For a team projected to finish last in its division, the A’s sure do have a lot of roster questions. While the overall strength of the team’s roster is low, there are more than 25 guys who have legitimate claims to sticking around. Making the wrong decision on that initial roster could result in the loss of games and probably more germane to the A’s, a loss of future assets.
There are obvious flaws and caveats in taking late February guesses at the A’s Opening Day roster. For one, we’re at the point in the year where pitcher injuries are at their highest. This point bears repeating cause boy does it suck and and it will likely shape the roster. There’s also the matter of Spring Training performance which can dictate a roster breakdown, particularly on a young and saturated roster. We saw it last season with Jesse Hahn, and if a previously sure bet to make the roster falters, the A’s might option whoever that may be to Nashville.
But as things stand now, there’s some roster gymnastics to be done to pare the roster down to 25-men.
The roster breakdown
We’ll dive in to other positions later and cut to the chase now in regards to relief pitching: the A’s will go with a seven man pen. That’s standard for most teams, but is guaranteed when your roster relies on platoons and has a distinct lack of positional flexibility. There will need to be backups, ones who can hopefully help defend later in games, and that will require the A’s to carry the requisite six infielders and five outfielders.
Also dictating the roster breakdown is the A’s unforgiving early season schedule. In previous years, the A’s have been able to finagle the early season roster thanks to early off-days, leaving their fifth starter in the minors until the third week of the season. No such luck this year, as the A’s are starting the season with eight straight games before their first off day. It gets no easier from there with 12 straight games before off day number two. That means the roster the A’s break camp with needs to be a standard, run-of-the-mill 25 man roster.
The bullpen itself
There are plenty of candidates for the pen but eight in particular make sense to start the year there, each of them posing different ramifications should they miss the roster. That’s of course a larger number than the seven spots available.
Further exacerbating the problem is the need for a long reliever. The A’s have options for this role, but those options squeeze out worthy players.
The likely locks, health provided (options in parenthesis)
Santiago Casilla (0), Sean Doolittle (1), Ryan Dull (3), Liam Hendriks (0), Ryan Madson (0)
That’s a pretty good group of pitchers! The big issue there is that none of those guys are particularly option-able, meaning there’s no hiding a deserving pitcher by way of the minor leagues. The A’s have too many guys for too few spots, and you’d hate to lose any of them at any given time. It’d take disaster for any of the five above to miss the Opening Day roster.
The question marks
You might recognize Coulombe from such hits as Daniel Coulombe is really, really good, and he is really good and the roster needs him. Even if he makes it, the A’s would only have three lefty pitchers on the roster. The only other lefty in the pen is Sean Doolittle who is far more than a LOOGY. Coulombe could slot into the classic LOOGY role with the added ability of not being a liability against righties.
But, and it’s a big, Anthony Recker sized but, he’s not a lock due to his remaining option and contract status. It’d be frustrating to be without one of the only lefty pitchers on the roster, especially one who should be excellent in LOOGY situations. However if the A’s want to delay making a decision that could end up with them losing a pitcher like Raul Alcantara, optioning Coulombe is in fact an option.
Putting Axford here might seem like a bit of a stretch, but the list above has five more qualified guys, none of whom are well suited for the role of long reliever. Axford still has a year on his deal. At $5 million, it’s not exactly breaking the bank but it’s not a league minimum guy either. The A’s showed, in a more extreme case, that they’re willing to eat a contract gone wrong in the form of Billy Butler.
Axford was pretty unimpressive last year, though there were flashes of greatness with his blazing fast sinker. His command has never been great, hence his long history of inconsistency and better command is unlikely to appear in his 34 season. In an emptier pen in need of arms, sure. Axford can take the the #6 slot. He’s not terrible, and there are worse options to take high leverage innings. On a team with a pen that’s basically full? It’s not so clear.
The A’s would be remiss to start the season without a long reliever after being forced to use Tyler Ladendorf in that sport more than zero times last season. Long relievers are key, especially with the rigors of the early season schedule.
Then again, the A’s went like three months without a long reliever or really a starting rotation last year. Long relievers are important for relevant teams, and if the A’s are needing a long guy over and over, things aren’t great.
The bigger implication for Alcantara, and basically the whole reason this is even a discussion is if he doesn’t crack the season with the team, he’s probably a San Diego Padre. Alcantara is out of options and would absolutely be picked up if he’s not on the roster, as he’d therefore be subject to waivers.
He’s not guaranteed to be an asset, and odds are after a long minor league career in which he never really harnessed his stuff, he’s not going to contribute. But he’s also not the kind of guy a potential last place team should be losing and he’s qualified for the role of long-reliever, one the A’s should choose to employ.
The weird, unlikely option that would allow for all of the above to make the roster
Should Raul Alcantara break camp as the #5 starter, the A’s could have a different look. That’d allow all seven shorter inning relievers to stay on the roster, shoehorning Liam Hendriks into the occasional long relief outing. Presumably, Andrew Triggs would head to AAA as depth.
The lack of a true long man would be an issue, but the more unlikely part of that scenario is Alcantara winning a job straight up out of camp. It would, however, allow the A’s to hold onto all of their assets to start the year.
A story-line to follow in Spring Training
Again, the resolution will probably sadly become apparent in Spring. Health is always a factor, and with injuries peaking as pitchers stretch their arm, it’s highly likely the A’s Opening Day roster is dictated by the Disabled List.
Still, at some point the A’s will deal with have to juggle having too many pitchers. It’s a good problem, but it still could be a problem.