MESA, Arizona: After almost seven weeks in spring training, the A’s are breaking camp with a bullpen that has over-performed and a rotation that is raising all sorts of questions. For that reason, it’s difficult to know what’s next.
The A’s will open the Bay Bridge Series on Thursday night against the Giants at AT&T Park with two relievers — right-handers Ryan Madson and John Axford — who have combined to give up zero runs. Closer Sean Doolittle and righties Fernando Rodriguez and Ryan Dull also have had solid springs.
The projected rotation, on the other hand, has been hit hard, forcing manager Bob Melvin and his staff to go down to the wire putting their April rotation together.
Of course, baseball is about more than just pitching. Here are five questions that faced the A’s heading into spring training — some related to pitching, some not — and how they’ve been resolved.
1. Has the bullpen been successfully restructured?
The A’s copied the Kansas City model in their winter makeover, seeking pure heat. They added flame-throwers Madson and Axford, and both have been terrific.
Also, Doolittle appears to be healthy again, although there was a scare midway through the spring when the left-hander had some discomfort behind his pitching elbow. But he’s throwing without pain again. He hasn’t pitched in back-to-back games, but neither he nor the club is sure he needs to.
An improved bullpen is essential if the A’s are to climb out of the A.L.West cellar. Last year the relievers were prime culprits in a 94-loss season. The A’s bullpen had a 4.63 ERA, highest in the A.L.
2. Has the acquisition of left fielder Khris Davis and the retention of Danny Valencia given the A’s offense decent left/right balance?
The club has already surpassed its spring home run total from last year, with 34 and counting. Valencia leads the club with five, and he and Davis are right-handed power options the A’s didn’t have 12 months ago.
While Oakland doesn’t have a player who will hit 30-plus homers, it could get 15-20 apiece from Stephen Vogt, Marcus Semien, Josh Reddick and Billy Butler in addition to Valencia and Davis. Mark Canha and Chris Coghlan, who each had 16 homers last year, could reach those totals again if they get enough at-bats.
As for balance, Melvin can call on three switch-hitters in Billy Burns, Coco Crisp and Jed Lowrie, and three left-handers in Vogt, Reddick and first baseman Yonder Alonso, in addition to Coghlan.
The A’s have been at their best in recent years when Melvin was able to keep from bunching lefties or righties together.
3. Can left-hander Rich Hill succeed in the A’s rotation after just one spectacular month in the big leagues last year?
Hill was cut during the middle of last season, changed his delivery while with an independent league team, then caught on with the Boston Red Sox, where he became their best starter in September. He had a 1.55 ERA and 0.65 WHIP in 29 innings over four starts.
This spring Hill, 36, has a 15.26 ERA, but his WHIP is a respectable 1.25.
Is Hill a good pitcher having a lousy spring, or did he just have a good streak last year?
4. How smoothly can Jed Lowrie make the transition to second given that he’s played just 25 games there since 2010, and none in the last two seasons?
When Lowrie became a free agent and left the A’s for the Houston Astros after the 2014 season, one of the knocks against him was his lack of range at short. But the A’s were looking for second base help this off-season, and gave up a minor-leaguer to get him back.
Melvin said Lowrie at second base “is like riding a bike for him,” but the road has been full of bumps and potholes. He’s still getting used to turning the double play from the second base side, although the shorter throw to first base seems to better suit his arm strength.
If Lowrie hits, his defense will be secondary. His average has been around .400 this spring, but last year he hit just .222. He did miss 83 games with a torn ligament in his right thumb, which might partially explain the dropoff. If Lowrie struggles again, there’s Chris Coghlan and his 16 homers for the Cubs last year. But in seven big-league seasons, Coghlan has played 17 games at second.
5. What does Coco Crisp have left, and where will he play if healthy?
Tackling the health issue first, Crisp seems fine, with none of the elbow or neck issues that limited him to 44 games last year.
He’s had a tough spring, however, and center fielder Billy Burns has picked up right where he left off last year, with a .375 batting average through Tuesday. The plan is for Burns to get about a day off per week to save wear and tear on his legs, which became a problem down the stretch last year.
Crisp would be the backup in center, a role that he says he’s ready for. He also can fill in as a left fielder and DH.
Crisp, 36, has started to drive the ball in the last week or so, but it’s not clear where playing time will come from.