The A’s rotation in flux – when promise becomes frustration.

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.

The A’s part ways with a big hitter – now what?

Shifting Sands In Oakland’s Infield
by Jim Silva
    Well, that didn’t take long. The A’s made a trade, this time moving arguably their best hitter from last season in Danny Valencia to Seattle for a minor league pitcher, Paul Blackburn. This is a move designed to give the A’s more pitching depth, and improve their defense. Valencia didn’t really have a spot anymore as the A’s had promoted his replacements near the end of last season. The move was timed to get something valuable for Valencia before he became expensive – a pretty typical A’s move. Let’s take a look at what it means for the A’s infield.
    Danny Valencia came to the A’s as a waiver claim from the Blue Jays late in the 2015 season. Valencia was crushing the ball at the time he was waived with a slash line of  .296/.331/.506 so it was surprising that Toronto would just let him go like that. Primarily a third baseman before the 2015 season, Valencia has also played both outfield corners, as well as first and second base, albeit none of them particularly well if you believe in defensive metrics. What Valencia has done well is hit baseballs really hard. 81.6% of the balls he hit were classified as hit with medium or hard (as opposed to soft) speed. His exit velocity is quite something. What he doesn’t do is control the strike zone – he doesn’t take kindly to that free base-on-balls claptrap – but his batting average mostly makes up for it. So Valencia is a pretty solid number five hitter and that is nothing to be sneezed at. That said, the Blue Jays sneezed and then so did the A’s in a way, although the A’s got back something of value in return. Why? Why does a guy who can hit and hit for power, and play the corners of the infield and outfield without turning it into a dumpster fire get moved around so much? Up until a couple seasons ago Valencia was pretty strictly a platoon player unable to hit righties, but that changed. The past two seasons Valencia has shown, and pretty clearly, that he can now not only hit righties, but hit them with power. Here is a wee graph showing his hitting against righties each of the last two seasons.
Not bad, eh? And that’s his “bad” side!
    Valencia’s glove is not his best tool, but again, he plays a clean corner without a ton of range or flash. So put him at DH or first base or left field and leave him in everyday and you are in pretty good shape. He was certainly better with the bat than anyone else the A’s have played at first base in either of the last two seasons. There were rumors about him as a clubhouse problem – don’t forget his fight with Billy Butler – but the guy can hit (including Billy Butler’s head) and the A’s certainly need bats. That ship has sailed to Seattle, and everyone pretty much knew it would sail sooner rather than later because of the usage patterns Valencia saw at the end of the season. The A’s were auditioning youngsters to take over at the corners. “What youngsters”, you ask?   
    Down on the farm are two men who can hit the ball very, very far when they actually hit the ball – and that “when” is a key qualifier, because Matt Chapman and Renato Nunez struck out a lot last season. Chapman draws more walks than Nunez but strikes out more often, but both men have legit power combining for 59 home runs in 2016. Nunez is only 22 and has a better hit tool than Chapman so with a full season at triple-A there is hope that he could be ready by 2018. Matt Olson also played first base (mostly an outfielder) and could be in the mix. Olson also has power, like Chapman and Nunez, but his plate discipline is much more advanced than the other two young corner men. Even though Olson is only 22 and hasn’t hit for average as he has moved up the organizational ladder, he appears to be more ready to play in the majors than either of the other youngsters. He will draw walks and hit with power even if his average is low, and that would be an improvement over what Bob Melvin wrote in to the A’s lineup last year. It will be interesting to see if they give him another year to grow in the tough hitting environment of Nashville to see if he can improve his average, or just take a shot with him at first or in a corner outfield spot right out of spring training. None of the three minor leaguers is a can’t miss prospect. Chapman is blocked by Ryon Healy (more on him later) at third for the time being, but he is only 23 with only 18 games at triple-A so what’s the rush? Nunez is coming off his first full season at triple-A where he hit .228 and he is only 22(you already said his age, just fyi), and Olson, also 22, hasn’t convinced the A’s yet that he is the answer (and he might be an answer in the outfield). So spring training should be fascinating as Oakland tries to figure out what to do to put a more viable team on the field at the big league level while still trying to develop some really interesting power hitting prospects.
