Athletics righty Jharel Cotton is working his way back from 2018 Tommy John surgery, having thrown seven innings on a rehab assignment at the Class-A Advanced level. However, although he made 24 starts for the A’s back in 2017 and is viewed as a long-term rotation option in Oakland, the organization is likely to utilize Cotton as a reliever upon his return to the roster, manager Bob Melvin told reporters Wednesday (Twitter link via MLB.com’s Martin Gallegos).
Cotton, 27, didn’t pitch at all in 2018, as his torn ulnar collateral ligament was diagnosed during Spring Training. He underwent his Tommy John procedure in mid-March and, as a result, would quite likely be on an innings limit as a starting pitcher. Instead, he’ll work out of the ’pen for the 2019 campaign, presumably with an eye toward vying for a rotation job once again in 2020.
At that point, Cotton will join a rotation mix that looks vastly different than the present group. Sean Manaea will be assured a spot, assuming he fully recovers from shoulder surgery, while righty Daniel Gossett and top prospect A.J. Puk (both also recovering from Tommy John surgery) will be healthy enough to compete for jobs.
Presently, Marco Estrada is on the injured list due to a back issue, leaving the A’s with a bit of a patchwork starting outfit. Mike Fiers, Brett Anderson, Chris Bassitt and breakout right-hander Frankie Montas are all locked into starting roles, while Daniel Mengden gives them a fifth option. They’re still using Liam Hendriks as an occasional opener, though; he made his second such appearance of the month this afternoon.
That rotation isn’t exactly teeming with star power, but the A’s have a collective 4.18 rotation ERA that ranks 13th in the Majors — and the eighth-best rotation ERA (3.38) over the past 30 days. Fielding-independent metrics aren’t nearly as bullish and feel there’s some regression in order, though the potential return of Manaea near the All-Star break could give the group a strong boost. And, if the A’s can continue to build on their blistering 10-1 hot streak, the A’s could very well be in position to add some arms on the summer trade market — as they did a year ago with Fiers.
As is the case with most starters, Cotton has been much better the first trip through the batting order than he has in while facing hitters for the third time in a game. He’s averaged 93 mph on his fastball and has some impressive swinging-strike rates on his changeup (15.2 percent) and cutter (14.4 percent). It wouldn’t be a surprise to see his velocity tick up in shorter stints, and if he can narrow his arsenal to focus on a smaller selection of pitches, he could be an interesting addition to a bullpen that has some question marks in its final couple of spots.