Spring training questions: Oakland Athletics

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Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking at a few of the questions facing each team this spring.
1. Can Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer hold up at the top of the rotation?
Sheets would seem to have the better chance of the two. He hasn’t put in a full season since 2004, but he did make 31 starts in 2008 and he should be completely recovered from the torn flexor tendon in his elbow that cost him last season. It’s important to remember that he’s not coming off major shoulder surgery or Tommy John surgery — he’s a far better bet than most pitchers coming off a missed season. Duchscherer, on the other hand, has never put in a full season as a starter and he has significant back and hip issues to go along with history of arm problems. Also, he missed the end of last season with clinical depression.
If the two pitchers somehow combine to make 55-60 starts, the A’s would have a legitimate chance of reaching the postseason. But while I think Sheets is a reasonable bet to hold up his end of the bargain, I wouldn’t pencil in Duchscherer to make even 20 starts.
2. Will a Rajai Davis-Coco Crisp-Ryan Sweeney outfield hit enough to remain intact?
It should be baseball’s best outfield defensively, but the three players have combined for one 800 OPS season between them and that was Crisp’s 2005. Davis, a big surprise over the final four months of last year, is far from the prototypical left fielder, and Sweeney, while still possessing some upside, has hit 12 homers in 948 major league at-bats. I have the trio projected for 23 homers in 1,453 at-bats this season, and even that might be optimistic.
The A’s do have alternatives, but they traded the two best (Scott Hairston and Aaron Cunningham) to the Padres for Kevin Kouzmanoff. Jack Cust could log some outfield time if Eric Chavez forces his way into the lineup as a DH. Gabe Gross is an adequate fourth outfielder, and both Eric Patterson and Travis Buck are still in the organization, though perhaps not for much longer. Odds are that the A’s will go with the defense-first alignment to start and then adjust once they struggle to score runs.
3. Will Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez take necessary steps forward and provide the A’s with some much-needed rotation depth?
The Sheets signing would mean there’s only room for one in the rotation, but that depends on everyone getting through the spring healthy. Both should factor heavily into Oakland’s plans. Gonzalez, who has fanned 143 but walked 81 in 132 2/3 innings as a major leaguer, has nothing left to prove in the minors, while Cahill might yet benefit from some Triple-A time. I’m very interested in seeing how Cahill looks this spring after he went through his rookie season without ever showing a consistent breaking ball. He has the greater upside of the two. If both prove capable of holding their own at the bottom of the rotation, the A’s will be better able to withstand injuries. It’s doubtful that Sheets, Duchscherer, Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden will all be healthy at the same time very frequently.

Seattle Mariners to make a “full-court press” for Shohei Ohtani

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Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said in a team-sponsored podcast the other day that the M’s will make a “full-court press” for Shohei Ohtani. To that end, Dipoto said that the M’s would be willing to let the two-way star to pitch and to hit, which is something Ohtani is interested in doing in the United States. Not all clubs are likely to let him do this, with most likely seeing him as a starting pitcher only.

Ohtani, who is expected to be posted by his Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, possibly as early as today, can sign with anyone he wants. He is, however, subject to the international bonus pool caps, so the bids on him will be somewhat limited. The Texas Rangers and New York Yankees have the most money available: $3.535 million for the Rangers and $3.5 million for the Yankees. The Twins ($3.245 million), Pirates ($2.266 million), Marlins ($1.74 million) and Mariners ($1.57 million) are the only other teams with more than $1 million left. Twelve teams — including the Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals and Astros — are limited to a maximum of $300,000, having met or exceeded their caps for this signing period already.

Ohtani, however, is said to be less motivated by money than he is by finding the right situation. While a lot of guys say that, the fact that Ohtani is coming over to the U.S. now, when his financial prospects are limited, as opposed to waiting for two years when he is not subject to the bonus caps and could sign for nine figures, suggests that he is telling the truth. As such, a team like the Mariners that is willing to allow him to hit and pitch could make up for the couple of million less they have in bonus money to spend.

As for how that might work logistically, Dipoto said that the team would be willing to play DH Nelson Cruz a few days in the outfield to accommodate Ohtani, allowing him to DH on the days he’s not pitching. That might be . . . interesting to see, but given how badly the Mariners could use a good starting pitcher, they have an incentive to be creative.

Ohtani, 23, suffered some injuries in 2017, limiting him to just five starts and 65 games as a hitter. In 2016, however, he hit .289/.356/.547 with 22 homers in 342 at-bats and went 11-3 with a 3.24 ERA, and a K/BB ratio of 146/51 in 133.1 innings as a starter.

Five clubs have more money to spend on Ohtani than the Mariners do. None of those teams are on the west coast, which some Asian players have said in the past they preferred due to faster travel back home. The Mariners, owned for a long time by a Japanese company which still retains a minority interest in the club, and long the home for high-profile Japanese players such as Ichiro and Hisashi Iwakuma, likely have a better media and marketing reach in Japan than most other teams as well, which might be a factor in his decision making process. Is all that enough to sway Ohtani?

We’ll find out over the next couple of weeks.