1. How will the rotation fare behind Sonny Gray?
As of Tuesday, the A’s owned the second-highest starting ERA (7.43) in the Cactus League behind only the Giants. Rich Hill, expected to be the No. 2 starter behind Gray, had a 15.26 ERA in his three spring outings. Jesse Hahn, who had been considered a frontrunner to open the season in the A’s rotation, was instead optioned to Triple A after posting an 11.15 mark. Taking his place is Felix Doubront, whose spring ERA stood at 9.00. Chris Bassitt and Kendall Graveman will round out a starting five that goes into the season far from settled.
2. Are Alvarez, Manaea far behind?
Continuing on the rotation theme, the A’s may eventually have two intriguing options in Henderson Alvarez and Sean Manaea. Alvarez, an All-Star with the Marlins in 2014, is returning from shoulder surgery and could be ready to join the A’s by late May or June. Manaea, Oakland’s top pitching prospect, impressed the A’s this spring but needs more seasoning in the minors, where he hasn’t pitched above Double A. Both could provide in-season reinforcements for the A’s should their Opening Day rotation falter early – as could Hahn, who was among Oakland’s better starters last year when healthy.
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3. Is the defense any better?
The A’s led the majors in errors in 2015 with 126. They hoped to enter this season as an improved defensive team, emphasizing field work in spring workouts and early-morning infield sessions. But as of Tuesday, the A’s led the majors in spring training errors with 42 in 28 games. Manager Bob Melvin reportedly called his team’s defense “putrid” after one particularly bad recent showing and told reporters the defensive shortcomings “will be addressed.” Until the error rate diminishes, however, it remains an area of concern.
4. Does this lineup have a middle?
Danny Valencia’s numbers hitting cleanup last season – he slugged .571 in 43 games – came in a small sample size but impressed Melvin enough that he figures to hit there often to start this season. How Melvin fills in the lineup around him should, as usual, depend on the pitcher the A’s are facing that day. Josh Reddick and Stephen Vogt are reliable left-handed middle-of-the-order hitters. The bigger questions may involve the right-handed sluggers: Can Khris Davis’ power – 27 homers last season with Milwaukee – translate to Oakland? Can Billy Butler improve on his disappointing 2015? And can Valencia anchor a lineup for a full season?
5. Can Burns, Canha avoid sophomore slumps?
As rookies, Billy Burns and Mark Canha were bright spots for the A’s last season. Burns emerged as the everyday center fielder and lead-off hitter. He had a .294 batting average, a .334 on-base percentage, and a .392 slugging percentage, along with 26 steals, but admits he wore down toward the end of the season. He has looked rejuvenated this spring, with a team-leading 18 hits in 48 at-bats through Tuesday, and said he has no plans to change his habit of attacking the first pitch, on which he batted .479 last season. Canha hit 16 home runs in his first major-league season, but his playing time may require flexibility. Already this spring, Canha has seen time at first base and in both left and center field.