    Another corner man who was down on the farm but came up for about half a season is third baseman, Ryon Healy. At 6’5, 225 Healy is a very large third baseman and hits the ball like one would expect from such a large man. Healy’s home run power just kicked in last season with 14 home runs in the minors and 13 with the big club – that’s 27 for those of you who are too tired to do the addition. The A’s young third baseman has hit at least .285 at every stop since 2014 – the only knock on his hitting is that he doesn’t walk often. His minor league slash line is .293/.332/.452, so until balls started leaving the park the knock on Healy was that a lot of offensive value was tied up in his batting average. Now the profile has changed a bit. He still needs to get on base, but his ability to score himself takes some of the pressure off his walk numbers. If Healy’s batting average drops below .270 then his value starts to fall off quickly. The young corner infielder succeeds, at this point in his short career, by making contact when he swings the bat, whether the pitch is in or out of the strike zone. He actually takes pitches at a slightly above average rate, so all this indicates that Healy’s swing is pretty tight and he can adjust quickly to pitches when he is fooled. Healy’s glove is just ok. It isn’t that he can’t make the plays at third, just that his range is limited. He has a strong arm, but ultimately might be best suited to first base. Healy is already the answer to one question the A’s had moving forward. They have a starting third baseman who will hit in the middle of the order. Looking at how Healy profiles, it looks a bit like how Valencia profiles, the difference being that Healy has room to grow and Valencia is getting more expensive. It would have been easy for the A’s to move Valencia to first or DH with some time in the corner outfield spots, allowing them to keep both players. Alas, the lure of a young pitcher and a smaller payroll appears to have been too much for the A’s to pass up.
    The other infield corner was handled mainly by Yonder Alonso in 2016. Many a fan and a couple GM’s have hoped that Yonder would finally figure it out and at least become a poor man’s Mark Grace pounding out 40 doubles a year while getting on base at a .350 clip. Uh, nope – hasn’t happened, and last season, while he managed 34 doubles, he also made a lot of outs. His wRC+ of 88 in 534 plate appearances means he hurt the A’s offense at a position that needs to be productive. The least he could have done was provide his normal excellent level of defense at first, but it just didn’t happen. According to UZR he was 1.1 runs below average while DRS had him at -3, not horrible marks – close to average in fact, but when you aren’t producing with the bat then you need to produce with the glove and Yonder did neither. At 29, one must wonder if it is too late to hope that Alonso turns into a league average starter someday. The A’s have Mark Canha coming back from a mostly lost season. Canha amassed only 44 at bats due to a hip injury, but in 2015 he showed power, and the ability to get on base while playing clean if unspectacular defense at first. The question is whether the A’s want to see ONE MORE TIME if Alonso can hit his projections, or perhaps play Canha in a corner outfield spot and give first to one of the youngsters.
    The middle of the A’s infield hasn’t been a strength for the A’s for a while. With Franklin Barreto, the man wearing the crown as the best A’s prospect, finishing the 2016 season with a taste of triple-A, the A’s might be close to having their best middle infield since 2005 when Bobby Crosby and Mark Ellis manned shortstop and second respectively, contributing a total of 8.4 WAR to a second place A’s team. The A’s are optimistic because Barreto profiles to be the best of the organization’s infielders when he is ready, and Marcus Semien, the incumbent, has turned himself into a valuable, if flawed, shortstop. Currently, the A’s have Marcus Semien blocking Barreto, but could easily move Semien to second if Barreto proves to be superior defensively (and ready). But lest we get ahead of ourselves here, young Franklin is only 20 and it is highly unlikely that the A’s will rush to install him in the majors until they are sure he can experience success. Right now, Marcus Semien is the shortstop and he hit 27 long balls in 2016 so he is unlikely to go anywhere. In his first season with the A’s, it looked like the young shortstop was overmatched in the field. Enter Ron Washington, infield coach spectacular, to work with Semien, and the young shortstop turns it around and has a solid second half greatly reducing his error totals. Much of the credit goes to Washington, but from all accounts Semien worked his butt off to improve. His second year as starting shortstop with Oakland was a mixed bag. His error totals went way down in more innings played so his fielding percentage increased 24 points from .947 to .971. At the same time his range numbers dropped – he didn’t get to quite as many balls, so depending on your defensive metric of choice, Semien either improved a bit or dropped off some. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) had him costing the A’s 3.7 runs with his glove – an improvement over 2015 when he cost them 10.0 runs. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) had Semien costing his team 6 runs this year after saving them 5 runs in 2015. Both metrics are measured in runs saved/cost so they are easy to compare and the bottom line is that he was adequate with the glove, especially in light of his power numbers. Right now the question is at second base where the A’s auditioned two youngsters in the second half of last year.
    Chad Pinder, who can play second or short, and Joey Wendle, who is a second baseman exclusively, both took a shot at showing the big club who should be the starter in 2017. But before we look at the kids, let’s remember who held down the position most of the season, Jed Lowrie. Lowrie, who mainly played second for the A’s, will play the season as a 33 year old, gets hurt a lot, is defensively challenged, and isn’t the hitter he used to be. In the recent past, teams could put up with his subpar defense because Jed would hit a bunch of doubles, pop double-digit home runs and hit for a decent average – not so much anymore. His career slugging percentage is at .400, but he only managed an anemic .322 mark last season, so it is hard to imagine why the A’s would want to use him much when they have multiple options who carry better gloves and are more interesting going forward. It would be surprising if Lowrie started the season on the A’s major league roster.
