Oakland A's Depth Charts: Starting Pitchers

Spring training has begun and the Oakland A's depth charts are starting to come into focus. Over the past few weeks, we have been looking at how the A's depth stacks up at each position. In the seventh piece of this series, we look at the A’s starting pitching depth chart.

Note: This article is the seventh in a series that will look at how the A’s depth chart lines up at each position. Depth charts go from the big leagues down to the lowest levels. These depth charts are not meant to be prospect rankings, as a top prospect may be further from the big leagues than a player at Triple-A with more experience but a lower ceiling projection.

Big League Depth

Secured Spots: Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir
In-the-Running (40-man roster): Jesse Chavez, Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt, Sean Nolin, Kendall Graveman, Drew Pomeranz, Arnold Leon
In-the-Running (non-roster): Barry Zito, Brad Mills, Matt Buschmann, Ryan Verdugo, Rudy Owens
Mid-Season Reinforcements: Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin

Going into spring training last year, the Oakland A’s appeared to have plenty of starting pitching depth. However, when two-fifths of the A’s projected starting rotation went down with season-ending elbow injuries, the A’s were left with little margin for error when it came to depth in their rotation. The Oakland starting five held up just fine during the first half of the year, but when the A’s front office began to sense that some of the rotation was starting to falter, they went out and acquired three major-league veterans to supplement the group.

Acquiring Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Jon Lester cost the A’s a boatload of talent for what amount to a half-season of service from each of them. All three of those veterans are now on other teams, but the A’s rotation – while decidedly more inexperienced – is deeper heading into Opening Day than it was at any point during the regular season in 2014.

The A’s have two holdovers from the rotation they featured during the final two months of last season – likely Opening Day starter Sonny Gray and pending free agent Scott Kazmir. Both Gray and Kazmir had excellent 2014 seasons and the A’s will be counting on them to lead the rotation in 2015. Gray should be in the A’s rotation for several years to come, but Kazmir could be a candidate to be traded mid-season should the A’s fall out of playoff contention. The left-hander is in his final year of the two-year deal he signed with Oakland before last season, and he figures to cash-in with a big free agent contract next off-season if he repeats his 2014 success.

The three spots behind the Gray and Kazmir are open for competition, and the race to see which pitchers fill those spots will be one of the main focuses of the A’s camp. Most of the candidates to slot behind Gray and Kazmir are inexperienced, but Oakland does have a few veterans in the mix. The A’s have plenty of roster flexibility with their starting rotation crew, as well. All but Jesse Chavez can be sent to the minors (although the A’s will likely allow Barry Zito to opt-out of his contract should he be sent to Triple-A), meaning the A’s will be able to settle their rotation battle more on merits than on roster considerations.

The A’s will also go into the regular season knowing that they have two starters projected to return to the mound mid-season: A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker. Griffin and Parker were expected to play major roles in the A’s rotation last season, but both were lost with elbow injuries that required Tommy John surgery. The A’s won’t rush either pitcher – especially Parker, who is on Tommy John surgery number two – but if everything goes according to schedule, both could return to the rotation in June. That could give the A’s some flexibility when it comes to making mid-season trades, and it will allow them to watch the innings totals for some of their younger pitchers.

Based on their previous big league experience, Chavez, Jesse Hahn and Drew Pomeranz are the early favorites for the final three spots in the A’s rotation. However, they are far from locks for any of those spots. Chavez entered last spring training looking to secure a spot as the A’s long reliever. When Parker and Griffin went down with injuries, Chavez stepped into a starting rotation role and he did an admirable job in that role. The right-hander made 21 starts for the A’s and he had a 3.44 ERA in 125.2 innings. He struck-out 8.5 per nine innings, had a 2.90 K/BB and had a sOPS+ of 94, according to Baseball-Reference. In other words, he was better than most starters in the American League by a good amount despite being thrust into the starter’s role as somewhat of an emergency.

The A’s took Chavez out of the rotation late in the year, in part because they were concerned he was starting to wear down after not throwing more than 120 innings since 2004. Chavez added 20.1 innings as a reliever to finish the year with a career-high 146 innings pitched. All told, between the rotation and the bullpen, Chavez had a 3.45 ERA and a 108 ERA+ with a 3.89 FIP. Those numbers and Chavez’s familiarity with the A’s coaching staff should give him a leg up for one of the A’s final three rotation spots this spring. He will still need a good spring to secure a spot, but it should be his job to lose. If Chavez doesn’t win a rotation spot, he is likely to head back to a long-relief role.

