I’ve spent the last week praising the Oakland A’s offseason. They enjoyed a quietly efficient winter, filling more needs than their limited resources should have allowed. Now they enter 2018 with a legitimately good lineup, and every reason to hope that the future only gets better from here. They’re even improving their off-field brand as much as they can without a new stadium, between improvements to the Coliseum and some Grade-A trolling of the Giants.
However, there’s still one elephant in the room that must be addressed. No, Stomper, not you, but rather the starting rotation. The problem isn’t just that the unit is weak; not every staff can be great, and you can’t force your rookies and prospects to hit their ceilings overnight. It’s that the rotation is unreliable and thin, to an extent that could easily end the season by May depending which direction the breeze blows on a given day. And this fact was eminently, painfully predictable.
Let’s do a quick list of the bad news:
- Jharel Cotton is out for the year.
- Paul Blackburn is out with a forearm strain, though it’s not yet considered serious.
- Jesse Hahn was traded, but it doesn’t matter because he got hurt anyway and is on his new team’s 60-day DL.
- Frankie Montas was scheduled to stretch out as a starter, but missed most of spring with a shoulder problem.
- The next three prospects in line are out for now: A.J. Puk (biceps tightness), Grant Holmes (shoulder), and Heath Fillmyer (traded to Royals). Puk and Holmes aren’t yet considered serious, but don’t count on seeing them on the mound to start the year.
That leaves the A’s with the following list entering Opening Day:
- Kendall Graveman
- Sean Manaea
- Daniel Mengden
- Andrew Triggs
- Daniel Gossett
- ... nope that’s it for now
We can say good things about any of those pitchers, but together they are an uninspiring and unreliable group. There’s nothing close to an ace, four of them hit the DL last year, and none have ever thrown 200 innings in a pro season. Making matters worse, there are virtually no reinforcements close to being ready on the farm, unless an under-the-radar fringe guy like James Naile or a polished fast-tracker like Logan Shore surprises us. (Just kidding, Shore is hurt too!)
Granted, each individual injury is unpredictable, but that’s not true of team injuries overall. We didn’t know Cotton would have TJS or Holmes would miss the spring, but we knew someone would get hurt. Probably multiple someones. They always do, because pitching is horrible for your arm. The failure is the lack of planning ahead, when it was clear all winter that just one or two routine injuries would cause a critical depth problem.
Sure, the A’s responded as admirably as possible in mid-March. They nabbed Trevor Cahill on the cheap, giving them an interesting buy-low candidate and a familiar face for fans to appreciate. They dug even deeper to take a flyer on Brett Anderson, who is ... literally a professional pitcher, at least. But even then, Oakland waited so long for those signings that they won’t even be ready for the beginning of the season. Kind of defeats the purpose of depth if it isn’t there when you need it.
What more could they have done? I’m not arguing that they should have splurged on a relatively big ticket like Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn, nor even a full-priced stopgap like Jason Vargas or Jhoulys Chacin. I’ll even give a pass that maybe Doug Fister was above their price range. But Cahill was out there in February. So was Bartolo Colon, who is now available once more after being released Saturday. Operation Pitching Depth didn’t have to wait until after everything had already gone wrong.
If the issue was roster space, or an unwillingness to commit rotation spots to veterans just in case all the young guns proved ready in April, then there’s never been a better offseason to find quality on a minor league deal. Colon was on such a non-guaranteed pact, and Jeremy Hellickson agreed to one with Washington last weekend. Anibal Sanchez, Edwin Jackson, Ricky Nolasco ... I don’t necessarily pine for those specific names, but there needed to be some kind of Plan B. There’s not even a Chris Smith or a Cesar Valdez, serving as masking tape on the hull of a sinking ship. There’s just a gaping, open hole, waiting for water to rush through the next time a wave hits.
All of this could still turn out OK. Blackburn could be fine, and Cahill could arrive in a couple weeks, and by mid-April the breathing room would be restored. Anderson might even prove to be helpful. But there are a hundred ways it could go in the other direction instead, with Manaea or Triggs or whoever being the next to go down. The A’s were never a great bet to compete for the playoffs this year, but they were at least supposed to be relevant during the first half. They still need someone to throw MLB-caliber innings every day, so that the games eventually end and the bullpen doesn’t have to overwork themselves picking up all the slack.
The worst part about this mess is that it’s fully charted territory. Oakland lost Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin to TJS in spring of 2014, then spent the rest of the season mortgaging their future to plug the hole. In 2016, TJS cost them Felix Doubront in spring and then Chris Bassitt in April, leaving Eric Surkamp to start the fifth game of the year. Last summer they got hit so hard by injuries that they turned to Valdez in April. They’ve seen this movie before, with various casts including all the guys they were counting on this year. How many times does it need to happen before you hire some extras?
The A’s made a lot of excellent moves during this offseason, and I’m still happy with them overall, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out this one failure. They once told us that they don’t plan their rotation in terms of having five guys, but rather covering 162 games. In that regard, they should have taken their own advice this winter.