OAKLAND — The Oakland Athletics rotation suffered a huge blow on Friday, when ace starter Frankie Montas was suspended 80 games for a performance-enhancing drug violation. The right-hander will miss all but the final week of the season, and is ineligible for the postseason.
That leaves the A’s with a big hole to fill in their rotation. Montas ranked fifth among AL starters with a 2.70 ERA, and he led the team in innings (90), strikeouts (97), and quality starts (11, in 15 tries), in a sparkling first half that likely would have landed him on his first career All-Star team next month.
“If there’s something this group has shown over the last year and a half, is that ‘next man up’ is their motto,” general manager David Forst said on Friday. “Whether it’s because of performance, whether it’s because of injuries, or something like this, every guy, not just the 25 here, every guy in the organization has shown the ability to step up. It led to a lot of great things last year, and I think they’re gonna feel that same responsibility this time around.”
Even without Montas, there are still some solid arms in the rotation. Mike Fiers has settled down from his April slump, posting a 2.73 ERA over his last 11 starts, including a no-hitter. Brett Anderson boasts a 3.68 ERA that ranks 17th-best among qualified AL starters, and has reliably provided six or more innings in most of his appearances. And while Chris Bassitt has struggled with his control lately, he still carries a 3.64 ERA and a strikeout per inning.
In addition to that trio, rookie Tanner Anderson has shown promise in his first three starts, including a decent 4.20 ERA. He hasn’t gone deep into games, as he’s yet to complete the sixth inning, but he’s kept the A’s within reach in each outing and has demonstrated his ability to efficiently induce ground balls.
But what about a fifth man, to replace Montas? The team hasn’t made any decisions yet on their next move, either long-term or in the immediate future on Wednesday to take what would have been Montas’ next turn, but there are several options to choose from.
On Saturday, manager Bob Melvin mentioned three names as the likeliest candidates to start on Wednesday: Daniel Mengden and Paul Blackburn, who are currently with Triple-A Las Vegas, and Aaron Brooks, who is the long man in Oakland’s bullpen.
Brooks began the year in the A’s rotation, but he posted a 5.74 ERA in his six starts. He’s only pitched six times since the beginning of May, totaling 13 innings of mostly mopup duty.
Mengden and Blackburn have appeared in the majors already this year, and have MLB experience from previous seasons as well. However, they’ve each had a rough go of it when they’ve gotten chances in Oakland.
Mengden has pitched five games in his stint in Oakland this year, including three starts and two bulk relief outings following an opener. In that time he posted a 5.09 ERA, including an untenable rate of 15 walks in 23 innings that ran up his pitch count and helped prevent him from working deeper into his outings. However, he’s shown flashes in the past, tossing a shutout in each of 2017 and 2018, and he’s held his own in an extremely hitter-friendly Triple-A environment this season.
Blackburn hasn’t found quite as much success as Mengden. He’s only made one start in the bigs this year, in the opening contest of a doubleheader in Texas earlier in June, and he was roughed up for five runs in three innings. He’s also scuffled in Triple-A, allowing 12 homers in 66 2/3 innings with a 5.40 ERA, though it’s worth noting that fellow sinker/slider guy Tanner Anderson had similar homer problems in Las Vegas’ high elevation and desert air before moving up to Oakland.
“Some of the stuff doesn’t move like you’re used to,” Anderson said about pitching in Las Vegas, where he posted a 6.26 ERA and served up 14 long balls in 11 games. “For me, throwing sinkers down there, it’s tough, because I don’t get the same movement like I do with any little bit of humidity.”
One pitcher not in the running for Wednesday’s start is Wei-Chung Wang. The left-hander has made eight appearances out of Oakland’s bullpen, twice going as long as three innings, and carries an impressive 2.13 ERA.
“I don’t think at this point,” said Melvin of using Wang as a starter. “I think we like him where he is.”
Looking at the long-term, the A’s have several starters working back from injury who could factor into the rotation later this summer. Sean Manaea was one of the team’s best pitchers last year but hasn’t played this season while recovering from shoulder surgery last fall. He’ll throw on Tuesday, though it’s undecided if it will be an official minor league rehab appearance or just a simulated game, and if all goes well he could be a candidate to return after the All-Star break.
Also on the mend is Marco Estrada, who’s been out since mid-April with a strained back. He threw 25 pitches on Saturday and felt good afterward.
“For a guy like him, who’s been through [injury rehab] before, I don’t know that we need to be as careful,” Melvin said of Estrada. “We want to make sure that he’s healthy, but I think as quickly as he could do something and go out and pitch, he would be a guy that we’d probably be more apt to let go and see how he feels along the way. But there’s still some time before that.”
Another notable name is Jesus Luzardo, the A’s top prospect and one of the best pitching prospects in the entire sport. The 21-year-old left-hander was in the running for the Opening Day rotation but ended up missing the first two months of the season with a shoulder injury. Now he’s back on the mound in the minors, and starting for Triple-A Las Vegas on Saturday. He could arrive in Oakland as soon as July, though Melvin noted that the youngster will have to prove himself with good results in Vegas before getting the call.
Two names that aren’t rotation options are Jharel Cotton and A.J. Puk, who both recently returned to action after Tommy John surgeries. If they do appear in Oakland this season, it will be out of the bullpen in order to limit their innings and ease them back in after major operations.
Cotton had a setback in his recovery earlier in June, undergoing hamstring surgery, but he’s progressing faster than expected.
“It’s kind of surprising how quickly he’s come back from this thing,” said Melvin. “We thought he’d be out a little bit longer. But he’s been able to keep his arm in shape, and his hamstring’s feeling better. I’m not sure on a timetable with him yet, but I didn’t think he’d be off the mound at this point.”
Puk has made three appearances for High-A Stockton this month, dialing his fastball up as high as 99 mph and consistently sitting in the 95-97 range.
If all of those options aren’t enough for the A’s to adequately fill their rotation, then they could also look toward the trade market. Oakland has several quality prospects whose positions are blocked on the Major League roster, and their stock might be better used shoring up the staff. The July trade market is expected to include prominent names like Madison Bumgarner of the Giants, Matthew Boyd of the Tigers and Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays, among many others.
Whichever direction they go with their rotation, one thing is clear: The A’s aren’t giving up just because they lost one star player. After all, this the team that still found a way to win 97 games last year despite an enormous list of starting pitchers going down with injuries.
“As a team we went through some adversity last year,” said Melvin. “This is a little bit different as far as that goes, but I don’t think it takes away from the fact that we still expect to go out there and win, and somebody else will get an opportunity.”