt (out for season)
5. Kendall Graveman, 75
6. Felix Doubront (out for season)
7. Sean Manaea, 53
8. Eric Surkamp, 62 (Triple-A)
9. Zach Neal, 33
[10. Henderson Alvarez (on rehab)]
11. Daniel Mengden, perhaps?
12. Dillon Overton?
13. Mark Mulder, out from the broadcast booth?
Thank goodness for Hill, who has been what we hoped Sonny would be. After him, though, there has been nothing, and it's taken only two months to rip through most of the available options. Hahn has been decent but has only made four starts, with awful peripherals that suggest he's been much worse. Everyone else has gotten shelled, resulting in the third-highest ERA and third-highest FIP in MLB. Even worse, they've usually been knocked out early as well -- the rotation is 27th in innings per start. Their Ks are low and their walks are high, their strand rate is low and their homer rate is high. They have the second-lowest fWAR of all 30 teams, not even a full win over replacement.
Add it all up, and the rotation has been about as bad as the relievers were last year. Therein lies the cruel twist -- in 2015 the A's had a promising rotation but a disastrous bullpen, and in 2016 they fixed the pen only to have their rotation become disastrous.
The good news is that things can't get much worse than they are right now, but the bad news is that it's not entirely clear how they will get better. Sonny could recover quickly and go back to his normal awesome self, unless he doesn't. Something could click for Graveman or Hahn or Manaea, but don't hold your breath waiting for inexperienced pitchers to figure things out. Mengden or Overton could come up and succeed immediately. Any of these positive turns could happen, but none seem so exceedingly likely that we can really count on them just yet. And it will take two of them for the A's to stabilize and strive for .500, or at least three of them to have any thought of climbing back into contention. At 20-28, they've already dug themselves quite a hole.
And so we wait, as always. We wait to see who continues to struggle, and who steps up. We enjoy Hill's outings when we can, with the knowledge that he will likely be the team's lone All-Star just a couple weeks before becoming the next All-Star to be traded at the deadline. We keep our fingers crossed that Sonny hasn't lost his mojo. And we marvel at the cold, unforgiving unpredictability of baseball, life, and the universe, which could allow such a promising rotation to perform so much worse than seemed possible.