The 2018 Rays were the canary in the coal mine for deemphasizing starting pitching in today's game. While they did employ last season's Cy Young winner, the rest of the rotation was as patchwork as it gets, with Tampa Bay aggressively deploying an "opener" strategy designed to test opposing managers' in-game managing skills, and also maximize the value of the Rays bullpen.
Count the 2018 Athletics as the next bird down the mine. Even now, months after their magical run ended, it seems nearly impossible that Oakland won 97 games with the slapdash group of humans who made up the A's starting rotation.
A jarring 15 different pitchers started games for the A's last season, and not in the Rays' way of tossing any random reliever in for the fifth inning. Oakland legitimately tried to field something resembling a conventional rotation. Injuries, fatigue, bouts of ineffectiveness, and a trigger-happy front office and manager unafraid to change on the fly kept altering the team's plans.
- 2018 Result: 97-65, second place in AL West
- Key free agents: Trevor Cahill, Jeurys Familia, Jed Lowrie, Jonathan Lucroy, Matt Joyce, Edwin Jackson, Brett Anderson, Shawn Kelley
- Needs: Starting pitching, catcher, outfield
Twenty-six-year-old Sean Manaea emerged as the closest thing Oakland has to an ace. He announced his presence in April, firing a no-hitter against the eventual World Series-winning Red Sox. He made 27 starts, posting one of the lowest strikeout rates in the game but thriving anyway, thanks to a tidy 4.9 percent walk rate and a junkballing approach executed brilliantly. He never got to join Oakland's postseason party, though, going for season-ending shoulder surgery in September.
Manaea aside, the rest of the rotation should have been a disaster. Daniel Mengden was a low-strikeout right-hander who'd struggled through his first 21 major league starts heading into last season. Chris Bassitt was a middling right-hander who'd made just five big league starts in 2016, and none in 2017. Brett Anderson had been a very good rookie for the A's back in 2009, but he'd bounced around the league after that, succumbing to numerous injuries before getting scooped up as a reclamation project. Trevor Cahill was another Athletic original who had a miserable 2017 season before signing as a last-minute flyer just before opening day. All of those origin stories paled next to Edwin Jackson, the right-hander who would be pitching for his 13th team(!!!!!!!) when he took the mound for Oakland.
Somehow that big stew -- along with Frankie Montas, Kendall Graveman, Andrew Triggs, Paul Blackburn, Daniel Gossett, and Josh Lucas, as well as in-season trade pickup Mike Fiers and reliever starts for Liam Hendriks and Lou Trivino -- was good enough to produce a dead-on league-average ERA, by park-adjusted metrics.
A league-average starting rotation would've traditionally seemed like a major problem for a team with playoff aspirations, much less one that stormed to 97 freaking wins. But the A's correctly recognized that they were short on starting pitching talent both at the major- and minor-league levels, and that starting pitching could be a prohibitively expensive shopping item. So they slapped together that cast of thousands instead. All those pitchers cost the modern-baseball equivalent of about 14 cents, making league-average production at those rock-bottom prices a huge boon for a small-revenue team that carried the third-lowest payroll in baseball last season.
The A's used those cost savings to invest elsewhere. Their highest-paid player was Khris Davis, who made $10.5 million and bashed a league-leading 48 home runs for Oakland -- with the A's in turn crushing 227 long balls for the year. The A's finished second in the American League in homers, which might seem surprising for a tiny-budget team, until you remember that Oakland started hoarding flyball-happy hitters years before we all realized that the baseball was probably juiced, and that launch angles had become an integral part of baseball's vernacular.
Then at a time when teams were focusing on building deeper bullpens, the A's took that strategy to the next level. The combination of right-hander Blake Treinen (acquired in a trade with the Nationals) and the newcomer Trivino became arguably the best 1-2 bullpen punch in all of baseball. Still not satisfied with those results, Oakland loaded up at the deadline, acquiring veteran closers Jeurys Familia and Fernando Rodney as reinforcements.
One of the most impactful points of emphasis was the team's defense. When you think of rangey, quick-twitch defenders, you don't usually imagine a team that cranked 227 home runs meeting that profile. But the A's led the American League in Defensive Runs Saved (per Baseball Info Solutions), through a combination of player development and well-executed in-game strategy. On the player development side, third baseman Matt Chapman and first baseman Matt Olson made up the best corner-infield defensive duo in the majors, with Chapman saving 29 more runs than the average third baseman -- good enough to lead the majors, to win a Gold Glove, and along with his 24 homers, to earn him a surprising seventh-place finish in AL MVP voting. The in-game results showed up in the form of shifts, with Oakland's shifts saving 36 more runs than the average team, tops in the American League.
You can see the obvious cascading benefits here: If you're fielding a rotation full of pitch-to-contact guys like Manaea and Mengden, and you surround them with great glovemen and an advanced approach to defensive positioning, you have a chance to survive and even thrive even without the benefit of fire-breathing strikeout machines.
So what do the A's plan to do in 2019? Apparently, run it all back. The rotation projects to look similar, with Fiers re-signing on a two-year deal and taking over as de facto ace. Manaea and Gossett will likely sit out all of next season, with Triggs and promising right-hander Jharel Cotton big question marks for opening day. Oakland also picked up the option on Rodney's contract, then replaced the departing Familia with another excellent back-of-the-pen right-hander in Joakim Soria. With late-career breakout star Jed Lowrie possibly landing an overinflated contract this winter, the A's moved quickly to acquire Jurickson Profar from Texas to hold down second base instead.
They could still use an upgrade at catcher (Martin Maldonado?), at least one more quality outfielder (Nick Markakis? A trade involving stalled infield prospect Franklin Barreto?), and most definitely another starting pitcher to at least make the rotation outlook slightly less murky (buy low on Ervin Santana?). Still, the A's as currently constituted would start next season with what look like shaky options in the rotation, buttressed by young and inexpensive power hitters, defense, and bullpen prowess. This is the modern Moneyball blueprint, an alternative way to field a potential contender without breaking the bank.
The early projections say this won't work two years in a row. Then again, the A's often find a way to make projections look really dumb.
Jonah on the MLB offseason
Braves: May be offseason's most compelling team
Marlins: Finding where to send Realmuto
Mets: How Mets could jumpstart BVW era
Phillies: Harper or Machado might not be enough
Nationals: What will the Nats do if Harper leaves?
Cubs: Keys to a Cubs rebound in 2019
Reds: Can Cincy revamp its pitching staff?
Brewers: Why Milwaukee should dig deeper in its war chest
Pirates: How Buccos can get aggressive
Cardinals: St. Louis can close the NL Central gap
Diamondbacks: How drastic will the rebuild be?
Rockies: Colorado needs bats to match pitching staff
Dodgers: How L.A. can spend big this winter
Padres: San Diego is the biggest mystery team of the offseason
Giants: Trading MadBum and others makes sense
Orioles: Nowhere to go but up for new O's leadership
Red Sox: Active offseason could lead to World Series repeat
Yankees: Machado fits Yanks' wants and needs
Rays: Tampa in position for unusually aggressive winter
Blue Jays: Toronto needs to embrace rebuild
White Sox: Compelling dark horse in Harper, Machado races
Indians: Why a Kluber or Bauer blockbuster makes sense
Tigers: Detroit facing plenty of rebuilding competition
Royals: Rebuild will rely on homegrown talent
Twins: Could be a big surprise team in 2019
Astros: How they can make another World Series run
Angels: LAA changes winter approach