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Oakland A’s keep rolling despite endless injuries to starting rotation

Pitchers are hitting the DL at an incredible rate, but the team continues winning.

Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

The decimation of the Oakland A’s starting rotation by injuries has been discussed at length dating as far back as spring training, but the situation just keeps getting worse and worse. Now Sean Manaea is out long-term, meaning that everyone from the Opening Day rotation has hit the disabled list at some point.

As a reminder, let’s look back at the depth chart when spring training began. The first seven on this list were true MLB starters, the next two were more like swingmen who ended up starting full-time, and the last two were the top Triple-A prospects. The injured ones are crossed out:

  1. Kendall Graveman (TJS)
  2. Sean Manaea (shoulder)
  3. Jharel Cotton (TJS)
  4. Daniel Mengden
  5. Andrew Triggs (nerve)
  6. Paul Blackburn (elbow)
  7. Daniel Gossett (TJS)
  8. Frankie Montas
  9. Chris Bassitt
  10. A.J. Puk (TJS)
  11. Grant Holmes (shoulder)

Only three remain, and the top one (Mengden) did a couple weeks on the DL himself. What’s more, none of the healthy starters are technically starting anymore, as Mengden and Bassitt are now the long-men behind a bullpen opener and Montas seems likely to do the same. They also haven’t spent all year in Oakland, having combined to pitch around as many games in Triple-A as in the majors.

The A’s responded to the first of those injuries by signing Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson in March. Both of them have landed on the DL twice. They’ve also both turned out to be positive additions, with quality contributions when healthy, but still. Two times each on the DL. And so Oakland kept adding during the season, signing Edwin Jackson in June and acquiring Mike Fiers in August.

Those four veterans are essentially the whole rotation now, with Anderson set to come off the DL this week. On days when that quartet doesn’t start, the team opts for bullpen opener games. That means not a single member of the current rotation was in the organization when spring training began, nor on the active roster on Opening Day.

And yet, here we are, with the A’s sitting above 99% odds of reaching the postseason. Their Magic Number for the second Wild Card is 10, with 17 games left to play. The rotation is so patchwork that it’s actually made entirely of patches now, with no original material remaining. But, between the competence of those replacements and the brilliance of the bullpen and the lineup, the team has managed to win games.

This has all been fascinating to watch. Back in December I was worried about the rotation depth, in everything from total quantity to poor health record to inexperience with big workloads. It was easy to see how things could go wrong quickly, even without knowing the specifics of how it would happen and to whom. Here I am in the comments section of that post, while advocating for another external addition:

What do we do when two SPs go down in the last week of spring (like happens every year) and someone else has a shoulder ache in early April and someone else gets torched in his first five outings? Those are real concerns with this group, and last year they left us reaching before April was even finished.

I was still worried in late March, even after Cahill and Anderson had been signed. Neither were going to be ready for the beginning of the season, neither had any recent experience with full-time workloads, and both were huge injury risks. I lamented that they hadn’t dealt with a predictable problem earlier, and that they still might run out of arms quickly.

The thing is, everything I was worried about came true. No one threw 200 innings, nor even 170, and there will probably only end up being one who reaches 120. There were a bunch of injuries to the group of injury-prone names. Cahill and Anderson were only part-time solutions. By May 24 they were so desperate that they had to call on reliever Josh Lucas to start a bullpen game. And they had to keep scrambling to add multiple new arms as the summer wore on.

On the other hand, it all worked out. Almost everyone was effective when they actually took the mound, the whole unit is middle-of-the-pack in the majors in ERA and FIP and quality starts, and for the most part there were always five men healthy at all times. All of their emergency additions performed well, and none of them cost any dire premiums as punishment for waiting until the last minute. It was that meme of the dog with his coffee in the burning kitchen saying This Is Fine, except everything actually did turn out fine somehow.

It’s an odd feeling to be simultaneously right and wrong about something. I thought the preseason rotation plan would be wholly insufficient, and that was correct. However, I was also sure it was the pitfall that would prevent any chance of true contention, even if everything else on the roster went perfectly, and that turned out to be wrong. They’re competing anyway, because I underestimated both their ability to find new starters on the fly and just how great the rest of the roster would be, especially the bullpen.

Even if they had taken care of business earlier in the offseason, it may not have turned out any better. Sure, there were a few success stories out of the pool of available stopgaps (Fiers, Mikolas, Chacin, Sabathia, Hellickson), but there were twice as many who didn’t work out and a handful who failed spectacularly and expensively. The A’s strategy of just sipping that coffee while the flames mounted around them proved amazingly effective, and in the end they acquired one of the guys in that previous sentence anyway — as it turned out, they let other teams do the work of filtering out the wheat from the chaff so that they’d know which one to trade for if/when a need arose.

The A’s fed their homework to the dog last winter when it came to starters, and then made up for it halfway through class and still got a passing grade. In the end they’re paying less than $7 million for their four-man rotation, and they’re on pace to win 98 games. It’s completely nonsensical, and yet exactly the kind of roster magic you’d expect from Oakland.

While I was writing this, news broke that Cahill will miss at least one start with a back injury, via Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle. An hour later, bullpen opener Liam Hendriks threw a scoreless 1st inning for the fourth straight time, Mengden followed with more beautiful long relief work, and the lineup posted a 10-run frame to put the game away early. At this rate, if the A’s make it deep into October then Matt Chapman and Ramon Laureano might be pitching some innings. And, if the last five-plus months are any indication, it’ll all turn out fine somehow.