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Could Chris Bassitt provide unexpected boost to Oakland A’s beleaguered rotation?

After Tommy John surgery in 2016, he’s finally making noise in his return to health.

Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s have a pitching problem. Their starting rotation depth was decimated by injuries this spring, leaving them with virtually no margin for error already in early April. The remaining healthy arms have struggled to the fourth-worst ERA in baseball (5.43) with only two quality starts in 13 tries, and even stripping out the toxic defense behind them they’re only 20th in FIP (4.55). And that’s before the injury bug strikes again, which it almost certainly will because it always does.

Here is the current depth, down through Triple-A, after long-term losses of Jharel Cotton and Paul Blackburn, and top prospects A.J. Puk and Grant Holmes:

  1. Sean Manaea — looking good so far!
  2. Kendall Graveman — shelled in every outing so far
  3. Daniel Mengden — pitching well, if only teammates could field ball behind him
  4. Andrew Triggs — pitching well, but realistically a 5-inning guy
  5. Trevor Cahill — we’ll find out soon!
  6. Daniel Gossett — shelled so far; maybe he should be a reliever?
  7. Brett Anderson — party like it’s 2009?

Every single name on that list visited the DL last year except Gossett. Anderson owns a summer home there due to his frequent mishaps. After that group, you get to Frankie Montas, who is still in the early stages of learning how to start and isn’t yet a viable option; James Naile, a solid but low-ceiling sleeper prospect who only has four career games in Triple-A and isn’t yet on the 40-man roster; and Eric Jokisch, who ... just no. After that you have to go down to High-A Stockton to find a healthy arm that’s even moderately interesting. The situation is already bad, with a dozen ways it could get worse at any moment.

However, there might be a new hope emerging in Triple-A Nashville. An old, new hope, one that often gets included on the fringes of this conversation but hasn’t been taken seriously up to this point. Chris Bassitt went down with Tommy John surgery in early 2016 and his rehab in Triple-A last summer went so poorly that he didn’t even get a September call-up. His frustration increased this spring when he found himself in a bullpen role, one he wasn’t fully prepared for because he thought he’d be starting.

The story has changed quickly this season, though. Bassitt still hasn’t started a game, but he’s put up two eye-opening outings in long relief for Nashville:

  • 4 ip, 0 runs, 5 Ks, 2 BB, 1 hit, 65 pitches
  • 4 ip, 0 runs, 6 Ks, 0 BB, 3 hits, 67 pitches

Grains of salt: Those are two late-inning relief outings, in games that weren’t particularly close, against a pair of minor league teams off to two of the slowest offensive starts in the entire Pacific Coast League. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

But what if it’s real? What if Bassitt is finally back on track, ready to work his way toward the A’s rotation and contribute at the MLB level again? Once Cahill joins the staff next week, the only backups will be Gossett and Anderson, neither of whom have great odds of being reliable producers. Adding an effective Bassitt to that mix could help dramatically, with 149 games still to go this season.

It wasn’t long ago that Bassitt was a promising mid-rotation starter. When he arrived in Oakland he flashed a wide arsenal, with a fastball that sat mid-90s and could touch as high as 98 mph. In 2015 he managed an impressive 3.58 ERA and 3.41 FIP in 13 starts while temporarily quieting concerns about whether he could retire left-handed batters. His injury meant he never got the chance to prove he could sustain that success, but perhaps now there’s another opportunity brewing at age 29. In one of the stories linked above, he mentions the 93-95 mph range, which is where his fastball used to sit pre-TJS.

It’s still early, so let’s not get prematurely excited here. Bassitt is yet to make an actual start, even in the minors. But for the first time since his return to health he’s showing tangible, statistical signs of progress toward finding his old form. He wouldn’t turn the rotation into a plus all on his own, but he could help prevent it from devolving into a pit of despair like it was by the end of 2017. After all the rotten injury news the A’s have slogged through for the last month, an unexpectedly good development on that front would be a sight for sore eyes.