A's position outlook: Gray holds the key for rotation

A's position outlook: Gray holds the key for rotation

The 2016 stats show how frustrating of a season it was for the A’s starting rotation, but out of that mess came signs of promise.

Kendall Graveman took a big step forward in his second big league season and led Oakland’s staff in victories and innings pitched. Sean Manaea improved over the course of his rookie campaign and showed flashes of why the A’s are so high on him. Jharel Cotton, in his September audition, positioned himself well to win a spot in this year’s rotation.

Those developments were the positives to be salvaged for a starting staff that posted the second highest ERA in the American League (4.84) and threw the second fewest innings in Oakland history.

Surely, the biggest question for the rotation is whether Sonny Gray can regain the form that made him an All-Star and Cy Young finalist in 2015. Injuries and command issues dropped Gray to a 5-11 record and 5.69 ERA last year.

“Everybody’s going to go through a down season if you’re around long enough,” manager Bob Melvin said. “I think it just kind of snowballed in the wrong direction for him last season … It was just a very tough year for him, but I think the really good ones take that and learn from it. Maybe take a half-step backward and move forward. The talent level is still there. I know he’s looking forward to bouncing back and being the ace again.”

STARRING CAST:

Gray worked with a personal trainer this offseason. He says his legs are stronger and he likes the way his delivery has felt in recent sessions off the mound. How he fares in the World Baseball Classic pitching for Team USA might shed light on whether he’s ironed out some of last year’s issues.

Between Gray’s storyline and the talk of Oakland’s young starters, Melvin thinks Graveman goes a bit unnoticed. Certainly his strides last season were big for the A’s, as Graveman (10-11, 4.11, 186 IP) was the only regular starter to avoid the disabled list. Things clicked once he found the feel for his sinker and began throwing that pitch more often and with conviction. A bump in velocity also aided Graveman’s cause. He’ll be looked to for veteran leadership and stability.

Can Manaea make the jump and become a front-of-the-rotation starter? The 6-foot-5 lefty struggled to a 2-4 record and 6.02 ERA over his first nine major league starts. But after spending two weeks on the D.L. in June for a forearm strain, the rookie came back a different pitcher. From June 29 on, Manaea went 5-5 with a 2.74 ERA over his final 16 games (15 starts). That ERA following his D.L. stint was fifth-best in the AL.

CAMP COMPETITION:

Cotton, the first of three young right-handers from the Josh Reddick/Rich Hill trade to crack the A’s roster, shined in his September stint, posting a 2.15 ERA and .185 opponents’ batting average over five starts. That gives him an inside track on a starting spot. As for the fifth starter, there are no shortage of candidates.

The A’s feel Andrew Triggs, a waiver claim last spring who pitched well when pressed into starting duty, has the repertoire to succeed in the rotation. A wild card is Jesse Hahn, who failed to make last year’s Opening Night roster after a disappointing spring and was sidetracked by injuries later in the year. Melvin is straightforward in saying Hahn has lost ground to others as the A’s have improved their pitching depth, but the lanky right-hander possesses good natural stuff when healthy, so he can’t be counted out. Raul Alcantara got a brief look in the rotation last season but needs to improve his breaking ball to go with his fastball and changeup.

Daniel Mengden made a splash in his initial call-up last season before eventually being sent down, but if he can take that experience and make adjustments, he’ll be in the mix. Hard-throwing Frankie Montas, another pitcher from the Hill/Reddick trade, will get a chance to start in the minors, but don’t be surprised if he eventually earns a promotion to the bigs as a reliever.

PAY ATTENTION TO: How Chris Bassitt and Felix Doubront proceed in their Tommy John rehabs. Both broke camp in the A’s rotation last season before suffering season-ending elbow injuries. Neither is expected to be ready at the start of the season, but a healthy return from either or both would be a big boost to the A’s starting depth.

A's lineup: Young faces throughout as Athletics start series vs White Sox

A's lineup: Young faces throughout as Athletics start series vs White Sox

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Astros-A's coverage begins at 4 p.m. with Pregame Live on NBC Sports California and streaming right here.

