MESA, Ariz. — After 5 1/2 weeks spent in the desert, the A’s prepare to shift their operations from Arizona to the Bay Area as Opening Night awaits Monday.
They arrived to camp with plenty of questions needing to be answered. They’ve gotten clarity in some areas, while questions remain in others.
Here’s a look at five pressing questions we posed back when spring training started, and how the answers have materialized to this point:
1) How does the rotation take shape around Sonny Gray?
This is one area of the team that’s a bigger mystery now than when pitchers and catchers first reported. Rich Hill, a key offseason addition, has struggled with command in both major and minor league outings, but he’ll enter the season as the No. 2 starter. Promising right-hander Jesse Hahn stumbled badly enough to be optioned to Triple-A Nashville on Tuesday. Chris Bassitt, Kendall Graveman and Felix Doubront (replacing Hahn) will make up the rest of the season-opening five-man staff.
As a group, Oakland’s starters entered play Tuesday with a 7.47 ERA during Cactus League games.
“The results haven’t been great this spring, but at the same time we’ve shown a lot of good stuff and made good pitches,” catcher Stephen Vogt said. “Come Opening Day, you get that extra shot of adrenaline, and the results will start to come.”
[STIGLICH: A's option Jesse Hahn to Triple-A]
Need reason for optimism?
The A’s have finished in the top four in American League starters’ ERA in each of the last four seasons, and they also entered some of those years with rotation questions.
2) Does Butler deliver in Year 2?
After a disappointing 2015 season, designated hitter Billy Butler is looking to rebound. The A’s have a deeper batting order with the addition of Khris Davis. As a result, Butler has slid down in the lineup and figures to bat as low as seventh against right-handers. That should take some pressure off his shoulders, but manager Bob Melvin also thinks it’s providing motivation.
“He’s even spoken to me about it, (saying) ‘I plan on hitting higher,’” Melvin said. “… I think he’s on a mission to get back to where he expects himself to be.”
Butler is hitting .314 with one homer and seven RBI in 14 spring games to this point. Will “Country Breakfast” prove to be the impact hitter the A’s thought they were getting when they signed him to a three-year $30 million contract? And the bigger-picture question: If Butler does get off to a fast start, will the A’s look to trade him to a team looking for a veteran right-handed bat? Surely they’d have to eat a good portion of his contract.
3) Can Doolittle reclaim the ninth inning?
The early indications are yes. Despite a triceps strain that kept him out of Cactus League games for almost two weeks, Doolittle returned with two sharp scoreless exhibition outings in the past week. He downplayed the triceps issue and says he’s happy with where he’s at right now. The lefty’s fastball is sitting in the low 90’s — still a considerable notch below the velocity he showed before last year’s shoulder problems — but Vogt says Doolittle is getting good movement with his fastball.
[STIGLICH: Doolittle's return short but sweet]
“I know the velocity isn’t quite where he wants it yet, but he’s got the backspin and life on his fastball,” the catcher said. “When Doolittle’s ball is going, it’s got that nice little jump at the end. It’s why people pop up and swing and miss so much. He’s starting to get that back these last two outings. I like the way he looks.”
4) Will the defense be less offensive?
Along with the rotation, this is a worrisome area entering the season. Improved defense was a priority when spring training began, but the A’s entered Tuesday with 41 errors, the most in the majors this spring. Many have been committed by minor leaguers who are no longer up with the club, but not all. In short, the A’s have resembled the team that victimized itself far too often last year with the glove.
Veteran utility man Chris Coghlan said this has been one of the hardest camps he’s been in as far as the extra work players have put in defensively. He acknowledged the importance of the A’s sharpening things up in that area.
“We’ve got a lot of ground-ball pitchers, so we need to play clean defense to help them out,” Coghlan said. “We don’t have as many punch-out pitchers, so we need to support them when they give us a ball we can get.”
5) Can the A’s pass chemistry class?
Team cohesion is impossible to measure with any statistic, but the A’s lacked chemistry last season and efforts were made to bring in good “clubhouse guys” over the offseason. To this point, guys seem to be jelling well. But the bigger measuring stick will come once the regular season begins. Do the A’s win enough games to ensure a healthy environment? Does a healthy environment help them win more games? The answer is probably a little bit of both.
“I like the personalties in here. I like the mix of guys,” Vogt said. “Once we start for real, that’s when you really start to see everyone’s (makeup), when they’re together every day and trying to win.”