OAKLAND — The best thing Jharel Cotton could do in what would have been his rookie season with the Oakland Athletics was to hang around a big league clubhouse, learning.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery last spring, Cotton — projected to be in the A’s starting rotation — kept a locker next to the clubhouse runway, sandwiched between Daniel Mengden and Mike Fiers, across from Edwin Jackson, Frankie Montas and Fernando Rodney.
“I got to talk to a lot of the older guys, learn things, pick up on things, so I can be a better pitcher when I do come back,” Cotton said during the A’s media day on Friday, ahead of Saturday’s FanFest. “That’s why I was in the clubhouse every day, being around guys, learning things, picking up things. I picked up some from Fiers, some from Edwin, but mostly the relievers. Some from [Blake] Treinen, some from [Shawn Kelley].”
Cotton, along with Oakland’s three other pitchers who underwent Tommy John last season, plus James Kaprielian (who had Tommy John in April of 2017) and Grant Holmes (shoulder) were all in attendance at the A’s media event on Friday, and will all be headed to big league spring training. By the middle of the season, some of them may wind up at the Coliseum.
“You know that there’s reinforcements on the way,” said manager Bob Melvin. “I think that’s good to know, going forward, and that we don’t have to try to overdo it right now with starters. We’re going to have some very talented guys coming back. Some pretty talented young guys that may start with us, too.”
Having re-signed Fiers and added Marco Estrada, the A’s look to have enough depth to get them through at least the first half of the season. Neither Cotton nor A.J. Puk will be able to throw games this spring, but both of them, along with ace Sean Manaea (shoulder surgery), could make appearances in the second half.
“Sean feels really good,” said general manager David Forst. “Everyone’s happy with his range of motion, his strength, all those things. Again, he’s not throwing yet. Once he starts playing catch, that will give us an idea of how quickly he can be progressed. But, I think there’s reason to believe that Sean will pitch at some point this season.”
Cotton, who was in line for a rotation spot before he went down, is only a week or two from getting back on the mound, which he will be cleared to do on Feb. 4. He’ll throw bullpens in front of the big league staff once he reports for spring training. He’ll start throwing to hitters some time after camp breaks, Forst said.
Daniel Gossett, who underwent Tommy John surgery in August, “feels great,” according to Forst. Since he’s only six months out of surgery, he won’t get on the mound for another few months.
Puk, Oakland’s first pick in the 2016 draft, had his surgery a month after Cotton, so his return will be a bit further off.
“[He] won’t be off the mound until almost the time we leave for Japan,” Forst said, referring to the A’s trip to Tokyo for two regular-season games against the Mariners on March 20 and 21. “But, he is playing catch. He’s been out to 120-plus feet and feels great.”
Both Kaprielean and Holmes, though, are ready to go, though they will start their work at vastly different levels. Kaprielean, drafted in the first round by the Yankees in 2015 and coming to Oakland in the Sonny Gray deal, has never pitched above Single-A. Even then, he’s only thrown 29 1/3 innings of professional ball.
“In the fall league is the highest level he’s pitched at,” Forst said. “He certainly has the talent, but when you miss that much time, we’ll ease him in. I couldn’t even tell you where he’s going to start the season.”
Holmes, who went down early in spring training and underwent rotator cuff surgery, will likely start the season at Triple-A.
“He has the talent. He has a full season of Double-A behind him,” Forst said. “His shoulder feels great. He hasn’t had any hiccups since he threw to hitters in the instructional league, and obviously missing a season, we’ll have to keep an eye on his workload, but Grant will be in that mix as well, at Triple-A.”
Jesus Luzardo, the club’s No. 1 prospect, will be in big league camp, and neither Melvin nor Forst ruled out him breaking camp with the club.
“Wherever he’s at, it’s a nice bubble to be in,” Melvin said. “When you’re that talented, it’s really up to us to try to identify when he’s ready. You look at the stuff, you’d say he’s probably ready right now, but we’re the custodians of his career, too, so we want to make sure that once he’s at the big league level, we don’t throw too much at him and have to send him back down.”
Given Luzardo’s workload last season — a career-high 109.1 innings — the A’s would like to keep him to under 150 or fewer innings.
“Last year, there were clear guidelines,” Forst said. “He wasn’t going more than five innings at a time. We got him extra rest whenever we could. We’re going to take the reins off a little bit this year compared to that, but obviously, he’s a young player who we expect to have for a long time.”
When he got to Triple-A Nashville, he threw just four games, and had a 7.31 ERA.
“I think he ran out of gas a little bit,” Forst said. “We talked after every Triple-A start, with [minor league pitching coordinator] Gil Patterson, we kept in close contact, and I think basically said he couldn’t quite do the same thing with the ball that he had done earlier in the season, because it was a large workload compared to what he’d done before. I would attribute that almost entirely to fatigue.”
With the loss of Jonathan Lucroy to free agency, the A’s will go with a platoon of Josh Phegley and newly-acquired Chris Hermann behind the plate, something Phegley is excited about. He played in just 39 games and had just 93 at-bats last season.
“He should be excited,” Melvin said. “Neither of those guys have really had an opportunity before, and I think both of them, that this is potentially the best opportunity that they’ve ever had at the big league level, so you have a left-handed bat, you have a right-handed bat, we’re not afraid to platoon them and try to get guys in the best situations and I think both of them are eager to show a team that they finally get an opportunity and try to seize it.”
Top catching prospect Sean Murphy will also be in camp, but it will only be for a look. He hasn’t played a full season above Double-A, and in three games at Triple-A last season, he went 2-for-12.
“He just needs to play,” Melvin said. “Similar to the Luzardo situation, he’s going to be here at some point. It’s just when. For younger guys like that, especially in a catching position where you’re expected to be a leader, you don’t want to have to throw too much at him right away. Once he’s here, I want him to be here for good. We’ll play that day by day, and see where he’s at, but at some point in time next year, I think you’ll see him.”
Franklin Barreto impresses in winter league
With Jurickson Profar likely to take the starting second base job from departed Jed Lowrie, there’s a chance that Barreto sees time in the outfield, but what the A’s really wanted to see from him was his progress with the bat.
During his time in the Venezuelan winter league, he hit .358 with 30 strikeouts and 17 walks in 49 games. Barreto was caught up in the protests this week as the Venezuelan government was plunged into a violent upheaval, making his return a bit complicated.
“We were thrilled with how Franklin did this season,” Forst said. “I think he ended up third in the MVP voting there. Only played a little bit in the outfield, but moved around. Every step of the way, he continues to progress offensively, so very happy with how he played. Now, we just have to worry about getting him out of Venezuela, which is easier said than done. Very much looking forward to Franklin in spring training.”
Kyler Murray update … sort of
Forst said that when he and a contingent from the A’s and MLB’s marketing arm met with Heisman Trophy winner and first-round Oakland draft pick Kyler Murray in Dallas this month, the club made it clear how much they wanted him to choose baseball over a possible career in the NFL.
“We made it clear to Kyler how much we’d like to have him here, and how great a baseball player we think he can be,” Forst said.
Murray, who will almost assuredly be invited to the NFL Scouting combine Feb. 26-March 2, has an invite to big league spring training. If he does not report, he would forfeit his $4.7 million signing bonus.
“I don’t know that there’s much to say about Kyler, other than that we’d love to have him,” Forst said. “He’s invited to spring training. We’re hoping he’s there, and he’s an incredible young man and would be a great asset to the A’s.”