It has been a case of good news/bad news for the Oakland A's pitching staff this week. The team received a bit of good news with the continued progress of All-Star closer Andrew Bailey in his recovery from a spring training arm injury. However, the team also learned that starter Dallas Braden will miss an extended period, likely the year, with a torn shoulder capsule.
These two developments not only have an impact on the A's at the major league level, but they also reverberate throughout the organization, from Triple-A down through the A's Single-A affiliates.
Let's begin with the impact of Braden's injury. The most immediate effect, of course, is that right-hander Tyson Ross, who took Braden's place in the rotation when Braden landed on the disabled list, is in the A's rotation to stay. Ross began the year on the Triple-A Sacramento roster, but he was promoted to Oakland in what was first a bullpen role before the River Cats' season even began.
Since coming to the big leagues, Ross has made a strong case for staying. In 28.2 innings, he has a 2.51 ERA. His K:BB ratio is unimpressive (16:12), but he is inducing a lot of groundballs and has yet to allow a homerun. As a starter he has a 2.28 ERA in four turns through the rotation.
Ross has had a rapid ascent into the A's rotation. The team's 2008 second-round pick, he made the major leagues as a reliever last season before ever throwing a pitch at the Triple-A level. He did get a handful of innings in Triple-A midway through the 2010 season, but an arm injury prevented Ross from building up too much experience at that level. Before the season, conventional wisdom was that Ross would need a little more time in Triple-A to fine-tune his command and gain experience. Thus far, that conventional wisdom is proving to be faulty.
Ross isn't a veteran and he does have a long injury history, so adding him into the rotation in the place of a veteran like Braden does make it more important for the A's to have quality depth at the Triple-A level in the starting rotation. Currently that depth is there at the ready.
The River Cats feature a number of starters with major league experience in the rotation, including left-hander Bobby Cramer, who was on the A's Opening Day roster as a reliever and was the team's fifth starter in September last year. Josh Outman, another left-hander and former member of the A's rotation, is healthy after missing a year and a half recovering from Tommy John surgery. Outman is still fighting his command, but he has allowed only four runs over his last 16 innings and his velocity is back in the 90s. It should be only a matter of time before he is a viable candidate for the big league rotation.
Former Texas Rangers right-hander Guillermo Moscoso is having a good season for the River Cats. He has a 32:9 K:BB ratio and has allowed one run or fewer in four of his six starts. Yadel Marti, the former Cuban national team star, has been inconsistent for the River Cats, but right-handers Travis Banwart and Graham Godfrey have been very good. Godfrey, in fact, has been the River Cats' top starter despite starting the year in Double-A, although he is currently on the disabled list. None of those three have major league experience, but the A's haven't been afraid to move rookies into their rotation in the past.
Should another rotation spot open up at any point during the season, it will have a major ripple effect in the lower levels of the minor leagues. Double-A Midland starters Carlos Hernandez and Anthony Capra are repeating the level and both would be candidates to get the opportunity that Godfrey did at the beginning of the season to move up into the Sacramento rotation. Ethan Hollingsworth, who was acquired for Clayton Mortensen this off-season, is pitching well for Midland and would be a candidate for promotion should a spot open in Sacramento. Moving Hernandez, Hollingsworth or Capra to Triple-A would allow the A's to promote a starter from High-A Stockton.
The A's are going to need to open a spot in the Stockton rotation for left-hander Ian Krol when he is ready to return from rehabbing a forearm strain at extended spring training. The A's also have a number of prospects pitching extremely well in the Low-A Burlington rotation would be considered for a spot in Stockton, including Blake Hassebrock, A.J. Griffin and Jake Brown, should a spot open in the Ports' rotation.
While injuries or trades at the big league level often create opportunities for advancement, more difficult decisions have to be made when players get healthy at the big league level, as will be the case if Bailey is activated off of the disabled list. The A's are currently carrying seven relievers in their bullpen. On Wednesday they swapped out left-hander Jerry Blevins and brought-up right-hander Trystan Magnuson. However, they are going to have to make another move in two weeks if Bailey returns from the disabled list as planned.
The most obvious move would be to send Magnuson back down to Triple-A when Bailey returns given that he will have the least experience of anyone in the bullpen. However, if he gets into a few games before Bailey returns and is pitching well, the A's may choose to send down another reliever. Their options will be limited, however, as only Bailey and Brad Ziegler have options remaining among the rest of the A's current relief staff.
If Magnuson is sent down or if the A's designate another reliever for assignment and he clears waivers, that player's return to the minors will have an impact on the Triple-A Sacramento bullpen. The River Cats' bullpen is currently filled with veterans with the exception of right-hander Fautino De Los Santos, who was promoted to Triple-A from Double-A Midland on May 5. Of the current River Cats' relievers, De Los Santos would be the most obvious choice to send down to Double-A given his lack of experience, but he is the least likely choice – with the exception of Joey Devine – from an organizational development perspective to be sent to Double-A. De Los Santos and Devine are pitchers the A's envision in back-end of the bullpen roles for years to come. In De Los Santos' case, the A's would like to see how he handles Triple-A hitters on an extended basis having never pitched at the level before.
The other relievers in the River Cats' bullpen are veterans: Joe Bateman, Vinnie Chulk, Willie Eyre, Gabe DeHoyos, Fernando Cabrera and now Jerry Blevins. With the exception of Blevins, the others all signed with the A's as minor league free agents during the off-season with the expectation that they would be pitching in Triple-A if they weren't in the big leagues. If the A's need to make a move involving one of those pitchers, they may have to release the pitcher to make a spot in the bullpen rather than demoting him.
The veteran make-up of the River Cats' bullpen has made it difficult for the A's to find spots for in Triple-A for relievers such as Jon Meloan, Justin Souza, Mickey Storey and Jared Lansford, who are all currently in the Midland bullpen and have at least a full season of Double-A already under their belts, as well as experience at Triple-A and, in the case of Meloan, in the big leagues. Moving anyone down from the Triple-A bullpen to Midland will further decrease the A's opportunities to move up any of the aforementioned pitchers.
All of these considerations are what A's Director of Player Personnel Keith Lieppman and his staff have to take into account whenever there is a move at the major league level because it invariably impacts the A's depth chart up and down the system.