Athletics’ top five rookies of 2016

Oakland Athletics

Jun 29, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics relief pitcher Ryan Dull (66) is congratulated by catcher Stephen Vogt (21) after the end of the game against the San Francisco Giants at the Coliseum the Oakland Athletics defeated the San Francisco Giants 7 to 1. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

In the recent past, the Oakland Athletics do not usually have the type of season that one would call “normal.” It’s not often that they finish in the middle of the pack, not often that they even have the same players as the year prior and, it’s actually quite often that a lot of their great performances come from kids that have just been called up to the big leagues.

Although, A’s ace Sonny Gray had a rough 2016, his rookie numbers are an example of this typical Oakland Athletics phenomenon.

He pitched two innings in Pittsburgh during interleague play in his first big league appearance. Gray allowed just one hit while striking out three batters in his debut.

He continued on to appear in 11 more games during the 2013 regular season, starting ten and posting a 2.67 ERA.

“I wasn’t watching him pitch,” Gray said. “I was just sitting in the dugout, just getting myself ready for the next inning. I wasn’t really looking into it as facing Justin Verlander … If I do that, one of their hitters is going to get you. They’ve got one of the best lineups in all of baseball.”

Gray went the distance that year, pitching in the American League Division series twice, both times going head to head against the 2011 A.L. MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers.

Even though the A’s lost that series. Gray stepped up in his rookie season and added a bright spot to what was a bitter defeat.

In 2016 he didn’t look like the same Sonny Gray and, in 2016 it was time for some other young players to step up, both on the mound and at the plate, to keep the A’s even relatively afloat.

Rookies Ryan Dull, Ryon Healy, Jharel Cotton, Bruce Maxwell and Sean Manaea each put up performances that didn’t necessarily save the A’s season, being that there wasn’t much to save, but put bright spots and hope for the future into the 2016 regular season.

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Aug 29, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sean Manaea (55) delivers a pitch against the Astros during the second inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Manaea delivers a strong 2016 season for Oakland.

Sean Manaea was by no means perfect in 2016 but he did help hold down the fort when the rest of the starting rotation went down.

Multiple Tommy John surgeries and an array of other injuries to starters, combined with the trade of Rich Hill to the Los Angeles Dodgers, ended up leaving Kendall Graveman and Manaea to lead the rotation.

Graveman in just his second full major league season, and Manaea who had made his MLB debut as recently as April 29, both had great second halves. Graveman and Manaea were the only stable pitchers in an ever changing rotation.

Manaea made 12 starts in the first half of the season and 13 appearances, including 12 more starts in the second half.

It takes time to adjust to the majors, that much we all know. Manaea’s first half, while not bad, looked like that of a rookie. He also spent a short stint on the disabled list.

“My goodness,” Vogt said. “Like I just told him, I’ve never seen somebody make adjustments like that in their first year. He’s very mature, willing to make adjustments.”

Still he posted a 3-5 record over those 12 starts ending the first half of the season with a 5.24 ERA and a 1.388 WHIP. He averaged 7.4 K’s per nine innings and had a 2.75 strikeout to walk ratio.

Manaea had a bit of a rough start, especially on the road, but not terrible for a rookie who suffered from a left pronator (forearm) strain and had to miss some playing time.

However, he started out the second half healthy.

Through a series of adjustments, that were praised by catcher Stephen Vogt, Manaea helped lead the rotation, going 4-4 with a much improved 2.67 ERA and a 1.017 WHIP.

He improved his strikeout to walk ratio to 4.6 and his strikeouts per nine innings to 8.0.

If Manaea stays healthy in 2017, you could be looking at a future Athletics ace.

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Sep 28, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell (63) mishandles an infield hit by Los Angeles Angels catcher Jett Bandy (13) allowing first baseman C.J. Cron (24) to score in the fourth inning of the game at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Bruce Maxwell was not a favorite to play for the big league club at spring training last year.

WIth early injuries to regular A’s catchers Stephen Vogt and Josh Phegley, there were many candidates with the option to wait a while in Triple-A and be called up as needed. Maxwell was at the bottom of this list but he made the most of his opportunity.

