Programming note: Watch Episode 2 of Bay Area Baseball Talk tonight at 6:30pm on CSN Bay Area.
The A’s have the rock of their starting rotation in place. It comes in the form of 26-year-old ace Sonny Gray.
Beyond him, there is no sure thing on Oakland’s five-man starting staff, and that makes for lots of intrigue once pitchers and catchers report to spring training Feb. 20.
The A’s signed journeyman Rich Hill early in the offseason, and the lefty will slot into a rotation spot though he’s spent the majority of the past six seasons as a reliever. Elsewhere, the A’s are crossing their fingers for good health.
Kendall Graveman and Jesse Hahn will be in the rotation provided they’re 100 percent, but both right-handers had their 2015 seasons end prematurely due to injuries. Hahn, who is working back from a forearm ailment, in particular is an unknown. Chris Bassitt could have the inside track to the fifth starter’s spot, but he has just 18 major league starts under his belt and missed a month with a shoulder injury last season.
There is depth beyond that group, but more injury question marks too. Jarrod Parker will arrive at camp looking to make an unprecedented comeback, as he’s undergone two Tommy John surgeries on his throwing elbow and fractured the same elbow during a rehab start last year. The A’s added a potential impact starter with the late-December signing of free agent Henderson Alvarez, but he’s still recovering from shoulder surgery last July, and his return date is unknown.
But A’s fans can take heart in this: Each year this team seems to arrive at camp with starting pitching question marks, and each year those concerns tend to melt away. Despite the second-half injuries that torpedoed the staff, last season marked the sixth year in a row in which the A’s ranked among the American League’s top four in starters’ ERA (they were third at 3.91).
Can 2016 produce that same consistency?
STARTING CAST: Gray, a Cy Young finalist after going 14-7 with a 2.73 ERA last season, has drawn trade interest from teams but the A’s indicate that they want to hold on to their No. 1 starter for the time being. The key is how things take shape behind him.
Hill, signed to a one-year $6 million contract, lends veteran savvy. But he’s getting his first extended crack in the rotation since he made 13 starts for Baltimore in 2009. The lefty shined in four September starts for Boston last year, posting a 1.55 ERA with a shutout. The A’s have liked him since his days with the Cubs from 2005-08, but they’re placing lots of faith in a pitcher with such a small recent track record as a starter.
Hill, who turns 36 in March, has no doubts about his ability to get the job done every fifth day.
“The confidence has always been there,” Hill said upon signing with Oakland. “The ability has always been there. To me, it was no surprise what happened in September.”
CAMP COMPETITION: A’s manager Bob Melvin mentioned during the winter meetings his wish for a veteran No. 2-type starter to slide in behind Gray. Oakland has yet to swing that acquisition, but if Hahn is healthy, he has the stuff to assume that role. He went 6-6 with a 3.35 ERA in 16 starts last season, including a Memorial Day shutout of Detroit. But Hahn was shut down after a July 1 start with a strained forearm, and he was still experiencing a degree of soreness when he began throwing in September. An MRI showed no structural damage for Hahn, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, but the real test will be when Hahn arrives to spring training and gets on the mound.
Graveman wowed everyone last spring, then went 6-9 with a 4.05 ERA in an up-and-down season that ended in late August due to a strained oblique. He’ll also be worth watching in the spring along with Bassitt, who went 1-8 last season but posted a respectable 3.56 ERA in 18 games (13 starts).
Aaron Brooks, Felix Doubront and Sean Nolin could enter the starting mix too, and Parker is particularly intriguing given he was a fixture in the A’s rotation from 2012-13. Now 27, he’s missed the past two full seasons battling elbow problems. Billy Beane, the A’s executive VP of baseball operations, says he envisions Parker coming back as a starter, but pencil the right-hander in as an unknown until he shows he’s physically capable of retiring hitters this spring.
PAY ATTENTION TO: How highly touted lefty Sean Manaea performs in front of the major league coaching staff this spring. Rated the A’s top pitching prospect, Manaea posted a 1.90 ERA over seven Double-A starts after he was acquired from the Royals in the Ben Zobrist deal last summer. He may be a long shot to make the club out of camp, but Manaea – who turns 24 in February -- could impact Oakland’s rotation quickly with a strong start to 2016.