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Cusp of Spring Part 2: Taking Stock of the A’s Pitching Staff

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MLB: Oakland Athletics at New York Yankees
Sean Manaea leads a very young starting staff
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, we took a look at the A’s position player corps as we near the Oakland Athletics’ pitchers and catchers reporting date of February 13th. Today, we analyze the other half of the equation - the A’s pitching staff.

While the position player contingent has an intriguing combination of youth mixed with a few stabilizing veterans, the pitching staff as currently constructed - especially in the projected starting rotation - is extremely youthful. The bullpen does include a bit more veteran blend, but still slanted to the younger end. There is certainly a theme of significant youth in the 2018 Athletics roster, which itself represents a major change from opening day 2017, where short term placeholders were plentiful.

The position player corps does have a couple questions that remain, and young players are inherently volatile, but the true leverage in the 2018 season likely comes from how the pitching staff holds up and develops.

As we stand on the precipice of a new spring, how do the collective arms on the A’s 40 man roster look?

Starting Pitchers:

When the Oakland A’s have been good, they have historically been led by their starting pitching. The early 1970s World Series teams, the late 80s-early 90s teams, the Moneyball Era and even the last 2012-14 playoff run all featured excellent starting pitching. For the A’s to surprise to the upside in 2018, the young pitching staff will need to take a collective significant step up. If the 2018 season has a signature boom-bust element, it is in this starting staff.

The current most “veteran” members of the starting rotation are 27 year old 4th year big league RHP Kendall Graveman and 26 year old LHP Sean Manaea, who has just under two years of service time under his belt. These players being the veterans of the starting rotation tells you how green the projected rotation is.

Graveman made the opening day start in 2017, as now-traded former top of rotation (“TOR”) guy Sonny Gray missed the first month of the season. Graveman was miscast as an opening day guy as his talent level is more that of a mid-rotation starter. But he is a cerebral guy and a bulldog type, and he will give you an effortful start. Graveman pitched fine in 2017 but put together just 105.1 innings as he dealt with shoulder issues. He looks to rebound and establish himself as a reliable 180 inning guy. It is probably a coin flip at this time whether Graveman or Manaea starts opening day 2018.

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Manaea also battled various ailments in 2017, but did lead the staff with 158.2 innings on the year and was generally the best starter on the staff aside from Sonny Gray’s three month tenure of healthy pitching for the 2017 club. Manaea had a lull mid-year related to ADD medication and lost significant weight, which he indicated hurt his velocity. If he can get back to a consistent 93 MPH fastball and stay on the bump, Manaea has the chance to be a legit TOR guy for the club. Between proven performance and upside, Manaea is the closest thing to a potential all star caliber starter in the organization. He will look to make that jump in 2018.

After the presumed top two, the rotation gets less proven but not necessarily less interesting. RHPs Jharel Cotton (26), Daniel Mengden (25), Andrew Triggs (29), Paul Blackburn (24) and Daniel Gossett (25) represent five young and minimally experienced starters who made a meaningful number of starts for the 2017 A’s and look to compete for opening day slots. They all have talent, but also all missed 2017 time with injury.

Cotton looks to get back on the beam after a setback year in terms of performance. He certainly has talent, but the mental game and consistency are areas he must improve.

Mengden looks to build off a strong finish after what was an almost lost year due to injury (foot and rib cage).

Triggs pitched well prior to back and hip injuries. The question is, can the side winder handle a starter’s workload?

Blackburn got a lot of outs in his short big league stint, but relied heavily on balls in play. Can he miss enough bats to not be totally reliant on inducing a low BABIP?

Gossett has flashed talent, but got rocked pretty good in his first taste of MLB.

It says here that, based both on the injury history and the uneven performance, it would be best if this collection of players were fighting for spots 4 and 5 in the rotation, rather than 3, 4 and 5. But thus far, management has indicated they don’t plan to add a veteran buffer for the staff.

Depth/Farm: The A’s #1 prospect LHP AJ Puk should open the year in AAA. He certainly has TOR potential and provides potential ace hope for the future. Billy Beane indicated he could be up mid-year if he continues his path from 2017. In 125 minor league innings in 2017, Puk struck out 184 and gave up just 3 HRs. The old 60+ to 1 K to HR ratio is an awfully nice figure. Puk is a big hope on the farm. Also likely to open in Nashville is Grant Holmes, acquired from the Dodgers in the Rich Hill and Josh Reddick deal of 2015 (along with Cotton and Frankie Montas). Holmes could make an impact in 2018 if he hones his command and shows an upgraded changeup. Both pitchers will be 22 on opening day. Frankie Montas, Chris Bassitt and Raul Alcantara also have starting experience, but likely are not in the mix for opening day rotation roles in the Big Leagues unless they either open eyes in spring training or a lot of things go wrong elsewhere. All 3 of Montas, Bassitt and Alcantara could also be headed to the pen.

