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How does the opener affect Oakland A’s pitching search?

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Newest rumors remind us A’s might look at more than just starters.

Blaine Hardy is the latest name to come up in rumors.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s need to rebuild their pitching staff this winter. Their rotation fell apart last summer due to a deluge of injuries, and the handful of veterans who performed well are all now free agents. There’s a good foundation in the bullpen, and lots of near-future prospects and other fringe depth and lotto tickets within the organization, but overall some additions are absolutely necessary.

Entering the offseason, the best guess had Oakland looking around for buy-low bounce-back starters, and indeed they’ve touched base with some notable but affordable names. However, a few recent notes have added some new details to the developing picture.

Opener

First and foremost, Wednesday brought initial confirmation that the A’s might keep experimenting with the bullpen opener strategy next season, reports Ben Ross of NBCS. That means we can expect to see some days in which the traditional starter is eschewed in favor of a short reliever in the 1st inning, followed by a long-man for several innings thereafter. For a more thorough refresher, read further about the underlying logic and some of its early track record. Insider Jane Lee added the following quote from manager Bob Melvin:

I think we’re a little bit used to it, so to speak. And you’re seeing other teams do it, too. And I think you’ll see more of it next year. ...I think that it’s here to stay.

Indeed, the A’s weren’t even the first team to use the idea, as the Rays pioneered it earlier last summer. Even the Giants are going to give it a try next year, under the more progressive leadership of new boss Farhan Zaidi. Via Andrew Baggarly of The Athletic: “Farhan Zaidi said it’s plausible that the team will full-on embrace the opener strategy in 2019.”

There’s plenty of time to debate the opener, and whether it’s a good idea, and how best to execute it, but the point here in this article is that it’s happening. And it’s not just a kooky A’s thing, but rather a league-wide trend that will be tried by lots of clubs if not everybody. It is officially a thing.

Offseason implications

That leads into the next question, which is how the opener affects the pitching search. If some days will be covered by relievers and swingmen, then that reduces the number of traditional, full-time starters you need. And that’s for the best, since GM David Forst already ominously noted that “it’s not easy to find starting pitching” (via Ross).

With the opener in the equation, you can now patch at least one of those open rotation spots with more of a swingman. That might mean one of the in-house options that doesn’t quite feel reliable enough to commit to a full-time starting gig, like Chris Bassitt or Frankie Montas. Or it could mean an external option that comes cheaper than a regular SP, and Wednesday brought such a name onto the trade rumor radar: Tigers lefty Blaine Hardy, via Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle.

Personally, I don’t see the appeal of Hardy specifically. He fits the bill with some starting experience, and he’s a lefty to boot, with three cheap years of team control. But he doesn’t strike anybody out, he doesn’t get grounders, and he finished the season on the DL with an elbow injury. He’s a high-contact flyball pitcher in the golden era of home runs, and at age 32 there’s no specific reason to hope for untapped upside.

Hardy, 2018 DET: 3.56 ERA, 86 ip, 66 Ks, 22 BB, 10 HR, 3.97 FIP

Those numbers came in 30 games, 13 of which were starts. To his credit he’s got a solid career FIP of 3.82, but that was mostly accrued in short relief work. As a starter last summer, he sported a more pedestrian 4.30 FIP.

Hardy, 2018 SP: 4.26 ERA, 67⅔ ip, 47 Ks, 16 BB, 9 HR, 4.30 FIP
Hardy, 2018 RP: 0.98 ERA, 18⅓ ip, 19 Ks, 6 BB, 1 HR, 2.78 FIP

There’s potential there as a short reliever, and indeed Oakland desperately needs a second lefty in their pen behind Ryan Buchter. But even then, the last time Hardy was a good reliever for a full year was 2015, so he’s no sure thing. If the A’s like him then I believe them, but so far I don’t get it.

But the point is that Hardy is just one name of many, and in this discussion he represents a change in what exactly we should be expecting this winter. The A’s aren’t just looking for starters, they’re looking for whatever pitchers they can use to build an effective staff. If that means pumping up the bullpen like they did in July and August, then that’s what they’ll do. Slusser observes in her story, via an unnamed executive, that “they might be waiting to see where the market goes and then bottom-feeding.” Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic echoes the prediction of the A’s being particularly patient and thrifty in the SP market.

On that note, remember that Shawn Kelley is still an option to return to the pen. He was quietly excellent for Oakland last year and also pitched well in the Wild Card game. Via Ross: “Kelley loved playing for the A’s and both sides are interested in a return. He had considered retiring, but says experience in Oakland rejuvenated him.” The two sides produced “positive dialogue” this week, says Ross.

In-house candidates

The final new development comes on the current depth chart itself. Entering the Winter Meetings there appeared to be three in-house rotation candidates: Bassitt, Montas, and Daniel Mengden, who thrived as the long-man in the opener system but also might be good enough to start outright. There were other midseason reinforcements on the horizon, but that was it for the beginning of April. However, it turns out there may be more options than that, with three names coming up this week:

  • Jesus Luzardo, top prospect, might already be MLB-ready, says Melvin (via Ross)
  • Paul Blackburn, who missed most of 2018 to elbow problems, is expected to be healthy for spring training (via Slusser)
  • Tanner Anderson, recent minor acquisition, will be groomed as a starter this spring (via Slusser)

There are no sure things on that list, but it at least adds to the quantity of viable candidates for the Opening Day squad. If even one of them can capture a rotation spot from day one, or just a long-man role behind an opener, then that’s one fewer expensive acquisition they have to make during the offseason. Perhaps the opener could be used to bring along Blackburn’s rusty arm more gradually after a year layoff, or to limit Luzardo’s innings in what would be his first full-length MLB campaign.

As for Anderson, he presents a particularly interesting story line. His most notable trait is his extreme groundball tendency, with rates consistently well over 60% in the minors. Meanwhile, the A’s single biggest strength might be their infield defense — they’ve got Gold Glovers on each corner, a Gold Glove finalist at shortstop, and their search for a new second baseman has been full of highly regarded fielders like D.J. LeMahieu (link), Troy Tulowitzki (link), and Ian Kinsler (link). For anyone hoping to see Oakland load up on groundball specialists to capitalize on their airtight defense, Anderson is the first step in that direction.

Rebuilding the pitching staff this winter was always going to be a big task, but clearly it’s also going to be a more complicated one than we realized. There are a lot of different ways this could turn out, from specific names to overall roster construction, so stay tuned to keep up with the latest news!