On Tuesday, the Oakland A’s reportedly agreed to a one-year deal with free agent left-handed starter Rich Hill. Hill joins a long list of pitchers with big league starting experience on the A’s current 40-man roster. While one or two of those pitchers may be moved before the start of the year, it is still worthwhile to look at where the A’s currently stand as they look to build their 2016 starting rotation.
Not including Hill (who will need to be added when his signing is official) and prospect Raul Alcantara (who is at least a year away from being major-league ready), the A’s currently have 11 starting pitchers on their 40-man roster. Of that group, only ace Sonny Gray has surpassed the 200-innings mark in either of the past two seasons. Two of the 11 had Tommy John surgery in 2014 and missed most of the 2015 with other injuries (Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin). Of the remaining nine, again only Gray and Aaron Brooks have been free from significant injury and also been a full-time starter the past two seasons. The rest have seen their 2014-2015 innings limited either by stints on the disabled list or time in the bullpen. This is all a long way of saying that the A’s are likely going to test their starting pitching depth during the 2016 regular season.
The A’s need to look no further than last season to see the value of having starting pitching depth. Starved for major-league ready starters at the Triple-A level, the A’s acquired Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin, Jesse Hahn and Chris Bassitt in separate deals during the off-season. They entered spring training seemingly flush with starting pitching depth, but it didn’t take long for that depth to take a hit. Nolin never made it out of spring training as he dealt with the after-effects of off-season groin surgery. He would miss nearly half the season with injury. By the end of the year, Hahn, Graveman and Bassitt would all join Nolin as pitchers who spent a significant amount of time on the disabled list.
Those four weren’t alone. Jesse Chavez and Drew Pomeranz also spent time on the DL, while the anticipated returns of Parker and Griffin never materialized as they were sidelined with significant injuries during their rehab stints. During the season, the A’s used 13 different pitchers as starters, including Barry Zito, who had to be called out of retirement to make two late-season starts. The A’s had only two pitchers log more than 150 big league innings (Gray and Chavez).
The addition of Hill to this mix doesn’t change things much. The left-hander is a veteran and signed only to a one-year deal, so there isn’t as much concern about limiting his innings to prevent future arm injuries. However, between the major leagues, Triple-A and the independent Atlantic League, Hill threw just 94 innings last year. That was Hill’s highest innings total since 2010, when he threw 99 innings. He hasn’t come close to 200 innings since 2007, when he threw 195 innings for the Chicago Cubs. Consequently, even if Hill pitches as well as the A’s hope he will based on his late-season success with the Red Sox last year, Hill is likely to fatigue as he gets to that 120+ innings mark.
With few “sure bets” to exceed 150 innings on the A’s current roster, they may need to get creative to get their 950-975 starter innings this season. One solution may be to trade for or sign an innings-eater who can fill a back-end spot in the A’s rotation. Having another pitcher who can be expected to reach 175 innings in the rotation alongside Gray would certainly give the A’s some stability in their rotation.
Barring another trade or free agent signing, the A’s may have to employ a modified “pitching tandem” to get through the season. In the minor leagues, organizations utilize pitching tandems in the lower levels to get more of their young arms opportunities in the starting rotation while also keeping their innings low. Generally how it works is that two pitchers are on the same turn in the rotation. One turn, one of the pitchers starts and goes 4-5 innings. He is then automatically replaced by the “tandem” starter. Often in the next turn through the rotation, the tandem starter’s roles are reversed.
Tandem-starting has rarely been tried at the big league level (Tony LaRussa famously tried it with the A’s in the mid-1990s but didn’t have enough talent on that staff to make it work). The A’s aren’t likely to go with that method this season, either. However, they could use a modified version of the concept to keep their starters fresh by having some of those starters begin the year in the A’s bullpen and then move them into the rotation as the other starters begin to wear down.
The A’s have used Chavez and Pomeranz in both a starter and reliever role over the past two years. Bassitt, Doubront and Hill all have significant experience as relievers and could be moved back-and-forth between the two roles relatively easily. Griffin began his professional career in the bullpen and was both a starter and a reliever in college. He is another candidate to be moved back-and-forth between roles. Most of the other starters on the A’s roster have at least a handful of relief appearances on their resumes.
Given how bad the A’s bullpen was last season, it would likely be a boon to that unit to get some of the A’s top arms pitching in relief for any given period of time. It will also give the A’s a chance to evaluate whether those pitchers profile better long-term as relievers or starters. Lastly, by moving some of their tiring starters into the bullpen late in the season, it could open up opportunities for top prospects Sean Manaea and Dillon Overton to make their major-league debuts as starters in August or September.