If nothing else, Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sonny Gray’s latest lat injury has offered a glimpse at the potential future of the team’s rotation.
Gray was shut down on March 9 due to a lat strain and thus deemed doubtful for opening day. Still, on Thursday morning, manager Bob Melvin decided on the three guys who will anchor his starting rotation in 2017.
Kendall Graveman was named the team’s Opening Day starter, while Sean Manaea and Jharel Cotton will slot in at the second and third spots respectively. While there was some speculation that Manaea would earn the honors, Melvin admitted the decision to roll with Graveman was an easy one to make.
“He’s up for it,” Melvin said. “I talked to him about it when Sonny went down a long time ago and obviously he was concerned for his teammate, but excited about the fact that he was going to get his first Opening Day start.”
Graveman earned the lion’s share of Oakland’s starts last season with 31. In those 31 games, he posted a 4.11 ERA and 108 strikeouts. Furthermore, his 10 wins were also the most on a team that won just 69 games in 2016.
The Mississippi State product is entering his fourth major-league season. At 26 years old, Graveman continues to make strides in his development.
“Every year he learns new things to incorporate into, whether it’s his preparation or what he’s doing on the mound and that gets you ready both physically and mentally, he’s in better shape than he’s ever been in his life, so he’s kind of on a mission to become one of those guys that pitches at the top of the rotation for many years to come.”
Manaea made his MLB debut last season for Oakland on April 29 against the Houston Astros. Although his four earned runs and four walks over five innings pitched seemed to be cause for concern, the average start didn’t encapsulate the 25-year old’s rookie season.
While there were bumps in the road, Manaea finished his first big-league campaign with a 3.86 ERA – he also struck out 124 batters and won seven of his 24 starts.
“The game is all about dealing with failure,” Manaea said. “I had my fair share of really bad games last season and you know, just leaning on my teammates was huge and they taught me well, taught me what to do when you’re going through ruts like that. That was just the biggest thing because I had a little success before, I had failed, but I didn’t fail as much as I did last year. It was just a big eye-opener for me and, you know, I’m glad I went through that.
“Dealing with it was pretty good, now I know how to deal with it now.”
Melvin also took notice of Manaea’s newfound resilience and his talent, even when he didn’t have his best stuff on a given day.
“We saw Sean Manaea come a long way last year,” Melvin said. “The ability was there right away, but settling in and feeling comfortable, now anytime he takes the mound you expect big things.”
For Cotton, the adjustment period didn’t take near as long.
Acquired at last season’s trade deadline in the deal that sent Josh Reddick and Rich Hill to the Dodgers, Cotton’s impact was felt as soon as he got the call up from Triple-A Nashville on September 7 to start against the Angels.
He hurled 6.1 innings of one-run ball, walking two batters and yielding just two hits in his first career win, a 4-1 victory. It wasn’t an outlier, either, that level of production became the expectation.
Cotton continued to deliver – he posted four quality starts in five attempts and set himself up for a more prominent role in 2017.
“As soon as he hit the mound for us, it seemed like he fit in,” Melvin said. “He performed really well, which is difficult to do for a younger guy who was pitching in Triple-A coming into an organization and I think the fact that he got off to a good start was good for him.”
While the first three spots in Oakland’s starting rotation are solidified, Melvin expects the competition for the final two spots to remain dynamic.
“It’s going to go back and forth,” Melvin said. “Andrew Triggs pitched really well (Wednesday), so whether or not that gives him a leg up, at this point, if you’re having to handicap and we start tomorrow, he’s probably in a good spot.”
By Colton Dodgson