Going into 2017, what does the A’s top 5 look like in the rotation, and in what order? And then given the inevitability of somewhere between one and eleventeen injuries, plus the occasional "Um, what happened?" season a Jesse Hahn or Sonny Gray might have, what does the 6-10 look like?
Here are my thoughts, starting with the firm belief that Jesse Hahn will not be in the mix — call it a hunch but I think the A’s will sell to a team looking for starting pitching (that narrows it down to 29 suitors) and hoping for the kind of "change of scenery" breakout the Padres enjoyed twice at Oakland’s expense, once with Tyson Ross and once with Drew Pomeranz.
#1: Sonny Gray. Gray is just too good a pitcher not to rebound if he’s healthy, and there isn’t any particular reason to think he will not enter 2017 physically sound. Pitchers randomly have surprisingly great or terrible seasons, and while Gray might have peaked early in his career I think more likely he just had a rotten 2016 and will rebound to be in that "#1-#2 SP" range.
#2: Sean Manaea. If he stays healthy — and the "forearm tightness" trip to the DL was a true scare — I think we are now seeing why Manaea is a legitimate "top of the rotation" candidate. His changeup has been far better than advertised (it is arguably his best pitch), his fastball command has improved on both sides of the plate and often hits 93 MPH, and the slider is coming along to be more and more of a swing-and-miss pitch.
Perhaps as important, Manaea has emerged as a strike-throwing machine: Following a remarkable stretch of 4 consecutive starts without a walk, in 8 starts since he has not walked more than 3 batters in any start, and has only done that twice. 35 BBs in 132 IP is what you want to see and I feel Manaea has a chance to settle in as a solid #2 SP.
#3: Jharel Cotton. I think Cotton is the real deal, even if one has to acknowledge that anyone with a 1.44 ERA is pitching over his head. Cotton is not a soft tosser, often hitting 93 MPH with his fastball and sometimes even touching 94 MPH. One can only imagine how fast it must look to a batter who has Cotton’s changeup in the back of his mind. Cotton’s changeup is indeed special and it allowed him to completely dominate LH batters.
Most importantly, Cotton’s cutter and curve may not be great at this point but they are also not bad and show promise. Refine one or both of those pitches even just a little and you have a very complete pitcher — how can you not love 3 BBs in 25 IPs? I think Cotton enters 2017 with a legitimate shot at being a worthy #3 SP, despite the lack of size, pedigree, and velocity that scouts look for.
#4: Kendall Graveman. I like Graveman, but I think fans might be getting carried away with his recent success in thinking he is anything like the A’s second-best SP going forward. He is certainly the most durable and that is nothing to sneeze at (unless you happen to be allergic to durability).
What one has to remember about Graveman is that with a relatively low K-rate (5.1 per 9 IP this season) Graveman is highly dependent on batted ball luck, not to mention his defense. In this regard Graveman is similar to Trevor Cahill, who could dominate on a day where grounders found gloves and could be "blooped and bounced" to death on a bad day. Putting a good infield defense behind Graveman will help, but some ground balls find holes and some don’t and you have to expect a fair number of starts like Graveman’s last one, where he threw one bad pitch all night (a hanger to Adrian Beltre), but thanks to a couple well-placed choppers he wound up surrendering 3 runs.
I think Graveman has a chance to emerge as a #3 SP but right now I would still slot him in as a #4 SP who does a great job of eating innings and giving the team a chance to win, but who will probably end the season with an ERA more like 4.00 than like 3.00.
#5: Daniel Mengden. Just because he has options, Mengden has a chance to be an odd man out when the team breaks camps next spring, but on the face of it he is probably as good a bet as any to challenge for the honor of "5th best SP out of spring training." Mengden showed signs of fatigue in the second half, but also has shown a good fastball, a solid changeup, and an interesting assortment of breaking pitches.
What Mengden hasn’t shown is great command of his repertoire and this could be his undoing. Either a winter’s rest will allow him to bounce back throwing a lot of quality strikes, or perhaps control will be somewhat of a barrier to his growth. It’s hard to tell at this point and that combination — good stuff and good questions — describes a #5 SP whose career could go either way.
#6: Andrew Triggs. Perhaps this is my own bias, but intuitively it’s hard to me to believe that a side-winder like Triggs can sustain success in a rotation and master a bunch of LH batters multiple times through the order. Yet so far that’s all Triggs has done in his 2016 audition. You would have to think he is very in the mix for the April, 2017 rotation, even if his stuff/delivery profiles more like a short reliever’s. Based on 2016 results, Triggs should be ahead of Mengden on the depth chart, but I am using the "small sample" card to suggest we haven’t seen enough sustained success to call Triggs a starting pitcher just yet.
#7: Raul Alcantara. Alcantara has had some good moments ever since he recovered from hitting 3 batters in his first big league inning and unraveling from there. However, even since he started throwing strikes Alcantara has had the tendency to make more mistakes as he gets deeper into games.
Alcantara is also running out of options (though he may be awarded a 4th option year in 2017 due to his TJS) and so I see him as a candidate to begin the year in Oakland’s bullpen as a long reliever and potential swing man, the role assumed by no one at the start of this season (big mistake, in my opinion), then Eric Surkamp (different kind of mistake — right idea, wrong pitcher) and finally Zach Neal. I am still not convinced that Alcantara is a "keeper" but he has enough going for him that Oakland may try to keep him in the organization and see what they have while they can, especially until Felix Doubront (if tendered a contract) and Chris Bassitt return from TJS.
#8: Daniel Gossett. The A’s think highly of Gossett, and now that the 23 year old has had success at AA and even acquitted himself well in a taste of AAA, I see Gossett passing "filler" like Zach Neal and Ross Detwiler on the depth chart — especially because by the time the A’s get this far on the depth chart you hope it is enough into the season that Gossett might be fully ready for a call-up.
#9: Zach Neal. It’s kind of a toss-up between Neal and Detwiler, both cromulent long relievers and chaffy SPs. Neal throws more strikes, though, and as a result you know a bit more what you are going to get with him on a given day.
#10: Ross Detwiler. Not sure why he was a #1 pick, given that his fastball is fine but nothing special and his command of every pitch (fastball, curve, changeup) is fleeting. You could do worse for a #10 SP but you could also blindly point at a spread sheet of available pitchers and probably do about the same.
Other wild cards...Frankie Montas, with a big time fastball but coming off a broken rib that limited his 2015 season to 15 major league IP and his 2016 season to 16 minor league IP, is still being considered a SP and will undoubtedly begin the year in AAA but could be up as a SP at some point...If Jesse Hahn is still with the A’s I would have to slot him in at #6.5 between Triggs and Alcantara, proving himself at AAA following a truly confounding 2016 season.
Your thoughts? Where do you agree or disagree with my ordering or my assessment of each SP? And how do you feel about the A’s pitching situation heading into the off-season?