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2019 AL West Preview: Oakland Athletics, pitching staff overview

The A’s have a strong bullpen and some sneaky starting rotation depth—they’ll just have to wait for some of that depth first.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Last season, no Oakland Athletics starting pitchers qualified for the ERA title. Sean Manaea came the closest, falling short by an inning and a third. Four of the five starters in their opening day rotation were lost to season ending injuries. They wound up using fifteen different starters throughout the year, and by the fall, were emulating the Rays new pitching strategy by using three different “openers.” Somehow they managed to squeeze 92 useful innings out of Edwin Jackson. As a group, their starters posted the second lowest strikeout rate in the majors. And yet, because of the excellent defense behind them and a solid bullpen to back them up, the Athletics pitching staff graded out around league average by FIP and well above average by ERA.

Even though they cobbled together their rotation last year, they did little to address their pitching staff this offseason. They re-signed Mike Fiers and Brett Anderson and brought in Marco Estrada. Those three solidify a shaky rotation but they’re not exactly top-of-the-rotation material. Instead of looking to outside reinforcements, the A’s will hope to count on a couple of excellent pitching prospects in Jesús Luzardo and A.J. Puk—but they’ll have to wait until they game their service time first. They should also have a few starters returning from long-term injuries at some point this year. There’s a deep pitching staff if you look hard enough, they just won’t have much of that depth available until later in the year.

Projected Rotation

RHP Mike Fiers

IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
172 19.5% 5.2% 14.1% 39.4% 3.56 4.75
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 35.0% 90.0 2309 85 119 103
Sinker 13.5% 89.7 2240 46 58 106
Changeup 18.5% 83.8 1894 61 80 92
Curveball 15.8% 73.0 2780 78 98 84
Slider 17.2% 86.0 2391 110 41 91
Stuff+ Explainer

Those of us who stayed up for the opening night’s festivities saw the good and bad of the Mike Fiers experience. Fiers’ fringy repertoire is delivered with a Mike Leake-like balance, making his underwhelming stuff passable when he’s locating. The other night, when his command was iffy, we saw the Fiers of pre-Oakland ignominy. As it stands, Fiers is still a capable No. 4/5 starter, especially when his slider is on. He just happens to inexplicably be Oakland’s “ace” to start the year. ~JT

RHP Marco Estrada

IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
143 2/3 16.4% 8.0% 11.2% 24.0% 5.64 5.44
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 49.2% 89.0 2302 101 92 96
Cutter 6.1% 85.4 2468 52 113 49
Changeup 37.0% 77.2 2021 137 110 117
Curveball 7.7% 76.9 2618 106 31 125

From 2011-2016 Marco Estrada was one of the league’s steadier, if least exciting, pitchers. They will not write songs about the changeup-dominant righty, but he paced the Blue Jays in innings over the past four seasons, but 2017 and 2018 saw Estrada’s results crater, much like the impact points of Estrada’s many allowed homers last season. In fact, between Fiers and Estrada, the A’s have two of 2018’s six highest HR/9 allowing starters in the league atop their rotation this season. Their offense will put plenty of runs up, but like we saw last night the top of the rotation will struggle to keep them close without sizable improvements or another herculean effort from the ‘pen. ~JT

LHP Brett Anderson

IP K% BB% HR% GB% ERA FIP
IP K% BB% HR% GB% ERA FIP
80 1/3 14.1% 3.9% 15.2% 55.6% 4.48 4.17
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 19.5% 91.6 1997 68 60 111
Sinker 33.6% 90.4 1829 83 45 114
Changeup 20.3% 83.9 1581 103 74 91
Slider 26.7% 82.6 2352 109 91 99

Seemingly perpetually injured, Brett Anderson returned to Oakland last season after bouncing around the majors for four seasons. He dealt with a shoulder issue throughout the year, but managed to make 17 starts for the A’s and was relatively productive. Never a big strikeout machine, Anderson relies on an excellent ground ball rate and good command to limit baserunners. In many ways, he’s a lesser version of Dallas Keuchel. Instead of doling out big money for Keuchel, the A’s re-signed Anderson for just $1.5 million. If he’s healthy, he’ll hold a spot in the rotation until better options are ready to be called up. ~JM

RHP Chris Bassitt

IP K% BB% HR% GB% ERA FIP
IP K% BB% HR% GB% ERA FIP
47 2/3 20.1% 9.3% 8.5% 44.6% 3.02 3.98
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Sinker 50.5% 92.4 2120 73 77 76
Cutter 29.7% 87.0 2238 63 47 87
Curveball 19.9% 71.6 2269 42 109 99

After showing some promise all the way back in 2015, Chris Bassitt underwent Tommy John surgery in 2016 and missed all of 2017. He was up and down with the A’s last year, making seven spot starts throughout the year, showing off some of the skills that made him an intriguing arm a few years ago. He’s posted impressive strikeout rates in the minors and has a knack for suppressing home runs with his decent sinker. He’ll get a chance to start the year in the rotation, but like Anderson, will likely be moved to the bullpen once better options are available. ~JM

