First off, the spate of heart-wrenching losses this season may have obscured how well positioned the A’s are going forward. When I say “bright future,” the Astros roster may be head and shoulders above Oakland’s right now but that will not necessarily be the case as soon as March, 2020. Armed with a solid crew of position players under contract for several years, there is a very real possibility the A’s could break camp with a rotation of Sean Manaea, Frankie Montas, Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk, and their choice of Mike Fiers, Jharel Cotton, Daniel Mengden.
Not only could this rotation match, possibly even exceed, Houston’s but it sets up the possibility of putting together the kind of bullpen/staff I think is the real future — which is in contrast to the “opener,” which I believe to be a flawed concept of self-conscious manipulation at the expense of routine, comfort, and ultimately results.
The future, as I see it, is in “multi-inning relievers” who can absorb 3-4 innings as needed without sacrificing too much quality. One good reliever is often better than 3-4 one-inning guys, and how dominant would it be for the A’s not only to have several TOR arms in the rotation but also, say, Cotton and Mengden in the bullpen stretched out to be “next man up” but also providing 3-4 inning stints not just in low leverage.
The Astros themselves have used this strategy to perfection, first in the post-season when they utilized Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. to come in mid-game and close out the game, and again last season when they boasted Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh as relievers.
Imagine having SPs capable of going deep into games, and dominating, as Manaea-Montas-Luzardo-Puk may be able to do, but also being able to turn a game over, in the 6th inning, to Cotton or Mengden without having to empty the rest of the bullpen. Then having Treinen, Trivino, and Soria, along with Buchter and Wang from the left side, serving as plus relievers and specialists — and in having two relievers capable of giving you several quality innings at once, no need for an 8th reliever and the subsequent ability to arm your bench with 4 players.
It’s enough to make you drool about 2020 and beyond, but make no mistake about this: the A’s have a very real chance at the post-season in 2019. Not because they’re great, but because it is becoming more and more clear that the biggest separation in the American League comes between the 4th and 5th best team.
No one knows how 2019 will shape up and play out, but certainly it seems quite possible the Astros, Twins, and Yankees will win their divisions with the Rays securing the 1st wild card (if they can’t stay with the Yankees). The best of the rest? The Indians look remarkably pedestrian to where it’s not even clear if they will be buyers or sellers by July’s end. The Red Sox are a worthy challenge but seem insistent on taking steps backward with each forward stride. The Rangers and Angels are .500 teams playing over their heads and the Mariners? Well, let’s not kick a team while they’re down.
To capture a wild card berth the A’s will have to surge some in the second half, but that’s not a new blueprint for them and they should have a better roster in July and August than they have had so far. However, it would behoove Oakland to figure out how best to utilize the resources currently available.
I continue to be puzzled, and increasingly irritated, at the amount of time Robbie Grossman gets in LF batting from the left side. Last night’s inability to track Tony Kemp’s fly ball was a vital mis-step but it’s not as if Grossman is known for his defense, nor is it as if he is making up for anything with his bat. At .221/.323/.360 as a LH batter, Grossman is not making up for the cavernous gap between his LF defense and that which Chad Pinder can provide. Or Skye Bolt for that matter.
Whether it’s Pinder full time, Bolt, or Nick Martini (.418 OBP at AAA), the A’s could be doing much better on one, or possibly both, sides of the ball in LF and they need to address this sooner rather than later. Grossman is a nice player to have, but he is not a nice player to have batting .221 with meh slugging and defense 2⁄3 of the games.
The A’s also need to better leverage the “left on left” dominance of Ryan Buchter, who sat in the bullpen last night as lefties Tony Kemp and Derek Fisher tied, and unlocked, a game the A’s led going to the 7th. Buchter has been inconsistent this season, yet he has actually been remarkably consistent in getting LH batters out.
For the year LH batters are at all of .125/.200./150, and while that 45 PA sample is small it goes with a career mark of .159/.241/.272. Especially now with a second lefty in the pen, Oakland needs to put Buchter into key “left on left” spots at the first big need.
None of which would, of course, be such a pressing issue if Treinen, Trivino, and Soria had performed as expected and you just can’t always predict relievers, or players for that matter. But two areas where the team can better leverage its talent in the immediate future are not to roll so loyally with Grossman in LF (and for goodness sake, if he does start in LF, get Pinder or Bolt in there for defense for the last third of the game), and to matchup more strategically now that you have 2 LH relievers who thrive against LH batters.
It’s going to be a challenging weekend for sure, with a tough loss in the bank and Verlander-Cole ahead. Just remember, soon Astros fans will be quivering at the prospect of coming in for a series to face Manaea and Montas, or is it Luzardo and Puk? How about a 4-game series and boths? Today the wild card, tomorrow the division. This .500 team has much to be excited about.