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Sean Manaea, Jharel Cotton and Daniel Mengden working to stick with the Oakland A's for the long haul

OAKLAND - If the Oakland A's are going to find their way out of the AL West basement, their starting pitching will need to improve over its 4.84 starter's ERA from 2016. Young starters Sean Manaea, Jharel Cotton and Daniel Mengden are working to be a part of a starting pitching revival in Oakland.

Young starting rotations have been a trademark of the Athletics franchise for much of the organizations nearly 50 years in Oakland. The As 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 As Opening Day rotation. While Manaea has the inside track on a spot after posting a 3.86 ERA in 144 innings for the As 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 As 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 As organization as prized prospects in July deadline deals. Manaea and Mengden came to the As in separate deals in July 2015, while Cotton joined the As 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 As on April 29 and would spend the rest of the year with the As, 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 dont 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. Ill 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, Ill be in good shape.

Manaea was the first of five As 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 As minor league affiliates before joining the big league team – Mengdens rise through the As 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 Id be with the As 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.

Mengdens 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 As 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 wouldnt say I wasnt ready for it, but I wasnt as sharp. Big league hitters will take advantage of your mistakes. Im just trying to get my stamina up and my longevity.

Im 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 As system with the organizations open-minded approach to his unorthodox style. Last spring, Mengden got to work with As minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson for the first time. Patterson, who re-joined the As 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 didnt 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 didnt spend much time in the As minor league system before getting the call, making his major-league debut a little more than a month after he was acquired by the As 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 As, posting a 2.15 ERA in five starts.

Cotton says the As 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 As, 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 wasnt 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 As 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 didnt throw one strike in the bullpen,’” Cotton said.

He was freaking out, Mengden said.

Yeah, I was freaking out and he tells me, its okay. It happens, youll 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 As 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 dont 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.

Cottons 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. Its 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 doesnt want to put any extra pressure on himself going into spring training. That said, he also doesnt feel that he has a guaranteed spot on the roster despite his strong rookie season.

I definitely dont feel like a veteran at all. I still have a lot of stuff to learn. Ill be leaning on the veteran guys a lot this season and Im 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 dont have that yet.

If all breaks well for the As, 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 As out of the AL West basement.

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