The left-handed batting Maxwell was once a power-hitting corner infielder. He began his college career at Birmingham-Southern College and moved to catcher his sophomore year, just before being drafted.

It’s taken four seasons, but the youngster is now really beginning to feel at home behind the plate.

Maxwell made his MLB debut in late July when Vogt was on family leave. He went on to play in 33 games for the Athletics in 2016, and has now proven himself to be ready for the majors.

He hit .283 with six doubles, a home run and 14 RBI.

He was impressive enough behind the plate in 2016 that the A’s are considering once again having three catchers on their roster, much like they did during their epic 2012 season.

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Aug 5, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell (63) reacts after getting a double against the Chicago Cubs in the sixth inning at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Maxwell fits right in. He’ll be able to give Vogt some time at DH or at first base, as well as learn from the two-time all-star about how to call a game.

Maxwell still needs some time to learn his position and he should get plenty as Vogt is given days off or playing at other positions.

It’s likely he’ll platoon in the backup catcher position with the right-handed hitting Josh Phegley.

He may even play more considering Phegley’s 2016 campaign was hindered by a knee injury that required surgery and eventually rendered him out for the season.

If things continue to go the way they have for Maxwell, the once unknown spring training non-roster invitee may end up being the one to take over for Vogt in the future.

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Sep 7, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Jharel Cotton (45) pitches the ball against the Los Angeles Angels during the first inning at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Cotton delivers big performances as a 2016 September call-up.

Jharel Cotton was acquired at the 2016 trade deadline when the A’s traded Josh Reddick and Rich Hill to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The A’s were also rewarded in that trade with two other talented young pitchers Grant Holmes and Frankie Montas.

Cotton got the call on September 7, 2016. He started just five games but they were all quite impressive. He pitched into at least the sixth inning in four of his five starts.

Similarly in his first four starts Cotton allowed just a single run in each outing. His final outing against the Seattle Mariners he pitched 4.2 innings and allowed three runs, and having that be your worst outing of the year?

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Sep 7, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Jharel Cotton (45) tips his hat to cheering fans as he leaves the game against the Los Angeles Angels during the seventh inning at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Well, let’s say it is still pretty good. Especially, being that his strikeout totals in each game progressed from three in his first outing to seven in his final outing.

His strikeout to walk ratio was just 5.75, but considering the small sample size of just five starts and 29.1 innings, Cotton showed some serious potential.

The 24-year-old, who was taken in the 20th round of the 2012 amatuer draft by the Dodgers, had clearly been undervalued as a potential prospect. Just four years later he looked like a professional major league pitcher.

Finishing his first stint in the major leagues with a 2.15 ERA and a 2-0 record, Cotton is now looking play a very key role in the A’s 2017 starting rotation.

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Sep 15, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Oakland Athletics third baseman Ryon Healy (48) celebrates in the dugout after scoring a run against the Kansas City Royals during the second inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Ryon Healy was called up on July 15 last season straight from Double-A Midland, completely skipping any stints at Triple-A Nashville.

Upon his move to the majors, the 24-year-old made an immediate impact.

Third baseman Danny Valencia had been struggling at the position defensively and Healy, a third round pick by the Athletics in 2013, was immediately given the role of the Athletics’ everyday third baseman.

After going 0-4 in his big league debut, Healy took off after that. In his next game he went 2-4, with his first big league hit coming off of the first knuckleballer he had ever faced, R.A. Dickey.

Healy took Dickey deep to left for a 366 foot blast, according to MLB’s Statcast for a three-run shot that put the Athletics in the league by the score of 4-2.

“That’s … when it hit me,” Healy said. “I saw the guys standing at home plate and they gave me big high-fives unlike the guys in the dugout, who gave me the silent treatment, which I loved. I actually caught a glimpse of my family when I was running into the dugout, which made it more special.”

That home run would end up being the first of 13 that Healy went onto hit over his 72 games with the A’s in 2016.

Over those 72 games, Healy rarely failed to get a hit, amassing 20 doubles, the aforementioned 13 home runs and 37 RBI.

Healy had a few struggles on defense, committing nine errors, however as Marcus Semien has proven, it takes time to learn and settle into one’s position once hitting the majors.

