Spring training is officially underway as the Oakland Athletics were the first team to report yesterday. The Athletics shocked many by winning 97 games in 2018 and surging in the second half for the final Wild Card spot. Bob Melvin earned American League Manager of the Year honors as the club now looks to build off a strong campaign last season. The lineup mostly remains the same led by one of the top home run hitters that nobody talks about in Khris Davis. Matt Chapman and Matt Olson have also proven themselves to be franchise cornerstones on both sides of the ball. The bullpen posted the lowest ERA in the AL, and Joakim Soria should be able to replace Jeurys Familia who signed with the New York Mets.
While the Athletics still expect to be in contention this season, the biggest question mark remains which is the starting rotation. Mike Fiers and Brett Anderson were re-signed after they both pitched effectively in the second half to eat innings and have quality starts. General manager Billy Beane also added Marco Estrada in free agency who is a fly ball pitcher which makes him a perfect fit to pitch at the Coliseum.
Despite Beane making strides to address his rotation, it appears he only has three guarantees. The A’s also used the opener at the end of last year, but the opener is more of a strategy based on personnel rather than something that is used consistently over a 162 game season. Meanwhile, the opener was used against the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game and that severely backfired. Perhaps they can still use the opener one time around the rotation, yet a fourth starter should be addressed.
Despite those possibilities, the A’s have the most intriguing candidate of them all in their minor league system. Jesus Luzardo, who was acquired in 2017 along with Blake Treinen from the Washington Nationals, has become the top left-handed pitcher in minor league baseball.An unheralded minor-league star, Jesus Luzardo has a shot to make the @Athletics' Opening Day rotation with a strong showing in spring training.Click To Tweet
Luzardo began 2018 in High-A ball, and finished the year making four starts with Triple-A Nashville. His numbers in Double-A were his strongest posting a 2.29 ERA with 86 strikeouts in 78 innings, which led to a start for the World Team in the Futures Game. Luzardo’s Triple-A numbers were not good, however it was a small sample size in four starts.
Regardless, the team still has high hopes where a rotation spot with the big league club is possible. If Luzardo excels in Spring Training he will only strengthen his case. It’s also worth noting that despite a high ERA in Triple-A, his 10.1 K/9 was approximate to his average across the three levels in 2018.
An intriguing comparison for Luzardo is Julio Urias who are both six feet tall, with a mid 90s fastball, and an ability to throw their secondary pitches in and out of the zone to catch hitters off balance. Although, Urias made his debut at a younger age, both showed an ability to move up quickly in the minor leagues. It remains to be seen whether Urias will be the same pitcher post injury, but in 2o16, he started in a postseason game, and there’s a real likelihood Luzardo may do the same in 2019.
However, with young pitchers, the conversation of an innings limit is a definite. Luzardo threw 109 innings last year so as much as he can make a significant impact with the A’s, it won’t be every fifth day from March to September. The A’s will have to find that balance of preserving his future, yet that comes with the possibility that he shines as one of their top pitchers this year. The Washington Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg, and the New York Mets were in a messy situation with Matt Harvey so it will be a difficult decision.
Last season, the Athletics started the season with young pitchers, and eventually plugged in more veterans in their push for a postseason berth. Now, it will be more of the opposite with Fiers, Anderson, and Estrada ready to go for the Opening Series in Japan. The A’s are definitely evaluating all internal and external candidates with Jesus Luzardo among many. They’re prepared to win-now, and we’ve seen across baseball how prospects can spark a club in excitement and winning. Luzardo deserves consideration for a rotation spot, and might just be one Spring Training performance away.