The front of the A’s rotation is solid: Barring unforeseen circumstances, Sonny Gray will take the ball on Opening Day. After that, it gets murky.
The A’s reconvened for their annual FanFest event on Sunday and talked optimistically about their rebuilt bullpen and a lineup that returns largely intact from last year. One area that still requires some resolution, though, is the rotation, where the A’s have plenty of candidates but also plenty of question marks.
Manager Bob Melvin said the hope is that veteran Rich Hill, whom the A’s signed to a one-year, $6 million deal in November, will emerge as the No. 2 starter behind Gray. Hill, 35, has pitched parts of 11 big-league seasons but last started regularly in 2009 and spent part of last year in independent ball before signing late in the season with Boston.
Beyond that, Kendall Graveman, Jesse Hahn and Chris Bassitt started for the A’s at times last season, but Hahn missed the second half with elbow issues and Graveman ended the season on the disabled list with an abdominal strain. Sean Nolin also returns from an injury-abbreviated 2015, while Jarrod Parker and Sean Manaea could be considered long shots to crack the rotation out of spring training.
“I think we like where we are in the depth that we have,” Melvin said. “We feel like if all these guys are healthy, not only do we have a rotation that we feel is going to be productive, but we also have some depth.”
Parker was once a front-end rotation member for the A’s but then underwent his second Tommy John surgery in spring of 2014 and last year suffered an elbow fracture while he worked back toward the majors. Melvin said Parker has been on a throwing program and is on schedule to report to spring training a full go.
The question remains, though, whether Parker will be treated as a starter or a reliever this spring. The latter role could make more sense given Parker’s injury history and how long it has been since he handled a starter’s workload, but Melvin said he believes Parker has been medically cleared to start if that’s the direction the A’s want to go.
“We’ll keep a pretty good close eye on him in spring and see where we go,” Melvin said. “But as we’re sitting here right now, I’m not going to rule him out (as) a starter.”
Manaea was the A’s prized acquisition in last summer’s trade of Ben Zobrist to Kansas City. The left-hander has yet to pitch above Double A, but Melvin said he caught one of Manaea’s starts in the Arizona Fall League and was impressed, calling the 23-year-old “a little bit of a wild card” in the rotation mix this spring.
“Going into camp, we don’t expect to have him to start (the season) – you’d like to get him a little bit of seasoning in Triple A,” Melvin said. “But we know the upside with him is as high as anybody we have (outside of) Sonny.”
Melvin said that health-wise, “right now everybody’s a full go” in the starter pool. That includes Hahn, whom the A’s treated carefully when his elbow soreness appeared last summer, given that Hahn already has had Tommy John surgery once. Melvin said the A’s likely will be less cautious this spring with Hahn than Parker.
Graveman, meanwhile, said he is fully recovered from his abdominal strain. Of the competition for rotation spots this spring, he added, “I think that’s fun.”
“Sonny’s going to be our leader; he has been for the past couple years,” Graveman said. “And to kind of follow Sonny’s footsteps and have a couple guys step up in that role, I think that’s going to be a key piece for us this year.”
▪ Melvin said Manaea “didn’t have his best game when I saw him,” but the manager still offered a positive scouting report of the 23-year-old:
“Left-hander that can kind of bully the right-handers inside but also has a changeup to work away, too. It’s pretty rare that you see a lefty that can work both sides (of the plate). Usually it’s kind of sinker-changeup away, or a guy that pitches in. But he’s able to do both. You can tell he’s got a lot of upside.”
▪ What can the A’s expect to get this year from Coco Crisp?
“Really don’t know,” Melvin admitted.
Crisp, 36, appeared in just 44 games last season while hampered by injuries (especially a lingering neck issue) and toward the end of the year was relegated to pinch-hitting. When healthy, Crisp has been the A’s sparkplug leadoff hitter and an aggressive defender in the outfield. But staying on the field has been an issue through his Oakland career.
“He’s worked hard this spring, and I know he started hitting a lot sooner than he did in years past, just to come in feeling like he’s healthy,” Melvin said. “It’s going to be all about how it works when he plays.”
If healthy, Crisp will play left field with Billy Burns in center and Josh Reddick in right. If Crisp can’t play regularly, Melvin said the A’s could “rotate a bunch of guys out there (in left).” That includes Mark Canha, who emerged in the second half of his rookie season and should also platoon this year with Yonder Alonso at first base.
“What (Canha) did last year suggests that he can up his game to another level,” Melvin said.
▪ Much of the A’s optimism Sunday stemmed from their retooled bullpen, which saw veterans John Axford, Liam Hendriks, Ryan Madson and Marc Rzepczynski added over the offseason. Melvin said he has started kicking around ideas of how to structure the back of the bullpen with several relievers who have closing experience.
Sean Doolittle remains the A’s closer. Melvin said Madson could work the eighth with right-handers Hendriks and Axford helping to bridge the gap to that point and Rzepczynski available to match up against left-handers.
“We’ll see how it works out in spring,” Melvin said. “We know we’re going in with Doolittle closing, and we have some pretty potent arms ahead of him. How it plays out exactly I’m not sure yet.”
▪ The A’s announced that 12,000 fans showed up at FanFest at the Coliseum. Stephen Vogt said it was a nice reminder that spring training is near.
“It’s crazy how fast it kind of crept up,” Vogt said. “It gets you hungry. I kind of like it.”