While there is still plenty of competition for the few available spots all over the A’s roster, how the team exactly is going to shake out became just a little more clear today.
Melvin suggests that the A’s are leaning toward an eight man bullpen and that the reserve OF will have to be able to play CF, both as expected.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) March 16, 2018
The A’s are “leaning” towards the 8-man bullpen, which certainly doesn’t mean the roster is guaranteed to shake out that way come Opening Day, but it provides valuable insight into how the front office views the current state of the pitching staff, and the ballclub as a whole.
So, on the premise that the team will go with a fully loaded bullpen this year (or at least to begin the season), it’s fair to assume that Blake Treinen, Emilio Pagan, Yusmeiro Petit, Ryan Buchter, Santiago Casilla, Chris Hatcher, and Liam Hendricks will lock down seven of those eight spots. That bullpen, in itself, is fairly sturdy, sans Santiago Casilla (but someone has to pitch in a blowout, I guess) and the fact that only Buchter throws left-handed. There are three or four guys who could be trusted to throw 2-3 innings in that group, which, with the starting rotation in its current state, is incredibly valuable, and the A’s likely emphasized multi-inning relievers during the offseason with the starting rotation in mind.
That leaves the A’s with Danny Coulombe, Ryan Dull, Raul Alcantara, and Frankie Montas on the outside looking in. Out of these four pitchers, only Coulombe throws left-handed, meaning he would be the best fit of those without a guaranteed spot. But with Alcantara out of options, the team will likely slot him into that final spot rather than risk losing him. While Alcantara was miserable in a starting role, he, too, has shown signs of being able to excel in a multi-inning reliever role.
There is also Andrew Triggs, who, if he does not make the starting rotation out of spring, will assuredly own a spot in the bullpen, likely as the now-coveted “Andrew Miller Type.” However, with Jharel Cotton out indefinitely, Triggs’ rotation spot is probably solidified.
With Opening Day still two weeks away, though, a lot can still change.
The 8-man bullpen also has other serious roster ramifications, namely that the A’s bench is limited to just three men. One of those three men essentially must be Bruce Maxwell, who appears locked-and-loaded into a heavily-used backup catcher role, gunning to win the starting job back from Jonathan Lucroy. Another of those three men is Chad Pinder, who has proven to be an effective, now-coveted “Ben Zobrist Type” sort of player.
Pinder’s ability to play all over the diamond then complicates the final roster spot, apart from the spot going to a player who is capable of playing center field. There is Mark Canha, Boog Powell, Jake Smolinski, and a bevy of minor league free agents like Slade Heathcott who are capable of manning the position, albeit with varying levels of talent. There is also Dustin Fowler, who, as of now, isn’t guaranteed anything on the roster, and may be better served proving he can hit Triple-A pitching again for a few weeks to a month before taking over the starting job. As of right now, the spot is still wide open, and may come down to the final day of spring training.
Though, if yours truly was in charge, I’d probably aim for a Powell-Smolinski platoon to start the year.
The 8-man bullpen also leaves Renato Nunez without a spot anywhere on the roster. Luckily for him (in a way?), Nunez’s hamstring injury gives the A’s the ability to stash him on the Disabled List to start the year, delaying his all-but-assured Designation for Assignment, giving Nunez hope to latch onto a roster spot if and when some other Athletic goes down with an injury.
Even before Cotton’s scary injury, the 8-man bullpen was looking more and more necessary for this ballclub. The A’s made it clear from the outset of the offseason that they wanted to roll with their own guys, warts and all, to see who sinks and who swims during a year where the A’s would probably have to get lucky to be in the playoff picture. So even though the A’s lied to us all when they said they were done with spending prior to the Lucroy signing, and even though there is a perfectly good Alex Cobb, and, for cheaper, Trevor Cahill or R.A. Dickey just right there, there is no outside help coming for the starting staff. The help was always going to be an aggressively used bullpen.
Thankfully, the A’s won’t be reliant on platoons in any capacity this season, which affords them the ability to ride a three man bench. The starting pitching developing into something beyond “MLB worst” is the team’s top goal for this season, and a large bullpen full of innings-eaters is the best way to suppress innings at the major league level, in order to keep the young staff’s arms as fresh and protected as possible while still being able to evaluate how the A’s staff handles major league competition.
It’s not ideal, but few things about “Green Collar Baseball” are, and this strategy may be the only way for the team to compete this year.