The major league season unofficially begins in less than four weeks, when pitchers and catchers report to camp.
As the Athletics close in on Arizona, the likelihood continues to grow that their current roster is the one with which they will begin the season, despite their having not yet filled the one vacancy pinpointed by the front office as the top concern.
Days after putting the finishing touches on a third-straight last place finish in the American League West, manager Bob Melvin, GM David Forst and VP of Baseball Operations Billy Beane shared one sentiment: the main area of need this offseason laid at the top of their team’s rotation. It wasn’t necessarily an “ace” the three men agreed would be needed — as Melvin said, the term “ace” is relative — but a veteran who could anchor a rotation that finished last season at an average age of 25 years old.
Speaking to this need, Forst said any addition to the current starting staff was primarily about finding the right guy:
“I think we saw enough out of these guys to think they can improve. Are we set? No. There is talent, but these guys are young and inexperienced.”
“You’re always looking for depth, and maybe some veteran leadership — we don’t really have a veteran guy.”
Pitching depth proved pertinent for Oakland in 2017, with big league starters seeing seven separate disabled list stints. But that is something this team did prove to have in spades. With youngsters like Paul Blackburn, Daniel Gossett and Daniel Mengden having emerged as viable options last year, and more established pros like Chris Bassitt, Jesse Hahn and Andrew Triggs remaining in play, Oakland will be capable once again of battling through inevitable injury issues.
Still, the addition of one key arm would be helpful to this young staff, allowing Blackburn and Gossett more time to stew in the minors, and Bassitt and Triggs additional time to recover from surgeries.
The good news for Oakland is that the needle has moved only slightly in the free agent market, leaving players like Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish without jobs in late-January. But for Forst, Beane and the powers that be, targeting Cy Young-type arms will not be in the cards. Instead, names like Jaime Garcia — someone who is attainable at a more bargained price, but brings a postseason pedigree — would get more air time in the A’s meetings of the minds.
That being said, it is quite likely that any bridges previously deemed crossable have been burned — lifelines tossed and not retrieved.
But maybe that is just what this staff needed. Said the skipper:
“I don’t know that we necessarily need an ace. I think Kendall Graveman and Sean Manaea have the ability to pitch at the top of the rotation.”
Graveman, having been with the club since 2015, is the longest-tenured continuous Athletic. Forcing him into that leadership role could very well be just what the doctor ordered for a group without a dominant voice. Like Sonny Gray in 2014, Graveman has been presented the opportunity to grow into a leader, pacing a group with which he has grown and with whom he is very familiar.
Sure, the 27-year-old Alabama native has as many postseason starts as the Coliseum’s own Right Field Will, but the same can be said of the vast majority of this young roster. And there is something to be said about a group growing together.
As far as the ability to lead by example in the regular season, Graveman has shown that he has that in his game. Three times in 2017, Graveman went on runs of four consecutive starts in which he allowed fewer than 2.9 earned runs per nine innings pitched, including a 2-0 record and 2.14 ERA over his final four starts of the year. That metric is far more impressive when considering Graveman missed 16 starts, making just 19 — meaning he spent more than half of his season locked into separate grooves stunted most significantly by an ailing shoulder. His year ended with a 6-4 record and 4.19 ERA.
The colonel to Graveman’s general would continue being a title carried by Manaea, in most respects Graveman’s polar opposite.
Graveman, a 6-foot-2, slender, over-the-top delivering sinker-baller will be backed up on most occasions by Manaea, a 6-foot-5, side-arming power lefty who had his own bouts of inconsistency sprinkled into an otherwise impressive 2017.
For Manaea, though, the issues have been addressed and overcome. Like Graveman, who was 2-1 with a 2.25 ERA in four starts in April, Manaea got off to a quick start, going 6-2 with a 2.88 ERA over nine starts from mid-April to mid-June. But the ADD sufferer was dealt significant weight loss stemming from the side effects of ADD medication. With his weight loss, Manaea’s All-Star worthy numbers in June devolved into a below-expectation season (12-10, 4.37 ERA).
Manaea has since called his medication dosage “perfect,” leading to improved health and his finishing 2017 on a high note, allowing one earned run over his final two starts.
Beyond their top-of-the-rotation duo, the A’s will find some mixture of Blackburn, Jharel Cotton, Mengden and perhaps Bassitt or Hahn, with Gossett and No. 2 prospect AJ Puk biding their time in the minors. The supplementary pieces, however, will do little more than amplify the performance of the ace-to-be.
With no addition of yet, the name slotted into that role is beginning to appear clearer. And there is no time like the present to find out if the A’s are attempting to force a square peg into a round hole, meant for an Arrieta, Darvish of Lance Lynn, or if Graveman can truly be the filler of that void.