For the past two years the Oakland Athletics have been a team without a true identity.
With no constant on which to rely, they adopted a win-by-any-means approach, instead settling for constant frustration.
For all their 729 runs scored, the last time Oakland qualified for the postseason it did so on the back of a dominant pitching staff. After finishing with the American League’s second-best team ERA in 2012 (3.48), 2013 (3.56) and 2014 (3.22) — each producing a playoff berth — the A’s fell to the eleventh spot (4.14) in 2015, then fourteenth (4.51) in 2016.
In 2017, the “Swingin’ A’s” expect to recapture the golden glory of their recent postseason past. Doing so will require equal parts swingin’ and slingin’.
The team’s newest addition, Trevor Plouffe, who said his expectations for this A’s staff played a major role in his joining the squad, likened the need for dominant pitching to that of quarterback play in football. He told SFBay:
“In baseball, it’s almost how it is in football with a quarterback — you have to have a good quarterback to get anywhere in football, and you have to have good starting pitching to do anything in baseball. We have that.”
Along with potential dominance at the top half in the form of a bounce-back season from Sonny Gray (5-11, 5.69 ERA in 2016) along with Kendall Graveman (10-11, 4.11 ERA) and Sean Manaea (7-9, 3.86 ERA), the starting staff is flushed with highly promising youth.
Jharel Cotton, who went 2-0 with a 2.15 ERA in a one-month audition last season and has shown little aside from domination at every level, will be competing for one of the other two starter spots. As will Andrew Triggs, who went 1-1 with a 2.70 ERA as a starter, Jesse Hahn, who boasts a career 15-14 record with a 3.83 ERA in the big leagues, the overpowering Frankie Montas and Daniel Mengden, who went 1-3 with a 2.81 ERA in June before hitting a wall.
All-Star catcher Stephen Vogt expressed his own enthusiasm:
“With the young starting pitching, with the depth and the ability that we have, this is one of the more talented groups of starting pitchers that I’ve ever seen. I’m excited to see the adjustments that they’ve made, they’re all young so they’ve all gone to their first maybe second offseason in the big leagues, and that’s where you start to see your career take off. I’m really excited to see what’s in store.”
Mengden, who told SFBay that while it is exciting to imagine the possibilities of the 2017 rotation there will be some stress created by the competition in spring, has done all the minor league auditioning necessary. His career 20-6 record and 2.78 ERA over 49 games in the minors give him a likely leg up for one of those final two spots.
Heading into Spring Training, Cotton may hold a slight edge for the final spot after he was nearly untouchable (0.818 WHIP) in his first five big league starts.
As far as top-end leadership, Graveman, who went 8-5 with a 3.72 ERA after May last season, told SFBay we was more than willing to join Gray in that role:
“I’m excited about Sonny and I kinda taking the reigns and showing the young guys how to go through a whole season, day in and day out, on the field and off the field being able to show them that we can lead this team and this is how it needs to be done.”
Graveman would not discuss the promise of his staff without mentioning the bullpen, and how important they will be in aiding the starters’ growth.
The Oakland bullpen, which two years ago was a clear weak point on the team and among the worst in the league, has been addressed by the front office in each of the past two offseasons. That once weak part of the roster is now among the game’s deepest.
Now, that group boasts four guys who have serious closing experience in the big leagues — John Axford (144), Santiago Casilla (127), Ryan Madson (85) and Sean Doolittle (33) — the type of depth that is both rare and highly sought after.
Manager Bob Melvin addressed the group, and what it means as a manager to have a group like it:
“You look at the way bullpens are used these days: if you have depth in the bullpen, you can look to do thing a little differently, you can extend a guy on a certain day on not use him the next day knowing you have the resources behind him.”
All told, the A’s pitching staff contains an enviable mix of young talent, experienced leadership and depth that goes well beyond that of most teams. That is what back-to-back losing seasons can afford a team: opportunity for internal growth. And that is what it takes to end such a run.
A possible ace of the future, Manaea believes that the time is now for this group to make an impact on the league:
“The rotation we’re going to have this year is going to be really exciting. Sonny is going to come back to Sonny form — I really believe that. Kendall is going to be doing what he does — he’s always really consistent. If everything plays out right, and we’re all clicking on all cylinders, I think we can do big things this year.”