From non-tender to A’s Opening Day starter? Mike Fiers would relish nod

Veteran A's pitcher hopes to be on mound for Opening Day

MESA, ARIZ. – FEB. 16: Oakland Athletic pitchers Jesus Luzardo and Mike Fiers participate in fielding drills during spring training at Fitch Park in Mesa, Ariz., Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

MESA, Ariz. — Mike Fiers isn’t your prototypical No. 1 starter.

He doesn’t blow you away with otherworldly stuff. He doesn’t light up the radar gun with triple digits. But for this young A’s team, Fiers brings experience and stands a good chance to get the ball for the A’s come Opening Day in Japan next month.

“That would be awesome,” Fiers said. “To start Opening Day would be an honor and it says a lot about you as a pitcher. Not just your stuff but the mental side. Being able to go out there and control your emotions and pitch.”

Fiers, 33, has never been tabbed as Opening Day starter in his eight big league seasons but he’s been on teams with some pretty good ones. Dallas Keuchel, Yovani Gallardo, Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann are among the pitchers who have had that privilege while Fiers was one of their teammates.

He made sure to soak in as much as he could from each one about the type of mentality it takes to handle such a role.

“I envied them a lot,” Fiers said. “These are guys that have played and had a lot of success in this league.”

Now coming off one of his most successful campaigns, Fiers is the guy younger A’s pitchers are going up to in search of the same guidance he once sought.

Whether it’s Paul Blackburn asking him for advice during a team workout or top prospect Jesus Luzardo standing at Fiers’ locker as the two looks over some tape, the right-hander is embracing that opportunity to serve as a leader.

“These guys have the talent and all the tools but it’s about putting it together,” Fiers said. “Me being here and having been on certain teams and getting traded. Having success and going through my tough times as well, all that experience is going to help.

“Whatever questions they have and whatever knowledge I can relay to them and just help them prepare for certain things so it doesn’t come as a total shock or surprise, I’m all for it.”

It’s a trait that doesn’t go unnoticed by A’s legends.

Dave Stewart made his yearly spring visit as a special instructor in A’s camp earlier in the month and immediately noticed how Fiers went out of his way to interact with all of his teammates. That along with his work ethic leads Stewart to believe the A’s would be more than fine entering the season with Fiers as their No. 1 starter.

“I think he understands that he’s probably going to get that nod as their No. 1 guy coming out the gate, so he’s working and putting himself in the position to get ready for the first day of the season,” Stewart said. “He’s got more experience than anyone else in that rotation and more knowledge of the league, so that’s going to play as a factor.

“But above all that, he’s got some ability and talent to do some good things.”

Fiers combined to go 12-8 with a 3.56 ERA in 30 starts with the Tigers and A’s last year. He provided just the boost they needed as the A’s best pitcher during their playoff run after he was acquired via trade in August, compiling a 3.74 ERA in nine starts. The A’s won eight of those starts.

Yet come November when it came time for the A’s to tender him a contract for the 2019 season the club decided to non-tender Fiers. It was a decision that caught him by surprise a bit at first.

Fiers was entering his third year of arbitration and projected to receive a salary increase to $10 million. He became a free agent instead.

With contracts on the table from several teams, Fiers could have easily turned his back and gone elsewhere. But some of the most fun he’s ever had playing the game came in Oakland. Even if it was in that same season where he was left off the playoff roster for the AL wild-card game against the Yankees in favor of going with a bullpenning game, a decision Fiers said he understood.

“Everybody in this clubhouse wanted the opportunity to pitch and get us to the next round to further our World Series chances,” Fiers said. “It didn’t work out. But with the bullpen we had, everyone was fine with it.”

He also knew the A’s still had some interest in bringing him back, just maybe not at that figure he was projected to earn. Fiers did not get that raise, but the two sides did agree on a two-year deal for less money per season.

“I’m just glad we were able to work something out,” Fiers said. “This was one of the top teams I was trying to get back to. A lot of teams offered me contracts and I was very grateful for that. But I was looking to come back to the A’s and be back with this team.”

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