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Chris Bassitt’s 4th option helps Oakland A’s rotation picture

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His ability to stash in the minors greatly enhances the pitching staff’s flexibility.

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John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland A’s starting rotation has been a hot topic throughout the offseason. It’s somehow too thin and too full all at once — it lacks a reliable ace at the top and is short on proven arms in general, but it’s packed with so many worthwhile lotto tickets that it figures to be difficult fitting everyone in.

One of the biggest conundrums has centered around options status. Every player begins his time on the 40-man roster with three option years, in which he’s allowed to be sent freely down to the minor leagues. When those three years are used up the player is considered to be out of minor league options, and for the rest of his career in order to be sent down he must first be put through waivers where another team can claim him.

All winter we’ve been under the assumption that there were three key potential starters who brought the urgency of being out of options: Daniel Mengden, Frankie Montas, and Chris Bassitt. Combined with the three veterans they’ve signed to guaranteed MLB contracts (Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada, Brett Anderson), that made six bodies for five spots.

However, the story received a crucial update this week. In the comments section of his Monday column, Julian McWilliams of The Athletic mentioned that Bassitt has been granted a fourth option year. This most often happens when a player misses significant time to injury, such as when a pitcher loses a season to Tommy John surgery like Bassitt did, though the details of his case haven’t yet been revealed. The news was later confirmed by Martin Gallegos of the East Bay Times.

It might not seem like much, but this solves a lot of the current roster puzzle. The Athletics Nation community has mostly seen Mengden as a lock for the Opening Day squad regardless of his options status, but there was a legitimate question about who would get the final nod between Bassitt and Montas, who are both quite talented but with more left to prove. There was always the chance that an injury to someone could make the decision moot, and that could still happen, but absent that the choice is a no-brainer now — give Montas the fifth starter spot, stash Bassitt in Triple-A until the next need opens up, and keep everyone in the organization because you can never have too much pitching depth.

For his part, Bassitt has already impressed this spring. He “was throwing his fastball around 96 mph,” reports Gallegos, which is on the faster side for him especially this early in camp. If he’s going to operate in the mid-90s this year (like he did pre-surgery) instead of the 93ish he averaged last summer, then that’ll be a development to watch. Coupled with Montas’ new splitter, both hurlers have specific reason for optimism and it’s nice that the A’s won’t have to truly choose between them.

Of course, there are other rotation candidates. Aaron Brooks, a forgotten man all winter, is also out of options and threw four scoreless innings on Friday. Manager Bob Melvin makes it sound like Brooks is at least in the mix, via Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle. Then there’s tippity-top prospect Jesus Luzardo, as well as the now-healthy Paul Blackburn. But Luzardo and Blackburn can still be sent to the minors (Luzardo in particular has barely pitched in Triple-A and might benefit from a bit more seasoning), and the unheralded Brooks could presumably make it through waivers if needed in a way that the other out-of-options guys definitely couldn’t.

Add it all up, and as things stand it’s pretty easy to predict a starting five of Fiers, Estrada, Anderson, Mengden, and Montas, even if one of those names winds up being part of a bullpen opener strategy. Granted, with two weeks left before the Japan series, and nearly a month before the regular season fully begins, plenty can happen to cause that arrangement to change. But the biggest question mark has been resolved, without anyone even needing to step foot onto the field nor into the trainer’s room. If the A’s want to keep both Bassitt and Montas, they can do so with no problem and without sending anyone to the bullpen.

Here’s where the rotation depth stands at the moment. Notice that pushing Bassitt down to the “options” section actually increases the in-season depth, because he’s one more viable starter who can be taxied up and down when needed rather than needing to be locked permanently into the 25-man roster at pain of being lost on waivers:

MLB contracts, or out of options

  1. Mike Fiers
  2. Marco Estrada
  3. Brett Anderson
  4. Daniel Mengden
  5. Frankie Montas
  6. Aaron Brooks (odd man out for now?)

Options remaining, can stash in Triple-A

  • Chris Bassitt
  • Paul Blackburn
  • Jesus Luzardo (not on 40-man roster)

Injured, but might contribute in 2019

  • Jharel Cotton (out for beginning of 2019)
  • Daniel Gossett (out for most of 2019)
  • Sean Manaea (might not pitch in 2019, but optimistic)
  • Grant Holmes (missed all of 2018, and hasn’t pitched in Triple-A)
  • A.J. Puk (out for beginning of 2019, and hasn’t pitched in Triple-A)

More upper-minors depth

  • Tanner Anderson (reliever converting to starting; on 40-man roster)
  • 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)