MESA, Ariz. – The A’s only day off during spring training arrives at a pretty nice time.
They’ve got 18 exhibitions in the books, with 17 left if you count the three-game Bay Bridge Series that leads into the April 6 season opener. So as Oakland sits at essentially the halfway point of its spring schedule, it’s worth taking inventory of some of the key issues facing the club:
THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED
1. Picking the five-man rotation won’t be easy
Selecting the five best starters to head north with could be quite the task, and that’s a good thing for A’s officials.
Several pitchers are making a strong case for the three open rotation spots behind Opening Night starter Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir. Right now, five guys appear to be legitimately in the conversation – Chris Bassitt, Jesse Chavez, Kendall Graveman, Jesse Hahn and Drew Pomeranz, with non-roster veteran Barry Zito seemingly on the fringe of the battle.
Graveman’s performance has been an eye-opener. He’s allowed just one run over three starts (9 2/3 IP) for a 0.93 ERA. The 24-year-old is no strikeout machine, so he’s got to be spot-on with his location. But he’s getting lots of ground-ball outs in exhibitions, and that’s his bread-and-butter. Graveman has done all he can to this point to put himself in contention, but so has Pomeranz. Jesse Hahn – acquired via offseason trade, like Graveman – might have the best stuff of the bunch. And what about Jesse Chavez? His Cactus League numbers look ordinary, but his performance in last year’s rotation suggests he should be one of the five.
The only guarantee is that two quality candidates likely will be ticketed for Triple-A Nashville.
2. Marcus Semien looks at home at shortstop
One of the big questions entering camp was whether Semien, who has played mostly second and third in the majors, could handle shortstop defensively. So far, the Bay Area native has impressed, showing not only good range up the middle but a strong arm as well. Semien has come down to earth since collecting five hits (and two homers) over his first two games, but he’s still hitting .300 in 11 games overall. He’s put in lots of time with infield coach Mike Gallego, who knows something about playing shortstop, and manager Bob Melvin has given Semien’s defense a big thumbs up so far.
3. The A’s should allow fewer stolen bases
The early indications are that one of Oakland’s biggest problem areas last season will be improved. Newcomer Josh Phegley has shown a strong arm throwing to second. Stephen Vogt was the best thrower of the A’s three catchers last season, and the fact that he feels healthy behind the plate following right foot surgery is an encouraging sign.
Phegley and Vogt are a combined 3-for-8 throwing out runners so far. That’s pretty good over a small sample size, but Melvin and pitching coach Curt Young also are stressing the importance of the pitchers’ role in holding runners. That’s arguably just as important as anything the catchers do. Bassitt picked a runner off second base in Wednesday’s game against Seattle.
THREE THINGS TO RESOLVE
1. What will the outfield look like? There’s definitely some mystery involving the makeup of the outfield, and it’s based largely on the health of right fielder Josh Reddick. Reddick appeared in just one game before straining his right oblique. He’s just now starting to swing the bat. Assuming there’s no further setback, there’s still the question of whether he’ll be able to get enough at-bats to be ready for Opening Night.
What will the A’s choose to do if Reddick were to start the season on the D.L.? They could play either Craig Gentry or Sam Fuld in right – one of them will be in center – but along with Coco Crisp in left field, it won’t give the A’s much power in the outfield. Mark Canha, a fairly strong bet to make the team as a Rule 5 pick – can play either corner outfield position. Melvin has mentioned first baseman Ike Davis getting time in the outfield, but he has been sidelined recently with back soreness. Reddick’s injury could open the door for a roster long shot to make the club, such as Billy Burns, Tyler Ladendorf, Andy Parrino or Jason Pridie. But the A’s best scenario has Reddick in his familiar position come April 6.
2. When will Sean Doolittle return?
The All-Star closer has yet to start throwing, though all indications are his rehab from a slightly torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder is going well. Doolittle said he is scheduled to start doing “sock throws” next week, but until he starts playing catch and then gets on the mound, it’s tough to forecast his return.
That means it’s up to the contingent of Tyler Clippard (the likely choice for closer), Ryan Cook, Dan Otero, Eric O’Flaherty and Fernando Abad to lock down the late innings until Doolittle returns. Cook has endured back-to-back shaky outings.
“With Sean out to start, we have the resources to get by without him,” Melvin said. “When he comes back, I think one of the strengths of the team will be our bullpen again.”
3. How does the batting order shake out?
It’s tough to glean much from the lineups Melvin has written out so far, but that’s to be expected in the early portion of exhibitions. The regulars still aren’t playing on a daily basis, so the batting orders have been patchwork so far. Semien has spent time in the No. 2 and No. 3 spot. The guess here is that he’ll begin the season in the lower half of the order just to take some pressure off his shoulders. Against lefties, Melvin has penciled in a 3-4-5 combo of Ben Zobrist, Billy Butler and Brett Lawrie, and that seems a very possible scenario against southpaws in the regular season as well.