A’s: Will Heisman winner Murray report to camp?
For a team coming off a postseason appearance, the A’s sure do have a number of clearly defined concerns they’ll need to address this spring.
They’re working on them. But it doesn’t take a degree in analytics or a trip to scout school to know that, with pitchers and catchers reporting Sunday, the A’s are still a starter or three short of a rotation and that they still need to land an everyday catcher.
The biggest question of all: The A’s are waiting and wondering, like everyone else, what Kyler Murray might be doing. So let’s start our five questions there, with the Heisman Trophy winner.
1. Will Kyler Murray report Friday? Will he ever play for the A’s?
This won’t really affect the A’s spring plans, although they do expect to keep Murray with them through much of camp, unlike most minor leaguers, should he decide to play baseball. Clarity would be nice, but Murray reportedly plans to attend the NFL combine Feb. 26 through March 4; it’s unclear if Oakland would allow him to depart camp for Indianapolis and return after the combine. The team can do so without any contractual or legal issues, but the A’s could choose instead to place Murray on the restricted list for violating his contract.
There’s a strong undercurrent of feeling that Murray will decide to play football after such a sensational season, and the A’s would then lose their top pick in last year’s draft. Murray, 21, would have to repay his $4.66 million signing bonus after being selected ninth overall, but Oakland won’t get a compensation pick this June for losing him.
At 5-foot-10, Murray is small for an NFL quarterback and it’s unclear where the Oklahoma star might be selected in the NFL draft. If it’s not in the first round, he might choose baseball, and the A’s retain his rights.
It’s uncertain how a baseball contract might work if he were to forfeit his signing bonus to pursue football, even if just briefly. But it’s possible Oakland would make good on the original deal, and the team has discussed the idea of putting him on the 40-man roster this year to redo his contract and pay him more in line with what a late first-round NFL pick might receive.
Murray and his family were still mulling his options Friday, sources told The Chronicle.
2. What will the rotation look like?
This is a standard question this time of year, but heading into this spring, manager Bob Melvin probably doesn’t even have all his personnel in place. The team would love to land another starter or two, whether it’s Edwin Jackson, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez or any of a number of non-former A’s players who are still on the open market. Oakland isn’t looking to spend a ton, and last year the team didn’t acquire Anderson (on a minor-league deal) or Trevor Cahill until March. The team could look to add a few more minor-league free agents, or even wait to see which starters without options are left off big-league rosters to open the season.
Will the prices drop enough for the A’s to snag some rotation parts? Or will they go into the season with Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada and pick ’em from a group that includes Daniel Mengden, Paul Blackburn, Chris Bassitt, Aaron Brooks, Grant Holmes and Frankie Montas? And what about ...
3. Jesus Luzardo — is he on the roster the first few weeks of the season?
Oakland’s needs are such that the team’s top prospect, the left-handed Luzardo, is likely to be in the rotation quickly. Service time won’t be a factor. The 21-year-old is talented enough, and far enough removed from Tommy John surgery, that no one will be surprised if Luzardo is starting for Oakland the first time through the rotation.
The question then will be: Where does he pitch in the rotation? The No. 3 spot is possible with a strong spring, and even No. 1 isn’t out of the question, according to FanGraphs’ recent ZiPs projections — one of the few published statistical models to accurately predict the 2018 A’s might be better than expected. ZiPs says Luzardo is the A’s best starter out of the gate.
Luzardo, who had innings limitations last season, will have none this year.
4. Will the A’s be using an opener? And if so, how much?
Spring training will be an interesting time to see if the A’s continue to use relievers to work the first inning and how they’ll structure starters’ innings with that added element. Roster limitations mean Oakland can’t run openers out more than twice a week, but it’s something the team might want to experiment with well before the season starts to acclimate a few more pitchers to the process.
The A’s went 4-5 in September using Liam Hendriks to open games and with Mengden usually handling the “follower” duties. Andrew Triggs also could be considered for an opener role, given his history in the rotation and the bullpen and his health. He is coming off surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome and his workload will be reduced.
5. What’s up with the catcher spot?
The A’s are unlikely to go into the regular season with Josh Phegley and Chris Herrmann as their catching tandem. The left-handed-hitting Herrmann provides nice depth in the event Oakland signs a right-handed catcher. Alternatively, the team would be overjoyed with Phegley as their right-handed option should they sign a lefty or switch hitter such as Matt Wieters.
Last year, the A’s signed Jonathan Lucroy in March. They could be looking at a similar time frame this year, although with the season starting early — they leave camp for Japan on March 14 — they might want to hustle it up a little bit.
Those ZiPs numbers have another suggestion: Minorleaguer Sean Murphy projects as Oakland’s best catcher even with just three games of Triple-A experience. Many in the A’s organization agree with that sentiment.
It’s unclear whether Kyler Murray, the A’s top draft pick, will play baseball after starring in football for Oklahoma.