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How will the Oakland A's spread out starting pitching innings throughout the organization in 2017?

In part two of our series on the Oakland A's roster management, we take a deep dive into the A's starting rotation depth and how the starters may be spread out throughout the A's system.

Earlier this week, I explored how it may be difficult for the Oakland As to spread out the at-bats between top prospects and minor league free agents signings in the outfield and infield in Oakland and Triple-A Nashville. Next, I take a look at the As starting pitching depth chart, which is looking increasingly crowded after another pitching-heavy draft. As recently as 2015, starting pitching was an area of weakness within the As system. A series of drafts heavy on pitchers, as well as a few high-profile trades that netted young starting pitchers, has turned the tide and starting pitching is now the strength of the As system. That strength gives the As plenty of options for filling out their rotations up and down the organization, but it will also leave the As Player Development staff juggling how to spread out those innings.

At the major-league level, the As came into camp with only three of their five rotation spots filled. Sonny Gray, Kendall Graveman and Sean Manaea will be the As 1 through 3 starters, barring injury. Jharel Cotton has the inside track on the fourth spot, while the fifth spot is fairly wide open. With Daniel Mengden, Chris Bassitt and Felix Doubront working their way back from injuries, the battle for the fifth spot appears to be between Jesse Hahn, Andrew Triggs, Raul Alcantara, Frankie Montas and non-roster players Ross Detwiler, Chris Smith, Zach Neal and Daniel Gossett.

Once those final slots are set, the As will then need to build out their rotations at each level. Regardless of how the As choose to fill those final two rotation spots, Oakland will have plenty of tough decisions to make when putting together Opening Day rotations throughout the organization.

At the Triple-A level, the As will be choosing from a deep set of potential Nashville Sounds starters. Of the group competing for the fifth starter spot in Oakland, only Alcantara is all-but guaranteed not to be in the Sounds rotation. Alcantara is out of options, so he is a decent bet to make the As pitching staff on Opening Day. If he doesnt make the team, Alcantara is a candidate to be traded because he isnt likely to clear waivers.

Even with Alcantara out of the Nashville picture, the Sounds rotation is tough to project. If Hahn, Triggs and/or Montas dont make the As Opening Day rotation, they are likely to be one of the Sounds five starters. Detwiler, Smith and Neal all bring experience and represent big league depth at the Triple-A level, while Gossett is one of the As top starting pitching prospects and is ready for Triple-A after dominating the Texas League for half a season last year. Newly acquired right-hander Paul Blackburn also had a strong year at the Double-A level in 2016 (3.27 ERA in 140 innings in the Cubs and Mariners organizations). He seems ready for the challenge of Triple-A, as well.

Josh Smith, who joined the As as a waiver claim this off-season and is now a non-roster player in big league camp, has been a starter for most of his professional career. With 92 big league innings under his belt, Smith also represents big league rotation (and bullpen) depth and is likely to be in Triple-A in some capacity. Similarly, Cesar Valdez – a minor league free agent signing – has experience both in the rotation and the bullpen. He went 12-1 last season for Triple-A Fresno with a 3.12 ERA in 138.1 innings. Eighteen of his 30 appearances for the Grizzlies were starts. The As may want to keep both Smith and Valdez stretched out in Triple-A.

The list above represents more than a full five-man rotation, which would leave out candidates from the 2016 Double-A Midland rotation that are ready to tackle Triple-A. (And this doesnt even take into account the return of Bassitt, Doubront and Mengden, who could all be throwing rehab starts in Nashville as soon as May.) Those potentially forced to repeat Double-A would include Corey Walter (2.15 ERA in 100.1 innings/16 starts), Chris Jensen (16 starts in Double-A and 10 starts in Triple-A last season; has already spent three seasons in Double-A), Joel Seddon (4.40 ERA in 143.1 innings last year, but 1.84 ERA in 13 starts/78.1 innings in the second half) and Ben Bracewell (2.14 ERA in 88.1 innings/10 starts).

If those four return to Midland, the As will need to find innings for them along with innings for top prospects Heath Fillmyer (3.29 ERA in 134 innings last season/ 2.54 ERA in 39 innings in Double-A) and Grant Holmes (134 innings in High-A last year), as well as prospects James Naile (3.39 ERA in 156.2 innings across four levels last year), Evan Manarino (1.98 ERA in 150 innings across two A-ball levels last year), Brett Graves (141 innings in Stockton last season; 3.36 ERA in the second half), Casey Meisner (struggled for Stockton in 2016 but looked good in Instructs and has two years of A-ball experience) and Kyle Friedrichs (3.35 ERA in 153 innings across three levels last year). And that doesnt even take into account slotting in Norge Ruiz, a free agent signing from Cuba who inked with the As this off-season for a reported $2 million. Ruiz has significant international experience, as well as several years of experience pitching in the Cubans Serie Nacional, and he could be ready for Double-A. In addition, veteran left-hander Brandon Mann re-signed with Oakland this off-season. He made 11 starts for the RockHounds after serving a suspension the first half of last year and struck-out 63 in 62.1 innings.

The As will have some decisions to make in High-A Stockton, as well. If any of the pitchers mentioned above are forced back to High-A to get innings, they will be potentially competing with a swath of high-profile prospects for starter innings. The As top three picks in the 2016 draft were accomplished college starters. Recently, the As have been sending their college starters to Low-A to begin their first full seasons, but A.J. Puk, Daulton Jefferies and Logan Shore are all polished enough to be considered for High-A. The As may also want to keep a close eye on those three, which would be easier to do in Stockton than it is in Beloit. In addition to Puk, Jefferies and Shore, sixth-round pick Brandon Bailey could be considered for a spot in Stockton. Bailey had a 2.93 ERA in 43 innings in his pro debut last year with an impressive 46:10 K:BB. He already has a history of pitching well at Banner Island Ballpark, having struck-out 17 in a start for Gonzaga at BIB during the WCC tournament.

There are several candidates from the 2016 Beloit rotation for spots on the Stockton staff, as well. Those include: Angel Duno (2.68 ERA and walked just 16 in 121 innings), Boomer Biegalski (3.70 ERA and walked only 38 in 153.1 innings), Brendan Butler (3.14 ERA in nine starts for Beloit after posting a 1.95 ERA in 37 innings for the Vermont Lake Monsters), Dustin Hurlbutt (2.57 ERA in 98 innings over 14 starts and five relief appearances) and Michael Murray (4.28 ERA in 61 innings but a 53:13 K:BB). Zack Erwin split last season between Stockton and Beloit. He had off-season surgery but could slot into the Ports rotation once healthy.

Those in the mix for spots in Stockton that are squeezed out will potentially need to share starter innings in Beloit with several intriguing arms coming up from short-season ball, including highly regarded prospects Dakota Chalmers, Argenis Blanco and Oscar Tovar, as well as 2016 Vermont starters Heath Bowers, Xavier Altamirano, Jesus Zambrano and Ivan Andueza. If healthy, Dustin Driver and Chris Kohler could also work into the Beloit rotation mix.

Again, injuries will likely make some of these decisions a little easier on the As Player Development staff, but even with the natural attrition from injury, there figure to be several starters who begin the year a level below where one would have expected them to compete based on their 2016 accomplishments.

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