When Chavez moved into the rotation last spring, Pomeranz took Chavez’s place as the A’s long reliever. He pitched so well in that role early in the season that the A’s moved Pomeranz into the rotation when Dan Straily struggled. Pomeranz looked like a fixture in the A’s rotation at the start of his time there, but an ill-advised punch of a lockerroom wall after a rough start led to a broken non-pitching hand and a trip to the DL. While Pomeranz was on the disabled list, he lost his rotation spot. He would spend June 16 through August 27 either on the DL or pitching in Triple-A before finally returning to the A’s late in the year.

When Pomeranz was healthy, he looked every bit the pitcher who was once considered one of the top left-handed pitching prospects in baseball. With the A’s, he had a 2.35 ERA and 64 strike-outs in 69 innings. His ERA+ with Oakland was 156 and he was pretty much equally effective as a starter and as a reliever. In Triple-A, Pomeranz had a 3.69 ERA and 54 strike-outs in 46.1 innings, all as a starter.

The A’s envision big things from Pomeranz in the future. His lively fastball ate hitters up last season, even if he didn’t always command it perfectly. Pomeranz is a leading candidate for a rotation spot, but one thing that could keep him in a bullpen role this season is his occasional lack of command. As a starter, Pomeranz had difficulty pitching past the fifth inning because his pitch count was often at 100 by that inning. The A’s would like to see Pomeranz be more efficient with his pitches so that he can last into the sixth and seventh innings. Like Chavez, Pomeranz will be an option for the A’s out of the bullpen should he not make the starting rotation.

Hahn came to the A’s this off-season in the Derek Norris trade. The tall right-hander made his major-league debut last season with the San Diego Padres and pitched half of the season in the big leagues. Hahn was impressive in his rookie season. He had a 3.07 ERA and a 3.40 FIP in 73.1 innings with the Padres. He also had a 1.91 ERA in 42.1 innings in Double-A to start the year.

Hahn is a Tommy John survivor and he has been brought back from his surgery cautiously by his previous two organizations (Tampa Bay and San Diego). He threw a career-high 115.2 innings last season, but was shut-down after the first week of September to keep his innings total at 115.2. Given that that was a career-high, Hahn isn’t likely to pitch 200 innings this season. He could start the year in the A’s rotation and then move to a relief role later in the year when Griffin and Parker are ready to return.

Hahn is the kind of pitcher who fits well into the A’s organization. He is a groundball pitcher who commands the ball well. Hahn will need to pitch well to secure a spot in the A’s rotation, but his experience with San Diego last year should give him a leg-up over some of the other competitors for a rotation spot. Hahn does have multiple option years remaining, so the A’s can send him down if he doesn’t win a rotation spot. He has been a starter for most of his career.

In addition to Hahn, the A’s acquired starting pitching prospects Chris Bassitt, Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin in trades this off-season. All three have a little major-league service time, but all three are still considered rookies and have multiple option years remaining. Nolin is the least likely of this group to win a rotation spot coming out of spring training because he is currently dealing with the after-effects of off-season hernia surgery. The rehab isn’t expected to linger into the regular season, but Nolin could start the year on the disabled list if he hasn’t thrown enough innings in spring training to be ready for the regular season. Nolin could also be optioned to Triple-A to start the year if he is healthy but doesn’t win a spot.

The A’s were impressed with what they saw from Nolin this fall during the Arizona Fall League, when he was a member of the Toronto organization. The left-hander averaged better than 92 MPH on his fastball during the AFL and struck-out 24 in 22.1 AFL innings. Nolin was limited by injury during the regular season and threw only 98 innings, so the 22.1 innings in the fall league put him in better position to pitch a full season’s worth of innings in 2015.

The A’s are high on Nolin as a starter. Considered a soft-tossing lefty early in his career, Nolin has increased his fastball velocity to the point that he can touch 94 and sits firmly in the low-90s. He also features a hard slider, a change-up and a curveball. He is a flyball pitcher, so moving away from the Sky Dome to a home park at the O.co Coliseum should be beneficial. If Nolin doesn’t make the rotation out of camp, or if he begins the year in Triple-A, he could still factor in the A’s rotation at some point during the season.

