Since the off-season began, the Oakland A's have made four trades, sending seven players to other teams. In return, they have received 11 players. In addition, the A's have picked up several other non-roster players through a variety of avenues and are expecting a group of prospects back from injuries that limited them in 2011. While the team has released some players and has seen a few walk via free agency, they will still be entering the 2012 spring training with more talent than they had at the same time in 2011.
Having more talent is a good problem to have, but it will create some difficult roster decisions for the A's front office in the coming months. Below is a look at the starting pitchers and relievers within the A's system and how the backlog will impact minor leaguers throughout the system (note: we examined the positions most impacted by a potential backlog earlier this week: http://athletics.scout.com/2/1147709.html).
The A's may have said good-bye to three of their five top starters from 2011 (Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Rich Harden), but they still have plenty of starting pitchers with major league experience who will be vying for spots in the A's rotation this spring. Staff ace Brett Anderson will miss most of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last summer, but the A's do expect lefty Dallas Braden (who missed most of the 2011 season with shoulder problems) to be ready early on in 2012. Other starters returning to the team who made starts for the A's in 2011 include Brandon McCarthy, Guillermo Moscoso, Tyson Ross, Graham Godfrey and Josh Outman.
McCarthy and Moscoso are shoo-ins to make the A's Opening Day rotation, while Ross, Godfrey and Outman will be in the thick of what will be a heated competition for the other two or three spots. Through the team's trades this off-season, the A's acquired three young pitchers who made their major league debuts last season – Brad Peacock, Jarrod Parker and Tom Milone.
In addition, the A's signed longtime major league veteran Edgar Gonzalez to a minor league contract, as well as minor league veteran Fabio Castro (who has been mostly a starter during his lengthy minor league career and has major league experience as a reliever). All five pitchers will have legitimate chances to win rotation spots this spring. A's 2011 first-round pick Sonny Gray, a non-roster invitee to spring training, will also have an outside chance of winning a roster spot.
Of course, the A's will only be able to carry five starters on the Opening Day roster, and if Braden is healthy enough to pitch on Opening Day, the A's will only have two spots available for nine pitchers. In other words, either six or seven starters will be sent down to the minor leagues when the A's break camp, unless one or two are traded, released or moved to the bullpen.
With that many experienced starters heading to the minor leagues, the A's figure to have a crowded rotation in Triple-A Sacramento. Ross, Outman and Castro have significant experience coming out of the bullpen, but the A's are likely to give Ross and Outman – at the very least – significant starting rotation time if they are in the minors. Godfrey, Gonzalez, Gray, Peacock, Milone and Parker have been starters almost exclusively throughout their careers.
The most likely candidate from this group to go down to Double-A is Gray. The right-hander made his professional debut with Midland last season and was spectacular in five starts with the Rockhounds. However, he only has 22 professional innings under his belt, so some additional Double-A experience might not hurt. The rest of the group has way too much experience to send them back to the Double-A level.
So what does this mean for the A's minor league starters who are not invited to big league spring training? It could be bad news, especially for right-hander Travis Banwart and left-hander Carlos Hernandez. Over the past two seasons, Banwart has made 36 starts for the River Cats and has been one of Sacramento's most reliable starters during that stretch. Hernandez started last season in Double-A, but he made 19 starts for Sacramento in 2011. The left-hander has experience as a reliever as well as a starter and could be moved into the bullpen as a way to stick in Triple-A, but he has shown promise as a starter. The Bay Area native pitched well during the Mexican Winter League season as a starter, as well. Figuring out where Hernandez and, in particular, Banwart fit into the Sacramento picture could be tricky.
With no open spots in Triple-A, it would appear that 2011 Midland starters Anthony Capra, Gary Daley and Shawn Haviland are ticketed to return to the Texas League. Right-hander Yadel Marti, a veteran of the Cuban national team who pitched at three levels for the A's last season, is also a candidate for the Midland roster, although he is currently on the restricted list and may not return to the organization this spring.
There are starters who finished the 2011 season with High-A Stockton who the A's will need to make room for at the Double-A level. Right-hander A.J. Griffin was arguably the A's best minor league starter last year. He pitched at all four of the A's full-season levels, spending the most time at Low-A and High-A. Griffin should be the second starter in the Midland rotation next season behind Gray. Right-handers Daniel Straily and Murphy Smith also had solid seasons with Stockton in 2011 and deserve promotions to Midland.
Players returning from injury will also be wildcards for the Midland and Sacramento rotations. One is right-hander James Simmons. The A's 2007 first-round pick missed the 2010 season and part of the 2011 campaign with shoulder problems, but pitched the second half of last season pitching for Stockton. Simmons struggled with reduced velocity with the Ports, but the A's are hopeful that his arm strength will return in 2012. If it does, his skills and experience would make him a strong candidate for either Double-A or Triple-A.
Left-hander Ian Krol had a nightmare 2011 season that saw him miss half of the year with an elbow injury and a team suspension kept Krol off of the field for the rest of the year. Krol was spectacular during his first full professional season in 2010 with Low-A Kane County and Stockton. He was slated to pitch for Stockton before the elbow injury felled him last spring and is likely to be sent there again at the start of 2012, although a spectacular spring training could push Krol up to Double-A.
Right-hander Arnold Leon spent the 2009 season with the Midland Rockhounds and pitched briefly for the Rockhounds in 2010 before he injured his elbow during the first month of the season and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. He missed most of the 2011 season recovering from the surgery but is on-track to be ready for the 2012 campaign. Leon has spent most of his professional career as a reliever, but he showed promise as a starter at the tail-end of 2009 and could be a rotation candidate.
