Sean Manaea put together a compelling argument for an Opening Day roster spot in 2016, announcing his presence with authority through an impressive Spring Training.
When April finally did roll around, though, he was sent to Nashville instead of Oakland. But he wasn’t there for long, waiting less than one month before being summoned to the big leagues, and he has been a mainstay in the Athletics rotation since.
The franchise’s top pitching prospect, a tall, hard-throwing lefty, demanding the attention and consideration of the front office. The same has occurred this year, with A.J. Puk blowing through the competition in his first three outings this spring. The 22-year-old former first-round draft pick — No. 6 overall in 2016 — has allowed four hits and three walks while striking out six in 8 scoreless innings. Alas, he, like Manaea before him, will be asked to prove himself in the minor leagues where he has accrued just 157-2/3 frames.
Puk will be joined by Lou Trivino and Franklin Barreto as top-performing youngsters ticketed for the minor leagues come regular season. Given the A’s handful of offseason additions, a few veterans will be joining those youngsters unable to seize one of the few vacancies. Here is the list of players who will make the March 29 roster.
When A’s pitchers reported to Mesa, Arizona in mid-February only two names were written onto the rotation card in pen. And the arms that go with those names have counterbalanced each other.
Kendall Graveman, the ace, stumbled out of the gate allowing eight earned runs along with 11 hits and four walks in his 6 innings (12.00 ERA, 2.50 WHIP). After having his gate-opening stalled by back stiffness, Manaea has raced out to top speed and the head of the pack, holding the opposition to seven base runners and two runs in his first 6 frames (3.00 ERA, 1.17 WHIP).
The next group of likely starters, Daniel Mengden (10.80 ERA, 2.30 WHIP) and Andrew Triggs (4.63 ERA, 0.77 WHIP) have provided a similar countering act. Still, both have yet to lose their spots.
The toughest competition this spring has come from the final rotation spot. But, it has been for all the wrong reasons.
Paul Blackburn (5.40 ERA, 1.20 WHIP) has far from instilled confidence but has certainly outperformed Frankie Montas (8.31 ERA, 2.31 WHIP), who will likely find himself being groomed for bullpen work while with Triple-A Nashville. And Jharel Cotton (5.63 ERA, 1.38) continues to search for the success he enjoyed in his first five big league games.
Cotton, though, may have found a glimmer of that previous dominance in his latest start, holding Seattle to three hits and one run while striking out five in 4 innings — facing many of the Mariners starters, no less. Performances like this, and the promise of his abilities give the 26-year-old a leg up on the competition for the No. 5 spot.
That competition will continue into the regular season. Should any of the back-three starters experience early-season scuffles while Puk punishes Triple-A hitters, thousands in the East Bay will have their murmured wishes answered by the 6-foot-7 Iowa native who has garnered Randy Johnson comparisons.
Conclusion: Graveman (RHP), Manaea (LHP), Triggs (RHP), Mengden (RHP), Cotton (RHP)
The latest Oakland addition was a big one in the form of free agent signee Jonathan Lucroy. The A’s and Lucroy agreed to the terms of a one-year deal on Friday, as originally reported by MLB.com’s Jane Lee, with the official signing coming Monday.
Adding the two-time All-Star solidifies a position that has seen little productions since 2016. For Josh Phegley (.267/.353/.600 this spring), the signing nearly solidifies his season-opening spot with the Triple-A Nashville. But, with Bruce Maxwell continuing to face uncertainty regarding his October 28 arrest, the question is not will Phegely be called up but when it will happen.
Maxwell’s next court date is scheduled for April 13, with a trial date set for Aug. 9 should Maxwell’s lawyers and the state of Arizona not reach a plea deal, according to the Laredo Morning Times. For the time being, the choice has been made simple for manager Bob Melvin.
Conclusion: Lucroy, Maxwell
Oakland’s four starting infield positions have been spoken for since mid-November, when Ryon Healy was traded to Seattle.
