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Don’t Look Now But A’s Rotation Could Surprise

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Oakland Athletics v Tampa Bay Rays
Splitter? I barely knew her!
Photo by Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty Images

Disclaimer: I am unabashedly optimistic in March, as I feel ‘tis the season. That being said, there is a difference between optimism and pure delusion. You can’t draw blood from a stone, but you can squint and see Oakland’s rotation emerging to be more than we thought and feared.

Two things we knew gave us tepid comfort going into the 2019 season. One was the A’s had plenty of candidates to provide some value at the back of the rotation, and the other was that thanks to a robust offense, defense, and bullpen the team does not need to get ace performances from its starters in order to win games.

However, that comfort turns to vague nausea when considering that two of those “back of the rotation value” pitchers will be starting Oakland’s two games in Japan: Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada, neither of whom has ever been confused for an ace.

So where does that itchy spring optimism creep in? Perhaps the key, because it is the less expected of the two, is the potential emergence of Frankie Montas and his new-found splitter. Montas has always had an arm that was characterized as great thanks to his high-90s fastball, but he has been hittable nonetheless. The Eyeball Scout has yet to see that splitter, but his good friend, the Earball Fan, has heard good things.

Now Montas is mixing up a high octane heater, a sharp slider, and a ‘swing and miss’ splitter as his offspeed offering, and the results have been pretty sensational. He ended the Cactus League tossing 4 IP without allowing an earned run on a day when the wind was howling out and the two teams combined to put 23 runs on the board.

Overall, Montas’ spring training line reflected that batters were befuddled by his repertoire: 13 IP, 11 hits, 1 ER, 3 BB, 13 K. What Montas looked like was a legitimate #2 SP, which is what his scouting report has often projected “if he can develop a decent changeup” — now maybe he has and then some.

The great thing about Montas emerging as a surprise #2 SP would be that he would slot in beautifully behind a pitcher who has no track record but is already being dubbed by predictive metrics as Oakland’s best starting pitcher: Jesus Luzardo.

Let’s not put undue pressure or expectations on Luzardo, just 21 years old and without a big league inning to his name. But whether he breaks camp with the team or joins Oakland sometime in April, most likely Luzardo will leapfrog over his veteran teammates to become the most feared SP in the A’s rotation. The stuff is that good, the person that unfazed by the bright lights.

If Luzardo proves to be “all that” (and all he accomplished this spring in 9.2 IP was an 0.93 ERA with 15 K), and if Montas’ splitter elevates him to the #2 SP status once predicted of him, suddenly you a rotation in which pitchers are no longer forced to pretend they slot higher than they should: Luzardo-Montas-Fiers-Estrada-B. Anderson, backed by an unusually strong AAA group at the ready in Mengden-Bassitt-Blackburn-T. Anderson.

Would I bet the over on Luzardo and Montas providing “#1-#2” quality in the big league rotation? No, I can’t say that. With Montas, there is the added reality that last year’s 136 combined innings were a career high. But make no mistake about the fact that Luzardo and Montas, with their current arsenals of pitches, offer considerable talent backed by strong pedigree, and at least provide more “TOR” potential than you can argue with Fiers and Estrada.

By the All-Star break you might even see Jharel Cotton and/or Sean Manaea, but the A’s have to get there first. Their chances of staying with the Astros until then may well rest on the emergences of Luzardo and Montas, but at least in March I’m willing to say, “Hey, a lot stranger things have happened.” Stay tuned...

Speaking of staying tuned, my interview with Jesus Luzardo will run Monday morning (3/18), my interview with Jharel Cotton the following Monday morning (3/25). You may begin planning your entire life around both.

Poll

What do you predict for Jesus Luzardo and Frankie Montas in 2019?

This poll is closed

  • 53%
    Both will emerge and shine to be the A’s best 2 starting pitchers
    (585 votes)
  • 21%
    Luzardo will be "all that" but Montas will revert to being mediocre
    (234 votes)
  • 11%
    Montas will "break out" but Luzardo will struggle as any rookie might
    (127 votes)
  • 3%
    Both will disappoint and Fiers-Estrada will prove to be, in fact, the A’s #1-#2 SPs
    (36 votes)
  • 4%
    Injuries will prevent the Luzardo-Montas tandem from thriving
    (47 votes)
  • 5%
    Two different surprises, e.g., Mengden and Bassitt, will actually wind up being Oakland’s best
    (57 votes)
1086 votes total Vote Now