When your season has been relegated to celebrating “we made 3 errors but this time we actually won the game!” status, your team has players that fall into one of three distinct categories: core pieces for the future, up-and-comers auditioning to join that core, and filler.
The A’s have been playing with oodles of filler, from the filleriest filler of them all, Eric Surkamp, to barely cromulent veterans such as Jed Lowrie and Yonder Alonso who keep the seat warm for players not just younger and cheaper, but also hopefully better.
Finally, life as an A’s fan is getting more interesting. Following Sean Manaea, a legitimate “front of the rotation” prospect, Daniel Mengden has burst onto the scene as a “middle of the rotation” prospect who has acquitted himself beautifully in his first 3 starts. Now Dillon Overton, unscored upon in his last 25 AAA innings and a solid “back of the rotation” prospect, debuts tonight against the Angels.
Now you have a rotation that, going forward, could well include Gray — who is most certainly a core piece of the A’s rebuild if he is not traded — along with Manaea, Mengden, Overton, and Kendall Graveman, whose last two starts have reminded fans of his upside as a healthy and talented member of the rotation.
What about the lineup, the infield and outfield featuring much filler and many prospects knocking on the door — but some knocking loudly, others a bit pathetically at the moment? Will Oakland soon be calling up any position-player equivalents to Mengden and Overton, players who if they thrive may well have a chance to entrench themselves as part of the 2017-19 lineup that is currently being auditioned and built?
For each prospect there is a different barrier that explains why they have not yet been summoned.
You can start with two of the A’s most exciting prospects, Matt Chapman and Franklin Barreto, and note that 2016 is not yet their year as they have only progressed to AA and each has had periods of struggle there. You can add shortstop Yairo Muñoz, just 21 years old and batting .228/.272/.342, to that exact category as well.
At AAA, by far the most successful season belongs to 1B/3B prospect Ryon Healy, whose batting line now stands at .347/.404/.600 in 36 AA and 36 AAA games. (His AAA line is .357/.400/.571.) Really all that is blocking Healy is that Oakland has veteran players under contract at the positions he plays. Unless Danny Valencia is traded, there is no opening at 3B, and bringing Healy up to play 1B would displace Yonder Alonso, who is not likely to be an attractive trade chip but whom the A’s are not going to release just to make way for Healy. Alonso could be a non-tender candidate this off-season, but right now only an injury would give Healy a shot at playing Lou Gehrig to Alonso’s Wally Pipp.
Then you have Matt Olson, still regarded by many as the A’s #3 prospect behind Manaea and Barreto. However, despite having progressed to AAA Olson shares with Chapman and Barreto that 2016 is not his year to break into the big leagues — in fact, like Barreto 2017 may not be either. Olson is still only 22 and has struggled considerably in his promotion to Nashville, currently batting .209/.321/.377 while learning to play an every day RF. I would think it is likely that Olson will repeat AAA in 2017, looking to force a callup with a breakthrough season or wait for 2018 to get his big chance.
Renato Nuñez, who shares with Healy that he is blocked by Valencia and Alonso, and who shares with the sun that he is blocked by Billy Butler, has not forced Oakland’s hand with his AAA season. Nuñez started strong but has dipped to .236/.286/.424 despite being a prospect far more regarded for his bat than for his glove.
Chad Pinder has been hot lately, now batting .269/.314/.443 following a slow start, and the player he might sit directly behind on the depth chart is the newly acquired Arismendy Alcantara. Pinder can lay some claims to 2B and 3B, as well as SS, where he has made many of his 19 errors.
In the outfield, only Jaycob Brugman, 24, has put any pressure on the big leaguers. Brugman has played CF for Nashville, putting up a solid batting line of .282/.346/.470. However, with Billy Burns under contract control through 2020 Brugman would have to supplant Burns in order to land a job.
What this means is that only Healy has performed at such a high level that a promotion might be forced — but only a trade (or injury) to a veteran, likely Alonso but theoretically also Valencia, can give Healy that opening. Brugman is the other player who has perhaps earned a shot and his fate is directly tied into the A’s ability and desire to play Burns every day. Given that you can carry 4-5 “primary outfielders” more easily than you can carry 2-3 primary 1Bmen or 3Bmen, perhaps Brugman is the one closest to being called up right now.
As for Nuñez and Pinder, they have to both improve their performance (as Pinder has recently done) and also be provided with an opportunity. In Pinder’s case that means the trade of a veteran infielder (Valencia, Lowrie) or perhaps just passing Alcantara on the depth chart for a look. In Nuñez’ case he may be stuck behind not only veteran big leaguers but also Healy.
I would like to think that Healy is performing so well that with or without an injury or trade the A’s will make room for him soon, but realistically it’s hard to see where he gets a shot so long as Valencia, Alonso, and Butler are all healthy and with the team. Brugman could sneak in as a “let’s see what we have” alternative to Burns, with Burns moving into the 4th outfielder role to which he is more ideally suited. This becomes most likely should Coco Crisp’s health finally give out, but could also present itself via injury (Burns) or trade (Reddick, Burns?). And for now Alcantara is Pinder, rendering Pinder nothing but a Chad hanging at AAA.
So for the starting pitchers, given ample opportunities by the absurd infirmary housing Felix Doubront, Chris Bassitt, Henderson Alvarez, Rich Hill, Gray and Manaea, the future starts now. Chapman, Barreto, Muñoz, and Olson are not yet fully cooked and for the other position players, Healy, Nuñez, Pinder, Brugman, they are all, for different reasons characters in search of an author — specifically, for Healy and Brugman, for the A’s to author the right trade. Or maybe it’s an injury to just the right player.
It’s always injury season and trade season is upon us. We might see some of these guys sooner than we think — or we might have to accept 2016 as “year of the filler” and try to enjoy players like Alonso, Lowrie, and Butler because that’s who we have right now.