By Jacob Grandstaff
Analysis — On Monday night, the defending world champion Astros teed off on Athletics starter Brett Anderson as if they were scrimmaging against Oakland’s Triple-A Nashville Sounds with Anderson still there. Astros leadoff George Springer alone had nearly as many hits as the A’s, breaking an Astro record.
Few expect Anderson, or any of the team’s pitchers, to compete now on the level of Houston’s Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. Many A’s fans would be happy if their pitchers could at least make it look like they belong in Oakland and not Nashville—which until Monday they had.
For a team expected to compete for the last place in the American West, the A’s performed solidly in April.
Although they largely rely on Khris Davis, Matt Olsen, Mark Canha, and Jed Lowrie, for hits, their defense—particularly their pitching staff—at least gave them something to hit for.
After losing key starters to injuries, rather than drop a hefty price on an Alex Cobb or Bartolo Colon, Oakland’s front office decided to farm its existing talent and acquire previous hires.
This no doubt annoyed some supporters because the team started 2018 without an ace. Sean Manaea showed the most promise, if only he could return to his old 2016 self. But in 2017, he only managed a 4.37 ERA and lost velocity on his fastball—blamed on the weight loss he experienced from his Attention Deficit Disorder medication.
The A’s rotation, however, proved in April that they can compete with some of the best in the league. The bullpen came alive when needed, with Lou Trevino and Yusmeiro Petit’s having especially stood out.
Manaea led the AL with a 1.03 ERA, including a no-hitter against the Red Sox, which earned him American League Pitcher of the Month.
Losing Jharel Cotton to Tommy John surgery prompted the A’s to bring back free agent Trevor Cahill for a modest $1.5 million one-year contract. They originally drafted Cahill as an 18-year-old in 2006, and he played with them in 2009 and 2010. Like Anderson though, who played with the A’s from 2009 to 2013, Cahill has since gone under the radar, struggling with injuries and bouncing around the league, mostly as a reliever.
Since rejoining the A’s though, Cahill has pitched better than ever and currently holds a 2.25 ERA. He became only the third A’s pitcher to strike out 12 or more batters in six innings in his recent shutout against the Orioles.
Meanwhile, Andrew Triggs and Daniel Mengden have also pleasantly surprised.
Although none of their rotation pitched at an Angels or Red Sox level, they proved they had every reason to be where they are.
Perhaps Anderson’s dismal performance on Monday was “just one of those games,” as Melvin put it. It did differ sharply from his recent debut against the Mariners where he threw the seventh best swinging-strike rate of his career in 6+ innings. But it shows the maddening inconsistency that will likely continue for A’s fans until the team’s starters gain more confidence and experience at the helm.
Although putting away the Orioles improved the team to 18-16, the month of May likely presents the toughest stretch that any team will face this year. After their series against the Astros, they travel to Yankee Stadium to take on the hottest team in the league. They then travel to Boston to face the Yankees’ only competition in that department, followed by the Blue Jays, Mariners, and Diamondbacks.
“That list includes five of the six current best teams in the AL by record, with only the Angels missing,” notes Athletics Nation’s Alex Hall. “In their place, we get the current best team in the NL.”
The lack of aces in their starting rotation created basement expectations for the A’s. To raise them will require the team’s channeling its inner April. Manaea, Cahill, Triggs, or possibly even Anderson could develop into aces with time, but it will require a significant boost in confidence and expectations.
Most A’s fans don’t expect them to win the pennant, but they would like to see it at least be a rebuilding year to put them in contention for 2019. Whether their rotation and bullpen enjoyed a temporary April high—or if they really are that good—will be tested every game in May.