Thanks to a tie for the American League's second-place Wild Card slot, the 2013 regular season is going into extra-innings with a winner-takes-all match-up between the Texas Rangers and the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night. While the Boston Red Sox are still two games away from knowing who they will play on Friday in their ALDS series, the Oakland A's and the Detroit Tigers are already set to square-off in the first round of the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
For the A's, it has become a tradition to face the Tigers in the post-season. Dating back to 2006, the A's last three post-season series have all come against Detroit. Not many players remain on either team from that 2006 ALCS, but much of both the A's and Tigers' current rosters were involved in the two teams' match-up last October.
Later in the week (once rosters have been announced officially), we will take a closer look at how the two teams match-up. Today we will look at the factors that the A's will likely consider when they make their final roster decisions for the ALDS. Keep in mind that teams can re-designate their 25-man rosters before each post-season series, so if the A's choose one ‘bubble' player for their roster in round one, they can opt for someone who was left off of the ALDS roster in round two – should the A's advance that far.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the factors that will influence the A's roster-making decisions.
During much of the 2013 regular season, the Oakland A's carried 12 pitchers on their 25-man roster – five starting pitchers and seven relievers. In 2012, injuries and one untimely suspension caused the A's to use 10 different starting pitchers. This season, the A's had much better luck with health and they utilized only seven starting pitchers. All seven of those pitchers are currently healthy and on the A's active roster, although not all of them will be on the A's 25-man playoff roster.
The A's have kept their post-season rotation plans close to the vest, but reading the tea leaves, it appears that the rotation will feature Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin and rookie Sonny Gray. Fellow starters Dan Straily and Tommy Milone appear to be on the outside-looking-in at this point, while Brett Anderson is set to continue his late-season role out of the A's bullpen.
Last season against Detroit, Milone was the A's Game Two starter, and he pitched well in his only playoff outing. Milone had an up-and-down sophomore season with the A's, however, and spent nearly a month in the minor leagues during the second-half of this year. In September, Milone made two solid spot starts (winning both), as well as two relief appearances. He may receive some consideration as a long reliever, but with Anderson and right-hander Jesse Chavez already able to go multiple innings, there doesn't appear to be a great need for the A's to carry another longman like Milone.
Milone also has the disadvantage of being left-handed. The A's will already be carrying three lefties in their bullpen (Sean Doolittle, Jerry Blevins and Anderson). None of those three lefties are traditional LOOGY types, but the Tigers feature an overwhelmingly right-handed hitting line-up, making it unnecessary for the A's to stack their bullpen with left-handed pitchers. Milone also actually pitched worse against left-handers this season than he did versus righties. Working in Milone's favor is the fact that he pitched fairly well in his one start versus Detroit this year and that he had a 2.70 ERA and 18 strike-outs against two walks in 13.1 innings this September. Still, his chances of landing on the ALDS roster are not high at this point.
Straily is another interesting case. He had a solid, if somewhat inconsistent, rookie season. The right-hander finished the year with a 3.96 ERA and 124 strike-outs in 152.1 innings. Straily held opposing batters to a .233 average and he went 5-1 over his last six starts, a span during which he allowed two earned runs or fewer in each of those starts. The reason Straily may end up off of the A's ALDS roster, however, is his command. He walked 57 batters this season and allowed 16 homeruns. With a veteran team like the Tigers, location mistakes can be killer. Straily did pitch well in his one start against the Tigers this season, allowing just a run in six innings.
The A's could consider moving Straily to the bullpen for the post-season, in much the same way the Tigers moved starter Rick Porcello into their bullpen for last year's post-season. However, as was mentioned earlier, the A's already have two ‘long' relievers in Anderson and Chavez, and their entire bullpen is comprised of pitchers who are used to facing batters on both sides of the plate. Given that and the fact that Straily has been a starter throughout his professional career, it isn't likely that the A's will introduce their talented right-hander to a new role in the glare of the post-season. More than likely, the A's decision will come down to whether they go with Straily or fellow rookie Gray for that Game Four start.
