Athletics

Bob Melvin praises A's prospect Jesus Luzardo in first spring training bullpen

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Bob Melvin praises A's prospect Jesus Luzardo in first spring training bullpen

At only 21 years old, Jesus Luzardo has a chance to make the A's Opening Day starting rotation. After his first spring training bullpen this year, manager Bob Melvin was already impressed. 

"He knows there's a spotlight on him," Melvin told reporters in Arizona on Tuesday. "What really stands out -- he's got an upper 90s heater, but it's his breaking stuff that kind of sets him apart in who he is right now, both changeup and breaking ball." 

All eyes will be on Luzardo in spring training this year. He's the A's top prospect, and the top left-handed pitcher in all of the minor leagues. His offspeed pitches, as Melvin noted, are nothing to scoff at, too. 

On the 20/80 scouting scale, MLB Pipeline rates Luzardo's fastball as his top pitch with a 65 grade. Not far behind, though, are his changeup (60) and curveball (55). 

[RELATED: A's weigh out pros, cons of calling up No. 1 prospect Jesús Luzardo]

Luzardo pitched at three levels last season, making it to Triple-A for his final four starts. He finished 2018 with a 10-5 record and 2.88 ERA, striking out 129 batters in 109.1 innings pitched. 

The A's current rotation is a mixed bag full of mystery. With an impressive showing in the desert, the left-handed Luzardo could emerge as a serious candidate to crack the team's starting five at the start of the season.

A's have plenty of outfield options should Stephen Piscotty miss time

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A's have plenty of outfield options should Stephen Piscotty miss time

The A's will march through spring training without Stephen Piscotty, who was formally shut down Friday with an intercostal strain. Manager Bob Melvin said the veteran would be out indefinitely, though he didn’t rule out a return by Opening Day.

Piscotty starting that March 26 home game is far from certain, but him missing a few games to start the season isn’t a massive blow.

Why? The A's have tons of outfield depth.

Ramon Laureano and Mark Cahna would take up two spots, with Robbie Grossman able to fill in well and play consistently. He played 138 games for the A's last year and Oakland re-signed him in free agency. Chad Pinder can play every position and is comfortable working from the grass. Second baseman Tony Kemp has experience out there, too.

P.S. All those guys can field. All of those guys can hit.

Plan A obviously is having Piscotty play soon and play a ton. He’s a quality all-around player and valued clubhouse presence. There are plenty of alternatives.

“[The outfield] looked really crowded, and that’s a good problem to have,” Melvin told reporters on Friday, via MLB.com. “But the more you do this, the more you realize how important depth is. Not only with pitching, but with position players. It’s very rare now that you get through spring training healthy.

"Things have changed a bit in how you deal with spring training. It’s about getting off the field healthy. We do have some depth there.”

[RELATED: Why Melvin is confident Khrush will bounce back this season]

That will allow the A’s to be patient with a regular starter. They can let him get fully healed and ramp up accordingly, into the regular season if necessary. If he starts on the injured list -- that’s a massive “if” at this stage -- it could open a roster spot for an outfield prospect.

At the very least it means more spring training at-bats for promising players in major league camp like Seth Brown, who has some power, or Dustin Fowler, who's trying to reclaim an MLB gig. Skye Bolt is another option.

The A’s could choose to replace Piscotty with another outfielder in a straight position swap, or they could evaluate prospects from other positions considering how much outfield depth already is set to make the club.

How Sean Manaea used Asia trip to move on from A's wild-card game loss

How Sean Manaea used Asia trip to move on from A's wild-card game loss

Sean Manaea follows strict routines designed to maximize starts in the A's rotation, but such regimentation doesn’t extend to all aspects of his life. The left-hander freely admits he isn’t much of a planner outside baseball, which is how he ended wandering through Australia in 2018.

Manaea traveled across the globe on a whim, all by himself.

“That was really the first time I ventured outside the country on my own,” Manaea said. “I loved it. It was awesome. I didn’t have to listen to anybody. I just traveled and immersed myself in the culture.”

That experience was strictly for fun. This last offseason trip abroad had a purpose.

Manaea needed a hard reset only distance could provide. The 28-year-old had just wrapped a season saturated in stress, most of it spent rehabilitating a shoulder injury that kept him out a calendar year. Then came a triumphant return, with five dominant starts spent on top of the world.

The AL Wild Card Game sent him crashing back to earth. The Tampa Bay Rays rocked Manaea in a 5-1 victory that ended the A’s season, driving him from the game with four earned runs on three jacks in two-plus innings. A 97-win season came to a crashing halt, fortifying the A’s horrid reputation in elimination games.

Manaea swore he would help buck a bad trend and couldn’t, saying the loss was "solely on me." Failure stuck with him against his will, try as he might to move on from a bad moment. That’s when he decided, on a whim, to stuff one backpack -- yeah, that’s all he brought -- and get out of his own head.

Manaea spent a month in in Southeast Asia, far away from the game and his haunting mistakes. He took a companion to Maldives before wandering through Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia alone.

“I wanted to get lost and see how that side of the world works,” Manaea said. “That was a reason why I wanted to take off, but I also wanted to get baseball out of my head. I was thinking about it too much and needed to back away and reset some things.”

Manaea can afford to travel in style, to hire drivers and local fixers and stay in fancy hotels. That’s not his preferred mode of travel.

“I’m there for the experience of the place I’m in,” Manaea said. “I don’t have an interest in going somewhere else and then living a life of luxury. I want to experience the local culture, to get outside the cities and head for the villages and learn as much as I can about people in a different part of the world.”

Even while doing that, it still took a while to truly let go. Baseball left his head after a week or two, allowing him to properly recalibrate.

Manaea wasn’t longing to stay away forever. The month away left him recharged, rejuvenated, ready to come home and get back to the routines that make him a dominant pitcher when healthy.

“That was huge for me,” Manaea said. “I came back with a reignited passion for the game. I was really raring to go after I got back.”

[RELATED: How Sean Manaea is taking on leadership role with A's]

Manaea entered spring training ready to be a leader and dominant part of an excellent A’s rotation, with last year’s struggles now and forever in the rearview.

“The wild-card game sucked,” Manaea said. “It was really, really disappointing. After taking all this time off and getting so far away from everything, I slowly realized that I learned so much from it. I’m not happy about it but in a way, I’m glad that it happened. I don’t think I was mentally ready for that moment, but after this experience I feel like I can’t be beat.

"You get knocked down sometimes, but you get back up smarter and stronger.”