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6-man rotation fits for some teams in short season, but not Oakland A’s

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It actually made more sense in a full season

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Oakland Athletics
Is there space for one extra starter to sneak in?
Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

One way the short 2020 season will affect MLB teams involves their starting rotations. With an abbreviated training camp, pitchers won’t have as much time as usual to stretch out and prepare to work full games. Some teams are responding with extra caution.

The Angels and Mariners both plan to enter the season with six-man rotations, report insiders Rhett Bollinger and Greg Johns, respectively. However, the A’s will not be following suit, says John Hickey of Sports Illustrated. He offers the following quote from manager Bob Melvin:

“At this point, I don’t see us going with a six-man rotation,” Melvin said. “It’s a three-week spring training, and we have to build them up, and we’re not going to be expecting them to throw complete games the first time out. ... But we’ve got our five all healthy. We like what we got.”

The A’s certainly have the personnel for a six-pack. Between Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, Mike Fiers, Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk, and Chris Bassitt, someone deserving is already going to be left out. And indeed, half of that group carries serious health questions, offering incentive to go easy on them.

But there’s also something to be said for sticking with your best arms as often as possible, and as Melvin said, everyone is fully healthy right now. Whoever is sixth-best would be making starts in place of superior options, and this year every game counts nearly triple in the standings. And anyway, the primary health benefit of the six-man unit would be in reducing the overall season workload for the more fragile arms, and innings limits shouldn’t be an issue in a short season.

If the A’s want to go easy on anyone in their rotation, then a better plan might be piggybacking. They should have a couple spare starters lurking in the bullpen, between whoever is squeezed out of the above list plus Daniel Mengden, and they could use them for long relief on days when they want to pull the starter early. That way their best arms would still pitch every five days, but with no pressure to go deep into the game.

As for the Angels and Mariners, they have their own reasons for six-man rotations. The Halos are specifically trying to ease in Shohei Ohtani, who is freshly returned from late-2018 Tommy John surgery and has the unique situation of doubling as a DH. They also have two other potential starters returning from recent injuries, in Griffin Canning and Felix Pena.

Meanwhile, the Mariners are in rebuilding mode, and their priority is less on winning than on auditioning as many prospects and trying out as many lotto tickets as possible. An extra rotation spot means a bonus spin of the wheel in the search for the next surprise jackpot, and one name they might use it on is former A’s starter Kendall Graveman.

But for Oakland, the six-man plan actually might have made more sense in a full season. Depth reigns supreme over 162 games, and there would have been more than enough work to go around for the electric lefties coming off injuries in Manaea, Luzardo, and Puk. Supplementing them with a sixth MLB-caliber starter could have helped them last for six long months. But those perks disappear in the short campaign.

Instead, this is the A’s time to treat the season as a sprint instead of a marathon. All of their top starters are feeling 100%, every individual game is far more valuable than in a full season, and there’s no need to worry about long-term innings limits. Their best path is to stick with a normal starting five.