Injuries and lack of success shape A’s Opening Day pitching staff

After suffering through a 94-loss season and the American League’s worst record in 2015 the Oakland Athletics will depart Arizona with a roster much improved over that of a season ago.

Save for an elbow injury to Jarrod Parker, and widespread Spring Training pitching struggles, there will be few surprises within the staff come Opening Day on April 4.

Perhaps its greatest 2015 weakness, leading to Oakland’s shortcomings, the bullpen has been rebuilt, while the two-fifths of the rotation were granted an MLB foray a year ago and will have that experience to build upon.

Rotation

Sonny Gray

Coming off a season in which the Oakland ace posted a 14-7 win-loss record with a 2.73 ERA (No. 3 in the AL) and 169 strikeouts (No. 13) Gray will look to improve on his third-place finish in the AL CY Young race.

Despite a 5.68 ERA and only eight strikeouts in 12.2 innings this spring, Gray’s position as the staff ace was never in doubt. The only question in need of answers surrounding Gray in 2016 involves health, as he missed his final start of 2015 with a hip strain.

Rich Hill

The likely No. 2 starter based primarily on his experience – 74 career starts over 11 seasons – Hill is coming off a season in which he saw great success in limited action.

A 1.55 ERA in 29 innings over four starts in 2015 with the Boston Red Sox earned the 36 year-old a $6 million Oakland pay day. The largest question revolving around Hill is whether or not he is able to withstand 30 starts, which he hasn’t done since 2007.

Kendall Graveman

Though Graveman did very little statistically to help his stock this spring (as none of them did) he has shown a commitment to his changeup. In his most recent start – a win over the Kansas City Royals on Sunday – Graveman rode that changeup to a single run allowed over seven innings, striking out six and allowing only one walk.

Should the 25 year-old improve, as expected, on his 6-9 record and 4.05 ERA from 2015, he will assert himself as a dominant back-of-the-rotation starter.

Chris Bassitt

Bassitt was perhaps the victim of MLB’s worst luck in 2015. Despite posting a respectable 3.56 ERA the 27 year-old enjoyed only one win, while suffering through eight losses, in 18 starts. The recipient of only 1.7 runs of support per game a year ago, an improved offense will bring increased wins form the No. 5 starter.

Felix Doubront

A vet that has proven himself in the big leagues, Doubront won the No. 5 spot in the rotation through the Spring training struggles of Jesse Hahn (0-1, 11.15 ERA).

He has surpassed the 160 innings pitched mark twice in his career (2012 and 2013), and while his career numbers may not wow, the lefty brings six years of experience pitching in the AL and solid postseason success (1-0, 1.29 ERA over seven innings).

Bullpen

Sean Doolittle

After receiving an All-Star nod in 2014, shoulder problems following his first appearance of the season limited Doolittle to only 12 games in 2015. He was somewhat effective a year ago, with a 3.95 ERA and four saves on five opportunities.

With a career 6.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio (SO/BB) and 10.5 strikeout per nine innings (SO9), the lefty is (when healthy) among the league’s top closers.

Ryan Madson

A 10-year MLB veteran, Madson was brought to Oakland with the hopes of providing a support system for a recovering Doolittle, but also to bring an experienced set-up man.

With his career 3.45 ERA and two World Series titles (2.91 ERA in 43.1 postseason innings pitched), Madson brings a bonafide late-inning reliever whose statistical achievements are matched only by his consistency – no single-season ERA above 3.05 since 2007 as a starter for the Philadelphia Phillies.

John Axford

Like Madson, Axford brings closer experience (141 career saves) as well as postseason experience (1.42 ERA, three saves and one win in 12.2 postseason innings). With Madson slotted into the eighth inning for the time being, Axford will almost certainly take on the role of getting outs against right-handed hitters in the seventh inning.

Marc Rzepczynski

Another offseason acquisition, Rzepczynski is fully prepared to serve as a lefty match-up specialist. Although “Scrabble” does not boast the same postseason experience as Madson or Axford, he does hold the AL experience with a 3.55 ERA on 213 appearances in the “Junior Circuit.”

Liam Hendriks

A member of the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays Hendricks spent much of last season in middle relief, posting career bests in wins (5), losses (0), ERA (2.92), strikeouts (71) and appearances (58). Following a banner season in the offensively potent AL East, Hendricks will look to follow-up the performance in an AL West much less acknowledged for offensive prowess.

Ryan Dull

There were perhaps only two open spots going into this Spring Training season, that of long reliever – created by the injury to Parker – and the final middle relief position.

Even if Dull weren’t the favorite for the spot going in, he completely seized it with a dominant March. Through 9.1 innings of work, the 5-foot-9 righty struck out 12 without allowing a single run, and only five base runners.

Couple that with a quality second half a season ago (1-2, 4.24 ERA) and Dull offers great promise for relief in the middle innings.

Fernando Rodriguez

The 31-year-old righty experienced his best run of success as a big leaguer in 2015 (4-2, 3.84 ERA over 58.2 innings) and earned his spot on the Opening Day staff with a strong spring showing (0-0, 0.87 ERA, 0.58 WHIP).

Along with Dull, Rodriguez has the opportunity to serve a huge impact during the regular season, should he pitch anything like he has in March, or even as good as he did last year.

 

There is little question that a major contributing factor to the Athletics’ troubles of the 2015 season revolved around baseball’s worst bullpen, with its MLB-worst save conversion percentage (52.8).

By bringing in four proven relievers, Oakland’s front office gave manger Bob Melvin and his coaching staff the options necessary to compete in both the divisional and wild card races.