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2018 AL West Preview: The Athletics’ Pitching Staff

Without Sonny Gray, the Athletics pitching staff is filled with hopes and dreams.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Texas Rangers Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

After trading away Sonny Gray midseason last year, the Athletics pitching staff was left with lots of projectable young talent but no solid contributors. Sean Manaea might be the only pitcher of the bunch with a true prospect pedigree but there’s a lot of potential to be found elsewhere. All of that latent talent needs to be leveraged properly. The Athletics find themselves hoping that enough of these pitchers take big enough steps forward all at the same time. That kind of boom or bust strategy doesn’t project very well in 2018 but could pay off in a few seasons.

Starting Rotation

LHP Sean Manaea

2017 Stats: 158 2/3 IP, 4.37 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 2.3 fWAR
2018 Projection (Steamer): 173 IP, 4.41 ERA, 4.42 FIP, 2.0 fWAR

Sean Manaea labored through an up-and-down sophomore season in 2017. He posted an almost identical FIP as his excellent rookie season but his ERA saw an increase of more than half a run. And hidden in his full season stats is a second half swoon that was probably the result of fatigue brought on by complications with his ADD medication. Much of those struggles were isolated to a six game stretch where he posted a 7.77 ERA over 24 innings, striking out just 10 batters total. With a pitch repertoire that leans heavily on a fastball/slider combo, Manaea has also struggled with a significant platoon split. Still, despite all these warts, the potential is there to become a solid contributor to the A’s rotation. He probably won’t ever lead the league in any of the major pitching categories but there’s a lot of value in possessing above average peripherals across the board.

RHP Kendall Graveman

2017 Stats: 105 1/3 IP, 4.19 ERA, 4.33 FIP, 1.2 fWAR
2018 Projection: 160 IP, 4.77 ERA, 4.65 FIP, 1.4 fWAR

Towards the end of the 2016 season, Kendall Graveman started throwing his sinker far more often than ever before. Along with the increased usage came a slight bump in velocity. In April of last year, he threw his sinker an astonishing 85% of the time, taking his fastball-heavy approach to new heights. He mixed in his other pitches more and more as the season wore on but continued to throw his sinker more often than any other pitcher in baseball. Was the fastball-heavy approach effective? The results were mixed. He continued to post an excellent ground ball rate, but since his sinker isn’t a swing-and-miss pitch, the ceiling on his strikeout rate is capped pretty low. His skill set fits as a back-of-the-rotation innings eater but the A’s are asking for much more than that.

RHP Jharel Cotton

2017 Stats: 129 IP, 5.58 ERA, 5.68 FIP, 0.0 fWAR
2018 Projection: 161 IP, 4.70 ERA, 4.73 FIP, 1.3 fWAR

After a tantalizing five-start introduction to the majors in 2016, Jharel Cotton’s 2017 season was a complete disaster. His usually excellent command eluded him and his walk rate and home run rate suffered greatly. With a batted ball profile that leans heavily towards fly balls, he will continue to deal with a home run problem, but his pitch arsenal is intriguing enough that he could make up for that issue in other ways. His most notable pitch is his changeup. He throws it 15 miles per hour slower than his fastball and uses it to generate extremely weak contact. His popup rate was eighth highest among all starters with a similar number of innings pitched last year. A little more consistency and better command could lead to some big improvements for Cotton in 2018.

The depth

The rest of the A’s rotation is difficult to project. There are four or five different starters who could capably fill the last two spots in the rotation but none of them have a guaranteed spot at this point. FanGraphs projects Andrew Triggs and Chris Bassitt to accumulate the most innings in the number four and number five slots but Paul Blackburn and Daniel Mengden could also slip into the rotation with strong showings during spring training. Triggs impressed in a brief turn in the rotation at the end of 2016 and started off 2017 with some strong performances. Unfortunately, the sidearmer was sidelined with a hip injury in June and went under the knife in July. Bassitt will be working his way back from Tommy John surgery but he showed off some interesting stuff a few seasons ago.

Blackburn posted a 3.22 ERA in 10 starts last season despite posting the lowest strikeout rate of any starter with a similar number of innings pitched. The former Mariner relies on an excellent ground ball rate and good command to keep batters in check. Mengden showed some real improvement last season, dropping his walk rate by four points while keeping his strikeout rate around league average. Their top pitching prospect A.J. Puk could make waves later in the season if he continues his rapid ascent through the minor leagues. The sixth overall pick in the 2016 draft posted excellent strikeout rates across two levels in 2017 and should start the year in Double-A. I would bet that all five of these starters will see some time in the major league rotation in 2018.

The bullpen

The closer – RHP Blake Treinen

2017 Stats: 75 2/3 IP, 3.93 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 1.3 fWAR
2018 Projection: 65 IP, 3.67 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 0.6 fWAR

After a brief stint as the Nationals closer to start the year, Blake Treinen was traded to the Athletics midseason. He would eventually reclaim the ninth inning role with his new team and should begin the 2018 season in that role again. His best pitch is a bowling ball sinker similar to Zach Britton’s or Sam Dyson’s. That keeps his home run rate very low, which is definitely a bonus during high leverage situations. Without a strong third pitch, he is vulnerable against left-handed batters, allowing a pretty significant platoon split during his career.

The setup man – RHP Santiago Casilla

2017 Stats: 59 IP, 4.27 ERA, 4.41 FIP, 0.1 fWAR
2018 Projection: 65 IP, 4.34 ERA, 4.32 FIP, 0.2 fWAR

The long-time Giants closer rejoined the Athletics last year, spending some time locking down the ninth inning. Once Treinen joined the team, he was bumped to a setup role which is where his deteriorating skill set probably belongs. Still, his experience as a closer could allow him to slip back into the role should Treinen fail to maintain his grip on it. Rather than overpowering batters with a strong fastball or a killer breaking ball, Casilla relies on a four-pitch arsenal to keep batters off balance.

The rest

The Athletics made a bunch of additions to their bullpen this offseason, giving them a number of weapons they can call on from the sixth inning on. Yusmeiro Petit rejuvenated his career with an excellent season in Anaheim, working his way into the ninth inning rotation by August. His role and peripherals are remarkably similar to former Mariner Emilio Pagan who joined the A’s this offseason as part of the Ryon Healy trade. Both Petit and Pagan possess an extreme fly ball rate leading to a few too many home runs, but good command and an ability to go multiple innings make them extremely valuable bullpen pieces. Ryan Buchter is also a new addition to the team and will be the left-handed specialist. He’s also capable of handling right-handed batters with good command of a cutter. Liam Hendriks is one of the few bullpen holdovers from last season and he’ll continue to use his excellent fastball/slider combo to lock down the seventh or eighth innings.