With the five-game series set to go Friday and Saturday and then Monday and (if necessary) Tuesday and Thursday, the A's could decide to go with six relievers rather than seven given the number of days off before and during the series. The A's carried eight relievers on their post-season roster last year, however, although that was in large part because Anderson was coming off of an oblique injury and was going to be on a strict pitch-count for his Game Three start. With the A's likely starting four not facing any particular pitch limit, Oakland is more likely to go with seven relievers this year.
There are several locks to make the A's post-season bullpen: closer Grant Balfour, set-up men Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle and mainstays Anderson and Blevins. The final two bullpen spots are likely to go to right-handers Dan Otero and Chavez.
Otero quietly made himself one of the A's most valuable relievers with a standout second-half of the season. After spending the first two-and-a-half months posting a 0.99 ERA in the Pacific Coast League, Otero got the call to Oakland and never looked back. The former Giants' farmhand had a 1.38 ERA and a 27:6 K:BB in 39 innings with the A's. He didn't allow a homer and he did an equally good job against both right-handed and left-handed hitters (613 OPS against versus both). Otero did stumble a bit in September, allowing 13 hits in 8.2 innings, but he still posted a 2.08 ERA for the month.
Chavez was, at times, dominating, although he also had his bad moments as the A's long reliever. The right-hander had a 3.92 ERA in 57.1 innings. He struck-out 50 and allowed just three homeruns, although he did walk 20. Chavez did not pitch against Detroit this year.
Chavez has electric stuff, but he also has trouble throwing strikes at times. He held righties to a .212 BAA this season and held lefties to a .246 BAA. Chavez is the best equipped in the A's bullpen to go more than two innings should the A's have a need for a reliever to go that long, i.e., in an extra-inning game.
Because the Tigers feature so many dangerous right-handed hitters (Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson, Jhonny Peralta) and only two dangerous left-handed hitters (Prince Fielder and Alex Avila) and one dangerous switch-hitter (Victor Martinez, who hit better as a left-handed hitter), the A's may decide to swap out Chavez for Pat Neshek, who is the only right-handed specialist on the A's current roster. Neshek didn't have a great year with the A's this season, but righties still hit only .215 against him. Neshek had 2.1 scoreless innings pitched against the Tigers this season in one appearance. However, given Chavez's ability to get strike-outs and the fact that both he and Neshek had the same level of success versus right-handers this year, it is more likely that Chavez will get the call.
The A's will have several more difficult calls to make on the position player-side of their 25-man ALDS roster. Assuming Oakland carries 11 pitchers, they will be able to carry one more position player than they did for most of the 2013 regular season before rosters expanded. This could allow the A's to carry three catchers, an extra infielder and an extra outfielder who could serve as a pinch-hitter off of the bench.
For a second straight year, A's manager Bob Melvin used a platoon system to great effect. The A's spent their off-season building a roster that gave Melvin the flexibility to be able to play the match-ups, and he did that throughout the season. Right-handed hitters such as Derek Norris, Nate Freiman and Chris Young received the vast majority of their at-bats against left-handed pitching, while left-handed hitters Stephen Vogt, John Jaso (before he was hurt), Seth Smith, Eric Sogard and Brandon Moss played the bulk of their games against right-handed pitchers.
During last year's post-season, the Tigers didn't give the A's much room to play match-ups, as they threw out almost an entirely right-handed pitching staff. That will happen again this post-season, and that will almost certainly factor in the A's roster plans.
The Tigers' expected rotation of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister is entirely right-handed. The Detroit bullpen also skews towards the right-side, with closer Joaquin Benoit and set-up men Jose Veras and Al Alburquerque pitching from the right-side. Detroit's main left-handed set-up man from last year – Phil Coke – is battling elbow problems and isn't expected to be available. Drew Smyly has taken Coke's place as the go-to southpaw, with rookie Darin Downs also providing manager Jim Leyland an option from the left-side. The Tigers could choose to carry rookie southpaw Jose Alvarez, although he has primarily been a starting pitcher during his career. Regardless, the A's figure to be seeing right-handed pitchers for the bulk of the series.
The locks to make the A's post-season roster are 3B Josh Donaldson (RH), SS Jed Lowrie (S), CF Coco Crisp (S), 1B/OF Brandon Moss (LH), OF Yoenis Cespedes (RH), IF Eric Sogard (LH), C Stephen Vogt (LH), C/1B Derek Norris (RH), OF Chris Young (RH), IF Alberto Callaspo (S) and OF Josh Reddick (LH). If the A's are going to carry 14 position players, that will leave them with the option of keeping three more position players beyond that lock list.
