You Need A Scorecard To Keep Track of These Guys
by Jim Silva
Long gone are Catfish, Vida, Blue Moon, and Kenny Holtzman. Stew is now a failed GM instead of a dominant starting pitcher and community leader. Bob Welch is sadly no longer with us, and Huddy, Zito, and Mulder have all hung up their spikes. The A’s have a long history of great starting pitching going back to Philadelphia and such mound stars as Eddie Plank, Lefty Grove, Rube Waddell, and Chief Bender. But times and teams change, and the A’s no longer are run by Connie Mack or Charlie Finley and the economic realities of being a small market team in a crappy stadium means that the A’s have been unable to hang onto their stars for quite some time. This unfortunate reality has impacted the entire roster of course, but when there is talk of trades involving the A’s, the inevitable target is Sonny Gray, their 27 year old fallen ace. Cynically, many would say that the only reason he is still with the A’s is that he struggled through an awful, injury-filled 2016. I am in that camp (and I would call myself a realist) knowing the reality of the A’s situation. It’s a true dilemma when as a fan you want your ace to fail so he won’t get traded! Gray is only the most recent A’s ace to run into bad luck. The ace before Gray came up was Jarrod Parker. Parker, who is only 28, has had Tommy John surgery twice now, had his elbow in his pitching arm break (last spring) and hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2013. If Parker makes it back to the majors at all after his medical mishaps it will be a minor miracle. So yeah – bad luck only begins to describe it and now Gray is back on the disabled list with a lat strain. So what will the A’s rotation look like in 2017 even as Gray starts the season watching from the bench? Let’s pull out the crystal ball and see what the spirits have to say.
The opening day pitcher for the A’s was Kendall Graveman who, just to be clear, is not an ace nor would he be on any major league team. That isn’t meant to be a dig on Graveman’s skill as a pitcher, just a realistic assessment, and a statement about the current state of the A’s. The A’s know he isn’t an ace and he shouldn’t have to face the other team’s best hurler on opening day, but when your ace is down you have to flex. Graveman isn’t one of those guys who comes in and fans everyone in sight. Even though he throws his fastball in the mid-nineties his strikeout rate dropped last season, and when you are below six k’s a game and fast approaching four per game (5.23 last season), you’d better have the Cubs defense behind you, which he didn’t. The A’s were pretty awful defensively. Graveman generates a decent number of ground balls – 4th in the AL last season – but that number has dropped dramatically since his first season up with the Blue Jays. It isn’t bad to give up fly balls in Oakland because the park plays pretty big, but if you let batters put the ball in play a lot with a bad defense then you are going to give up a lot of hits, which he did – almost 200 of them last year. Also, a little over once a game one of those fair balls left the park off Graveman – another number you don’t like to see when you are pitching in Oakland and giving up lots of hits. In his defense, Graveman’s walk rate dropped to 2.27 per nine innings mitigating the base runner issue a lot. Kendall Graveman is a useful pitcher who can get you innings and keep you in the game if you can field the ball behind him. It really isn’t his fault that the A’s aren’t built that way. Still, he is a fine number three or four starting pitcher. Assuming Gray comes back soon then that pushes Graveman down a slot, but do the A’s have a number two to push Graveman down yet another slot?
Sean Manaea isn’t a number two yet, but the A’s hope he will develop into an ace sooner rather than later. For now, Manaea needs to hang onto his growth in the second half of last season, his major league debut, and add to that growth if he wants to challenge Gray and Graveman for the top of the heap in Oakland. Manaea’s first half showed him as a young pitcher who wasn’t ready for The Show. The second half was a completely different story and Manaea looked like the top of the rotation pitcher he might someday become. His walk rate shrank and his strikeout rate ballooned causing his ERA to shrivel from 5.24 to 2.67. There is still plenty of room for growth from Manaea. He gave up 20 home runs – 10 in each half and got torched by righties – numbers the A’s want to see correct themselves. It is a good sign that the young pitcher made such effective adjustments from the first half to the second and it portends well for his growth. The A’s are hoping that he can overcome his struggles against righties this year and do a better job keeping the ball in the yard (only one home run allowed in the final month of last season). If he can make those adjustments then the A’s will have the ace they need if Gray doesn’t return to form.
After Manaea, the A’s start the season with Jharel Cotton, a new face in the organization last year when the A’s got him in their big trade with the Dodgers for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick. Not even the A’s expected Cotton to contribute as soon as he did making his major league debut and tossing five starts with an ERA of 2.15. Cotton isn’t projected to be the next Clayton Kershaw as his debut might suggest but he could be a solid mid-rotation starter who throws hard and has excellent control. Jharel strikes batters out, has never walked more than 3.2 batters per nine innings at any stop and predictably for a pitcher who is around the plate so often, gives up a few more homers than you’d like. The low walk rate mitigates the damage from the homers and he is tough to hit too, never giving up more than 8.0 hits per nine in the minors or in his five-start MLB debut. What’s not to like? Well, Major League Baseball has a prejudice against short pitchers and Cotton is only 5’11. If he can stay healthy and pitch the way he has pitched so far in his career he might turn out to be the best of the three young hurlers the A’s acquired from the Dodgers.