Both Graveman and Bassitt figure to receive plenty of opportunities to compete for a rotation spot this spring. Graveman is not even two years removed from pitching at Mississippi State, but he pitches like he has 10 years of experience. The right-hander moved from Low-A to the major leagues in his first full professional season last year. Along the way, Graveman posted a 1.83 ERA and a 115:31 K:BB in 167.2 minor league innings. The Blue Jays recalled Graveman in September to get his feet wet in the big leagues. He made five relief appearances and struck-out four without walking a batter. Although Graveman made his big league debut as a reliever, he projects as a starter with the A’s.

Graveman isn’t overpowering, but he has a nasty sinking fastball that sits in the 89-91 MPH range and produces copious amounts of groundballs. Graveman also added a cut-fastball in 2014, and that pitch became an effective weapon for him, especially versus lefties. He allowed just two homeruns in 172 innings last season and had a GO/AO greater than 2.00.

Although Graveman has the least amount of professional baseball experience of anyone in the A’s camp, he has a legitimate chance of earning a spot in the A’s Opening Day rotation. He will need to out-pitch some of his more veteran teammates, but Graveman is the kind of pitcher the A’s like to have in their rotation – someone who pounds the strike-zone, works efficiently and can go deep into games.

Bassitt, like Nolin, caught the A’s eye during the Arizona Fall League, when Bassitt was a member of the White Sox’s organization. The A’s also got an up-close look at Bassitt during the 2014 regular season, when he held Oakland to one run in a game the A’s would lose, 2-1. Bassitt missed time during the regular season with a hand injury, and between the minor league regular season, his September stint with Chicago and the AFL, Bassitt threw 86 innings. He said that the lighter work load going into the 2015 season has him feeling stronger this spring than he has in previous spring trainings.

The 6’5’’ Bassitt has a lively fastball that gets plenty of downward movement and can hit 95 MPH. He also throws a sharp slider, a big, breaking curveball and a change-up. Bassitt has a deceptive delivery that allows him to hide the ball well. He is an aggressive pitcher who attacks the strike-zone and gets his share of groundball outs.

Bassitt began his professional career as a reliever, and he admits that he actually prefers pitching out of the bullpen to starting. However, Bassitt has had too much success as a starter over the past two seasons for the A’s to move him into a relief role without giving him a chance to compete for a rotation opening. If he doesn’t make the starting rotation coming out of spring training, the A’s will then have to decide whether to fit him into their bullpen or send him to Nashville, where he can be ready to step into the rotation if a mid-season opening develops.

Longtime A’s prospect Arnold Leon is also competing for a spot in the A’s rotation. Leon is coming off of an impressive stint in the Mexican Winter League, during which he had a 2.05 ERA and a 59:12 K:BB in 57 innings. Leon’s fastball was clocked as high as 95 MPH during the MWL. The right-hander spent all of last season in Triple-A (save one day in the big leagues when he didn’t pitch), where he had a 4.97 ERA in 145 innings. He struck-out 128 and allowed just 12 homeruns.

Leon missed nearly two years recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2011 and 2012, but he looks to be back to full strength after throwing more than 200 innings between the regular season and winter ball. Leon has excellent fastball command and a plus curveball to go along with a change-up. He has plenty of experience as a starter and as a reliever and could be considered for either role this spring. Leon is in his third option year and is a strong candidate to see major-league time at some point this season, even if it doesn’t happen on Opening Day.

In addition to the A’s 40-man roster rotation candidates, Oakland has several non-roster starters in camp to compete for a spot. Two have made starts for the A’s in the past (Barry Zito and Brad Mills), while the other spent all of last season pitching in the A’s organization in the minor leagues (Matt Buschmann). The other two are new to the A's organization as minor league free agent signings (Ryan Verdugo and Rudy Owens). Given how many 40-man roster candidates the A’s have for their rotation, Zito, Mills, Buschmann, Verdugo and Owens are all long-shots to be on the A’s Opening Day roster. But stranger things have happened.