The candidates to fill those final three spots are Seth Smith, Daric Barton, Nate Freiman, Kurt Suzuki, Jemile Weeks, Michael Choice and Andy Parrino. Smith is a decent bet to make the roster given his veteran status and the fact that he would give Melvin a veteran left-handed bat off the bench against some of the Tigers' top relievers late in games. In addition, if Cespedes is limited to DHing because of an ailing shoulder, Smith will provide Oakland with another option in the corner outfield defensively.
Smith has had a down season, but he finished off the year well, collecting 11 hits in 28 September at-bats. He had a vision problem corrected mid-season, which likely explained his mid-year swoon at the plate. Smith had a 749 OPS against right-handed pitchers this year, even with his mid-season struggles added in.
Barton wasn't even a possibility for the A's post-season roster before an injury opened a spot for him in the big leagues in late August. The former A's top prospect took advantage of the opportunity to play and he posted a .301/.381/.398 line in 83 at-bats after his call-up. Barton also played excellent defense at first base, something the A's had lacked all season with Moss and Freiman platooning at first. Runs are often at a premium during the post-season and the A's best run-prevention defense features Barton at first base, Cespedes in left field and Moss at DH. If Cespedes is healthy enough to play in the field, that is likely the alignment the A's will go with for much of the post-season.
Barton's late-season emergence may make Freiman the odd-man out for the ALDS, even though he had a solid rookie season for the A's in a platoon role. The 6'8'' first-baseman had 180 at-bats during his rookie season and he posted a .274/.324/.389 overall line and a .304/.352/.453 line against lefties. Freiman has battled an abdominal strain for the past two weeks, however, and has had just one at-bat since September 16. Although he is reportedly on the mend, given Freiman's recent inactivity and the right-handed nature of the Tigers' pitching staff, he isn't a strong bet to be on the ALDS roster.
Suzuki could slide into a spot on the ALDS roster despite not playing much since re-joining the A's late in the season. The former A's everyday catcher was re-acquired by Oakland in a deal with Washington in late August. He appeared in 15 games with the A's, collecting 33 at-bats. Suzuki hit well in his limited time with the A's, collecting 10 hits, including two doubles and two homers. He is a right-handed hitter, but he has hit right-handers better than left-handers over the past four years.
Although the A's will already be carrying two catchers (Vogt and Norris), they could carry a third for a couple of reasons. First, Suzuki is by far a more veteran catcher than either Vogt (a rookie) or Norris (in his second year). Suzuki is known for his ability to handle pitching staffs and he could be used as a ‘closer' catcher in the late-innings of close games in the ALDS. Second, carrying a third catcher will allow Melvin to use Norris as a pinch-hitter against a left-handed reliever late in a game without worrying about running out of catchers. Norris homered in three straight pinch-hitting appearances to close out the season.
If the A's decide to carry 14 position players, they will have one more spot they can fill with a skill player – someone who can come off the bench to pinch-run or provide an upgrade defensively. Weeks (S), Choice (RH) and Parrino (S) give the A's some options. Of the three, Choice is the least likely to make the ALDS roster given the sheer number of outfielders the A's are already carrying on the roster. Choice, while fast, also doesn't have much of a track-record as a base-stealer in the minor leagues.
Parrino provides the A's the best defensive option off of the bench, although he was a below-average hitter at the Triple-A level this year. Parrino can handle every infield position except catcher and he has some experience in left. He is arguably the A's best defensive middle infielder, although he doesn't have much big league service time.
Weeks is, by far, the most experienced player of the three and he brings the best base-stealing abilities off the bench with him. The A's 2008 number one pick had been a second baseman exclusively until this year, but he got a lot of playing time in centerfield and even at shortstop while in the minor leagues this season. The A's didn't give Weeks a look at short this September, but he did see some time in center. He handled a deep fly ball to the gap in Seattle on Sunday without issue and would give the A's some flexibility at the end of their bench should they choose to carry him.