How key Oakland Athletics’ arms may return in time for postseason push

Gaps in Athletics' pitching staff may not need to be filled via trade

Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sean Manaea (55) delivers against the Boston Red Sox in the ninth inning of a MLB game at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, April 20, 2018. The A’s won 3-0 with Manaea’s no-hitter game. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
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OAKLAND — A pitching staff in flux was the Oakland A’s weakness from this season’s start.

The pitching troubles started with the injury bug that plagued the rotation — Sean Manaea’s shoulder surgery, A.J. Puk and Jharel Cotton’s recovery from Tommy John surgery, and top prospect Jesus Luzardo’s slow return from a shoulder strain — then was compounded by a late-inning bullpen letdown.

This patchwork pitching staff has been able to keep heads above water; the bullpen’s 4.7 WAR (wins above replacement) is the second-best in baseball, for example. But the best is yet to come.

After trading for Jake Diekman, general manager David Forst asserted that he didn’t plan to put his phone down before Wednesday’s trade deadline. But, the necessary reinforcements may already be in house, just a few breakthrough innings or rehab starts away from competing for the pennant.

Here are some key updates.

Jake Diekman: crucial late-inning addition

The A’s 20 blown saves is tied for second-most in the majors. A competent offense that’s managed to put together plenty of late-inning comebacks has perhaps glazed over the bullpen’s stark inconsistency in the late innings.

The 2018 Trivino/Treinen one-two punch transforming into a Trivino/Treinen punching bag certainly has weakened the once-staunch ‘pen.

Liam Hendriks throwing a 98 mph fastball and killer breaking ball for strikes added the strikeout element to a staff otherwise reliant on the A’s Gold Glove defense. Diekman adds another strikeout-getter into the fold, and from the left side; his 4.75 ERA not entirely indicative of his potential as a shutdown set-up man — he has 63 strikeouts in 41.2 innings with the Kansas City Royals this year.

Diekman got a good feel for the A’s in his four years with Texas, and he’s a fan of the Coliseum’s crisp air. He has a .143 opponents average in eight games pitched in Oakland.

“It’s a very nice ballpark to pitch in,” he said. “It’s cooler here during the night, which is nice. I feel like I love pitching here, I love the mound, the slope of it. So yeah, I’m excited.”

Sean Manaea: late season ace?

Hendriks looked shaken from first pitch in the A’s disastrous October visit to Yankee Stadium in 2018. Will the A’s stave off similar fate? As of now, there is no one-game wonder on the pitching staff, though Mike Fiers — who has a 2.30 over his past 15 starts — would seem the obvious option to take the mound in a winner-take-all situation.

In an alternate universe where Manaea’s labrum stays intact, perhaps the 27-year-old lefty uses 2019 to cement himself into the A’s always-fluid ace role.

Manaea still has time to re-pot himself into this rotation for the postseason push. A minor oblique/side strain suffered in early July lengthened his road back to Oakland, but Manaea is set to reach 90 pitches in another rehab start for Triple-A Las Vegas on Tuesday night. Manager Bob Melvin said Tuesday that he should get one more start after that before a potential, long-awaited return to the rotation.

It’s a short runway Manaea will descend on, and he might not be fully effective upon his big league return. Despite the 9.95 ERA in 12.2 rehab innings pitched, Manaea and Melvin sound confident in the evolution of his stuff; his fastball velocity ticked up to its normal low-90s range and he’s throwing his slider for strikes.

Should all go well in his next two rehab starts, those inflated numbers won’t be much of a consideration. He could be back by mid-August.

Jesus Luzardo, potential call-up?

It’s unclear whether Luzardo will join the A’s pitching staff, a September call-up remains a strong possibility.

He wowed in spring training but escaped into the injury dark hole as he rehabbed from a shoulder strain with a lat strain setting him back a few more weeks than anticipated. Luzardo is set to pitch off the mound again starting Thursday in two simulated games in Arizona.

Prior to his setback, Luzardo was striking out minor-leaguers at a 11.6 K/9 rate with his 98-plus mph fastball in 19.1 rehab innings. Once healthy, it’s clear his stuff will play at the major league level. But the timing of his return remains fuzzy.

Blake Treinen: return to form?

Treinen has struggled mightily with his command this season, his once-untouchable turbo sinker making only rare appearances this season. And with the loss of command, Treinen lost his strong grip on the A’s closer position.

But he looked to make a major step forward in his last appearance against the Texas Rangers. His sinker looked dominant again and he was throwing a nice slider along with his cutter yet again. He allowed just one walk, a hard fought one, with two strikeouts in a shutout ninth inning. (He got the win, too.)

If Treinen can display any semblance of his 2018 self, another trade in the coming hours may not be necessary.

 

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