Back in February when spring training began, the A’s appeared to have more starting rotation options than they knew what to do with.
There were questions among their rotation candidates, no doubt. But the A’s had quantity when it came to starters, and that provided a degree of security to protect against the unknown.
Now, it’s mind-boggling to look back on how that depth has vanished just a little more than two months into the regular season.
This all comes to mind in light of young right-hander Daniel Mengden, who hadn’t pitched above Single-A before this season, preparing to make his major league debut for the A’s on Saturday afternoon at Cincinnati. Had things gone according to plan, or even remotely according to plan, the 23-year-old Mengden would be nowhere near the big league radar right now.
That’s no knock on Mengden, who’s been fantastic in Double-A and Triple-A this season. It just seemed unthinkable that the A’s would have to dip so deep into their reserve of minor league starters already.
But the cracks began to show early. Felix Doubront, who won the fifth starter’s spot out of spring training, was lost to Tommy John surgery right before Opening Day. A few weeks later, No. 3 starter Chris Bassitt would suffer the same fate. Jarrod Parker re-fractured his elbow during spring training, robbing the A’s of a valuable fall-back plan.
Henderson Alvarez, expected to return from shoulder surgery in May, endured a setback and is just now working his way back from that. Jesse Hahn has been surprisingly ineffective, earning him a demotion back to Triple-A on Friday.
The latest injury blow came Thursday when veteran Rich Hill, emerging as an All-Star candidate, was lost to the disabled list with a groin injury. From the season-opening starting five that the A’s broke camp with, only Sonny Gray and Kendall Graveman are part of the current rotation, and even Gray missed two starts on the disabled list recently.
Though plenty of factors have contributed to the A’s occupying last place, the attrition of their starting pitching has been a huge one. But as hopes of contending in 2016 gradually fade, some important questions can still be answered regarding this rotation with an eye toward the future.
Does Alvarez stay healthy, and does he eventually become the front-of-the-rotation type presence that his track record suggests he can be? The A’s will have him under team control through next season. Can Graveman begin to show the consistency to suggest he’s a long-term part of the A’s staff? Can Hahn do the same, if he gets another shot in the bigs this year?
Beginning Saturday, the A’s will get to see what Mengden can do. The right-hander, acquired from Houston as part of last July’s Scott Kazmir trade, came in just 24th on the A’s preseason list of top prospects, according to Baseball America. But from a pitching standpoint, he’s been the shining star of the minor league system in 2016, with a combined 5-1 record and 1.19 ERA between Double-A Midland and Triple-A Nashville.
Now he’ll get to prove what he’s got against big league hitters. It’s an opportunity that nobody could have seen coming this early, but that’s the kind of season it’s been for the A’s.