If you are an A’s fan and you are wondering what the heck the A’s plan on doing for their starting rotation next season – well – you are not alone. If you thought 2018 was a clown car of starters – “Wait, who is that guy?” – then you are in for more circus music in 2019. Here is who you won’t see for all of 2019: Jharel Cotton (Tommy John surgery), Kendall Graveman (Tommy John surgery), A.J. Puk (Tommy John surgery), and Daniel Gossett (Tommy John surgery). Sean Manaea is also most likely out for all of 2019 after shoulder surgery and it is unknown what the prognosis will be for the A’s ace after that. Paul Blackburn (elbow) and Andrew Triggs (shoulder) missed a lot of time in 2018 and ended the season on the shelf, so their health status for 2019 seems unresolved at best.
The A’s rotation survived to the end of the season by signing pitchers who were unsigned as of the end of spring training or stashed away in the minors in case of emergency (Edwin Jackson, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill) or acquired in a mid-season trade (Mike Fiers), and all four of those pitchers are now free agents. A’s pitchers who made at least 10 starts in 2018 who are not free agents and are not likely to be on the disabled list at the start (or the end) of 2019 are Daniel Mengden and Frankie Montas. Uh – that is well beyond a decimated pitching rotation since “decimated” just means one out of ten are down. Chris Bassitt made 7 starts in the majors in 2018 and did reasonably well – ERA in the low 3’s and almost 8 K’s per 9. Bassitt is 29 and coming off an arm injury so while it is a welcome sight to see him pitching well, it is hard to write him into the 2019 rotation even though that might be exactly how the A’s start next season. His fastball/slider/curveball mix is pretty standard fare – he looks like a back of the rotation starter at his peak with his low 90’s fastball generating almost 8 K’s per 9 and his control in the majors not helping his cause – 3.6 walks per 9 in 2018. Yeah, teams need guys like this and the A’s especially need anyone who can mostly keep the ball in the park (career 0.7 homers per 9) and get them into the 6th inning where their pen can take over. Bassitt was mostly that guy in June but when he came back up to the majors the A’s were using the opener strategy and pitching a lot of bullpen games so they weren’t asking him to do that. Which approach will they take next year and how will that impact their use of Bassitt? But this is not the apocalypse – at least the A’s know now that they will need to piece together a rotation for 2019 unless they are planning something wild like going with 13 relievers. Hmm.
A number of things could happen between now and opening day 2019. Let’s say the A’s start with Frankie Montas and Daniel Mengden as 40% of their rotation and build from there. Will Jackson, Fiers, Cahill, and Anderson sign with the A’s after testing the market? Hard to say. Fiers will definitely get some love from multiple teams after his 3.7 WAR 2018 (Baseball Reference version). Trevor Cahill will also get attention after his excellent bounce back season. Even Edwin Jackson might get calls from a couple of teams when they look at his hits to innings pitch rate of 7.3 per 9 with the A’s. It seems that teams are just more comfortable with familiar names than spinning the wheel with a new guy, so maybe the A’s have the inside track with their free agents. But if there is competition for the services of their retread starters, I can’t imagine the A’s getting into a bidding war. Based on 2018 there will likely be next-to-free talent available to a patient GM. So let’s say that Fiers, Cahill, and Jackson get signed by other teams, the A’s will still have options. The A’s still need a rotation so they will have to bring up arms from triple-A, trade for starters, or sign free agents. Let’s look at some of their options, but before that let’s look at the pen, which could have an impact on what the offseason looks like for the A’s.
Thank you baby Jesus – Blake Treinen can’t become a free agent until 2021! The 30 year old with the insane sinker just put up the best season of his career by far and one of the best seasons for a reliever ever. If you think that is hyperbole, spend some time looking for pitchers who went 80 innings or more and kept their ERA under 0.8 while striking out at least 100 batters. Waiting. Still waiting. Treinen was the major league guy the A’s got back for two closers when they traded with the Nationals. The Nats had experimented with Treinen in the closer spot but gave up quickly when he struggled. When he didn’t turn it around immediately after he lost the closer job they traded him away. Is it a thing that Washington is really impatient with relievers? Should other teams hang out behind their clubhouse to dumpster dive for relievers? The A’s seem to have done just that with Treinen and Shawn Kelley – another reliever jettisoned by the Nats when he angered team management by throwing his glove in frustration. There were likely other precipitating factors, but that was the story at the time. Kelley was fantastic in his short stint with the A’s pitching 16.67 innings and giving up 7 hits while striking out 18 for an ERA of 2.16. Kelley is now a free agent. Who else in the A’s pen is a free agent you ask? Well, there’s Jeurys Familia, the former Mets closer, who struck out 11.5 per 9 for the A’s in just over 31 innings. Familia wasn’t lights out, but definitely contributed to the A’s excellent bullpen. Fernando Rodney is a free agent unless the team picks up his option – which is unlikely. He pitched 22 innings with the A’s and was pretty wild, but not bad. He is 41 though, and $4.5 million is a lot for a guy who is that old and didn’t exactly dazzle in green and gold. Lou Trivino, Yusmeiro Petit, J. B. Wendelken, Liam Hendricks, Ryan Buchter, and Emilio Pagan are all under team control for 2019, which is a good thing especially when you contrast the pen with the rotation. The A’s pen is still in excellent shape looking ahead to 2019 which might dictate their off-season moves. I’d love to see a team try to make it through the season with 13 relievers rotating through bullpen games and using the triple-A arms to spell some of the guys, but I don’t think you can get 1500 innings out of that equation without having guys break down or pitching a lot of guys you don’t really want to send to the mound. Let’s go back to the rotation with the knowledge that the A’s pen is pretty much set.