    Pinder didn’t show much with the bat at triple-A, but Nashville depresses batting average, home runs, and mediocre singers like few parks in existence, so it makes more sense to look at his career numbers to evaluate him. He didn’t cement himself as the starter during his 22 game tryout in Oakland, but he carries a career slash line of .280/.331/.450 in his minor league career. He doesn’t walk much so he has to get on base by way of the hit. He showed some doubles power in his 55 at bats in Oakland with four two-baggers. Pinder settled in during the last two months of the season hitting .276/.344/.517 keeping small sample size caveats in mind. Three errors led to a .914 fielding percentage at second base, but he is actually a decent middle infielder who can hang at second or short so again, beware of small sample sizes.
    Wendle is hard to pin down. He was a 6th round pick by the Indians in 2012 and the A’s traded for him before the 2015 season, sending Brandon Moss straight up for Wendle. He raked until he got to double-A and then his progress appeared to slow down. He has hit for a decent average for the majority of his minor league career although his strikeout rate increased and his walk rate decreased as he progressed through the system – career minor league slash line of .288/.340/.459. He shows some power, thumping 30 to 40 doubles and adding 10 to 15 homers a season. Playing in Nashville half the time likely depressed his stats so .279/.324/.452 looks better in that context. Wendle managed to not look completely overmatched in his first taste of the majors last season ending with a .260/.298/.302 slash line over 104 plate appearances, although he showed absolutely no power with 23 of his 25 hits being of the single variety. It’s difficult to figure out what he is like at this point. Is he a guy who will hit in the .260 to .275 range, who strikes out 100 times a season, and maybe pop a few long balls while getting on base at a .320 clip or will he be a doubles machine who gets on base at a .340 clip and drives 15 balls out of the park? Those are two different profiles with two greatly different values and the A’s hope they can figure out who Wendle is soon because he is 26 and running out of prospect status. If he turns out to be “Joey the Lesser” that’s not a bad placeholder to have, but Wendle isn’t likely to hang on to the starting position if that is his peak, even if you throw in his solid glove. Right now if forced to choose, the A’s should give Wendle a shot to hold onto the job, keep Pinder as the utility guy and give him regular at bats between second and shortstop and see what comes out in the wash. Wendle is two years older at 26 and can only play second, so the A’s need to find out what they have in him. Pinder can play both middle infield positions and did better than Wendle in his audition, so Pinder would give the A’s more flexibility if he doesn’t start the season as the starting second baseman.
    Max Shrock was acquired in a mid-season trade with the Nationals. The A’s gave up Marc Rzepczynski and cash to get the 2015 13th round pick. Shrock is a second baseman only and is 5’8 so why give up a useful bullpen arm and money to get him? The guy has done nothing but hit since his pro debut and is now at double-A. His career minor league stats so far are a slash line of .326/.369/.449. In 2016 spanning single-A and double-A he hit .331/.373/.449 with 43 extra-base hits and 22 steals in 28 attempts over 534 at bats. Shock only plays second base and at 22 has to keep up his current pace to push people out of the way, but so far he looks like he is up to the job and will likely crash the A’s top 10 prospects list this season.
    The A’s organization has a lot of middle infield prospects who look like they might pan out as big-leaguers. Richie Martin is an athletic shortstop who was a first round pick in 2015 and is already at double-A Midland where even I can hit. After a season that was mostly a mixed bag, Martin could move quickly if he can put it together at Midland. Yairo Munoz is another toolsy shortstop already at double-A – they just added him to the 40 man roster. He has shown power and speed, but not a lot of patience. It will be interesting to watch how the A’s handle having both him and Martin at double-A. Munoz and Martin will push Barreto, who will in turn push Semien, possibly to second, which would in turn push Wendle and Pinder to figure it out quickly. And then there is Shrock. The A’s have a lot of good options and tough decisions to come in the middle of the infield – sounds like a nice problem to have. The corner infield spots have options too – if Healy can just repeat what he did in half of 2016 for an entire season, and it looks like he just might, then the A’s are set at the hot corner for a while. First base is more problematic. I recently dismantled my Yonder Alonso shine and have moved on emotionally. I suggest the A’s do the same and try Canha there to start the season while the wait for one of Chapman, Olson, and Nunez to break away from the pack and push Canha to the outfield. The sun will shine again in Oakland Alameda County Coliseum one day soon  – well at least on the infield.