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: Healy moves into three spot, LaMarre gets first start

A's lineup: Healy moves into three spot, LaMarre gets first start

Bob Melvin has issued his lineup as the A's try to snap a five-game losing streak in Game 2 of a series against the Astros.

Oakland A's (10-13)

1. Jaff Decker (L) RF
2. Jed Lowrie (S) 2B
3. Ryon Healy (R) DH
4. Khris Davis (R) LF
5. Yonder Alonso (L) 1B
6. Trevor Plouffe (R) 3B
7. Stephen Vogt (L) C
8. Chad Pinder (R) SS
9. Ryan LaMarre (R) CF
Andrew Triggs -- RHP 


Houston Astros (15-8)

1. George Springer (R) CF
2. Josh Reddick (L) RF
3. Jose Altuve (R) 2B
4. Carlos Correa (R) SS
5. Carlos Beltran (S) LF
6. Yuli Gurriel (R) 1B
7. Brian McCann (L) C
8. Evan Gattis (R) DH
9. Alex Bregman (R) 3B
Joe Musgrove -- RHP

Reddick gets best of old roommate Healy, and the A's

Reddick gets best of old roommate Healy, and the A's

HOUSTON — Enduring a five-game losing streak is tough enough on its own.

Watching a former teammate play a part in prolonging the misery is worse.

Josh Reddick wasn’t the most dominant player on the field Friday for the Astros, but he picked his spots to make his presence felt, and that added a little salt to the wound for the A’s in a 9-4 defeat that was their fifth in a row. They’ve now lost 10 straight times to Houston.

Reddick was mad at himself after not making the play on Ryon Healy’s double in the sixth inning. He got another chance in the eighth and robbed his former roommate with a terrific catch as he slammed into the wall to end the inning. That stranded two runners and preserved what was a 7-4 lead at the time.

“Any time you’re playing against your former team you wanna do well against them. Beating them makes it a little bit sweeter,” Reddick said. “But when you can make a catch against a guy you became pretty good buddies with in a tight situation, it adds more to that.”

After Healy got his first big league call-up last July, and before the A’s traded Reddick to the Dodgers on Aug. 1, Reddick invited the rookie to move into his house as he cut his teeth in the bigs.

“I’m going to be giving Ryon a lot of crap, I guess you could say,” Reddick said afterward. “He gave me a little signal and finger wave and shook his head on the (double). I got him back and a little bit of payback.”

Reddick, who signed a four-year $52 million free agent deal with Houston in the offseason, was a pest to the A’s in more unconventional ways too. Twice he reached base on catcher’s interference calls when his bat hit the mitt of Stephen Vogt, another of Reddick’s closest friends on the A’s. It happened in the bottom of the first and contributed to the Astros’ three-run rally that tied the game off Jharel Cotton after the A’s had grabbed a 3-0 lead on Khris Davis’ three-run homer.

Vogt talked about both interference plays with mild disgust, more upset with the situation itself than Reddick personally.

“Typically I’m pretty far back behind the batter," Vogt said. “Reddick, I guess, has a pretty long swing when he’s trying to go the other way. … It’s just one of those freak things that obviously I’m not real thrilled about. It’s just frustrating. You don’t see it very often. It’s not really how you swing the bat typically, but he does a good job going the other way, and it’s on me. I’ve gotta make sure I’m far enough back and not reaching for the ball.”

As for Reddick’s important catch in the eighth, Vogt said:

“It’s hard to see him in a different uniform, and I know he loved it here as well. It’s hard to see him playing against us 19 times. To see him making catches like that, it’s not very much fun when he’s not wearing green.”

However, the A’s have more pressing issues than getting stung by old friends. They’ve struck out 57 times over the past five games, and with each day that passes, it’s increasingly clear how much they miss the speed and playmaking ability of center fielder Rajai Davis, as well as the offensive production of shortstop Marcus Semien. Both are on the disabled list, Davis for the short term with a strained hamstring and Semien likely for a couple of months due to wrist surgery.

Cotton wasn’t sharp, allowing a career-high 10 hits and failing to protect two early leads he was given. Those are the growing pains that will come for a rookie pitcher. What the A’s can’t afford are three-error nights like they had Friday and continuing to whiff at their current rate.

“When we went through our winning streak, we played real clean games, and now we’re a little shoddy,” manager Bob Melvin said. “There’s a psychological play that goes with that. When you’re not making plays and giving extra outs, it makes it tougher on pitchers and tougher mentally.”