Young starting rotations have been a trademark of the Athletics franchise for much of the organization’s nearly 50 years in Oakland. The A’s enter spring training with only two spots of their rotation assured and both of those spots are held by pitchers under the age of 28.
As of this week, Sean Manaea, Jharel Cotton, Daniel Mengden, Andrew Triggs, Raul Alcantara, Jesse Hahn, Frankie Montas, Zach Neal and Chris Smith all enter camp with a shot to make the A’s Opening Day rotation. While Manaea has the inside track on a spot after posting a 3.86 ERA in 144 innings for the A’s during his rookie season last year, no one is assured of an Opening Day rotation spot besides Sonny Gray and Kendall Graveman.
Of the pitchers competing for rotation spots, only one (Alcantara) was with the organization before the 2014 season. The A’s minor league system was thin on starting pitching at that point, but Oakland has used a series of trades and draft picks to turn starting pitching back into a strength of the minor league system.
Manaea, Cotton and Mengden are a product of that process. All three joined the A’s organization as prized prospects in July deadline deals. Manaea and Mengden came to the A’s in separate deals in July 2015, while Cotton joined the A’s last July.
Manaea was the first of the trio to make his major-league debut. After a strong spring as a non-roster invitee to big league camp, Manaea got off to a fast start with the Nashville Sounds, allowing only three runs in 18 innings over three starts. Manaea made his major-league debut with the A’s on April 29 and would spend the rest of the year with the A’s, save for a brief rehab stint with Stockton. Between the big leagues and the minor leagues, he threw a career-high 166.1 innings.
Although Manaea had a solid rookie season, he went into this off-season focused on making improvements.
“My pitches overall were very inconsistent, especially my slider. I don’t know if it was my confidence or a different atmosphere, but it is something I want to improve on,” Manaea said at a pre-FanFest media session last week. “I’ll be asking around to see what people do to improve their breaking balls. I feel that and good health are the biggest things for me to keep going in the right direction. If I can nail those two down, I’ll be in good shape.”
Manaea was the first of five A’s in 2016 to make their major-league debuts as starting pitchers. Mengden was the next to break-in to the big leagues as a starter, making his first MLB start six weeks after Manaea debuted.
Like Manaea – who made only 10 starts for A’s minor league affiliates before joining the big league team – Mengden’s rise through the A’s organization was meteoric. After he was acquired from Houston, Mengden reported to High-A Stockton and finished the 2015 season with the Ports. Although his ultimate goal was to make the big leagues, Mengden entered the 2016 season with the more modest goal of reaching Triple-A before the end of the minor league season and possibly earning a September call-up. Instead, he was in the big leagues by June 11.
“It went so fast. The opportunity [to get to the major leagues] sort of fell in my lap and I had to run with it,” Mengden said at the pre-FanFest media session. “It was a whirlwind because I never thought I’d be with the A’s for less than half a season and make it to the big leagues. I was blessed to have the opportunity and hopefully I can get back up there again.”
Mengden’s first stint in the major leagues was not without its challenges. Through his first five starts, Mengden had a 3.48 ERA, but he struggled in most of his nine starts after that. He would go back down to Triple-A in late July and returned to Oakland in September. All told, he had a 6.50 ERA in 72 major league innings in his rookie season. Conversely, in the minor leagues, Mengden posted a 1.46 ERA in 98.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.
Mendgen says his struggles with the A’s can be traced back to two elements: leaving too many pitches up and hitting a physical wall midway through the season. His off-season training has focused on correcting both of those areas.
“I think I was a little gassed,” Mengden said of his time in the big leagues. “Last year, I think I threw 175 innings. The year before, I think I threw 130-140 innings. I was right around that number at mid-season and I was fatigued. I wouldn’t say I wasn’t ready for it, but I wasn’t as sharp. Big league hitters will take advantage of your mistakes. I’m just trying to get my stamina up and my longevity.
“I’m working on trying to keep everything down a little more. All of my mistakes last year were up and that got me in trouble.”
