Pitchers and Catchers Day is kind of like the Groundhog Day of baseball. We get excited about it but then it just reminds us that there’s six more weeks of winter – or in the case of P&C Day, six more weeks until actual real baseball that counts. But still – “pitchers and catchers” are still my three favorite words to hear in the month of February. Actual Oakland A’s are gathering to make preparations for playing actual baseball very soon. It’s a light at the end of the baseball-less tunnel. So on this blessed P&C Day, let’s remind ourselves who these pitchers and catchers are going into the new season.
I can’t start thinking about Oakland A’s pitchers without my mind going directly to Sonny Gray first. Not only is he the team’s de-facto ace, but he’s the biggest question mark going into this season. What the heck happened to him last year, and will he ever be as good again as he was from 2013 to 2015? There was that forearm injury last year, so you have to wonder how much of his struggles had to do with him not being 100 percent. But his home run and his walk rate both went up, while his strikeout rate remained unchanged. Both changed factors would indicate a lot of missing of spots. Are we to expect him to be able to hit those spots again this year? I expect that this has a lot to do with his participation in the World Baseball Classic this spring, as a member of Team USA, as it should provide a better showcase for him then spring training games would. He’s still very much a trade candidate, and the better he does this season, the more likely it is that he goes, so that certainly leaves me conflicted here. But of course, I hope we haven’t seen the last of good Sonny.
It’s hard not to let myself get overly optimistic about Sean Manaea and Jharel Cotton. Manaea had a solid debut season in the bigs last year and showed significant improvement in the second half of the season, going 4-4 with a 2.67 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 69 strikeouts in 13 second half games (12 starts), after struggling with a 5.24 ERA through his first 12 starts. And Jharel Cotton had a brilliant September callup, with 2.15 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in five starts. However, Cotton had some BABIP assistance (.198), so that’s not sustainable. But these are still two young guys that will give us things to look forward to in 2017.
Kendall Graveman is not an exciting pitcher but he put together a really solid under-the-radar season last year, inducing a lot of ground balls and winning 10 starts, which included two complete games and his first career shutout. He cut the walk rate down and had a 4.11 ERA and 4.36 FIP. It was a nice step forward for Graveman, who doesn’t have much of a ceiling but could be a solid fourth starter if he doesn’t run into some bad BABIP luck. Rounding out the rotation should be Andrew Triggs, as Daniel Mengden will miss a good chunk of the first half of the season after having foot surgery. Triggs is that guy I always forget about, as he bounced between the majors and the minors and between the bullpen and the rotation. But he is an intriguing rotation option going into 2017, as in his final five starts of the season, he pitched 22 2/3 innings with a 2.78 ERA and 21 strikeouts. He did have a favorable BABIP (.240) as a starter, but as a fifth man, you could do a lot worse than taking a flier on a guy with breakout potential like Triggs.
In the bullpen, we’re going to see the same cast of characters, plus the return of a former A, as Santiago Casilla was the only pitcher added by the A’s this offseason as he signed a one-year free agent deal. The veteran righty will join a veteran bullpen, with Ryan Madson expected to hang onto the closer role. The addition of effectively Casilla gives the A’s four closer types, along with Sean Doolittle and John Axford. That idea had mixed results last year but bullpen performance can be so random that you just hope you have the right mix.
Now let’s not forget the catchers who are also reporting today. The A’s have three catchers on the 40-man roster right now and it’s not out of the question that all three could make the team. Stephen Vogt is coming off back-to-back All Star appearances but seemed to lose some time behind the dish to Bruce Maxwell in the second half of last season. That’s OK though, as Vogt can DH against right handed pitching, as he did in 22 games last season, or even play first base, as he has done for 71 games in his career (one in 2016). Maxwell earned himself nearly full time playing time by the end of last season, and he tore it up in September, hitting .361/.418/.508 in 67 September plate appearances, and he should get every opportunity to show what he can do over a full big league season, if the A’s are willing to break camp with three catchers. The lone righty hitting catcher on the A’s roster is Josh Phegley, returning from season-ending knee surgery. He has been a solid part time catcher over the past two seasons, slashing .264/.303/.447 versus lefties in his career.
And so today the pitchers and catchers gather in Meas and Hohoken Stadium to pitch and catch, and may they pitch and catch better than they pitched and caught last season. Go A’s…