3 Things to Watch in February

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

What did we expect? Most teams that win 97 games would be ecstatic to bring back their whole lineup and pitching staff the next year to the degree the Oakland A’s have done this offseason. For a fanbase that has gone through it under Billy Beane and company, a quiet offseason might just be what this organization needed.

From the moment the A’s had lost to the Rays in the Wild Card game, expectations for 2020 were already higher than what Oakland had just achieved. The Astros would likely be losing superstar Gerritt Cole and relief ace Will Harris, while Oakland would be getting full seasons out of young throwers Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk along with up-and-coming catcher Sean Murphy. Would these main pieces coming and going from the two teams make up that 10-game difference for the division? Oakland fans might have hoped so, but the rest of the baseball world was, justifiably or not, easily picking Houston to win the AL West again in 2020.

Then came The Cheating Scandal. Houston had been cheating at home games during their run of dominance over the past few years. It was even more evident when comparing home/road splits (to be fair, Houston is a hitter’s haven in its own right, but it shouldn’t be as extreme as the stats bore out). It cost them their manager, A.J. Hinch, a well-liked and respected baseball man. A verifiable Murder’s Row before, there are legitimate questions as to how well some players will perform not just without cheating, but the animosity that they’ll likely face from players and fans this coming season. And make no mistake, there will be a constant flow of questions related to the scandal likely all season. Can younger guys like Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa deflect them, or will they get frustrated by them?

And it’s not just the hitting side of the Astros that took a hit this offseason. Losing Cole cannot be understated, but the fact of the matter is at least part of his production can be replaced, and at the moment it doesn’t seem the Astros have even attempted to. The top of the rotation of Verlander and Greinke should be great again, and a full season of Greinke should help (although both are way past the age where performance begins falling, and it’s gotta happen eventually, right? Right?), but then it looks like a roll of the dice with Lance McCullers Jr. coming off late 2018 Tommy John surgery, then Jose Urquidy and Brad Peacock bringing up the backend. The Astros do have Forrest Whitley, a former top prospect who struggled so bad in 2019 he was demoted to advanced Single-A, but after that their starting pitching depth is less than inspiring.

With almost the entire offseason behind us, all the major free agents off the board, and teams and players getting ready for Spring Training, what do A’s fans have to look forward to or keep an eye on before Opening Day?

1. Starting rotation alignment: Many A’s fans thought Oakland would have traded from their starting pitching depth by now, yet here we are roughly three weeks out from pitchers and catchers reporting with everyone still on board.

There have been lots of questions about how Oakland would arrange its pitching staff, with little to no answers for most of the winter. With Melvin now recently stating both rookies Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk will go into the spring as starters, the two most obvious candidates for the long-relief bullpen slot are no longer considered as options there going into spring.

Recent indications from management suggest Oakland is considering using a six-man rotation at least to start the year, which is one way to both limit the innings of the young arms (Luzardo, Puk) and preserve the bullets of guys with an injury history (Manaea, Bassitt, Montas). This was one of the most obvious routes, but will Oakland instantly revert to the standard five-man rotation if an injury arises, which is almost certain to happen? Or will Melvin opt to keep everyone on regular turn and opt to bring up an extra starter to fill in, like Paul Blackburn?

If Oakland does decide on the standard five-man rotation, and presuming veterans Mike Fiers and Sean Manaea are assured spots, then that would leave only one spot left for either Chris Bassitt or Frankie Montas. Both were superb in the rotation last year, with Bassitt finally putting up an entire season of good performance and Montas’ amazing start before the suspension. It’s a good problem for Oakland to have, and both ultimately deserve to be starting, but if one has to go to the bullpen, it’ll come down to who is throwing the best in Spring Training.

And what will the actual rotation order actually look like? Manaea was given the Wild Card game, Mike Fiers started last year’s Opening Day, and Puk was on track to start it in 2018 before his Tommy John surgery, but would a strong Spring give Luzardo the Opening Day assignment?

2. Jorge Mateo vs Franklin Barreto: Former top prospects Franklin Barreto and Jorge Mateo will both be heading into camp in a do-or-die scenario as far as making the team, as neither can be stashed at Triple-A anymore without going through waivers, and their past pedigree and premium positions they play makes it impossible to see any scenario where either player make it through. It’s unlikely the A’s would consider having both players on the team when Spring Training breaks. Both are right-handed so they don’t make a natural platoon pairing at second base, both have plate-discipline issues, and neither is exceptionally versatile like Chad Pinder is, with almost all of their recent fielding experience focused on one or both of the middle infield spots.

While both Mateo and Barreto have warts, there is value in both players, and the A’s would trade one or both before cutting them. For Oakland, there seems to be only one bench spot open, and if either player has an advantage going into Spring Training for a spot on this team, it might be Mateo. Marcus Semien is entrenched at shortstop for the 2020 season, but after that it’s up in the air with his impending free agency. This is a pivotal year for both Semien and the organization, as if he performs like he did last year, he’ll likely be too expensive for the A’s to seriously consider resigning, likely commanding over $100MM.

Between Barreto and Mateo, the organization clearly thinks Mateo is the better defender at short based on playing time over the past two seasons at Triple-A, and the stats back that up. With some experience last year and all of Spring Training, he should be able to play a passable second base, too. If Mateo beats out Barreto for the second base job and holds his own in 2020, the A’s would have the very solid option of sliding him over to shortstop if Semien (30 in September) were to leave after the 2020 season.

With no rush, Oakland will have all of Spring Training to assess and/or trade one or both if they decide to cut their losses. Ultimately, it’ll be the player’s performance that dictates who earns a roster spot. Mateo, however, might fit in better for 2021 and beyond more so than Barreto, and that gives him the edge up early on.

3. Any calls for the ‘pen?: While the overall statistics of the bullpen may look solid, A’s fans know that the ‘pen was easily the weakest link in the 2019 A’s. After tying the Boston Red Sox in blown saves with 31, the front office made it clear from the get-go that Oakland would be looking to add to it’s bullpen first and foremost.

That hasn’t happened. Outside of swapping out lefty specialist Ryan Buchter for ground ball connoisseur T.J. Mcfarland, Oakland’s bullpen will be remarkably similar to last year’s unit, a fact that might leave fans of the Green & Gold nervous all the way through the spring. With the new rule limiting the number of pitchers the team can roster at any given point, Oakland will either be looking at a 7-man bullpen with a six-man rotation, or an 8-man ‘pen with the standard five starters. Either way, the A’s may only have room in the bullpen for one or two more relievers.

With Hendricks, Petit, Soria, McFarland, Diekman, and Wendelken all near-certain locks to make the team out of camp, the A’s already have a diverse bullpen, one that doesn’t need any certain type of pitcher for the final spot, just the best available. With two lefties already locked into spots, it’s unlikely they’d add yet another LOOGY. Oakland could go with a starter in the long-reliever role, such as the out of options Daniel Mengden, but Petit and McFarland are able to go multiple innings in a pinch. Lou Trivino is still with the team, but with options working against him, it may be better to start him at Triple-A and let him earn his way back up after an absolutely awful 2019.

With reports from earlier in the winter linking the A’s to several notable relievers, such as free agent Sergio Romo and Royals lefty Tom Hill, it’s clear Oakland isn’t going to stop looking for bullpen upgrades anytime soon. And with Oakland already pushing up against their 2020 budget, a trade for bullpen reinforcements or minor deal seems more likely than a major free agent signing at this point. With three weeks to go, expect Oakland to make at least one notable addition to this group before pitchers and catchers report.