Last season, Jharel Cotton made a point of being a constant presence in the Oakland A’s clubhouse. Sidelined with Tommy John surgery instead of playing a part in the starting rotation, he sat and listened to the relievers who surrounded his locker, including Shawn Kelley and Blake Treinen.
“Watching those guys talk baseball while they’re watching a game on TV inside the clubhouse was like, wow, I know a little bit, but I learned a lot more by just listening to these guys talk,” Cotton said before spring training this February. “Talking how to face hitters, what to look for, how to read swings, stuff like that. Not to be intimidated.”
The plan was for Cotton to make his big league debut shortly after the All-Star break this year, but like most of the A’s plans this season, it’s had to change. Thanks to injury setbacks and a PED suspension, Oakland will not have the young, dynamic rotation it had anticipated down the stretch, but the A’s are nevertheless in strong position to make another run at the postseason.
The thought entering the season was that all the A’s had to do in the first half was ride Mike Fiers, Frankie Montas and top prospect Jesus Luzardo to a .500 record. After that, ace Sean Manaea would return from September labrum surgery, and last year’s rotation hopefuls — Cotton and A.J. Puk — would return from Tommy John.
In late June, Montas — in the midst of a breakout season — was suspended 80 games for PED use. Luzardo sprained his shoulder on the eve of the season and just before he was about to return, went out with a Grade 2 lat strain. It was decided that Cotton and former first-rounder Puk would return as relievers, and then Cotton had hamstring surgery in June after his first three rehab outings.
Last season, riding a pitching staff shredded by four Tommy John surgeries and a largely unheralded young core, the A’s managed to win 97 games and take the second AL Wild Card spot. Through 91 games, they were 51-40, six games out of the playoff picture and 10 games back of the Houston Astros for the division lead.
Through 91 games this year, Oakland is 50-41, 7 1/2 games back of the Astros in the AL West, just 1 1/2 back of Cleveland for the second Wild Card spot and two behind leader Tampa Bay.
While the second-half rotation won’t look exactly like many thought, Manaea — who threw his first rehab outing for Single-A Stockton on Monday, allowing six runs (four earned) on seven hits in 2 1/3 innings — is on track to be back in August, if not late July. Fiers, 34, is 8-3 with a 3.87 ERA and 70 strikeouts to 30 walks in 107 innings. Brett Anderson is 9-5 with a 3.86 ERA. They’ve been just good enough to let the offense work.
Oakland — ninth in baseball in runs scored and sixth in homers — has scored in droves even with a sub-optimal Khris Davis. Thanks to hip, oblique and left hand injuries, the designated hitter Oakland signed to a two-year, $33 million extension this spring is slashing a career-worst .236/.305/.433 and will play fewer than 150 games for the first time in four years.
The A’s, though, have found plenty of ways to make up for him. In his second full season, Matt Chapman, 26, is three homers shy of his career high, with 21 in 91 games (he’s on pace for 35), to go along with a team-high 22 doubles. Matt Olson, 25, is tied for the most homers (18) in the big leagues since May 12, and would be among the AL leaders had he not missed a month with a broken hamate bone.
Ramon Laureano, 24, is hitting .265 and has 16 homers to his name in his first full big league season, and is tied for third in baseball with seven outfield assists. Relative veteran Marcus Semien, 28, has a team-high 102 hits and is hitting a career-best .271 with 14 homers.
Giving Franklin Barreto a full-time crack at second base (replacing the struggling Jurickson Profar) and adding catcher Chris Hermann (hitting .417 in his first four games) only makes Oakland’s offense more potent. If Barreto doesn’t work out, Triple-A All-Star shortstop Jorge Mateo is hitting .308 for Las Vegas.
For the second year in a row, the A’s are buyers at the trade deadline. They’ve been able to fill positional holes from within, but need pitching. Front-line starters are out of Oakland’s price range, so the A’s could target Pirates righty Jordan Lyles or Seattle’s Mike Leake — both can eat innings and Lyles has strikeout stuff.
With former Billy Beane accolyte Farhan Zaidi in San Francisco, Oakland could also add Giants reliever Sam Dyson to help fill the set-up spot vacated by newly-minted closer Liam Hendriks, who took over for a suddenly-ineffective Treinen in a bullpen that has blown 16 saves after blowing 18 all last season.
Puk will return late this month or in early August. Cotton threw in relief for Stockton on Monday, re-starting his rehab. They may not be the kind of reinforcements Oakland planned for, but the A’s didn’t plan on acquiring two All-Star closers and Fiers down the stretch last year and challenging Houston for a division crown, either. That season, the A’s over-under was 74.5 wins. They won 97. This year, the over-under was 83.5.