Welcome to pre-season 2020 where the A’s (in the hearts of A’s fans) are the front runners to win the World Series for the first time since 1989! Yay! Go A’s! I doubt many baseball fans would actually pick the A’s to win it all in 2020 even after winning 194 games over the last two seasons, but the A’s are about to have something in 2020 that they haven’t started a season with in quite a while – a stable, quality starting rotation. Long-time fans of the A’s have been spoiled by some great starting rotations. The 5 dudes who started most of the games for the ’72 A’s all had ERAs under 3, including Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman, and Blue Moon Odom. In ’73, Holtzman, Hunter, and Vida Blue all won at least 20 games. The A’s of the early 2000’s had Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito winning double figure games to go with ERAs in the 2s and low 3s. If you go back even farther in franchise history the A’s have had some of the greatest pitchers in the game like Lefty Grove and Eddie Plank. That’s why the last few years have been so strange for fans of the green and gold who watched retreads like Edwin Jackson and Brett Anderson anchoring the rotation for A’s teams who actually won and competed for the pennant. Well, it is time to trade in that Craig Minetto jersey because here comes the new wave of A’s rotation studs!
The last few seasons have been sweet surprises for A’s faithful who, if they are being honest, didn’t see back to back 97 win campaigns coming. One of the main reasons that fans and analysts alike were bearish on the A’s win totals was the team’s lack of a strong rotation. If you have been paying attention, you knew that help was on the way, but you’ve had to sit on your hands waiting for some guys to get healthy and other guys to grow up and push their way through the minors. The A’s haven’t had real rotation quality or depth in several years, but in 2020 the A’s will have several decisions to make during spring training that won’t involve scouring the list of unsigned free agent starting pitchers. Let’s just take last year’s rotation – there are three guys set to become free agents, and while the A’s have certainly learned the truth of the aphorism, “There is no such thing as too much starting pitching”, the A’s are unlikely to feel pressed to bring back everyone just because they can eat innings.
Brett Anderson was released by the Cubs mid-season in 2017, then signed by the Blue Jays and granted free agency three months later. The A’s signed him less than two weeks before the start of the regular season in 2018 and again before the start of the 2019 season. It was definitely one of Anderson’s best seasons as he made 31 starts and posted an ERA of 3.89 (ERA+ of 111). This represents only the 3rd time in his career that the 31 year old lefty made as many as 30 starts, but his strikeouts per 9 have been dropping steadily and now sits at 4.6. It would be a surprise if the A’s were to bring him back on anything other than a minor league contract, and considering Anderson’s 31 start season he might not be available to be stashed like that considering the dearth of starting pitching out there these days.
Tanner Roark is another of the three A’s starters who will be free agents at season’s end and while Roark also started 31 times this season including 21 times for the Reds pre-trade, he was extremely homer prone once he joined the A’s. At 33, Roark is an innings eater, but an expensive one if his last contract is any indication. Someone will pay him to come in and get 30 plus starts and deliver roughly league average numbers, but it probably won’t be the A’s after his less than thrilling audition. The third free agent to be is Homer Bailey. Bailey was another guy who the A’s counted on to deliver league average innings and make 31 starts. Bailey is interesting in that his control was quite good and it led to some really nice ratios – 8.3 K’s per 9 and only 1.8 walks per 9 in his time with the A’s. Bailey gives up his share of hits but isn’t overly home run prone. At 33 Homer might be starter out of the 3 that the A’s would be most likely to bring back because of his excellent control and ability to still get punch outs and keep the ball in the yard.