Healy’s slashline on the year was .305/.337/.524 with a .861 OPS. Imagine if he could double those numbers playing a full season and he came straight to the big leagues from Double-A ball.

He was a true bright spot for the A’s, in what was a not so bright season. He will very likely be the A’s third baseman of the future.

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August 4, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics relief pitcher Ryan Dull (66) throws in the tenth inning against Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Dull can hold inherited runners on base better than your reliever.

While Stephen Vogt was well deserving of his second trip to the all-star game in 2016, many argued that there was another player on the Oakland Athletics who might have deserved that chance even more, his name? Ryan Dull.

You may not know who he is or what he looks like but he put up the best performance by any A’s rookie or perhaps even by any A’s reliever in 2016.

The 27-year-old, who was drafted by Oakland in the 32nd round of the 2012 amatuer draft out of the University of North Carolina at Asheville, began his big league career with a record.

He did so fairly quietly and without much national attention, much like Brad Ziegler did when he was a 28-year-old rookie with the Oakland Athletics.  In 2008, Ziegler set the rookie record for pitching the most consecutive scoreless innings pitched to begin a big league career.

Dull’s record may be of the lesser known variety, however, it was an extremely huge and difficult accomplishment.

The middle reliever inherited 36 runners that had been put on base by the previous pitcher and he did not let a single one score.

It is the longest known streak in MLB history dating back to 1961, the first year that complete records were kept.

Dull’s record did not just bring him notoriety, at least among the A’s faithful, it helped improve the earned run records of the team’s starting rotation.

The streak ended on July 9, just over three months into the regular season, but it was for a good cause.

“In that situation, I was going to do anything,” the rookie reliever said after the game. “A double play was going to help us more than that one run. I’d gladly sacrifice it to get the double play there.”

Pitching in the ninth inning with no outs and men on first and third, Dull had been summoned to save the game for starter Kendall Graveman who had pitched one of the best games in his, still early, career.

The streak ended with Jose Altuve, one of the fastest runners in the game, at the plate.

Dull got Altuve to hit a bouncer to third. Tyler Ladendorf then threw to second for the first out but Altuve made it safe to first, allowing Jake Marisnick to score.

Dull took the run in stride, getting the final out and the second save of his career to preserve the A’s 3-2 win over the Houston Astros.

Dull’s accomplishment was so big not just because of his impressive skills on the mound but also because coming into a game with men on base might be one of the hardest positions to be put in in the game of baseball.

Sure, the runners would have been attributed to the previous pitcher but then there is the idea of letting your teammate down and potentially losing the game for the entire team. It’s a stressful situation which Graveman said,

“I think the most incredible part is he never shows any emotion,” Graveman said. “He comes in, bases loaded, man on first and second, it doesn’t matter. He’s just the same person, and I think that’s a tribute to the confidence he has in himself.”

Dull may appear to be a quiet young man but he’s a quiet young man who is full of confidence and more than ready to be there for his team first and put his personal accomplishments second.

He finished the season with a 2.42 ERA over 74.1 innings. He posted a 4.87 strikeout to walk ratio and averaged 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings pitched.

Still, it was his uncanny ability to keep inherited  runners from scoring that made him the A’s best rookie performer of 2016.

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Sep 15, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Oakland Athletics second basemen Joey Wendle (52) tosses the ball to second base to force out Kansas City Royals base runner Jarrod Dyson (1) during the first inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

While Manaea, Maxwell, Cotton, Healy and Dull all performed wonderfully during the 2016 regular season, they are not the only up and coming talents the Athletics have.

Joey Wendle and Chad Pinder platooned well at second base while Jed Lowrie was out with a foot injury that required surgery. Wendle performed especially well on both offense and defense but it was his defense that dazzled the A’s brass.

Pitcher Frankie Montas and potential second baseman or shortstop of the future, Franklin Barreto, should be MLB ready sometime in 2017 based on both their performances with Triple-A Nashville last season and during the Arizona Fall League.

There are more still, who are on their way up to the majors and the A’s are hoping to have a strong core of young talented players in the relatively near future.

It should be fun to watch, the A’s farm system is underrated by many critics and based on the five players mentioned here, they just might be wrong.

The now veteran center fielder Rajai Davis and the A’s are reuniting after six seasons.

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