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Oakland A’s pitching getting stronger by the day

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The DFA of Chris Hatcher symbolizes how far this staff has come since March.

Farewell to the weakest link.
Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

The story of the 2018 Oakland A’s has gone as well as anyone could have hoped, but its core structure hasn’t changed. The offense was supposed to lead the way and pick up slack for the thin pitching, and that’s more or less what’s happened. Even when the bullpen was making headlines in the first half of the season, it was mostly two stars doing the heavy lifting while the rest of the staff proved inconsistent.

Now that postseason contention is real, though, the A’s have worked hard to beef up those pitching ranks. They’ve gone the bargain route, picking up cheap rentals rather than spending lavishly on big names or long-term additions, but they’ve undoubtedly upgraded their staff and thus their odds at both reaching October and succeeding there. All of a sudden, the rotation looks downright serviceable and the bullpen is a legitimate strength.

To recap a busy trade season so far, the A’s have picked up four new right-handed hurlers, for the total cost of five non-impact prospects:

We’ve already seen some results, too. Fiers was brilliant in his debut, striking out a season-high eight batters and setting up his team for a victory over a fellow contending club. Familia has been even better, tossing 10 innings so far without allowing an earned run and notching three wins and a hold in eight appearances.

But the best way to illustrate how far this staff has come is to consider who these new arms replaced. In particular, as a corresponding move to add Rodney, the A’s designated Chris Hatcher for assignment on Friday.

Hatcher is far from the worst pitcher in MLB, but he was not popular on Athletics Nation. He feels like the definition of replacement level, as a player who can help get you through some games but isn’t likely to help you win a lot of them. The A’s didn’t show much faith in him, mostly reserving him for mopup duty and only letting him see two hold situations all year — once out of necessity when the starter got hurt and left early. But he stuck around because depth is important and he was out of minor league options, and the only thing worse than cementing him to your roster is prematurely cutting him and then finding out that things can in fact get worse.

The exciting takeaway from the DFA of Hatcher is that long-term depth is no longer the top priority. With just a two-to-three month sprint remaining, quality is now the name of the game, and Oakland is maximizing every available spot in the short-term. Consider how the bullpen has changed over the last month:

  • Santiago Casilla DFA’d to make room for promising prospect J.B. Wendelken
  • Jeremy Bleich DFA’d to make room for Familia
  • Wendelken sent down to make room for Kelley
  • Hatcher DFA’d to make room for Rodney

Here’s a side-by-side comparison, and this is only going back to late June when Buchter came off the DL:

Before After
Treinen Treinen
Trivino Trivino
Petit Petit
Pagan Pagan
Buchter Buchter
Casilla Familia
Hatcher Rodney
Taxi spot Kelley

There is simply no more filler left here. The two weak links at the bottom of the list have been replaced by two other teams’ legitimate closers. The “taxi spot” at the bottom had gone to a revolving door of the likes of Wendelken, Bleich, Ryan Dull, Josh Lucas, Danny Coulombe, and Carlos Ramirez, but now it’s held by a guy with enough of a track record that he’s pitching on a three-year guaranteed contract. Take it back to Opening Day, and remember that Trivino’s spot was once held by Liam Hendriks.

For an even better idea of how weak that original group was, consider that Ramirez, Bleich, and Hendriks all cleared waivers and remained in the organization rather than getting picked up by another team for free. Casilla also cleared, though he was released instead of retained.

Best yet, all of that depth is still there if needed. With the exception of Casilla (and maybe Hatcher in the coming days), the odd men out weren’t lost but merely pushed down the list. Wendelken and Dull are decent enough as the last guys in the pen, but they’re even better as the first guys in Triple-A in case of emergency.

Similarly, in the rotation, Frankie Montas has pitched well this year and would be perfectly acceptable as the fifth starter. But he’s even better as the next man up, ready to step in if another starter gets hurt in the thick of a playoff drive. Nothing can derail a promising season faster than injury, and the A’s have built up some impressive insurance to guard against that pitfall. In this case that meant the addition of Fiers, who isn’t necessarily a lot better than what Oakland already had but is at least more of what they need.

SP RP
1. Sean Manaea
2. Trevor Cahill
3. Edwin Jackson
4. Mike Fiers
5. Brett Anderson

Depth

6. Frankie Montas
7. Daniel Mengden
8. Chris Bassitt
1. Blake Treinen
2. Jeurys Familia
3. Lou Trivino
4. Fernando Rodney
5. Yusmeiro Petit
6. Ryan Buchter
7. Shawn Kelley
8. Emilio Pagan

Depth

9. J.B. Wendelken
10. Ryan Dull
11. Josh Lucas
12. Danny Coulombe
13. Liam Hendriks
14. Jeremy Bleich
15. Carlos Ramirez

In the rotation, the extra body protects against the possibility of running out of starters and having to get creative to fill the gap. In the bullpen, the extra late-inning experience reduces the odds of having to force anyone up into a role they’re not used to or can’t handle. It also allows the top relievers to share the load a bit, so that the same guys don’t need to come into every single close game day after day until they’re exhausted. Not only does depth provide security in case of injury or slump, it can actually help prevent those things in the first place.

This isn’t just a matter of quantity, though, especially in the pen. Of the eight relievers on board right now, the highest ERA is 3.60 for Buchter. The whole current group is at 2.49 for the year, including pre-trade stats. Five of them back up those results with sub-4.00 FIP marks. They’ve combined for 521 careers saves, including 75 this year alone. Expand to save/hold chances, and they have a cumulative 85.6% success rate this year.

None of this is to say that the pitching will be perfect the rest of the way. There will be bad starts, like Manaea failing to get out of the 3rd inning against the Dodgers on Tuesday. There will also be blown leads, like Trivino faltering against the same Dodgers on Wednesday. But the whole staff is no longer anything resembling a weakness, which is what it was entering the season. The rotation is enough to get the game to the bullpen, and the pen is enough to help support the explosive offense. And that’s all assuming they’re done trading and don’t find another lefty to add to the mix, in which case everything could get even better.

The A’s pitching began 2018 looking like the thing that would hold the team back, but so far it has held its own. Now it’s beginning to flip the script entirely, with new quality arms pouring onto the roster one after the other. The bullpen is so stacked that it finally shed its last proverbial baby tooth with the DFA of Hatcher, and now it’s assumed its final, mature form as a game-shortening force from top to bottom. The staff is getting stronger on a seemingly daily basis, and it’s here to win.