Mengden credits his quick rise through the A’s system with the organization’s open-minded approach to his unorthodox style. Last spring, Mengden got to work with A’s minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson for the first time. Patterson, who re-joined the A’s in 2016 after a stint with the New York Yankees, immediately connected with Mengden.
“Gil was really open and really nice. He loved everything about my funkiness,” Mengden said. “Usually coaches hate it, but he loved everything about it. I felt like our relationship really worked because he let me be me. He didn’t try to tinker with me at all. He let me do everything I wanted to. He was really open to what I like to do and I was really open to his side in terms of learning new drills and stuff like that. Our relationship really worked well.”
Like Mengden and Manaea, Cotton didn’t spend much time in the A’s minor league system before getting the call, making his major-league debut a little more than a month after he was acquired by the A’s in a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Cotton came within one out of throwing a perfect game in his second start for Triple-A Nashville and he would put up a 2.82 ERA in six starts for the Sounds. He then had a strong September stay with the A’s, posting a 2.15 ERA in five starts.
Cotton says the A’s willingness to let him try new things helped him finish his 2016 on a strong note.
“When I was with the Dodgers, my go-to pitch was the change-up. I never threw a curveball with two-strikes. I was scared. I had no confidence,” Cotton said at the pre-FanFest media session. “Then I got traded to the A’s, that all went out the window because I was able to throw everything with two-strikes. And I had success. That built my confidence up, so when I got to the big leagues, I was doing the same thing I was doing with Nashville. It helped big time.”
Cotton felt an instant connection with his new teammates after the July trade. He said he knew a few players in the organization – including Manaea – before the deal, but that it wasn’t hard to make new friends once he joined the Sounds. Mengden, in particular, quickly became someone Cotton could lean on.
“They all took me in like I was a big part of the family. The first day they were welcoming me and it made it a lot easier on me,” Cotton said. “It just grew on me really quickly being part of the A’s organization. We had the camaraderie. Mengden was by my side and helping me out. We just played as a team. It was great.”
Cotton says Mengden came to his rescue when Cotton had trouble controlling his nerves before his major-league debut on September 7.
“It was crazy because for my debut start, I told [Mengden], ‘dude, I didn’t throw one strike in the bullpen,’” Cotton said.
“He was freaking out,” Mengden said.
“Yeah, I was freaking out and he tells me, ‘it’s okay. It happens, you’ll be fine when you get out there.’ That calmed me down and made a huge difference,” Cotton said.
Cotton would go on to allow just one run on two hits in 6.1 innings in a win over the Los Angeles Angels.
Going into spring training, Manaea, Mengden and Cotton will be competing with each other for a spot in the A’s rotation. Manaea says competing against friends is just part of the package for a professional athlete.
“It does come with the territory. We are all competitors and sometimes things don’t go your way. You just have to brush yourself off and deal with it,” Manaea said. “The competition is good because it brings out the best in people. I feel like the group that we have and the competition that stems from that is going to push us in the right direction. I feel like we are going down a really good path and the direction the organization is going is positive.”
Cotton’s goal for this spring is simple.
“Coming in, I want to go out there and work hard, perform and let the coaches make a decision,” Cotton said.
Mengden knows there is a lot riding on his performance this spring.
“We do have to prepare harder. We are in limbo and our spring will really help determine our future this year,” Mendgen said. “It’s a little more preparation and a little more focus going in to make sure we are able to do everything as best we can.”
Manaea says he is focused only on what he can control and doesn’t want to put any extra pressure on himself going into spring training. That said, he also doesn’t feel that he has a guaranteed spot on the roster despite his strong rookie season.
“I definitely don’t feel like a veteran at all. I still have a lot of stuff to learn. I’ll be leaning on the veteran guys a lot this season and I’m just preparing for the ups and downs throughout the season,” Manaea said. “I do have a little more confidence coming in. I do think I have a better understanding of how things happen during a major league season, but as far as having that veteran mindset, I definitely don’t have that yet.”
If all breaks well for the A’s, Manaea, Mengden and Cotton will be seasoned big leaguers by the end of 2017 and the core of a staff that helps to guide the A’s out of the AL West basement.