The Oakland A’s made two significant mid-season trades to acquire starting pitching, but most – if not all – of that starting pitching is likely to be gone next year. With two of their top starters from the 2013 season on the mend from Tommy John surgeries and much of the current staff set to return for 2015, the A’s could go a few different directions with their pitching staff next season and beyond.
Where the A’s go beyond 2015 remains to be seen. We take a look at what the A’s might do with their starting rotation and their bullpen for 2015 and beyond.
The Decision For Next Year: Keep or trade Jeff Samardzija
Starting Pitchers To Watch: Dillon Overton, Seth Streich, Raul Alcantara (for now), Arnold Leon, Josh Lindblom, Dylan Covey, Daniel Gossett, Brett Graves, Chris Kohler, Branden Kelliher, Dustin Driver, Jesus Zambrano
Although starting pitching was considered a strength of the A’s all season, Oakland made two big moves this July that netted the team three starting pitchers for their major-league rotation. Two of those pitchers – Jon Lester and Jason Hammel – are free agents after the season is over and aren’t expected to return to Oakland. The third – Jeff Samardzija – will be in his final year of arbitration-eligibility in 2015. What the A’s decide to do with Samardzija will likely shape the team’s entire off-season.
Going into next year, even without Lester, Samardzija and Hammel, the A’s have four starting pitchers who have given them a lot of quality innings this season set to return – Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez and Drew Pomeranz. The A’s also have two wild cards in the mix – Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin – who could be significant contributors to the A’s 2015 campaign if they heal in time from their 2014 Tommy John surgeries.
Parker had his surgery in March, so he could conceivably return to the A’s rotation in April, although given that this is his second go-around with the surgery, he is likely to need more than 12 months to recover. Griffin is more likely to be on a timetable similar to the one that Brett Anderson was on in 2012. That season, Anderson returned to the A’s rotation for the final two months of the year, giving the A’s a late-season boost.
It’s difficult to count on players returning from significant surgeries like Parker and Griffin to be key contributors the year after their surgeries, however. If the A’s plan to contend in 2015, they may need to hold onto to Samardzija or go out and acquire another fifth starter to ensure that they have five quality starters healthy at the start of the 2015 campaign.
The decision on whether to keep Samardzija or trade him will be a tricky one. On the one hand, Samardzija figures to be one of the top starting pitchers available to be acquired this off-season. On the other hand, there are several top-flight starting pitchers who will be hitting free agency (including Lester), which will diminish Samardzija’s value on the trade market (this is reportedly one of the reasons the A’s chose to target Lester rather than David Price with their July 31st deal). The A’s may also be competing with the Tigers for the best trade package should Detroit decide to make the newly acquired Price available this off-season.
Trading Samardzija would give the A’s a chance to recoup some of the talent they gave up to acquire him, but if they aren’t able to get a package similar to the one they sent to the Chicago Cubs, they would be better off keeping him and making him a qualifying offer at the end of the 2015 season. The A’s were on the wrong talent of the talent-sum-game in 2009 when they sent a big package of talent to Colorado to acquire Matt Holliday and then flipped him for a much less valuable package of talent later that year. A full season of contributions from Samardzija for a contending team like the A’s hope to have next season would be more valuable than a marginal package of talent.
The A’s could also consider dealing Kazmir, who will be in the final year of the two-year contract he signed with the A’s last off-season. Samardzija may be a better bet to give the A’s 200+ innings in 2015 than Kazmir, so if the A’s had to choose between keeping one or the other, the choice may land on trading Kazmir.
If the A’s keep both Kazmir and Samardzija, they will be in the enviable position of being able to be patient with the recoveries of Parker and Griffin. Griffin has experience pitching out of the bullpen in college and early on in his minor league career and could come back as a reliever at the end of 2015 if the A’s have five healthy and effective starters when he is ready to pitch. Parker made a few relief appearances for the Diamondbacks as a rookie, although he doesn’t have the extensive experience as a reliever that Griffin does.
Chavez will be arbitration-eligible for the next two seasons and then is eligible for free agency in 2017. Parker’s first year of arbitration-eligibility will be next season and he is eligible for free agency in 2018. The A’s have more time with Gray (arbitration-eligible in 2017; free agent in 2020), Pomeranz (arbitration-eligible in 2016; free agent in 2019) and Griffin (arbitration-eligible in 2016; free agent in 2019).
Oakland will need to use all of the years of team control they have from the group above to bridge the gap to their next round of starting pitching prospects, unless the A’s acquire a major-league ready starting pitching prospect this off-season.
The A’s have produced a remarkable amount of starting pitching talent over the past few years, but the system is pretty thin on starting pitchers at the moment. Injuries, promotions and trades have ravaged the A’s minor league starting pitching depth. The only Triple-A starters on the A’s 40-man roster right now are Pomeranz, Arnold Leon, Josh Lindblom (who has been on the DL since July 1) and the newly acquired Deck McGuire. Leon and Lindblom are likely best suited for the bullpen in the major leagues and McGuire is (an albeit interesting) reclamation project as a former first-round pick who stalled in the Toronto Blue Jays’ chain.
The A’s top pitching prospect coming into this season was right-hander Raul Alcantara, who had a strong spring training and looked poised for a big season with Double-A Midland before going down with an elbow injury in mid-April. He had Tommy John surgery and is out for the year. Alcantara won’t turn 22 until December and he figures to be back on the mound in games by mid-season next year, but he isn’t likely to factor in the A’s future. He is the rumored “Player to be Named Later” in the deal with the Cubs that netted the A’s Samardzija and Hammel.
