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Oakland A’s considering piggyback starters, multi-inning relievers in short 2020 season

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Wednesday pitching report from the insider beat writers

Minnesota Twins v Oakland Athletics
Might we see some dynamic duos in the rotation?
Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

The 2020 MLB season is sure to see some creative pitching arrangements throughout the league. Between the short sprint of a 60-game schedule rather than the normal six-month marathon of games, and an abbreviated preseason training period that made it difficult for everyone to properly stretch out and warm up toward full workloads, traditional roles and strategies might not hold up, especially in the early going.

Indeed, the Oakland A’s are looking into some alternative setups for their own staff. They are considering the use of some piggyback starters, reports Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle, and Slusser also notes that they’re “building up a lot of relievers to throw multiple innings in the 60-game [schedule].”

The idea of piggybacking isn’t new to the organization, as they’ve experimented with it in the minors for the last couple years. Rather than having a starter go 5-7 innings until he’s maxed out, he only goes around 3-4 frames, followed by a second “starter” who can go another 3-4 or until the setup crew is ready to take over.

The main benefit of the piggyback strategy is to lighten everyone’s workload while still keeping them regularly active. In the minors that’s helped the A’s maintain innings limits on some of their prospects without having to shut them down midseason, but in this case it could be a way to ease some of the MLB arms back in after an extremely unusual spring and early summer. As a bonus it also means fewer times through the lineup for each pitcher, which is something the A’s have explored in the past, between the opener strategy and other quick hooks for starters.

This would be a particularly opportune time for Oakland to finally try piggybacking in the majors, if that’s the path they choose to take for a couple spots in their rotation. Although the short season means the removal of overall innings limits from some of their fragile pitchers, there’s also that matter of the short Summer Camp training and the need to be cautious with early workloads. On top of that, they simply have more than five capable starters, and this could be a way to provide everyone adequate playing time while also giving them a chance to play up in slightly shorter stints. Plus, with expanded 30-man rosters to start the year, there will still be plenty more relievers left over to fill the rest of the innings.

One more consideration that could factor into this decision is Jesus Luzardo. The highly touted rookie was a likely candidate for the rotation, but a positive coronavirus test has prevented him from training with the team so far. He’s doing fine and just waiting for clearance to return once he tests negative, reports John Hickey of Sports Illustrated, but without the ability to prepare for the season it’s not yet clear what role he might take.

Luzardo could start but only go a couple innings, or he could be used in high-leverage relief as he continues to stretch out, says Hickey. The short-start option would lend itself ideally to a piggyback situation, with another traditional starter following him for long relief rather than filling the extra space with several one-inning arms.

The A’s could easily put together a strong rotation of just Frankie Montas, Mike Fiers, Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, and rookie A.J. Puk, with Luzardo in the pen, and perhaps they would in a normal season. But Bassitt, Puk, Luzardo, Daniel Mengden, and newcomer Burch Smith are all names that could make sense as swingmen in 2020, teaming up to fill a couple of the backend rotation spots — with perhaps seven more short relievers waiting behind them (see player pool at bottom of this post).

On that note, a few updates on that group:

  • Slusser: “[A’s pitching coach Scott] Emerson says Mengden has simplified his delivery some — that double pump, triple pump might be a thing of the past. He’s got a quicker pace now.”
  • Slusser: “Burch Smith is getting stretched out to three innings his next time out. He’s throwing at 96 mph Emerson says.”
  • Hickey: “Outfielder Robbie Grossman on facing LHP A.J. Puk in simulated games: ‘A.J. looks like he’s throwing from Mount Davis.’”

One way or other, we’re beginning to get an idea of what the rotation might look like to open the season. The A’s are playing two exhibition games against the Giants next week, with Manaea starting Monday, and Fiers and Bassitt both going Tuesday, reports insider Martin Gallegos.

With the regular season coming that Friday, that makes Frankie Montas a good bet to start Opening Day against the Angels, suggests Slusser. That would make sense, as Montas was the team’s best starter last summer before his PED suspension. Check out Slusser’s full writeup for her thoughts on how the rotation might line up for the rest of that Angels opening series.

As a reminder, here’s the A’s 60-man player pool. Players with asterisks** are the favorites to make the Opening Day 30-man roster, in my speculative opinion. Players in —italics are not on the 40-man roster, which currently stands at 39 until pitcher Mengden is activated from the injured list.

Oakland A's 60-man pool
Pitchers Hitters
Starters

Frankie Montas (R)**
Sean Manaea (L)**
Mike Fiers (R)**
Chris Bassitt (R)**
Jesus Luzardo (L)**
A.J. Puk (L)**
Paul Blackburn (R)
Daniel Gossett (R)
—Daniel Mengden (R)**
Grant Holmes (R)
Daulton Jefferies (R)
James Kaprielian (R)
—Tyler Baum (R)
—Parker Dunshee (R)
—Brian Howard (R)


Relievers

Liam Hendriks (R)**
Yusmeiro Petit (R)**
Joakim Soria (R)**
Jake Diekman (L)**
T.J. McFarland (L)**
Burch Smith (R)**
Lou Trivino (R)**
J.B. Wendelken (R)**
—Lucas Luetge (L)
—Jaime Schultz (R)
—Jordan Weems (R)
—Wandisson Charles (R)
—Miguel Romero (R)
Catchers

Sean Murphy (R)**
Austin Allen (L)**
Jonah Heim (S)
—Carlos Perez (R)
—Kyle McCann (L)
—Tyler Soderstrom (L)


Infielders

Matt Olson (L)**
Marcus Semien (R)**
Matt Chapman (R)**
Tony Kemp (L)**
Franklin Barreto (R)**
Vimael Machin (L)**
Sheldon Neuse (R)
—Eric Campbell (R)
—Ryan Goins (L)
—Nate Orf (R)
—Nick Allen (R)
—Logan Davidson (S)
—Robert Puason (S)


Outfielders

Khris Davis (R)**
Mark Canha (R)**
Ramon Laureano (R)**
Stephen Piscotty (R)**
Robbie Grossman (S)**
Chad Pinder (R)**
Seth Brown (L)**
Skye Bolt (S)
Luis Barrera (L)
Dustin Fowler (L)
—Brayan Buelvas (R)
—Greg Deichmann (L)
—Buddy Reed (S)

Here’s a theoretical example of what a partial piggyback system could look like:

  1. Montas
  2. Manaea
  3. Fiers
  4. Luzardo followed by Bassitt
  5. Puk followed by Mengden

... with Smith available for long relief (or paired with either Manaea or Fiers), and Hendriks, Petit, Trivino, Wendelken, and McFarland all experienced in going multiple innings if needed (plus Diekman and Soria in shorter setup roles). Note that the left/right pairings in the final two spots could help disrupt the platoon advantage in opposing lineups.

And even if the piggybacking doesn’t come to pass, the multi-inning relievers can still help keep the starters from needing to overextend themselves, especially since the relievers don’t need to pace their workloads for six long months. Whatever the setup, there should be plenty of quality arms to fill all the innings the A’s need, even within the context of the weird 2020 season.