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How an unexpected A’s roster move changes the starting rotation picture

MESA, Ariz. — A pitcher originally tabbed as a near-lock for the A’s Opening Day starting rotation appears to be out of the mix.
Daniel Mengden was optioned to Triple-A Las Vegas Monday morning. It’s a move that comes as a bit of a surprise after the right-hander had entered spring camp as the likely No. 4 starter.
There are a couple of factors that likely played into this decision.
Because Mengden has not accrued enough major league service time, he has a fourth minor league option instead of the usual three granted to a player. This means he can be sent down to the minor leagues one more year without being exposed to the waiver process where any other team in baseball could claim him. It’s the same situation Chris Bassitt, who is also in the mix for a rotation spot, is currently facing.
Mengden also struggled in his four outings this spring as he compiled a 5.73 ERA. Spring numbers don’t matter much for an established starter. In Mengden’s case, the A’s may have wanted to see some better numbers.
So what does this mean for the starting rotation?
There presumably is still a chance Mengden can find himself back in there. The A’s will play two regular season games in Japan next week, but they don’t really need a third, fourth or fifth starter until their opening series back in Oakland at the end of March. But the fact that the A’s optioned Mengden down now is a strong signal that he will begin the regular season in the minors.
Top prospect Jesús Luzardo is still around. He’s only been strengthening his case to make the rotation as spring has gone along with a 0.93 ERA in his four outings. He’s proven to the organization that he is ready to pitch in the big leagues. Mengden’s demotion does not guarantee a spot for Luzardo right out the gate, but the chances are improved because of it.
Frankie Montas has been dominant in his three spring outings and is now a likely lock to make the starting rotation. Also working in his favor is the fact he is out of options. If Montas were to go through the waiver process, it would be very unlikely 29 other clubs would pass on the chance to claim a 25-year-old right-hander who can pump his fastball up to 97 mph and has posted a 1.00 ERA in the Cactus League.
If Montas joins Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada and Brett Anderson as rotation locks, that leaves one spot open. With Mengden and Paul Blackburn already optioned, Luzardo, Bassitt and Aaron Brooks are the final three pitchers in contention for the job.
Brooks has improved each outing in spring after a bad first one that saw him allow six runs over two innings. Luzardo has been dominant. Bassitt has also looked good with an increase in velocity on his fastball to about 97 mph serving as a nice complement to his 70 mph curveball.
Like Montas, Brooks is out of options. The A’s may want to let him begin the year in the rotation to see what they have in him before the risk of losing him on waivers. This would mean Luzardo and Bassitt both start the regular season in Triple-A.
Luzardo won’t be traveling with the club to Japan for the opening series, but he will start one of the Bay Bridge Series games when the A’s return to the Bay Area. Perhaps another electric performance in Oakland or San Francisco would be enough to force his way into the rotation.
— Matt Olson is about to get a lot more familiar with the No. 3 spot in the A’s lineup.
A’s manager Bob Melvin said there are several options for the three-spot in the order, but Stephen Piscotty and Olson are likely to get the bulk of their starts in that position. The right-handed hitting Piscotty would hit there against left-handed pitchers, the left-handed Olson against righties.
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In his three big leagues seasons, Olson has only slotted in that part of the lineup in four games. Normally the No. 5 hitter following slugger Khris Davis, batting third will be a slight adjustment, but nothing Olson is too worried about.
“Whatever lineup they roll out one through nine I think we’re all comfortable with where we’re at,” Olson said. “We’re strong. It’s not like we need a guy behind someone to protect them.”
Olson won’t try to make any changes to his approach at the plate based on where he’s batting in the lineup. Hitting is hard enough. Plus, keeping that same approach consistent last year led to him hitting 29 home runs last season.
“The only difference is maybe sometimes KD won’t clear the bases if I’m hitting third,” Olson said. “The talks have been between me and (Piscotty) for that spot. Wherever I’m at, I’m fine with it and going to do what I need to do to produce for the team.”

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