So who does that leave us? Where to start? There are two young but now established studs who will be in the rotation barring unforeseen complications. Frankie Montas (26) and Sean Manaea (27) have both looked like aces for the A’s, each striking out more than a batter an inning last year, although both have missed time in the last two years. Montas fashioned a 2.63 ERA last year but missed half the season because of a PED violation. Manaea missed most of the season after going down with a shoulder injury in 2018 but came back to close out 2019 with 5 starts and an ERA of 1.21. Manaea and Montas both looked like their beastly selves when they came back at the end of 2019 so that’s likely the top two spots in the A’s rotation right there. A veteran arm who is signed through next season is Mike Fiers. Fiers made 33 starts – yep, another 34 year old with 30+ starts – but Fiers is signed through 2020 and has been consistently mid-rotation reliable in his season and a half with the A’s. Fiers gives the A’s solid innings with good control and hasn’t made fewer than 29 starts since 2014. He is more than an inning eating security blanket, but while his 15-4 record makes him look like an ace, he is less than that. Fiers gives up a few too many home runs, but as long as he limits walks he will stay out of trouble. The fact that he only struck out 6.1 per 9 last season is less frightening because of the A’s excellent infield defense and his flyball tendencies in a home park that has lots of foul territory. Another veteran who will be back with the A’s is probably unfamiliar to the casual baseball fan. Chris Bassitt is 30 and had struggled with injury and inconsistency his whole career until 2019. Last season marks the first time Bassitt made as many as 20 starts and while he faded a bit at the end (possibly for that very reason), his 25 starts were quite valuable as he struck out just shy of 9 batters per 9 innings while limiting the free pass to just under 3 per 9 innings. With an ERA of 3.81 and an ERA+ of 113, Bassitt picked up on his limited success of 2018 and took off running with it. Bassitt’s four pitch mix will likely be back on display for the A’s in 2020 somewhere near the back of the rotation – testimony to their newfound depth.
The new guys are finally here! If you watched the end of the A’s season you saw two big call-ups – Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk. Luzardo and Puk are the two arms the A’s and dedicated A’s fans have been waiting for. Both youngsters – Luzardo is 22 and Puk is 24 – are top of the rotation arms. Puk made a strong case for the A’s rotation during the 2018 spring training before blowing out his elbow and missing all of that season plus most of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. The 6’7 lefty was used exclusively out of the pen where he flashed high 90’s heat during his 10 appearances with the A’s. He will almost certainly be a starter with innings limits in 2020. Luzardo also came out of the pen once he was called up for 6 appearances and absolutely dominated with his precision command, giving the A’s something to think about. He is a starter but his size – only 6’0 – and past arm issues might make the A’s at least consider using him as a dominating lefty multi-inning bullpen force. As a starter he is probably also a 1 or a 2 at his peak.
There are other arms on their way as some of their draft picks have developed while other injured hurlers have worked their way back from injuries. There are three arms that stand out as being close to the majors and all three of them have had serious issues with health. Their mid-season number 9 prospect, Dalton Jeffries has had cartoonish k/walk ratios (121 to 12 in his short career) as he worked his way up to double-A. At 24, Jeffries has had a hard time staying healthy and last year was the first time he has made as many as 5 starts (15) or pitched more than 12 innings (79) but if he is finally healthy, and can stay that way as his workload increases, then he will move quickly and probably see some games in Oakland in 2020.
James Kaprielian looks the part of the prototypical starting pitcher at 6’3, 210 lbs., but he has struggled mightily to stay on the field missing all of 2017 and 2018. At 25 he has pitched in a total of 27 games as a professional totaling just over 97 innings (with 111 strikeouts and 23 free passes, by the way). The A’s knew what they were up against when they traded for Kaprielian who was injured at the time. The truth is there is no way the A’s could have acquired him had he been healthy. Kaprielan was the Yankees #4 prospect at one time and a former first round pick. By the end of the season the right-hander had finally pitched in triple-A. This is going to sound a lot like Jeffries’ analysis, but a healthy Kaprielian could fight his way into the starting rotation even if that means spending half the season in Las Vegas polishing his pitches, hitting on soft 16, and proving that he is, in fact, finally healthy enough to climb back into the A’s top 10 prospect list.