The rest of the A’s rotation is a bit of a mystery, as well as up in the air until Gray returns and the A’s can see if he is the good Sonny Gray or the bad Sonny Gray. Not that the A’s don’t have interesting options for their rotation, but like the Irish curse, “May your life be interesting” in truth you don’t want “interesting” options in your rotation, you want consistent, known quantities. The A’s get to choose from Raul Alcantara, Andrew Triggs, Jesse Hahn, Daniel Mengden, Chris Bassitt, Daniel Gossett, and Paul Blackburn (phew!). Actually, Bassitt is still working to return from Tommy John surgery, and Mengden is hanging out with Sonny Gray on the DL to start the season with a foot injury. Hahn was a disaster in 2016 and again in spring training and the A’s sent him down (and then just called him back up). Last season his strikeout rate plummeted, his walk rate went up a bit, his home run rate doubled, and his ERA exploded to over six. At this point it is unclear whether or not Hahn will return to the promise he showed in 2014 and 2015, but he is only 27 so the A’s are hoping this is a blip on the radar and Hahn can be a mid-rotation groundball-inducing machine.
Blackburn and Gossett are also starting the season in the minors – that leaves Alcantara and Triggs to round out the rotation at the start of the season. Triggs is a sidearmer, which is cool. Even cooler is how he absolutely dominated in a short stint in triple-A before the A’s brought him up and he posted some really nice peripherals like 8.79 strikeouts and 2.08 walks per nine innings. He was a waiver wire claim in 2016 and had mostly been a reliever. Once the A’s brought him up and used him in the rotation out of necessity of the injury variety, he was a revelation. Triggs absolutely deserves a shot to hold a rotation spot even though he isn’t a flame-thrower. Like Graveman, Triggs throws a sinker to induce grounders which will come in really handy once the A’s develop a good infield defense. In the meantime, he doesn’t give up walks, he manages to get strikeouts, and he suppressed home runs in the high minors. With a rotation in flux including a plethora of injuries, that kind of profile will afford Triggs the opportunity to prove that he is worth a rotation spot even after his injured rotation mates return from the DL. So that is four-fifths of the rotation, but what of that last spot?
Raul Alcantara looks the part of a major league rotation stalwart with his mid-nineties heat and his 6’4 frame, and his numbers made it look like he was ready when he dominated over eight triple-A starts. But the 24 year old completely fell apart once he reached the majors where he gave up nine home runs in 22 innings over five starts. When your ERA starts with a “7” there is no need to look at the other digits (or let you pitch again). But Alcantara is young and the A’s need starters so he gets another shot to show that he belongs. Alcantara has shown that he can rack up strikeouts and limit free passes in the minors so there is a real chance that he could break out this year with his raw stuff and control. With three starting pitchers shelved for now, he will get at least a few starts to show that he is not the guy who put the ball on a tee last year and more the guy who scared the holy hell out of triple-A hitters.
Finally, let’s take a look at Sonny Gray who is likely to return before we turn the calendar to May. The A’s seem to be cornering the market on short right-handed pitchers and that might come from the success they’ve had with Sonny Gray. At 5’10, he is one of the shortest starting pitchers in the majors, and if he returns to form then perhaps it will convince other organizations that a guy doesn’t have to be 6’4 to pitch effectively for multiple seasons. Starting with the good news, none of the myriad injuries suffered last season by Gray were to his shoulder or elbow. More good news – his fastball still sat around 95. Ok, and that’s about where the good news from last season ends. Gray was a complete disaster, missing a number of starts with visits to the DL and pitching like roster filler when he was healthy. While Gray’s strikeout numbers dropped, they didn’t drop much, and while his walk rate increased, again it wasn’t by much. The two numbers that best tell the story of his craptasticness are his hits allowed and home runs allowed. In his three previous stints on the majors, Gray had never allowed more than 7.7 hits per nine innings. Last season – 10.2. While hits allowed is often an indicator of luck, Gray’s pitch selection was different last season featuring fewer sliders and more changes and cutters. It’s possible that he became more hittable because of his pitch mix and not just because he was unlucky. Likewise, his home runs per nine had never exceeded 0.7 until last season when he allowed a frightening 1.4 per nine. It is possible that having his season interrupted over and over by injuries didn’t allow Gray to find his rhythm so it’s not a good sign that his spring training was also interrupted by an injury. If he can finally get healthy and stay that way, then there is a chance he can return to form and be the ace he was for his first three seasons.
If Gray can come back early in the season and pitch like Sonny Gray instead of Dorian Gray (after the mishap with the portrait), that would take a lot of pressure off the rest of the rotation. The A’s with Gray, Graveman, Manaea, Triggs, and Alcantara has a chance to be quite good even if they remain mostly unknown. When you start using the word “if” a lot your wish-casting gets a little hopeless, but IF the A’s experience just average luck then their rotation can at least give them a chance to finish around .500, and that would be a good jumping off point for the rest of the franchise rebuild to happen. It all hinges on Gray. No amount of growth from the rest of the crew can make up for losing a true ace. I will sign off now to put a package of Flintstones Chewable Vitamins in the mail for Sonny.