The A’s announced Friday that they’ve designated righty Zach Neal for assignment and placed fellow righty Zach Jackson on the 15-day injured list with a flexor tendon strain. That pair of moves clears a spot for the selection of righty Lucas Erceg’s contract. Oakland acquired Erceg from the Brewers in exchange for cash earlier in the week and will put him right onto the MLB roster.
Neal, 34, returned to the Majors for the first time in five years when the A’s called him up last week. He’s appeared in two games and allowed a total of three runs on four hits (two homers) and no walks with three strikeouts. That marks his second stint with Oakland, as he was also with the A’s back in 2016-17. Neal tossed one lone inning for the 2018 Dodgers and spent the 2019-21 seasons pitching for the Seibu Lions of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. His first NPB season was a strong one, but he struggled in two subsequent years and was also hit hard with the Rockies’ Triple-A affiliate in 2022.
Overall, Neal has 89 big league innings and a 5.06 ERA with just an 11% strikeout rate but a minuscule 1.9% walk rate. He’s a heavy ground-ball pitcher who’s had some success in Triple-A, last year’s rough showing with the Rockies organization (6.87 ERA in 116 2/3 innings) notwithstanding. The A’s will have a week to trade him or pass him through outright waivers. Neal would have the ability to reject the assignment in favor of free agency, as he’s been outrighted previously in his career.
Word of a flexor strain for Jackson is tough for the A’s, given that Jackson was one of just two members of the team’s Opening Day bullpen who’d survived to this point. He’s pitched 18 innings of 2.50 ERA ball thus far, fanning 28.7% of his opponents against an admittedly unsightly 12.5% walk rate. Even with that ugly walk rate, Jackson has been a bright spot in an Oakland bullpen that has used a stunning 21 relievers so far this year. The timeline on his recovery hasn’t been provided yet, flexor tendon injuries are rarely accompanied by short-term absences.
Erceg will become the 22nd A’s reliever of the young season whenever he takes the mound. He’s a 2016 second-round pick who drafted by the Brewers as a third baseman but eventually moved to the mound in 2021. Erceg was a reliever in college as well, so the shift wasn’t entirely foreign to him. He’s taken to the mound reasonably well, given the long layoff between his college pitching career and his debut on the mound in pro ball.
The 28-year-old Erceg pitched to a 3.43 ERA in 39 1/3 Triple-A frames following a promotion there last year, fanning just under a quarter of his opponents (24.7%) against a bloated 13.5% walk rate. He’s had a rougher go in 2023, evidenced by a 6.46 earned run average in just 15 1/3 frames.
However, six of the 11 earned runs he’s allowed came in one catastrophic appearance against the Braves’ top affiliate on May 10, wherein Erceg didn’t record an out. He’s been generally solid otherwise, and his 23.9% strikeout rate and 14.9% walk rate are at least within the vicinity of last year’s rates. He’ll obviously still need to cut down on his walks if he’s to have any sustained success on the mound, but the paper-thin A’s are strapped enough for pitching depth that they’ll give him the chance to do so at the big league level for now.