With a little more than three weeks until Opening Day, the Oakland A’s still have plenty of questions about how their pitching staff will look when they square-off against the Chicago White Sox at the O.co Coliseum on Monday, April 4.
Right now, the A’s project to have Sonny Gray at the top of their rotation and Sean Doolittle closing games. Veteran relievers Ryan Madson, John Axford, Liam Hendriks and Marc Rzepczynski are also slated for the Opening Day bullpen. The rest of the A’s pitching staff, however, remains unsettled.
A’s camp was jolted with the news on Thursday morning that Jarrod Parker had suffered a set-back in his rehab from multiple arm injuries. Parker reportedly left a throwing session after just 12 pitches. It was his first session against live hitters this spring. The A’s announced later in the day that Parker had an impingement in his right elbow. The impingement was on the other side of the elbow from the one that has been surgically repaired three times, so the A’s medical staff was optimistic that Parker would be able to return to the mound. However, he had an MRI and results are not yet known.
Even in a best-case scenario, Parker isn’t likely to be available on Opening Day. The A’s had left open the possibility of Parker re-joining the starting rotation if he was healthy, but realistically he was more likely to be a reliever this season given his injury history. In any case, the set-back removes Parker from the A’s pitching depth chart for now.
The A’s have had only one other pitching injury thus far this spring: rookie J.B. Wendelken has yet to appear in a game thanks to right shoulder soreness. Even if Wendelken does get into spring games relatively soon, he isn’t likely to make the Opening Day roster given the time he has missed compared to other relievers on the A’s 40-man roster.
Free agent signee Henderson Alvarez continues to make progress in his return from right shoulder surgery, but he isn’t expected to be available to the A’s until May. Until then, Oakland will need to figure out who will fill the four slots behind Gray in the starting rotation.
The leading candidates for those four spots are Kendall Graveman, Chris Bassitt, Jesse Hahn and free agent signee Rich Hill. Graveman and Bassitt have looked solid early in camp. Both have minor league options remaining, but it would take very poor performances from each of them – or an injury – for them not to land on the Opening Day roster at this point. Hahn made his first in-game appearance this week and came out of it feeling healthy. The right-hander missed the final few months of last season with a right forearm issue and is being treated carefully this spring. With no set-backs, he should be part of the Opening Day rotation, but his health will continue to be monitored closely.
Hill is virtually guaranteed a spot thanks to the $6 million contract he signed during the off-season, but he is off to a very shaky start, having allowed eight runs in 3.2 innings over his first two outings. Command has been an issue for Hill throughout his lengthy professional career. He showed good command in his breakout month of September with the Red Sox last season, but Hill’s six walks allowed already this spring are an ominous sign.
If Hahn isn’t ready or Hill’s struggles continue, who else can the A’s turn to while they wait for the return of Alvarez?
Lefty Felix Doubront is making an early case to be included in the back-end of the A’s rotation. Doubront has gone back-and-forth between the rotation and the bullpen over the past few seasons and he pitched in both roles with the A’s last season. Doubront reportedly prefers starting. His career ERA as a starter is 4.64 versus a 7.25 ERA in 49.2 relief innings. The A’s hope to use Doubront in a role similar to the one Jesse Chavez played with Oakland the past three seasons.
Doubront is out of options, so the A’s will need to carry him somewhere on the Opening Day roster. Whether that role comes as a reliever or a starter could go down to the final days of spring. He currently leads A’s pitchers with seven strike-outs in five innings of work.
Past Doubront, the A’s don’t have much depth in terms of experienced MLB pitchers who can jump into the rotation. Just before the start of camp, the A’s designated Sean Nolin for assignment and then they traded Aaron Brooks a week later. Those two moves thinned their upper-level starting pitching depth chart.
Top pitching prospects Sean Manaea and Dillon Overton have both been impressive in the early going this spring, but neither has pitched above the Double-A level and both could use at least a little Triple-A time to get ready for the big leagues.
The A’s have some history of promoting pitchers straight from Double-A to the big leagues (Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey were two, while Brett Anderson only had 16 post-season Triple-A innings under his belt before his MLB debut). The A’s are not generally a team that has worried about the service time clock when making personnel decisions, either, so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that either Manaea or Overton break camp with the A’s. However, in an ideal world, the A’s would likely prefer to give both pitchers some time in Triple-A before they make their debuts.
Beyond Manaea and Overton, the A’s only other non-roster option is minor league veteran Eric Surkamp. Surkamp has 57 innings of experience in the major leagues, including 3.1 with the Dodgers last season. The lefty was once a top prospect in the Giants’ organization, but his career with San Francisco was derailed by an arm injury. He has allowed seven hits and three walks in four innings thus far this spring, so he will need to pitch better to force his way into the conversation.
As mentioned earlier, the majority of the A’s bullpen is set. Barring any injuries, Doolittle, Madson, Axford, Hendriks and Rzepczynski will be five of the seven arms in the bullpen. If Doubront doesn’t make the A’s Opening Day rotation, he will likely be bullpen arm number six, leaving an interesting battle for the seventh spot in the bullpen.
Unlike the rotation, where the A’s run out of experienced candidates quickly, Oakland has plenty of options for that last one or two spots in the bullpen. Fernando Rodriguez, Ryan Dull and R.J. Alvarez are all viable candidates for those spots and all spent time in the A’s bullpen last season.
Alvarez has struggled some in his first two spring outings, but Dull and Rodriguez have looked filthy. Alvarez and Dull both have minor league options, while Rodriguez does not, and the option game could determine who gets that last slot on Opening Day. All three are likely to play a role in the A’s bullpen at some point this season, even if one or two of them start the year in Nashville.
Injuries and performances over the next two weeks will clarify the A’s pitching picture considerably, but it figures to be an interesting stretch as the staff starts to take shape.