Zito, of course, is the most well-known of this group. The former A’s first-round pick and AL Cy Young award winner is attempting a comeback after being away from the game for the entire 2014 season. Until Zito gets on the mound during a game, it is hard to know what – if anything – he has left. If Zito is effective this spring, he could force the A’s to make a spot for him in the rotation. Given how young the A’s pitching staff is overall and what a positive clubhouse influence Zito has been throughout his career, he would be an asset to the A’s lockerroom. However, he won’t win a spot if he isn’t one of the better pitchers in camp this spring.

Mills had a short run with the A’s last season when Oakland acquired him from the Milwaukee Brewers to replace Pomeranz. Mills was designated for assignment by the A’s when they acquired Samardzija and Hammel. He spent the rest of the season pitching for the Toronto organization. The veteran left-hander has intriguing stuff and he was outstanding in Triple-A last year (2.01 ERA and a 103:23 K:BB in 107.1 innings). Mills isn’t over-powering, however, and he has struggled in limited MLB exposure (8.15 ERA in 74 MLB innings).

The A’s see Mills as a potential Jesse Chavez-like pitcher, someone who has good stuff and good minor league numbers but needs a big-league break-through. Mills, the A’s Cactus League Opening Day starter, will get a legitimate look this spring, but he is still facing some steep odds to make the Opening Day roster. However, he could position himself as one of the first pitchers the A’s call-on when injuries strike if he has a strong spring.

Buschmann returns to the A’s for a second season on a minor-league contract after making his A’s organization debut last year as a minor league free agent. The former Vanderbilt right-hander had a 4.40 ERA in 143.1 minor league innings last season. Buschmann is a classic sinker-slider pitcher, and he also features a decent change-up. He allowed just six homeruns last year. Buschmann will most likely start the year in Triple-A, and he will be looking to get himself on the A’s coaching staff’s radar this spring.

Left-handers Rudy Owens and Ryan Verdugo could also get some extended outings this spring. Owens made 21 starts at Triple-A and one in the big leagues last season while a part of the Houston Astros’ organization. The left-hander had a 4.33 ERA and a 104:33 K:BB at Triple-A. Owens has outstanding command, having struck-out nearly three-and-a-half batters for every batter he has walked. Owens was a 28th-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates out of junior college in 2008. Despite eight years of minor league experience, he is still just 27 years old.

Verdugo signed with the A’s as a minor league free agent this off-season. He was a reliever early in his career, but he moved into the starting rotation in 2011. Verdugo had a 3.94 ERA in 75.1 Triple-A innings split between the rotation and the bullpen last season. He has generally been very effective versus left-handed hitters during his career, and he could have a better chance of making the A’s roster at some point this season out of the bullpen than the rotation.

Upper-Level Depth

40-man Roster: Losers of the spring rotation competition
Triple-A Vets: Brad Mills, Zach Neal, Ryan Verdugo, Rudy Owens, Matt Buschmann, Deck McGuire
Pushing up from Double-A: Chris Jensen, Nate Long, Murphy Smith, Sean Murphy, Drew Granier, Tanner Peters, Andrew Werner

Last season, the A’s were thin on starting pitching talent in the upper-levels of their organization. This year, Oakland will have a tough time setting its Triple-A rotation thanks to the sheer number of well-regarded prospects and minor league veterans on the depth chart.

Once the smoke clears from the A’s spring starting rotation competition, Oakland could be sending as many as four starting pitchers from their 40-man roster to Triple-A Nashville. That doesn’t leave much room for non-roster players to make the Sounds’ rotation. If Brad Mills doesn’t make the A’s roster, he is a lock for the Nashville rotation. Barry Zito would be, too, although he isn’t likely to take an assignment to Triple-A if he doesn’t make the A’s roster.

The A’s have several options for their Triple-A rotation beyond the pitchers detailed in the Big League Depth section. Right-hander Zach Neal had a 4.07 ERA and walked just 16 in 119.1 innings for the A’s at the Triple-A level last year. He also added 46.2 lights-out innings at Double-A and High-A. Neal has earned a spot in the A’s Triple-A rotation, but it may be difficult to find him one given the A’s current depth.