Chad Pinder‘s ability to play numerous positions effectively and produce offensively makes him the only real choice to serve as back-up in the middle of the infield. This means there is only one spot left: the back-up to Matt Olson and Matt Chapman on the corners.
Renato Nunez may be of consideration to fill this need, given his lack of minor league options and albeit limited experience at third. Lucroy has a bit more experience there, but he was brought to Oakland as much for his ability to support pitchers as his career .281/.343/.433 slash and will likely spend much of his season donning the tools of ignorance.
So, Mark Canha, who told SFBay that he spent much of his offseason working on this infield footwork, was going to get a look. And he has done all that was necessary to separate himself from the competition. In 12 games this spring, Canha is slashing an impressive .292/.370/.583 with two homers and six RBIs.
The San Jose native will see time in the outfield, and possibly some at third as well, but he will serve as the first baseman when Olson, whom Melvin will play against lefties, is given a rare day off.
Conclusion: Matt Olson (1B), Jed Lowrie (2B), Matt Chapman (3B), Marcus Semien (SS), Pinder, Canha
Like the infield, the outfield had most of its spots spoken for in February.
Khris Davis will be in left field when he is not DH’ing. Stephen Piscotty will get the majority of the remaining starts in left, and Matt Joyce will get the lion’s share of the start in right. And one of the bench spots will go to Nunez who carries with him great promise, having averaged just under 19 homers per 162 games played in seven seasons as a minor leaguer, but zero remaining minor league options — meaning if he is not on the 25-man roster he will be made available to other teams.
The lone remaining outfield opening is perhaps the most important: starting center fielder.
Boog Powell did an admirable job filling that role in the second half of 2017, though his offensive productivity tailed off down the stretch. And his bat still has yet to awaken from its early-winter slumber. Jake Smolinski‘s bat is wide awake this March, but given his four-year big league career of inconsistency he needed all other options to fall flat this spring in order to claim the No.1 8-spot on the lineup card.
That is where Dustin Fowler comes in. Fowler has shown the tools that made him the top target of the A’s in a trade that sent Sonny Gray to the Yankees last season. He has stolen two bases — something Oakland will need to do more of in 2018 — in eight games. While his average (.222) is not where he would like or expect it, he has drawn a pair of walks and played what the skipper called a “graceful” center field.
Really, barring physical setback from 2017 knee surgery, the starting center field job was Fowler’s to lose, and he just has not done that.
Conclusion: Davis (DH), Piscotty (LF), Fowler (CF), Joyce (RF), Nunez
The bullpen is the spot in which the front office focused the majority of its attention this winter, adding a trio of arms to go with the two added mid-season last year. With only seven spots available, that means only two were left to be filled — kinda.
Ryan Dull and Daniel Coulombe never saw those spots available either, and for good reason. Coulombe spent much of 2017 as the A’s lone dependable left-handed option in relief and did so valiantly, posting a 3.48 ERA and 1.316 WHIP in 72 appearances. And, when healthy, Dull is an incredibly effective middle reliever who excels at cleaning up teammates’ messes.
Raul Alcantara and Simon Castro each saw some success in middle relief roles last season and will almost assuredly see similar opportunity this year.
That leaves Santiago Casilla, who returned to Oakland after seven seasons on the other end of the Bay Bridge last year. Casilla’s return to the green and gold was anything but triumphant, first losing his closer spot then slipping out of the high-leverage situations. Now 37, there is just not enough room for the once overpowering righty on this roster.
Conclusion: Blake Treinen (RHP; Closer), Ryan Buchter (LHP), Coulombe (LHP), Dull (RHP), Chris Hatcher (RHP), Emilio Pagan (RHP), Yusmeiro Petit (RHP)
Though they will not be on the Opening Day roster, many of the youngsters who have thus far made a case for consideration this spring will see big league time this season — before September. Barreto is in line to be the first infielder called for should injury or ineffectiveness present itself. While he isn’t exactly among the ranks of “youngster,” Smolinski will join Powell as top contenders to fill in an outfield gap.
Where things get interesting for the Oakland brass is how long they are willing to wait before pulling the trigger on a Puk call-up.
Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.