When the A’s traded Rich Hill and Josh Reddick to the Dodgers they got back some interesting arms who have produced mixed results. One, Frankie Montas, you know about already. You might also know about Jharel Cotton who was in the big league rotation for a bit with his nasty curveball and tantalizing five-start audition in 2016. Or you might remember his ugly 24 start 2017 which was followed by Tommy John surgery. Cotton has been mostly forgotten as he just started pitching again, and not very effectively, in the minors in 2019. He has been passed by several A’s pitchers but he might provide more than rotation depth if he can get back to where he was in 2016. The other arm the A’s received from the Dodgers, Grant Holmes, was a top 5 prospect for the Dodgers after being chosen in the 1st round way back in 2014. It was starting to look like he would stall out at double-A before figuring something out last season and finally receiving a late-season promotion to triple-A. Holmes is only 23 so it’s not like he spent time teaching chemistry and throwing batting practice to the local JC when he was rediscovered. Holmes, like Cotton, and Jeffries is “undersized”, meaning he is shorter than 6’1 and there has been a prejudice against shorter pitchers in part because of the belief that to achieve effective velocity they have to throw with max effort all the time. Just for perspective, of the four horses pitching in this year’s World Series, Scherzer, Strasburg, Cole, and Verlander, Mad Max is the runt of the litter at 6’3. It seems like this is another example of the A’s taking advantage of a market inefficiency once again just as they did with on-base percentage. If Grant turns into a quality starter at the major league level, then the A’s come out on top of the trade even if Cotton never makes it back. It is likely that Holmes, Cotton, and Kaprielian will head up a fierce rotation at triple-A Vegas giving the A’s rotation depth they haven’t had in years.
And that’s not all! There are more starters out there – guys like Paul Blackburn, Daniel Megden, Tanner Anderson – who might see time in Oakland in 2020. That’s the thing about starting pitching. Guys break. Guys lose their command. Things change over time because pitching well in the majors is tough on your body and your brain. No team thinks that there is even a chance that the five guys they name out of spring training will be the five guys who make up the starting rotation at the end of the season. That said, here is what you should hope and expect the rotation will look like starting out the 2020 season. To start the season, the top three guys will be Manaea, Montas, and Fiers unless something changes dramatically in spring training. Those are the guys the A’s will depend on to take their turn every 5 days and deliver above average results. The order might differ somewhat from that and by the end of the season the 4th and 5th starters could break into the top three.
Chris Bassitt could be in the 4th spot as could A.J. Puk, and Jesus Luzardo. Interestingly, all 3 pitchers were good to great in the bullpen last season. Since the A’s will want to protect Luzardo and Puk as they quickly push past their previous highs in innings pitched, they have a few options. The most obvious option would be to stick one of them in the bullpen to limit their innings – Luzardo dominated there at the end of 2019. They could also go to a 6-man rotation to keep all their starter arms fresh and healthy, but that could become problematic if/when they get to the postseason and shorten their rotation, possibly halving the number of rest days for each of the chosen three or so starters. Another slightly weirder option -which they should actually do – would be to use Puk and Luzardo as tandem starters with each going somewhere between three and four innings in each shared start. It would limit their innings naturally, while still keeping the rotation intact and one of them could be quickly stretched out if someone fell out of the rotation. It would also be a built-in rest day for most of the bullpen if the tandem guys were expected to go 4 innings each. The starting pitching depth would support this because the A’s could use Megden and his ilk to fill in for a few turns as one of the tandem guys gets his pitch count up. This could also be an opportunity to let one of the young guys at triple-A get his feet wet in the bigs. While the temptation is there to just stick both Puk and Luzardo in the rotation and ride them to the postseason, Stephen Strasburg just showed what patience can do for a franchise who takes care of their young arms. When Strasburg first appeared in the majors and looked like the next coming of Nolan Ryan, the Nats took some heat for shutting him down to protect him when they had a chance to go deep into the postseason. Protecting him sure paid off this year, didn’t it? The A’s should see that as a lesson for how they should treat their plethora of young arms. They have assembled the depth to create a strong starting rotation while still benefiting from their talent in 2020 and beyond.
If you look at pitching trends the last few years you might think that durable starting pitchers were a thing of the past and that bullpens were where it was at. While there has certainly been a change in usage patterns of pitchers, you only need look at the 2019 World Series to see that teams with dominant, durable starting pitching have an advantage in the postseason. Two pairs of Cy Young candidates squared off against each other and we just watched one of the four go 8 and a third to get his club to a game 7. The A’s have hit on a formula to get them to the postseason and possibly win it all. They have employed average, durable innings eaters, who don’t walk many batters to get them to their tough bullpen arms. They’ve supported their pitching staff with excellent defense and run support. They did this not because they want an average starting staff but because they didn’t have a choice. Now they do. They finally have a choice, and they are going to start running electric arms out there and mixing them with durable innings eaters who don’t walk many batters. Mix that with their still excellent defense and their good pen and the A’s are going to start pushing on the Astros for control of the AL West.