Right-handers Nate Long and Chris Jensen are also very deserving of Triple-A rotation spots. Long had a breakout 2014 season with Midland, leading a staff that won the Texas League title. The right-hander had a 3.18 ERA in 150 regular season innings for Midland and then 17.2 more during the post-season. Long has split his career between starting and relieving, but he proved he can start last season for a full year.

Jensen had a solid debut in the A's organization, earning a post-season All-Star bid in the Texas League last year. Jensen, who came over in the same trade that netted the A’s Pomeranz, has an outstanding sinker. He allowed just three homeruns in 160.1 Double-A innings last year and posted a 3.14 ERA.

Former first-round pick Deck McGuire joined the A's organization late last year in a trade with the Blue Jays. The right-hander from Georgia Tech struggled in Triple-A last season, but he had a 2.98 ERA in Double-A. McGuire features a low-90s fastball, a breaking ball and a change-up. Command has been an issue for McGuire in recent years. He has a lot of talent and the A's are hopeful that their coaches can get him back to where he was a few years ago.

Murphy Smith split last season between the rotation and the bullpen, and he may find an easier path to Triple-A as a reliever. Smith has a promising fastball that has hit 96 MPH in a bullpen role and sits in the low-90s as a starter. Smith’s command can betray him at times, but when he is on, he is very difficult to hit.

Sean Murphy and Tanner Peters missed parts of last season with injuries, and both are likely to start in Double-A. Both pitchers could factor into the A’s plans at Triple-A as the season goes on, however. Murphy struggled in Triple-A last year, but he had a 3.95 ERA in Double-A. It took Murphy a few years to hit his stride as a professional, but the tall right-hander has been effective the past three seasons.

Peters has one of the best curveballs in the A’s organization, but injuries have kept him from moving up quickly. He doesn’t throw hard, but Peters has outstanding command and can pitch effectively backwards. He is a poor-man’s Justin Duchscherer in some ways. Peters threw only 28 regular season innings because of injuries last year, but he did compete in the Arizona Fall League as a reliever. A move to the bullpen could help him stay healthy and could open opportunities for him to move up to Triple-A.

Drew Granier and Andrew Werner are both coming off of disappointing seasons in Double-A, and both could be moving into bullpen roles after predominantly pitching as starters early in their careers. Granier has excellent stuff, but he has battled control problems throughout his career. A move to the bullpen could help him. Werner was a candidate for a rotation spot with the A’s in 2013, but he has struggled for much of his two years in the organization. The left-hander split an injury-shortened 2014 between the rotation and the bullpen. Where he slots in for 2015 will likely depend on the A’s needs at Double-A this year.

Top Prospects

Highest Ceiling: Dustin Driver
Most Polished: Dillon Overton
On the Mend: Raul Alcantara, Chris Kohler
2014 Picks to Watch: Daniel Gossett, Brett Graves

The A’s needed to replenish their starting pitching prospect cache, and they did so not only through their off-season trades, but also through the draft. The A’s spent a significant percentage of their 2014 draft picks on starting pitchers, and two of those pitchers will be closely watched going into 2015: Daniel Gossett and Brett Graves.

Gossett and Graves were the A’s second and third picks in 2014. Both college pitchers from big Southern baseball conferences, Gossett and Graves could move through the system relatively quickly. Gossett is a thin, but athletic right-hander who features a low-90s sinker, two breaking balls and a change-up. His command is already outstanding, as he walked just one in 24 innings in his pro debut and allowed only one homerun. Gossett could start the year in High-A.

Graves’ command isn’t quite as refined as Gossett’s, but the Missouri alum also features an excellent sinking fastball. Graves pitches to contact and works quickly. He projects to be an innings-eater who also could move quickly through the minor leagues.

The most polished A’s minor league pitching prospect is also the organization’s top starting pitching prospect: Dillon Overton. The A’s 2013 second-overall pick didn’t make his pro debut until midway through the 2014 season because he had to have Tommy John surgery shortly after signing with Oakland. Overton put up eye-popping numbers in his pro debut in 2014, striking out 53 and walking four in 37 innings. The left-hander posted those numbers despite not having his full velocity back. He was able to command all of his pitches well and could take-off once his velocity is back to the 89-91 MPH range it was in college. Overton is still likely to be on an innings-limit in 2015, but he could get an opportunity to reach Double-A even on that limit.

