Oakland A's

Pitching depth a priority for A’s this offseason

OAKLAND -- The A’s had the lowest starting pitching ERA for much of the first half of 2015. By the end of the season, Sonny Gray was the only starter still standing from their opening-day rotation -- and then even Gray missed his final start with hip discomfort.

Oakland’s rotation was beset by injuries during a season in which they finished with a 68-94 record, worst in the American League. And despite the A’s hope that several of their young arms will return healthy in 2016, team officials said Monday the rotation is one area they may look to shore up this offseason.

The A’s held their end-of-season press conference with new Executive VP of Baseball Operations Billy Beane, new general manager David Forst and manager Bob Melvin on Monday, a day after finishing their worst season since 1997. A big-picture story on the A’s announcing promotions for Beane and Forst, and those officials’ expectations for the 2016 season and beyond, can be found here. But there was plenty more ground covered.

Primarily, both Melvin and Beane identified starting pitching depth as an area to address this winter. The A’s will have Gray returning next season, and count on Chris Bassitt, Kendall Graveman and Jesse Hahn all coming back healthy. There is also still hope that Jarrod Parker, recovering from an elbow fracture suffered during rehab from his second Tommy John surgery, can return to the major-league staff.

"I like that group," Beane said. "That being said, we have to have some depth in that area and that’s a concern."

Melvin suggested the A’s "maybe could add another veteran guy in the rotation" to form a 1-2 combination with Gray. The A’s have had that in recent years with Bartolo Colon and Scott Kazmir, who was dealt to Houston this season at the trade deadline. Beane said pursuing a veteran starter makes sense "only if he’s good … I think Sonny will be just fine without an older mentor."

Parker last pitched in the majors in 2013 and is trying to come back from a gruesome set-back. The right-hander is continuing a throwing program into the offseason at the team’s facility in Arizona, and Beane said the hope is Parker can come back as a starter.

"That’s what Jarrod was good at," Beane said. "So I’m certainly hopeful."

A.J. Griffin, who like Parker had his Tommy John recovery derailed by other injuries, may be a longer shot to compete for a rotation job in 2016. Beane acknowledged it was "a tough year" for Griffin and stopped short of saying he’s "optimistic" about Griffin.

"His future health is still something we’re waiting on," Beane said. "Until he’s (throwing) off the mound on a regular basis, we won’t know."

The A’s have an intriguing starting prospect in left-hander Sean Manaea, whom they acquired from the Royals in the Ben Zobrist trade and who went 6-0 with a 1.90 ERA over seven starts at Double-A Midland. But Beane said that, as with other prospects at lower minor-league levels, the A’s don’t want to bring Manaea up next season just to fill a hole at the major-league level.

"You can make the argument you could just bring them up and deal with growing pains, but you don’t want to rush them," Beane said. "You want to make sure when they get here, they stay here."

Along pitching lines, A’s officials also said they’ll likely try to shore up the bullpen over the offseason. Having closer Sean Doolittle for a full season next year would help, and the A’s liked what they saw from right-hander Ryan Dull in his September call-up, but A’s relievers still combined to post the highest ERA in the A.L. this season.

"It’s certainly an area we need to address," Forst said. "It’s the area that most led to the record we had in April and May … We need to build that back up."

* Myriad factors contributed to the A’s last-place finish in 2015, not the least of which was the lack of production from Coco Crisp. The A’s tried to combat Crisp’s injury issues by moving him to left field this spring, yet Crisp still appeared in just 44 games, hitting .175 in 126 at-bats. Melvin acknowledged Monday that Crisp’s role going into next year is "a bit of an unknown."

"He feels like if he rests up, particularly the neck gets a little bit healthier for him, he still feels like he can be a starting player," Melvin said. "We need him to be a starter if he’s healthy. And we’ll see come spring training whether or not he’s able to do that."

Crisp was limited by ongoing neck problems and found a niche at the end of the season as a pinch-hitter. But A’s officials made it clear they expect more from Crisp, whom they signed to a two-year extension in 2014 to be their everyday leadoff hitter.

"Coco needs to stay healthy," Forst said. "We’ve always been a different team when Coco’s out there and healthy, and we’ll certainly focus a lot on makings sure he does what it takes this offseason to stay that way.

"Hopefully he is motivated to put in the work and get back to where he’s out there every day. He couldn’t physically do it over the past six weeks. You saw how good he was even in that limited role. That’s certainly an important thing for us to figure out."

* After such a turbulent offseason for the A’s last year, Melvin said he expects plenty of activity again this winter.

"When you lose as many games as we did, you don’t want to just say it’s status quo going forward," he said. "I think we’ll look to make some changes definitely."

One player who likely isn’t going anywhere, though, is right fielder Josh Reddick, who finished this season hitting .272 with 20 home runs and 77 RBIs in 149 games. Reddick will be a free agent after next season and, at 28, is the type of player the A’s typically might look to deal. But Beane threw his support behind Reddick on Monday and left open the possibility of a long-term contract for the 28-year-old.

"We like having Josh here," Beane said. "Anything in regards to that is something we would talk about during the winter. But we anticipate certainly Josh at a minimum being here next year. It would behoove us to at least consider keeping him longer."

Beane also said the A’s could entertain a long-term deal for Gray, though that is likely less imminent given Gray has relatively less service time.

"(Reddick) will be a part of what we’re trying to do in the next couple years, a center-piece guy," Beane said. "I would say the same thing with a guy like Sonny."

* The A’s sound content going forward with Marcus Semien as their everyday shortstop. Semien had a rocky first full season there, committing 35 errors, though his error rate did drop in the second half. Beane and Melvin both said working with infielders coach Ron Washington benefited Semien and that should continue next year.

"His trend line in the second half was good," Beane said. "His first full season as a shortstop he hit 15 homers, there’s no reason that shouldn’t continue to go up. I think we’re very pleased with how he finished."

Melvin added that Brett Lawrie, who moved from third base to second base after Danny Valencia arrived in Oakland, is the A’s second baseman "as we sit here right now," but that that could change depending on offseason moves.

* One of the brightest spots for the A’s this season was rookie Billy Burns, who emerged as the everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter in Crisp’s absence. Both are roles Burns should carry into next spring.

"I think it’s hard to overstate what he did this year," Forst said.

Rookie Mark Canha also staked an early claim to a 2016 roster spot with his second half. Canha played mostly first base, but Melvin said if the A’s were to add a first baseman this offseason Canha could easily shift to the outfield and remain a constant in the lineup.

"His versatility works in his favor," Melvin said.

* The A’s first big signing last offseason didn’t pan out as they’d hoped. Billy Butler hit just .251, though a better second half helped him finish with 15 homers and 65 RBIs. It did sound Monday like Butler is a candidate to be moved this winter.

"I think he would tell you that he’s capable of more," Beane said. "He’ll get the opportunity next year to improve upon this year."

* Melvin acknowledged the last couple months of a lost season for the A’s were about "finding who was going forward with us." But he expressed optimism that a return to relevancy in the A.L. West could be quick.

"We feel like we have some significant pieces," Melvin said, "and with a few moves could probably bridge it pretty quickly in my opinion."

Beane was more vague when asked about 2016, saying the A’s crop of young prospects likely won’t arrive until late next season at the earliest. But he said things could happen this offseason to change the A’s timetable. They certainly surprised people last winter, though with moves that ultimately didn’t pan out. We’ll see what this one has in store.