Bernstein: A’s rough start in Japan could have long-lasting consequences

Oakland Athletics dropped two games in Japan, and lost two key contributors in the process

It’s difficult to imagine a worse start to the regular season than the one the A’s endured last week in Japan — and that’s saying something considering the franchise is 3-12 on Opening Day over the past 15 seasons, rarely able to begin a campaign on the right foot.

Oakland lost two games to the division rival Mariners, but it also lost first baseman Matt Olson to a broken hamate and rookie starting pitcher Jesus Luzardo to a rotator cuff strain.

The A’s must now embark on a challenging three-series stretch against the Angels, Red Sox and Astros without those players, and they could easily drop four or five games out of a playoff position before they’re settled into the new year.

“A little frustrating,” manager Bob Melvin conceded to reporters after the second loss at the Tokyo Dome.

Melvin went on to downplay the long-term impact of the team’s rough first week, and the A’s swept the San Francisco Giants in the preseason Bay Bridge Series for the first time since 1989 this week. But the mix of injuries and sour regular-season results casts a shadow over what was supposed to be an exciting time for Oakland. Last year, of course, it won 97 games. The squad hoped to finish with a similar tally in 2019 and make the playoffs again.

It will be more difficult to do so without Olson, who hit .247 with 29 home runs last season. While the A’s have depth in many areas, power at the corner infield positions is not a place with much wiggle room. Melvin said he would try to replace Olson over the next month by allocating time at first base to Mark Canha, Jurickson Profar and Chad Pinder. But none of those options can provide the kind of pop Olson possesses in the four-to-eight week window he will likely be sidelined. And those players don’t have the same defensive accumen at first base as the 2018 Gold Glove winner Olson.

Likewise, not having Luzardo for at least two months could prove costly for an A’s rotation limited in high-upside options, particularly in the short-term. He was the organization’s top minor league pitcher last year, racking up 129 strikeouts in 109 1/3 innings across three levels. In spring training, he allowed one earned run in four appearances. It was possible — perhaps likely — he would have made Oakland’s staff for its U.S. season opener if he’d remained healthy.

Now, Melvin must operate without the top prospect for the foreseeable future, as he’s shut down from throwing for four weeks.

Oakland’s pitching fragility was already apparent in the two losses to the Mariners. Mike Fiers gave up five earned runs in three innings in the first game, while Marco Estrada allowed three earned runs in five innings. As a result, the A’s needed to play catch-up in both contests.

“We had our chances,” Melvin said after the second loss to the Mariners. “We were behind, we came back again. That’s something we do quite often, but it felt like a couple of times we had them on the ropes and had a chance to win the game and didn’t.”

The A’s withstood a shaky rotation last year with a dominant bullpen and clutch hitting, but expecting continued success without quality starting pitchers could be catastrophic. They should get A.J. Puk and Jharrel Cotton back midseason from Tommy John surgery, and Luzardo could return in June. How they hold up in the interim — particularly a stretch of 18 game sin 18 days to start the season — might determine whether they can contend for at least a Wild Card spot this season.

As it stands, the Opening Day rotation should be as follows: Fiers (3.56 ERA in 2018), Estrada

(5.64 ERA), Brett Anderson (4.48 ERA), Frankie Montas (3.88 ERA) and Aaron Brooks, who pitched in just three games last year, and hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2015 before that.

Struggling in Japan did not, in isolation, change Oakland’s outlook. The season is long, and two games can easily be made up down the road. But the injuries and difficult upcoming schedule that accompanied those clunkers in Tokyo make an 0-2 start feel much worse.

If the A’s proved anything last season, it was that this crop of young players is resilient and capable of overcoming unexpected setbacks. Their entire Opening Day rotation winding up on the injured list did not keep them out of the playoffs.

But the team’s mettle will be tested early and often in 2019, starting with how it responds to its rocky stint abroad.

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