The latest A's youth movement embarks on its first road trip when they visit the south side of Chicago and the White Sox. Manager Bob Melvin has issued his lineup for Game 1 of the series.

Chicago White Sox:
1. Melky Cabrera (S) LF
2. Jose Abreu (R) 1B
3. Avisail Garcia (R) RF
4. Todd Frazier (R) 3B
5. Matt Davidson (R) DH
6. Tim Anderson (R) SS
7. Yolmer Sanchez (S) 2B
8. Kevan Smith (R) C
9. Adam Engel (R) CF
RHP -- Mike Pelfrey 

Oakland A's:
1. Matt Joyce (L) LF
2. Matt Olson (L) RF
3. Jed Lowrie (S) 2B
4. Khris Davis (R) DH
5. Yonder Alonso (L) 1B
6. Ryon Healy (R) 3B
7. Chad Pinder (R) SS
8. Bruce Maxwell (L) C
9. Jaycob Brugman (L) CF
RHP -- Jharel Cotton

 

New-look A's continue the youth movement with Maxwell's arrival

New-look A's continue the youth movement with Maxwell's arrival

OAKLAND — The A’s set off for Chicago on Thursday evening to begin their next road trip, and how their dynamic has changed over the course of one week.

They began their most recent homestand by cutting ties with veteran third baseman Trevor Plouffe to make room for hotshot prospect Matt Chapman. On Thursday, catcher Stephen Vogt suffered the same fate as Plouffe, getting designated for assignment to make room for another young player in Bruce Maxwell.

The calendar may still read June, with more than half of the season remaining, but the A’s are cleaning house, undergoing a reboot and playing the rest of 2017 with an emphasis on what lies ahead.

Five of the nine position players in their starting lineup for Thursday’s 12-9 loss to the Houston Astros are what you would consider “future” guys — center fielder Jaycob Brugman, third baseman Ryon Healy, second baseman Chad Pinder, Maxwell and right fielder Matt Olson.

They will shuffle around the diamond a bit, and Olson may only stay with the big club until Chapman comes off the disabled list (though Olson’s full-time status in the bigs doesn’t seem far off). Regardless, the plan is crystal clear — the A’s are hitching their wagon to their young core and are prepared to let them develop at the major league level, with whatever successes and failures may come with the growth process.

“We do get excited about giving these guys playing time,” A’s general manager David Forst said before Thursday’s game.

The Astros finished off a four-game sweep of Oakland with their 12-9 victory, jumping out to a 10-0 lead and then holding on after the A’s mounted a late charge. Glance up and down the box score, and those key young players were instrumental in so much that went right for the A’s.

Maxwell went 3-for-4 with an RBI. Olson drove in two runs. Pinder had two hits and an RBI. Brugman chipped in an RBI single and walked twice. That was the silver lining on a day that starting pitcher Jesse Hahn struggled mightily, allowing nine earned runs in just two innings.

“These guys are gonna be important,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “The last thing you want to see when you’re down 10-0 is guys just cash it in, and that wasn’t the case. These guys all have something to play for. They’re playing for jobs. And in the future, starting jobs.”

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, middle infielder Franklin Barreto will join the mix from Triple-A Nashville. For now, an immediate storyline is the health of Chapman, who joined the 10-day disabled list with a case of cellulitis (bacterial infection) in his left knee. The A’s checked him into a hospital Wednesday night to get an intravenous antibiotic, after his condition “plateaued” with oral antibiotics, according to Forst.

He said Chapman is likely to leave the hospital Friday, and the A’s are hopeful the rookie third baseman will be able to return when he’s eligible to come off the D.L. His stint can be backdated to Monday, meaning Chapman is eligible to return next Thursday at Houston.

He’s part of the youth movement that resulted in Vogt getting shown the exit. Maxwell sent Vogt a text message wishing him the best Thursday morning, and Vogt quickly responded, wishing him the best. That meant a lot to Maxwell, who didn’t learn until Thursday morning that his roster spot was coming at Vogt’s expense.

But Maxwell said he’s excited to be surrounded by so many players that he’s advanced through the minors with.

“Once we get everybody acclimated to each other and the game up here,” he said, “I feel like we could potentially set up a turning point for this organization for years to come.”