Rotation Depth

RHP Frankie Montas
RHP Daniel Mengden
RHP Paul Blackburn

Prospect Depth

LHP Jesús Luzardo
LHP A.J. Puk

Injured & Recovering Depth

RHP Jharel Cotton
RHP Andrew Triggs
LHP Sean Manaea

While the A’s Opening Day starting rotation may not be very impressive, the amount of depth they can call on is a true strength of the team. Unfortunately, most of that depth won’t be available from the get go. Unlike the other AL West team previews, we’ve split the rotation depth into three groups. The first group is made up of starters ready to contribute from day one. Frankie Montas, Daniel Mengden, and Paul Blackburn all saw time in the A’s rotation last year and each of them will likely be called upon at some point this year. Montas is probably the best of the bunch. He can get his fastball up to 97 mph and pairs it with a nasty slider, but he couldn’t get that raw stuff to translate to good results as a starter. Daniel Mengden had a great stretch in April and May of last year but the wheels fell off once summer began. Both he and Blackburn rely on pinpoint command of their mediocre arsenals to find success.

The big name on the list above is Jesús Luzardo, who reached Triple-A as a 20-year-old last year. His stuff is electric and he should make his major league debut as soon as the A’s have secured an extra year of team control by holding him down in the minors for the first month of the season. Update: it looks like Luzardo will be shut down for a month with a shoulder injury. A.J. Puk could have been listed with the recovering from injury group since he had Tommy John surgery early last year. He’s the A’s second best pitching prospect and could make his debut later on this season once he’s recovered from his surgery.

The next three names on the list are wildcards since they’re all recovering from major arm injuries. Jharel Cotton had Tommy John surgery in 2017 could be the first to return to action of the three. He’ll look to build off a rocky start to his major league career a few years ago. Andrew Triggs is recovering from thoracic outlet surgery so his ability to contribute meaningful innings this year is still up in the air. He was throwing effectively during spring training but was being used out of the bullpen. When Sean Manaea initially suffered his shoulder injury, many assumed he’d be lost for the entire 2019 season. The latest reports have him responding well to treatment but is still a long shot to make it back onto the mound this year. ~JM

Bullpen

Closer - RHP Blake Treinen
2018 Stats: 80 ⅓ IP, 0.78 ERA, 1.82 FIP, 3.5 fWAR
2019 Projection (ZiPS): 71 IP, 2.66 ERA, 2.82 FIP, 1.2 fWAR

Blake Treinen did everything he could to upstage Edwin Díaz’s historic season last year. In some respects, he was the better reliever than Díaz. His sinker-slider combo is nasty, helping him keep the ball in the park and on the ground. Opposing batters managed a .230 BABIP off him last year, a testament to his ability to generate weak contact. But he’s also just as good at inducing whiffs with his repertoire, leading all relievers in chase rate (O-Swing%) last year. And because the A’s are a forward-thinking team, they’re not afraid to use Treinen earlier than the ninth inning and for more than one inning if necessary. ~JM

RHP Joakim Soria
2018 Stats: 60 ⅔ IP, 3.12 ERA, 2.44 FIP, 1.8 fWAR
2019 Projection: 55 IP, 3.11 ERA, 2.96 FIP, 1.0 fWAR

One of the true triumphs of the Rule-5 Draft back in 2007, Joakim Soria is as good as every even as he approaches his 35th birthday. Soria’s fastball remains right around 93 mph and his four-pitch mix makes sense in the Oakland bullpen where they’ve made the most of versatile guys like Yusmeiro Petit and Liam Hendriks in years past. Signed for 2 years and $15 million, Soria will be one of several options for high-leverage innings, though his history suggests a more single-inning use structure. -JT

RHP Lou Trivino
2018 Stats: 74 IP, 2.92 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 0.6 fWAR
2019 Projection: 72 ⅓ IP, 3.36 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 0.7 fWAR

One of the darlings of the proponents of pitch design Trivino was a huge reason Oakland had so many leads to give Blake Treinen in the 9th inning last year. Everything he throws moves, and quickly, with a 98-mph sinker and 93-mph cutter that are used almost evenly. Trivino looked ready to pick up where he left off when he struck out the side for the Mariners on Opening Day, but he can occasionally struggle with control and be hurt with walks. -JT

The Pile
RHP Yusmeiro Petit
LHP Ryan Buchter
RHP Fernando Rodney
RHP J.B. Wendelken
RHP Liam Hendriks

Jake’s darling last year, not only did Petit not end up with the Mariners, but he joined a different AL West rival and nearly reached 100 IP while providing quality innings. Buchter is the lone lefty in the A’s pen, but he’s been quality too. Despite relying heavily on his heater, Buchter’s slightly funky delivery creates deception and strikeouts. With Ichiro’s retirement, La Flecha is the league’s oldest rostered player at 42. Rodney’s heater/change-up combo is still functional, though his command is dicey as ever and his margin for error is slowly thinning, Wendelken has been dynamite in the minors, and while his video game number K% haven’t translated fully to the bigs he’s gotten decent results so far. Liam Hendriks opened the Wild Card game but was arguably the weak link in the A’s stacked pen. He’s a capable middle reliever and should get easier fare than his track record would suggest among this capable company.