Who Would the A’s Start in the AL Wild Card Game?

The Oakland Athletics have been the biggest surprise of the 2018 Major League Baseball season. They’re 74-49 and are tied with the Houston Astros for first place in the American League West. Now, while the A’s could very well go on a tear and claim the division in late-September, some still feel the Astros will prevail.

And if that notion holds true, the A’s would head to the East Coast to face the New York Yankees in the American League Wild Card Game. But even though they’ve been one of the best teams in baseball this season, the A’s don’t have a bonafide ace, so who should manager Bob Melvin send to the mound in a one-game playoff?

Here are the A’s options when it comes to choosing a starter for a potential AL Wild Card Game:

Sean Manaea

Left-hander Sean Manaea has been the A’s ace this season. Owning a 3.44 ERA to go along with a 1.04 WHIP in 151.2 innings pitched, he’s proved that he’s more than just another pitcher who threw a no-hitter (Manaea did so against the Boston Red Sox on April 21). He’s pitching deep into games, getting the big out when he has to, and is providing Melvin with a sense of comfort when he’s on the rubber. At the same time, while Manaea continues to prosper into a reliable top-of-the-rotation arm, he’s never made a postseason start. And considering that this season is the first time the A’s have been in playoff contention since the lefty was called up in 2016, it’s reasonable to say he’s never pitched in a meaningful game.

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Mike Fiers

The A’s made one of the more under-the-radar transactions of the MLB trade deadline in acquiring righty Mike Fiers from the Detroit Tigers. While he doesn’t pose an overpowering presence on the hill, Fiers has endured a successful and eye-opening season thus far. Currently owning a 3.38 ERA in 23 starts, he’s bounced back from two subpar years with the Astros. But even though he’s surrendered just three runs in his two outings with the A’s, Fiers isn’t pitching deep into games and surrenders a lot of baserunners. He’s also made just one postseason appearance, and it came out of the bullpen.

Trevor Cahill

In his second stint with the A’s, Trevor Cahill is making the most of an opportunity to start every fifth day, when healthy. The righty currently owns a 3.12 ERA and a career-low 1.04 WHIP in 15 starts. He’s been a staple in the middle of their rotation and has reinvented himself. And granted all six of his postseason appearances have come out of the bullpen, Cahill does have experience pitching in the big moment. Simultaneously, some view Cahill as being more effective out of the pen, as he has struggled to be a model of consistency year in and out.

Edwin Jackson

Edwin Jackson has changed teams 14 times and can never find a permanent home. And while he’s struggled to be consistent over the better half of this decade, Jackson is putting together viable outings in an A’s uniform. In the ten starts he’s made this season, the righty owns a 2.58 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and is averaging just under six innings per start. He’s looked comfortable, has been consistent, and is helping the Athletics rise in the standings. At the same time, Jackson has not pitched well in the playoffs (Jackson owns a career 5.46 ERA postseason ERA), and the case could be made that his hot streak could run out of steam in the coming weeks, or near postseason play.

Brett Anderson

Like Cahill, Brett Anderson is in his second stint with the A’s, and he’s been efficient over his last three starts. Surrendering just two runs and walking one batter in 19.2 innings — which included two shutouts — he’s been a reliable arm every fifth day in August. But the problem with Anderson is that he puts runners on base often, struggles to stay healthy, and is very inconsistent. Granted he’s been better in his last three starts, Anderson still has a number of questions marks surrounding his production, despite lowering his ERA to 3.90.

The Verdict: Cahill Should Get The Ball

The A’s have a number of proven and intriguing starters. But in a one-game playoff, you can’t risk youth crumbling in the big moment; you have to go with the hot arm, and, ideally, someone proven. Cahill fits the criteria. He’s started on a consistent basis and found success in the past doing so, has postseason experience under his belt, is pitching well in 2018, and is a veteran pitcher.

And in the scenario where Cahill struggles, or can’t pitch deep into the game, the A’s have the bullpen to bail him out. Going into Saturday, the A’s owned the fifth best bullpen ERA in baseball (3.35). Headlined by Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino, as well as the recently acquired Jeurys Familia and Fernando Rodney, the A’s have the arms to pitch in and out of trouble in the late innings, Plus, they could have one of their starters on standby, such as Fiers or Jackson, to relieve Cahill if things go South.

The A’s have an efficient lineup that finds ways to score runs. Led by Khris Davis, Jed Lowrie, Matt Chapman, and Matt Olson, among others, the A’s went into Friday night eight in runs (571), sixth in home runs (162), fourth in slugging (.431), and seventh in OPS (.751). They’re more than capable of providing Cahill and the A’s pitching staff with run support.

Sure, Manaea has been the A’s best starter over the duration of the season, but there’s no statistic, or analytic, for pressure situations, or the value of having a veteran pitch in the big moment. Look at 24-year-old righty Luis Severino. Granted the Yankees were able to win the 2017 AL Wild Card Game, Severino had to be removed in the first inning after he surrendered three runs, two home runs, and left two runners on base with one out. It’s not to say that the Yankees were wrong for starting their young ace, but it goes to show how no matter the success a young starter sustains in the regular season, it can crumble in one meaningful outing.

The A’s could win 95 games, but if they lose the Wild Card Game, it’ll be a sour way for their season to end, no matter where expectations were set in Spring Training. Deciding on who to start in the one-game playoff is pivotal, and the A’s have to go with who they best forecast to have success in a big spot. Based on multiple factors, Cahill is that guy.

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