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Behind Graveman, Manaea A’s rotation uncertain

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Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Daniel Mengden (67) prepares to throw the first pitch of the game as the Houston Astros face the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday,July 20, 2016.

After wily, grey-haired vets Kendall Graveman and Sean Manaea, the competition is pretty much wide open for spots in the Oakland rotation.

Sure, referring to Graveman, 27, and Manaea, 26, as veterans is a bit facetious. But in measuring the duo against all other starters on the A’s roster it begins to make sense.

The two co-aces have made a combined 124 starts at the big league level. The seven hurlers who head into spring competing for the other three rotations spots combine for just 121.

Each of those seven starters have clear strengths and at least some history of success. From Jharel Cotton, who was nearly untouchable in five starts down the stretch of the 2016 season, to Paul Blackburn, who enjoyed similar dominance in 10 2017 starts. For that reason, manager Bob Melvin will enjoy a level of comfort with the group. Still, as he said at FanFest, there are worries that come with such a lack of experience:

“You worry about potential injury. If you lose one or two of those guys (Graveman and Manaea), now you have some — I don’t want to say untested but certainly some guys that haven’t been in the big leagues for very long.”

Each of the two have endured some injury history during their tenures in Oakland. In 2017 alone, Graveman missed 2-1/2 months with a right shoulder strain, and Manaea, who led the club with 158-2/3 innings pitched, was down for nearly three weeks with his own shoulder strain. Both arrived in Arizona this week healthy and ready to go, which is the way Melvin would script thing for the entire season.

Daniel Mengden is a heavy favorite to claim one of the three remaining spots on the starting staff.

Mengden, who turns 25 this week, posted what was by far his most impressive stretch as a big leaguer to close the 2017 season. In five starts spanning September and October, the former Houston Astros fourth-round selection collected three wins, losing one, while allowing just six earned runs in 35 innings (1.54 ERA). An exclamation point on his closing month, Mengden tallied the A’s lone complete game of the season during that run, a shutout victory of the Phillies in Philadelphia.

He of the knee-high socks, and mustache and windup directly out of some unknown Rollie Fingers instructional Betamax, Mengden carried with him some rather large expectations when upon landing in Oakland for a major league debut in June 2016. If his most recent month is any indicator, he is ready to deliver on those expectations.

While Mengden brings “A” stuff to the mound — a low- to mid-90’s fastball, changeup and plus breaking ball — Blackburn attacks hitters with equal effectiveness but a bit more pedestrian stuff.

Blackburn, 24, tops out at about 91 with the heater, mixing in a slider and changeup, each in the mid-80’s. Still, in his 10-game stint with the A’s last year — prior to a season-ending injury — the Brentwood native kept his club in every game, finishing 3-1 with a 3.22 ERA and 1.261 WHIP. Given his success, Blackburn will join Mengden as a front-runner for one of the three open rotation spot.

Cotton, 26, and Daniel Gossett 25, have each offered flashes, lasting deep into outings allowing minimal contact. But each has also displayed obvious and matching shortcomings.

In 91-1/3 innings last year, Gossett walked 31 and allowed 21 home runs. Cotton’s 28 homers allowed were a team-high (Gossett was second) while also walking 53 in 129 innings pitched. Few things will hurt a pitcher’s numbers, effectiveness and psyche, not to mention the trust his coach has in him, more than losing control of walk and home run totals.

Barring a bounceback from Cotton this spring — he walked four and served up four bombs over 29-1/3 innings in 2016 — he will be fighting a losing battle for the fifth and final rotation spot. Gossett’s chances of claiming that spot are also slim.

The reason: Andrew Triggs.

Triggs, who will be 29 on Opening Day, was among the game’s top starters last April and remained dominant until injuries stunted his season. And while the majority of his professional experience has been that of a reliever, he told SFBay that instructions from the club are to keep the recent course:

“I’ve been told to continue to prepare as a starter, but whatever is needed from me moving forward, obviously, I’ll be happy to go between the two.”

The comfort that Triggs has shown in 18 career starts says that he is more than capable of filling the role for an entire season. So, the likelihood of doing so will come down almost entirely to his health, which he said is as close to 100 percent as it has been for his entire pro career.

Though the decision regarding Oakland’s Opening Day rotation will likely not involve either, both Chris Bassitt and Frankie Montas will get real looks from Melvin and pitching coach Scott Emerson.

Montas, 24, made 23 relief appearances last season, finishing with an uninspiring 7.03 ERA. Now the A’s will look to stretch him out and give him a crack at starting.

He features high-octane stuff, most notably a triple-digit fastball. If Emerson can find a way to harness that stuff it would bode very well for Montas’ future success leaving him as someone to keep an eye on into the summer.

Bassitt, 28, brings a different type of high-octane: a mid-90’s sinker. He lost his entire 2017 after requiring Tommy John surgery in April 2016. Now deep into the comeback trail, Melvin has said that Bassitt will begin 2018 as a reliever. But he definitely boasts starter stuff — at time top-end starter stuff — and he will be another hurler to watch for in Nashville.

There is, of course, other names to keep an eye on. Names of players like Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb who have begun spring without contracts. Should there be any clear regression, the A’s could consider reaching deeper into their pockets to skim the free agent pool — though someone like Jaime Garcia or Jason Vargas would be more likely than the previous mentioned — to bolster the staff.

Until then, though, a very wide open competition will feature top contenders Mengden, Blackburn and Triggs fighting for the final three rotation spots.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.

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