The A’s next-best starting pitching prospect was right-hander Seth Streich, who was out-pitching everyone in the A’s system this season. Unfortunately, he left his start last week with a right shoulder injury that could keep him out for the rest of this season and could impact next year, depending on the final diagnosis.
Right-hander Dylan Covey, a 2013 draft pick, was recently promoted to High-A Stockton after starting the season in Low-A Beloit. Covey has big-league starter stuff – a mid-90s four-seam fastball, a devastating 88-91 MPH two-seam sinker, an above-average curveball and a solid change-up. That stuff has produced mixed results thus far this year, however, as Covey has a 5.17 ERA and only 73 Ks in 109.2 innings. However, his groundball rate has been through the roof and the A’s feel that adjustments with the way he chooses to attack hitters will allow his results to match his talent. He could make big strides next season.
After Alcantara, Covey and Streich, the rest of the A’s top-flight starting pitching prospects are in short-season ball. Dillon Overton, the A’s second-overall pick in 2013, had Tommy John surgery shortly after last year’s draft. He returned to the mound with the A’s Rookie League team in June and, after a strong month in the desert, was promoted to short-season Vermont on Wednesday. Overton is still regaining his pre-surgery velocity, but his command and secondary pitches have been sharp. If he gets back his velo in short order, he could move relatively quickly through the A’s system.
The A’s spent their second- and third-overall picks this draft on two polished collegiate starters: Daniel Gossett and Brett Graves. Both are in Vermont getting their feet wet in pro ball. Both have promise, but both are so new to professional baseball, it is hard to have a timeline on their arrival to the big leagues. Chris Kohler and Dustin Driver were drafted out of high school last season, but both have been hampered by injuries this year and are many years away from the big leagues. Jesus Zambrano is a promising 17-year-old right-hander, but he, too, is several years away, as is 18-year-old 2014 draft pick Branden Kelliher.
It is worth noting that the A’s have a track record of finding quality major league starters who weren’t highly touted prospects. Pitchers such as Chris Jensen, Zach Neal, Nate Long, Sean Murphy, Drew Granier, Kyle Finnegan and Chris Lamb could fall into that category in the near future.
Despite the disastrous stretch of pitching by the recently released Jim Johnson, the A’s bullpen ranks second in the American League in ERA this season with a 2.81 mark (going into Wednesday). A’s relievers have walked the fewest of any unit in the league by far and have held opposing batters to the lowest OPS.
Most of the A’s current bullpen is set to return next season. Set-up man Luke Gregerson is in his final year of arbitration-eligibility this year and the A’s will have to decide whether he fits into their budget moving forward. He has been very effective as the A’s primary right-handed set-up man, but the re-emergence of Ryan Cook as a reliable right-handed set-up option could lead to the A’s letting Gregerson go on the free agent market.
Left-handed set-up man Eric O’Flaherty signed a two-year free agent deal with the A’s last fall, so he is under contract for 2015. Closer Sean Doolittle was locked up on a multi-year deal earlier this season, a move that is looking wiser and wiser for the A’s as Doolittle’s dominance continues to extend. Cook, Dan Otero and Fernando Abad are all under team control for several more years: Cook and Abad are arbitration-eligible for the first time next season, while Otero isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2016.
Jesse Chavez is likely to move back to the starting rotation next season, and, in doing so, would open a spot up in the A’s bullpen. Oakland has two right-handers in Triple-A who have pitched well for them in limited appearances this year – Evan Scribner and Fernando Rodriguez – and both should receive significant consideration for spots in the A’s bullpen next season. Both will be out of options next year, so if they don’t make the team out of spring training, they are likely to be traded.
Left-hander Joe Savery has pitched well in a relief role at the Triple-A level in his first season in the A’s organization. Savery, like Scribner and Abad, will be out of options next season. He will have a harder time making an A’s bullpen that already features three left-handers (Doolittle, O’Flahery and Abad), but the A’s could turn to Savery if they deal Abad or O’Flaherty before Opening Day next year, or lose one of those lefties to an injury.
Beyond the aforementioned group, the A’s have plenty of minor league bullpen talent that could factor into the team’s future for the next several years. Current starters Arnold Leon and Josh Lindblom both have extensive experience and success as relievers. In addition, current Triple-A relievers Seth Frankoff, Tucker Healy, Paul Smyth and Jeff Urlaub (who is injured but should return next season) should all be major-league ready next season.
Beyond that group, the A’s have several promising relief arms at the A-ball level. Hard-throwing right-handers Austin House and Nolan Sanburn have been very impressive for Stockton this year and could move through Double-A quickly next season. Michael Ynoa still remains an enigma, but his fastball has been clocked as high as 102 this season and his slider is the best in the A’s system. Bobby Wahl just joined the Ports from Low-A and the 2013 draft pick has been very difficult to hit since moving from the rotation to the bullpen mid-season. Kris Hall, Sam Bragg and Lee Sosa all have good stuff, while 2014 draft picks Brendan McCurry and Joel Seddon have already opened some eyes in Low-A.
On top of all of that young relief talent in the big leagues on down, the A’s carry with them a track record as an organization of finding excellent relievers on the waiver wire and the minor league free agent market. They should continue to have a solid bullpen moving forward for the foreseeable future.