One option to fill out their rotation, which the A’s have exercised to mixed, but often positive, results has been to sign a high risk, high reward starting pitcher to a short term deal. Usually this means signing a starter with a good track record who is coming off an injury or is coming off a bad season but appears healthy, or who has been a disappointing prospect in the past but showed signs of figuring it out in the second half of the previous season. Scott Kazmir in 2014 was coming off his first decent season in quite some time when the A’s got him. He made the All Star team for the first time since 2008 and they flipped him mid-2015 for Daniel Mengden and Jacob Nottingham. Then they flipped Nottingham for Kris Davis who has hit 133 homers for them in three seasons. Pretty solid shuffle there. Rich Hill was signed by Oakland after reinventing himself in Indy ball and then making four dominant starts for the Red Sox right at the end of the 2015 season. He made 14 starts for the A’s, with a 2.25 ERA and then they swapped him along with Josh Reddick to the Dodgers for three pitching prospects – Frankie Montas, Jharel Cotton, and Grant Holmes. It is hard to get that much young pitching in any trade and the results are still to be determined, but two of those pitchers – Cotton and Montas – have been in the A’s rotation already. If they end up with even one of them as a starter for multiple years then that’s a good return.
You already know what happened with their signings last season – Andersen, Cahill, and Jackson, plus Fiers, whom they acquired in a trade. They held onto those four because they were in a playoff fight and needed every inning they could get, but if they had fallen out of the race it is likely they could have gotten something back for at least two of those starters, Cahill and Fiers – maybe Jackson too. The beauty of a strategy like that is that the team is not on the hook for any contracts beyond that season, or at most the next, and you have options – stick with the pitcher if you have a shot at the playoffs or dump them for prospects if it looks bad for the postseason. Here is why the A’s need to do something like that for 2019 maybe more than in most seasons. The A’s have an excellent lineup with great infield defense, and a lot of power in their lineup. Their stars are still young and under team control for the most part. They have a potentially great bullpen again. They can obviously compete right now – they won 97 games in 2018. What they don’t have is a starting rotation – yet. There is a decent chance that they will have a solid to good starting rotation in 2020 so signing or trading for starters with a commitment past 2019 or 2020 now doesn’t make much sense. They need a patch while they wait for Manaea, Cotton, Puk, (Kaprielian?) and the others to make it back.
Fine – so who should the A’s pursue given that they don’t want to make a long term commitment, and aren’t going to throw down 25 mil for a Kershaw. While it is impossible to read the market in the first week of free agency, there are some likely targets for the A’s to pursue. Marco Estrada is 35 and coming off an ugly season. In spite of some injury issues, Estrada made 28 starts, and his fastball velocity, which was never special, was right about where it has been the last few seasons. I can’t see him getting more than a one or two year deal and he might be a late signing if he looks for more years than that. Patience might be the key to signing him.
Clay Buchholz is a finalist for comeback player of the year after throwing 16 starts with a 2.01 ERA. But Buchholz finished the season on the DL with a strained elbow so the 33 year old with a history of injury issues will probably be an affordable signing as teams who would have been likely to compete for his services and have some money to throw around, will probably take a pass on the high risk Buchholz. This might be a case where the A’s throw a two year offer at him early with the caveat that he has to let them know in some short time frame, and see if anybody steps up to beat it. After posting a low ERA in Arizona, the A’s could sell him on pitching in a pitchers park with a great infield defense behind him with lots of run support and a chance at a playoff run. If Buchholz can establish himself as a sturdy enough quality starter he might have one more good multi year deal ahead of him, which would motivate him to pitch at someplace like Oakland on a short deal.
The A’s took Tyson Ross in the second round of the 2008 draft and then traded him to the Padres in 2012 when he couldn’t quite put it all together in the majors. Of course, as soon as he was traded it all seemed to click for Ross who made an All Star game appearance in 2014. The Padres traded the 6-6 righty to the Cardinals during the 2018 stretch run after Ross had made a comeback from a lost 2016 and a disastrous 2017. Tyson all but ditched his sinker and became a fastball/slider pitcher. That may be a big part of his revival. He definitely fits the description of a high risk pitcher, but he went to high school and college in the Bay Area and he knows he would get a shot at 32 starts with the A’s, so Oakland might have a leg up on signing him.
I’m not sure if Lance Lynn is a great fit as the A’s seem to prefer strike throwers and Lynn walks a few too many (same with Francisco Liriano who I left off this list), but Lynn’s fastball picked up a couple ticks this season as was his K rate, and he threw 29 starts. He also suffered some bad luck which negatively impacted his ERA – a .364 BABIP against him. Lynn is 31, and didn’t draw a lot of attention in the free agent market last season. The A’s could probably get him for 2 years at under $10 million a year if they are patient.
Gio Gonzalez is another pitcher who walks a few too many for the A’s liking, but he is durable, made 5 excellent starts down the stretch for Milwaukee, and at 33 without much zip on his fastball is unlikely to get much more than a one or two year deal. For the A’s in 2019, he would slot into the one spot if they got him, and his numbers would benefit from pitching in Oakland if they needed to trade him.
It is a challenge to go into a season so unsure of your starting rotation, but the A’s showed they are capable of winning even without the standard mix of starters. The win projections for the A’s before their rotation started to fall by the roadside were mostly in the 70’s, so to win 97 games after losing so much of their rotation was some kind of baseball magic. As long as Oakland avoids the temptation to throw money at long term starting pitching this year – and then goes for it in 2020 once they know how their starters have fared in their recoveries – then their long term prospects should still point upward. They have a good, young core that should carry them for the next few years and if they can finally figure out a stadium solution with the expected revenue bump that goes with new digs the future could be quite rosy. Of course, like my wife says, it all depends on their pitching.