Starting Staff Situation: While catcher is the biggest question mark on the position player side, the starting pitching staff is the biggest question mark on the team. The A’s could find 5 very good MLB pitchers in the above, but they could also see health and performance melt down and have a mess of a year. Talk about high variance! With the A’s having enough exciting talent in both the lineup and the potential staff, it would seem a stabilizing veteran SP to ensure against a worst case scenario and allow for additional depth could certainly help the 2018 club. Perhaps that player does not exist, but it would seem like an area the player personnel staff should continue to gauge, especially as the market has been slow to clear this offseason. As it stands now, the 2018 starting pitching is a major game of craps.

Relief Pitchers:

As discussed above regarding Sonny Gray, the bullpen also will have a different look at the lead, as top 2017 options Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson were traded at the 2017 deadline. Part of the return in that deal (along with promising prospects LHP Jesus Luzardo and INF Sheldon Neuse) was new RH closer Blake Treinen. Treinen leads a remade bullpen that appears both deep and talented enough to be an average or better unit.

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After struggling in Washington, Treinen returned to the organization who drafted him and looked pretty lights out for the A’s. Treinen saved 13 games in 35 appearances for Oakland and carried an ERA of 2.13. He would appear to be a near lock to resume closing duties in 2018.

The A’s made three significant acquisitions in the bullpen to combine with Treinen to yield a rebuilt pen from this time last year. The A’s signed versatile RHP Yusmeiro Petit, acquired young RHP Emilio Pagan from Seattle in the Ryon Healy trade, and then added LHP Ryan Buchter from the Royals. These three all demonstrated the ability to take on a heavy workload in 2017, as well as work late in games. Combined with Treinen, the overall quality and ability to eat innings was improved by the acquisitions.

Holdovers from 2017 include RHPs Liam Hendriks, Ryan Dull, Santiago Casilla, Chris Hatcher and Alcantara, as well as LHP Daniel Coulombe. One question is how many members of the bullpen will open the day on the 25 man roster? Last year, the A’s featured a bit more fragile bullpen, started with no long man, and went with an 8 man pen all year. This year, with a pen that appears more sturdy and also features multiple potential long men, along with a first month that features five days off, it would appear the franchise is more set to at least open the year with a traditional 7 man pen. It remains a question for spring. With no options remaining for Hendriks, Casilla, Hatcher and Alcantara, it appears there will be some degree of numbers game - or the potential to make a trade from surplus - barring injury, which, who are we kidding, often thins out pitching ranks prior to opening day.

Depth/Farm: The above-mentioned Montas and Bassitt could be pen options down in Nashville and the A’s also added RHP Lou Trivino to the 40 man roster prior to the Rule 5 draft. Additionally, Triggs has most of his pro history in the pen and could be moved around depending on how the rotation - and his own health - shakes out. Given his options situation, it would not be a surprise to see Dull end up in Nashville to start the year. The A’s pen is deep enough at the big league level that it would appear to be an area with some room for either moves, or a nice buffer to potential injury.

Bullpen Situation: While the starting pitching staff is the biggest question mark on the team, the A’s pen appears to be a potential strength, both in terms of quality and depth. The pen has been completely remade since the start of 2017 and has a very interesting mix of skill sets. While bullpens are inherently very volatile (the 2015 A’s season says hi), the 2018 pen certainly has the makeup to be a strength and also a position of leadership. Similar to the position corps and starting staff, there is a high number of years of team control in the pen, so if the group does gel, the A’s have a chance to continue to elevate expectations in the coming years.

Summary:

To go along with an intriguing position player contingent, the A’s pitching staff has many interesting storylines to watch in 2018. The starting staff inexperience and uncertainty is scary - and probably the biggest risk factor on the team - but an interesting mix of talent is certainly there. The bullpen doesn’t take squinting to see a potential above average unit, and it could end up being a weapon. Similar to the position player side calling for an incremental upgrade at RHH catcher, it says here a solid depth/stabilization play for a veteran SP would go a long way to dampening the risk of the starting staff blowing up the season. If all goes well and you have an EXCESS of good pitchers, has that ever been anything other than a good problem to have?

The A’s 2018 season has many areas that call for excitement and, mainly, intrigue. That’s a great setup to have. It would be comforting to see the A’s brass notice the clear downside risk areas (catcher, starting pitcher) and incrementally bolster the squad. Either way, it may not make a massive difference, but often in pro sports you win on the margins, and the margins right now appear to be pretty clear for this unit. Barring any additions, it will still be very interesting and a craps game type year (especially on the pitching side). Perhaps the A’s will see that they have done a good job putting this team together and see that a small investment or two can make the picture just that little bit closer to perfect for this stage of the rebuild.

Regardless of any tinkering between now and opening day, the 2018 season should be one with plenty to watch. Stay tuned and see you in Mesa!

Poll

What position(s) should the A’s brass make a late add to address?

This poll is closed

  • 22%
    Starting pitcher
    (135 votes)
  • 40%
    Catcher
    (243 votes)
  • 1%
    Center field
    (8 votes)
  • 25%
    Pitcher and catcher
    (151 votes)
  • 4%
    Pitcher, catcher and CF
    (27 votes)
  • 5%
    Stand pat
    (30 votes)
594 votes total Vote Now