Like Leon, left-hander Pedro Figueroa had Tommy John surgery in 2010 and missed the majority of the 2011 season. The hard-thrower is a member of the A's 40-man roster and has an impressive fastball-slider combination. There has been talk about moving Figueroa to the bullpen, but he has been a starter throughout his career. Regardless of whether he is in the rotation or the bullpen, Figueroa is likely to start his 2012 season with Midland.
The biggest wildcard for the Midland pitching staff may be left-hander Sean Doolittle. The A's second pick in 2007 was a position player for the first five years of his professional career, but injuries have forced a move to the mound. Doolittle was a standout starter in college for Virginia and he was impressive during the A's fall Instructional League, flashing a mid-90s fastball and promising secondary pitches. Given that he is already five years into his professional career, his best path to the big leagues may be in the bullpen, but the A's could put him in the starting rotation to give him more innings to develop as a pitcher. Either way, he will likely start his season either with Stockton or Midland.
There are plenty of candidates for the Stockton rotation, as well. Right-hander A.J. Cole was acquired in the Gio Gonzalez deal with Washington and is now considered one of the top pitching prospects in the A's organization. The 20-year-old spent all of last season pitching for the Nationals' Low-A affiliate and he is more than ready for a spot in High-A. The A's front office will want to take a close look at their new prospect this season and will have that luxury with Cole pitching in Stockton.
There are a number of other talented arms who are candidates to pitch for Stockton in 2012. Left-hander Jake Brown spent most of the 2011 season with the Ports and is likely to return there to start the 2012 season. Right-handers Blake Hassebrock and Josh Bowman had strong seasons for Low-A Burlington in 2011 and should move up a level this season.
Right-hander Matt Thomson was one of the A's most promising 2010 draft picks, but labrum surgery cost him virtually the entire 2011 season. He was outstanding as a starter with short-season Vancouver and Stockton in 2010 and, if he is healthy, he could factor in the 2012 Stockton rotation. Another promising arm, left-hander Julio Ramos, is also expected to be back in 2012. He was scheduled to be in the Stockton rotation in 2010 before an elbow injury knocked him out for the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
There are several candidates for the Low-A Burlington rotation, as well. In addition to those who are pushed back from the Stockton rotation due to a lack of roster space, right-handers Blake Treinen, T.J. Walz, Jose Macias and Tyler Vail are all likely to be in the Bees' rotation. Newly acquired right-hander Raul Alcantara, a hard-thrower with a high ceiling, pitched at the short-season levels for the Boston Red Sox last season and is also ready for the jump to full-season ball. In addition, 2011 Vermont Lake Monsters Seth Frankoff, Brent Powers, J.C. Menna, Kurt Wunderlich and Tanner Peters will all draw strong consideration for spots in the Bees' Opening Day rotation.
This off-season, the A's cut ties with three of their most valuable relievers over the past three seasons, trading closer Andrew Bailey and left-hander Craig Breslow and releasing right-hander Michael Wuertz. Despite those loses, the A's still have a number of candidates to fill their bullpen.
The 2012 A's bullpen will be led by veterans Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes. Behind them is a group of young relievers who will vie for the final four or five slots. Right-hander Fautino De Los Santos had a strong rookie season with the A's last year, striking out 43 batters in 33.1 innings. He is virtually a lock to be on the Opening Day roster and could win the A's closer role.
The rest of the slots are open for competition. Right-handers Andrew Carignan, Ryan Cook, Joey Devine and Neil Wagner will be the main candidates. Starter candidate Tyson Ross could also factor into the bullpen equation if he doesn't win a rotation spot. From the left side, Jerry Blevins and Jordan Norberto will be the main competitors for the number two lefty role in the A's bullpen. Like Ross, Josh Outman could also be a factor in this competition if he fails to win a rotation spot.
Oakland has also signed a number of veteran relievers to minor league contracts who will be in camp as non-roster invitees. Right-handers Jim Miller, Travis Schlichting and Evan Scribner and left-handers Erick Threets and Fabio Castro all have major league experience and long minor league track records.
All told, the A's will likely be sending seven relievers back to Triple-A at the end of camp. This could be bad news for incumbent River Cats' relievers Bruce Billings and Justin Souza, as well as Trey Barham, who finished the year on the River Cats' post-season roster. Billings spent a full year at Triple-A last year and made his major league debut, while Souza and Barham pitched well at Double-A.
Right-hander Paul Smyth may also have to repeat at Double-A despite having put a full season in at the level last year. Right-hander Brett Hunter is also likely to repeat at Double-A and left-hander Ben Hornbeck could be in the Midland bullpen again, as well, if he is healthy. Right-handers Josh Lansford and Jose Guzman and left-hander A.J. Huttenlocker all had standout seasons in the Stockton Ports' bullpen and would likely have little to gain by having to repeat at High-A in 2012. Right-hander Ryan Doolittle pitched extremely well for Stockton last season before an injury ended his season early. He is expected back at the start of 2012 and is a candidate for the bullpens in Midland or Stockton.
The Sacramento and Midland bullpen situations could be further complicated if the A's choose to have Arnold Leon, Pedro Figueroa, Anthony Capra and/or Sean Doolittle pitch out of the bullpen rather than the rotation.
Injuries will likely thin out some of this backlog, especially as the season goes on, but if everyone is healthy through spring training, the A's player development staff will have a big challenge on their hands to determine the best place for players at all levels of the organization.