Athletics

A's position outlook: Gray holds the key for rotation

A's position outlook: Gray holds the key for rotation

The 2016 stats show how frustrating of a season it was for the A’s starting rotation, but out of that mess came signs of promise.

Kendall Graveman took a big step forward in his second big league season and led Oakland’s staff in victories and innings pitched. Sean Manaea improved over the course of his rookie campaign and showed flashes of why the A’s are so high on him. Jharel Cotton, in his September audition, positioned himself well to win a spot in this year’s rotation.

Those developments were the positives to be salvaged for a starting staff that posted the second highest ERA in the American League (4.84) and threw the second fewest innings in Oakland history.

Surely, the biggest question for the rotation is whether Sonny Gray can regain the form that made him an All-Star and Cy Young finalist in 2015. Injuries and command issues dropped Gray to a 5-11 record and 5.69 ERA last year.

“Everybody’s going to go through a down season if you’re around long enough,” manager Bob Melvin said. “I think it just kind of snowballed in the wrong direction for him last season … It was just a very tough year for him, but I think the really good ones take that and learn from it. Maybe take a half-step backward and move forward. The talent level is still there. I know he’s looking forward to bouncing back and being the ace again.”

STARRING CAST:

Gray worked with a personal trainer this offseason. He says his legs are stronger and he likes the way his delivery has felt in recent sessions off the mound. How he fares in the World Baseball Classic pitching for Team USA might shed light on whether he’s ironed out some of last year’s issues.

Between Gray’s storyline and the talk of Oakland’s young starters, Melvin thinks Graveman goes a bit unnoticed. Certainly his strides last season were big for the A’s, as Graveman (10-11, 4.11, 186 IP) was the only regular starter to avoid the disabled list. Things clicked once he found the feel for his sinker and began throwing that pitch more often and with conviction. A bump in velocity also aided Graveman’s cause. He’ll be looked to for veteran leadership and stability.

Can Manaea make the jump and become a front-of-the-rotation starter? The 6-foot-5 lefty struggled to a 2-4 record and 6.02 ERA over his first nine major league starts. But after spending two weeks on the D.L. in June for a forearm strain, the rookie came back a different pitcher. From June 29 on, Manaea went 5-5 with a 2.74 ERA over his final 16 games (15 starts). That ERA following his D.L. stint was fifth-best in the AL.

CAMP COMPETITION:

Cotton, the first of three young right-handers from the Josh Reddick/Rich Hill trade to crack the A’s roster, shined in his September stint, posting a 2.15 ERA and .185 opponents’ batting average over five starts. That gives him an inside track on a starting spot. As for the fifth starter, there are no shortage of candidates.

The A’s feel Andrew Triggs, a waiver claim last spring who pitched well when pressed into starting duty, has the repertoire to succeed in the rotation. A wild card is Jesse Hahn, who failed to make last year’s Opening Night roster after a disappointing spring and was sidetracked by injuries later in the year. Melvin is straightforward in saying Hahn has lost ground to others as the A’s have improved their pitching depth, but the lanky right-hander possesses good natural stuff when healthy, so he can’t be counted out. Raul Alcantara got a brief look in the rotation last season but needs to improve his breaking ball to go with his fastball and changeup.

Daniel Mengden made a splash in his initial call-up last season before eventually being sent down, but if he can take that experience and make adjustments, he’ll be in the mix. Hard-throwing Frankie Montas, another pitcher from the Hill/Reddick trade, will get a chance to start in the minors, but don’t be surprised if he eventually earns a promotion to the bigs as a reliever.

PAY ATTENTION TO: How Chris Bassitt and Felix Doubront proceed in their Tommy John rehabs. Both broke camp in the A’s rotation last season before suffering season-ending elbow injuries. Neither is expected to be ready at the start of the season, but a healthy return from either or both would be a big boost to the A’s starting depth.

A's award-winning run this offseason 'really special' to organization

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USATSI

A's award-winning run this offseason 'really special' to organization

The hardware just keeps rolling in for the Oakland A's.

Just look at the list of awards the A's have claimed over the past two weeks:
• AL Manager of the Year -- Bob Melvin
• Sporting News AL Manager of the Year -- Melvin
• MLB Executive of the Year -- Billy Beane
• Two Gold Gloves -- Matt Chapman and Matt Olson (plus two more finalists in Jed Lowrie and Marcus Semien)
• AL Platinum Glove -- Chapman
• Wilson Defensive Player of the Year -- Chapman

"It's really special," A's general manager David Forst said. "Seeing the individual awards has been great. It means a lot to everybody in the organization."

That list doesn't even include Edwin Jackson, who was named a finalist for the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award. The winner will be announced Monday.

The A's also were represented in the AL Cy Young Award and MVP voting -- Blake Treinen tied for sixth in the Cy Young race, and four A's finished in the top 20 of the MVP voting: Chapman (seventh), Khris Davis (eighth), Treinen (tied for 15th), and Jed Lowrie (tied for 20th).

"When it was announced on the network that Bob (Melvin) had won (AL Manager of the Year), you could hear the applause from all corners of our new office in Jack London Square," Forst said. "That was the case for both Gold Glove Awards, and really everything this offseason that has kind of energized the organization. It has been really special the last month."

Quite the momentum to take into an important offseason, as the A's search for starting pitching and other components that can help return them to the playoffs.

MLB rumors: A's, Yankees talked Sonny Gray deal, but no trade imminent

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AP

MLB rumors: A's, Yankees talked Sonny Gray deal, but no trade imminent

It could be Sonny again in Oakland, but there's reportedly still a long way to go. 

The A's reached out to the Yankees about acquiring right-handed pitcher Sonny Gray, "but there is no present momentum in talks," MLB Network's Jon Morosi reported Friday. 

Last week, Fancred's Jon Heyman reported the A's were interested in re-acquiring Gray, who pitched in Oakland from 2013 to 2017 before being traded to New York. As Morosi noted, they've had no problem bringing back former pitchers, and there's good reason that a return to Oakland could bring the best out of Gray.

For one thing, he was a much better pitcher away from Yankee Stadium since the Bronx Bombers acquired him at the trade deadline in 2017. Gray went 6-7 with a 6.55 ERA and 1.70 WHIP in 88.0 innings in the Bronx. By contrast, he was 9-9 with a 2.84 ERA and 1.18 WHIP on the road. In 386.0 innings at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum with the A's, Gray was 25-20 with a 3.50 ERA and 1.17 WHIP.

Injuries to promising young starters such as Sean Manaea and A.J. Puk forced the A's to use a patchwork starting rotation down the stretch last season, and the team relied on a bullpenning strategy en route to its first playoff appearance in four years. As a result, A's executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane identified starting pitching as the team's top priority this offseason.

[ROSS: How Patrick Corbin's contract could affect A's starting pitching market]

[MORE: Did Nathan Eovaldi's playoff heroics put him out of A's price range?]

Re-acquiring Gray would maintain the approach that kept the rotation afloat last season but offer the A's much more upside than bringing back Cahill and Anderson. With the Yankees actively looking to trade Gray, it makes a lot of sense for both teams.

Based on Morosi's report, it sounds like they'll have to start picking up the phone, though.