Raul Alcantara was the A’s top pitching prospect going into 2014, but he injured his elbow in April and missed the rest of the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. When healthy, Alcantara has a mid-90s fastball and an excellent breaking ball and change-up. He doesn’t miss as many bats as one would expect given the quality of his stuff, but that is in part because hitters know he is always going to be around the strike-zone. As Alcantara matures, he should be able to pitch off of the plate a bit more to get some of those swings-and-misses. Alcantara is on a similar time-frame to A.J. Griffin, and could return to Double-A around the All-Star break. He turned 22 in December. Alcantara is on his second option year, but he could be granted a fourth option season because of the missed time due to injury.

Dustin Driver and Chris Kohler both missed the 2014 season with injuries, but both head into 2015 healthy and ready to compete at the full-season level for the first time. Driver was sidelined by a back injury last year. The 20-year-old right-hander has the best fastball in the A’s system – a mid-90s offering with movement. He also has a swing-and-miss breaking ball. Driver is several years away from being big-league ready, but he will be one to watch next season.

Kohler rehabbed forearm soreness last season and was able to avoid surgery. He threw in simulated games at the end of the A’s fall Instructs and is competing in the A’s spring mini-camp currently. Kohler, like Driver, was a high school draft pick in 2013. Kohler has a smooth delivery and some polish to his game despite being only 19. His delivery has drawn comparisons to that of former Yankees’ lefty Andy Pettitte. Kohler was slated to pitch in Low-A before the injury last year. He is likely to pitch at Low-A this year.

Others to Watch

Dylan Covey, Chris Lamb, Jesus Zambrano, Branden Kelliher, Heath Fillmyer, Jordan Schwartz

The A’s have a lot of pitching prospects at the lower levels thanks to last year’s draft, but the group above will be ones to keep an especially close eye on.

Dylan Covey and Chris Lamb spent the last few months of 2014 in High-A and both could be candidates for Double-A at the start of the season. Lamb is the more likely of the two to start in Double-A, as he had more success with Stockton last season and more innings at that level. Lamb, a Berkeley native, took a little time to find his delivery as a pro, but the mechanical adjustments he made last year allowed him to improve his command considerably. He can reach 94 MPH with his fastball and knows how to use his secondary offerings effectively.

Covey was wildly inconsistent last year, at times looking like the best pitcher in the two leagues he pitched at and, at times, looking over-matched. He has excellent stuff – a four-seam fastball that can touch 95, a devastating two-seam fastball, a sharp over-hand breaking ball and a change-up – but he fell in love with the two-seam fastball last season and left himself vulnerable to the whims of contact. If Covey can mix in his four-seamer more, he should get more swings-and-misses and his numbers should improve considerably. He is likely to return to High-A to start the year and could move up to Double-A mid-season if pitching well.

Heath Fillmyer and Jordan Schwartz were two 2014 draft picks who made significant improvements during the A’s fall Instructional League. Schwartz, the A’s fourth-round pick, sat mid-90s during his last Instructs outing. He is relatively new to pitching after playing mostly the outfield early in his college career and he had to make a lot of adjustments during his pro debut. If the changes that he made hold into 2015, he could make a splash at Low-A. Schwartz also has a promising breaking ball and a good feel for his change-up.

Fillmyer was the A’s fifth-round pick last season. Oakland was careful with the right-hander, who also made the transition from position player to pitcher late in his amateur career. Fillmyer has a lot of arm strength and is starting to get a feel for his secondary pitches. He can reach the mid-90s with his fastball and his delivery was much improved by the end of Instructs.

Branden Kelliher and Jesus Zambrano were two of the youngest pitchers on the A’s AZL staff last season. Kelliher, a 2014 high school pick out of Washington, just turned 19 in December. The right-hander showed a lot of arm strength during his pro debut, but his command was shaky. Kelliher improved his command during fall Instructs. He could start the year in extended spring training and may pitch for short-season Vermont in 2015.

Zambrano didn’t turn 18 until the final week of the AZL regular season. The right-hander from Venezuela has an advanced feel for pitching for his age. He isn’t big (5’11’’, 175), but the A’s believe he will add velocity as he matures into his frame. Zambrano threw 70.2 innings in the AZL last season and could be a ready for a jump to short-season Vermont in 2015.

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