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Predicting Oakland’s Wild Card roster, starting lineup to face Rays, Charlie Morton

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When the A’s opened their 2019 regular season at the Tokyo Dome, their own starting pitching — or lack thereof — posed the greatest threat to a finish on the outside of the playoffs.

In the six months between then and now, Bob Melvin’s rotation has undergone a complete overhaul. Marco Estrada and Aaron Brooks are gone, replaced by Tanner Roark and Homer Bailey. Frankie Montas, Oakland’s first half ace, tested positive for a banned substance, and though he has since returned from his suspension he is ineligible for the postseason.

Most importantly though, Mike Fiers rebounded from a rough start to the campaign to post a career high in wins (15) and solidify himself as the staff ace. And Sean Manaea returned from 2018 shoulder surgery to display his lights-out form down the stretch and give the A’s another dependable arm.

Jeffery Bennett/SFBay Oakland Athletics pitcher Sean Manaea (55) pitches in the first inning of the game against the San Francisco Giants at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on July 22, 2018.

Speaking about the transformation of his pitching staff, Melvin also brought up rookie call-ups, and the organization’s top two overall prospects, A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo during the A’s final homestand:

“With Puk and Luzardo coming and doing what they’ve done, the acquisitions that we had at the trade deadline and how well they’ve pitched. I think we’re as stacked as we’ve been, as far as the pitching end goes.”

While neither rookie made so much as a single start — Luzardo did record two saves — since debuting in the big leagues, both have earned roles on the playoff roster.

That being said, the A’s have yet to make an announcement regarding their roster decisions for Wednesday’ AL Wild Card Game. Their opponents, the Rays, on the other hand wasted no time naming All-Star right-hander Charlie Morton their starter.

Morton presents quite the obstacle having finished the 2019 campaign, his first in Tampa, among the AL leaders in wins (16), ERA (3.05), WHIP (1.05) and pitching WAR (5.1). He was also among the AL’s best in wins (8) and ERA (3.59) on the road.

Oakland was one of the many teams impressed by his efforts this season.

The A’s faced Morton twice in 10 days in mid-June, once in Oakland and once in Tampa, tallying just six hits one run — a Jurickson Profar solo home run — scored in 13-1/3 innings.

Melvin’s most likely counter for Morton is Fiers, though the skipper was noncommittal in discussing his options. Melvin did address Fiers’ successful season:

“He’s 15-4. He’s 15-4 with a sub-four (ERA). He’s had a terrific season.”

Scot Tucker/SFBay Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Mike Fiers (50) throws a pitch in the first inning as the Texas Rangers face the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, August 20, 2018.

Fiers struggled through a slow start to his first full season in Oakland, going 2-3 with a 6.81 ERA in his first eight starts. No. 9, however, yielded the veteran hurler’s second career no-hitter, and since he has gone 13-1 with a 3.17 ERA.

Manaea is also in the mix for the nod, though his selection is highly unlikely given his spending the first five months of the season on the IL.

As for the A’s who will be facing Morton from inside the batter’s box, most of the decisions will require zero discussion.

The debate really begins and ends with second base. Do the A’s start Profar, the only person in green and gold to solve the Morton riddle this season, or do they go with mid-season call-up Sheldon Neuse, who was not only a more reliable bat but also a much more dependable glove this year.

Mark Canha returning to the lineup Saturday means the outfield is set, with Chad Pinder, Canha and Ramón Laureano set to patrol the spacious green of Rickey Henderson Field.

Scot Tucker/SFBay Oakland Athletics first baseman Mark Canha (20) is congratulated after a second inning home run off San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner (40) as San Francisco Giants face the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, August 24, 2019. (Scot Tucker / SFBay.ca)

Melvin’s club is a different unit from the one shut down by Morton twice three-and-a-half months ago. So, Neuse will join Matt Olson, Marcus Semien and Matt Chapman on the infield.

Josh Phegley and rookie Sean Murphy essentially split time behind the plate down the stretch. Phegely having more big league experience, more of a book on the Rays hitters and more of a working rapport with Fiers make him the clear choice for Melvin, the former big league catcher.

With Khris Davis taking the DH duties, that leaves Murphy, Profar, Robbie Grossman, Stephen Piscotty and Seth Brown on the bench.

Scot Tucker/SFBay Oakland Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien (10) blows a bubble next to Matt Olson and Matt Chapman after the National Anthem during players week before San Francisco Giants face the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, August 24, 2019. (Scot Tucker / SFBay.ca)

Brett Anderson and Roark, who pitched Saturday and Sunday respectively, will take in the one-game playoff as observers while Bailey and Manaea fill bullpen spots should Melvin need additional arms.

Joining them in the bullpen will be southpaws Puk, Luzardo, Jake Diekman and Ryan Buchter giving Melvin ample matchup options for the five lefty bats that will likely be in the Rays starting lineup.

San Francisco Giants v Oakland Athletics
Jeffery Bennett/SFBay Oakland Athletics pitcher Liam Hendriks (31) celebrates after sticking out the batter to end the seventh inning of the game against the San Francisco Giants at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on July 31, 2017.

All-Star closer Liam Hendriks will anchor a right-handed half of the bullpen that will include Chris Bassitt, Joakim Soria and Yusmeiro Petit.

There is no denying that the Oakland bullpen will be shorthanded, missing Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino, but bolstered by starters Melvin and the As certainly have the bullets to go with a powder-keg offense. And they have at least one high-profile advocate for their chances in recently inducted A’s Hall-of-Famer Mark McGwire:

“They’re tied with Boston with the third-most World Series wins at nine. I would have to say, just the watching the team playing right now, I’d say they’re playing very good at the right time so they might be breaking that little tie.”


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