The Oakland A’s optioned pitcher Daniel Mengden to Triple-A on Monday, the team announced. On its own that’s a routine piece of spring training news, but it changes everything we thought we knew about the starting rotation here on Athletics Nation.
Entering the spring, it appeared that the A’s rotation mix was led by two main groups who could not be sent down to the minors. There were three starters whose MLB contracts made them locks, between Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada, and Brett Anderson. And then there were three more familiar arms who we thought were out of minor league options, in Chris Bassitt, Daniel Mengden, and Frankie Montas.
However, that has turned out to be a false premise, because two of those pitchers aren’t out of options after all. Every player begins his time on the 40-man roster with three option years, which are years in which he’s allowed to be sent freely up and down to the minors. When those three years are used up, for the rest of his career the player must first be passed through waivers in order to be sent down, which is called being “out of options.”
Sometimes players are granted a fourth option year, though, and that’s where the story has evolved this spring. A couple weeks ago it came to light that Bassitt had been given a fourth option, and on Sunday we found out Mengden has one too (via Julian McWilliams, The Athletic). Now the A’s have taken it a step further and actually used Mengden’s.
This turn of events isn’t unprecedented by any means. Montas himself got a fourth option last summer, for example. But the default setting is for players to get just the normal three, so it was fair to assume that to be the case with Bassitt and Mengden until we specifically learned otherwise this month. (Mengden got his fourth option due to “being called up so early in his pro career, in 2016 after being drafted in 2014,” explains Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle. Players can also get them for missing lots of time to injury.)
With this new information, the rotation dynamic is suddenly much different than we’d realized. Instead of six locks for five spots, there are just the three arms on MLB contracts plus the out-of-options Montas, with one final spot truly up for grabs without fear of losing any key names on waivers. That means there is realistically a spot for Jesus Luzardo, were he to earn it during the spring and force his way into the picture.
Indeed, Luzardo really does seem to be a “serious candidate” to make the team out of camp, says Slusser. He won’t travel to Japan with the club, which actually helps his chances, explains Slusser: “The A’s have said some of the starters who will be in the rotation will stay here to stay on [turn] — that means he at least is still in strong contention for a rotation spot.” For what it’s worth, holding the lefty back from Japan was a decision that hadn’t yet been made before his latest impressive outing against the Giants on Sunday, and he’s now struck out 15 of the 39 batters he’s faced this spring while putting just 11 on base.
“If he makes their rotation, he’d be their best starter right now,” a scout told Slusser in her full writeup, in which she also reaffirms that service-time manipulation won’t factor into the decision.
Of course, none of this means that Luzardo is now a lock for the Opening Day squad. It just means the door is realistically open, where it didn’t seem to be before. There is a version of events where Luzardo can make the team without having to waive anyone crucial, or move any key starters to the bullpen, or wait for someone to get hurt to make room. (Aaron Brooks is out of options, but he’s not on the same tier as Montas, et al, and could more reasonably be moved to the pen or even maybe just clear waivers altogether.)
Personally, sign me up for any outcome now. All spring I’ve been adamant that there wasn’t space for Luzardo in the Opening Day rotation, because we all thought there were multiple indispensable arms who were out of options. Now it turns out that’s not true, so there’s nothing specifically in the way and it becomes more of a meritocracy, on a team expecting to contend from day one.
I don’t need the youngster to get the nod right away out of camp. After all, Bassitt has been waiting three years to get another serious shot at the rotation and is pumping 96 mph, and Brooks “also might nab one of the spots,” says Slusser — and I’ve learned never to doubt a pitcher whom the A’s show faith in, no matter how humble his beginnings. Plus, the 21-year-old Luzardo still has only four Triple-A starts and 152 pro innings to his name, so there is a case to be made for some final tuneups in the minors so he can finish proving himself in real non-spring games. But if he convinces the team he’s ready now, then let’s do this. There’s no longer a procedural, big-picture reason not to. Just a good ole-fashioned spring training positional battle.
Here’s an updated look at the depth chart, or at least the portion of it that is definitely healthy to start the season:
MLB rotation, can’t be sent to minors
- Mike Fiers (MLB contract)
- Marco Estrada (MLB contract)
- Brett Anderson (MLB contract)
- Frankie Montas (out of options)
- ***UP FOR GRABS!***
Still in the running for No. 5 spot this spring
- Aaron Brooks (out of options, but could feasibly move to pen)
- Chris Bassitt (has 4th option if needed, can be sent down safely)
- Jesus Luzardo (not yet on 40-man roster, but space can be made)
40-man roster, already optioned to Triple-A
- Daniel Mengden
- Paul Blackburn
- Tanner Anderson
More upper-minors depth, already sent down
- Parker Bridwell (waiver claim, outrighted to AAA)
- Jake Buchanan (veteran minor league free agent)
- Kyle Lobstein (veteran minor league free agent)
- James Naile (fringe Triple-A prospect)
- Parker Dunshee (intriguing prospect who dominated Double-A)
- Brian Howard (intriguing prospect who succeeded in Double-A)
Not included, but relevant later this summer: Sean Manaea and Daniel Gossett, both on the 60-day injured list ... Jharel Cotton and A.J. Puk, both still recovering from Tommy John surgery ... Grant Holmes and James Kaprielian, both on the 40-man roster but still need to prove their health and prove themselves in the upper minors.