With two minor league pitchers demanding attention and a former All-Star on the mend, the Oakland Athletics will soon be forced to make decisions regarding their rotation.
The Oakland starting staff has kept its mates within reach in each of the season’s first 14 games, but the inability of lefties Rich Hill (1-2, 4.15 ERA, 13 IP) and Eric Surkamp (0-1, 3.68 ERA, 14-2/3 IP) to consistently last deep into games have made them vulnerable to replacement. With right-hander Jesse Hahn and lefty Sean Manaea each off to dominant starts with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds, the A’s have options at the ready.
Those options will increase further after 2014 National League All-Star Henderson Alvarez began a minor league rehab assignment Wednesday.
Before he was given the go-ahead to begin a rehab assignment, Alvarez threw a simulated game prior to an April 15 4-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals. The righty faced teammates Billy Burns and Mark Canha in the 30-pitch session.
Burns told MLB.com’s Jane Lee that Alvarez appeared to have mid-season velocity and movement:
“He looked really good. His change-up looked pretty nice, I was definitely chasing it. He was spotting up, threw me a nice 3-2 heater right on the inside black, and I barely fought it off. His fastball had really good life and a little bit of run too.”
The A’s signed Alvarez (career 27-34 won-loss record and 3.80 ERA) to a one-year $4.25 million contract despite having surgery on his throwing shoulder last July 28. After an inspiring first rehab start with the Class-A Stockton Ports — three hits, one run and one strike out on 30 pitches over 3 innings — the Venezuelan will likely get the opportunity to return payment on that investment by the end of May.
Should all go well on Alvarez’s rehab stint, he would reach the maximum allotment of 30 days in the minor leagues in time for a May 20 match-up with the New York Yankees in Oakland.
Manager Bob Melvin likened the starter’s pending return to a big mid-season acquisition, prior to an April 17 3-2 victory over the Royals:
“He’s a guy that has pitched at the top of the rotation for his team, whether it’s one or two. To bring in somebody like that, it’s like signing a free agent or making a big trade in the middle of the season. Even though we feel like that, we can’t get ahead of ourselves an try to rush him (back).”
Mid-May might not be soon enough, however, given Surkamp’s struggles and the additional burden it places on an overworked bullpen.
In that case, Hahn (career 13-10, 3.23 ERA) appears poised to step into the slot that he lost with a poor spring — 10.97 ERA and .348 batting average against.
Since taking the Triple-A assignment, though, Hahn has gotten off to a blazing start, tossing 12 shutout innings over two starts. He has allowed just 10 base runners (six hits and four walks) while striking out 11 over the two no decisions.
Hahn, who is also in the midst of a return from injury, was off to a strong start with the big club in 2015. The 26 year-old was 6-6 with a 3.35 ERA through 16 starts before straining his right forearm.
Along with Alvarez and Hahn, Manaea, the franchise’s top pitching prospect, has forced his way into consideration — and will likely see a big league mound in the 2016 season.
With an overwhelming 17 strikeouts over 12 Triple-A innings, the 24-year-old — who led the team in strike outs (16) in Spring Training — has demanded attention. His lack of major league experience and occasional bouts with wildness, however, show that the southpaw is in need of additional seasoning, especially in comparison with the righty duo.
Both Hill (127 out of 204) and Surkamp (36 out of 46) have more major league experience coming out of the bullpen than starting, making each viable options for relief roles. The latter, though, is presumably headed to the Nashville rotation in the near future.