Don’t sleep on Cole Irvin to make A’s rotation as No. 5 starter

It sounds like A.J. Puk will get every chance to prove himself as a starter in Mike Fiers’ absence to begin the regular season. But there’s another southpaw who’s quietly making a strong case to break camp as the A’s No. 5 starter this spring: Cole Irvin. 

The A’s acquired Irvin in a low-profile transaction with the Philadelphia Phillies on Jan. 30, sending cash to the Phils for the left-hander who made 19 MLB appearances during the 2019-20 seasons.

After watching Irvin throw four scoreless innings in Friday’s game against the Cubs, A’s manager Bob Melvin said the No. 5 starter spot behind Chris Bassitt, Jesus Luzardo, Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea is still up for grabs.

“We’re stretching [Irvin] out to be a starter,” Melvin said on Friday. “Nothing’s been decided there. Depending on Mike [Fiers], we know we have four guys. It’s the fifth guy that’s still kind of up for grabs at this point.”

Like many of the A’s starters, Irvin sports an impressive walk-to-strikeout ratio this spring at 8-to-1 through 12 innings pitched. Irvin relies mainly on a three-pitch mix: a sinking fastball that hovers around 90-92, a changeup he throws about 25 percent of the time, a slider he throws about 20 percent of the time and an occasional curve.

Irvin has always been something of a control freak, with an impressive 3.69 strikeout-to-walk ratio in four minor league seasons and 1.9 BB/9. His body of work in the minors also includes an impressive 3.07 ERA and 1.15 WHIP.

But he’s had a rocky go in the big leagues. He made 16 outings (three starts) with the Phillies in 2019, posting a 5.83 ERA, 5.06 FIP and 1.39 WHIP in 41 2/3 innings. Last season he appeared in three games and got knocked around for seven runs in 3 2/3 innings to push his MLB ERA to 6.75. 

Still, Oakland deserves credit for making a low-risk move that could eventually pay off. 

Since the beginning of camp, Irvin has said his goal is obviously to make the big-league club.

Puk made his spring debut on Wednesday and lasted two innings, but the plan is to stretch him out to three innings in his next start and up to about four innings for his final Cactus League tune-up. 

Ideally for the A’s, Puk will stay healthy and be built up to go about five innings in his regular-season debut as the No. 5 starter.

But the A’s have a couple of emerging insurance options in Irvin and Daulton Jefferies, who struck out six batters in three innings on Wednesday and also remains firmly in the running for an opening day roster spot. 

Assuming Fiers (hip inflammation) is on the injured list to begin the season, the A’s will likely have two spots for the three guys competing — the No. 5 starter and the last spot in the bullpen, which would be logical to use on a long man given the team’s current pitching staff construction.

Puk will likely get a long leash as the A’s await the blossoming of their top prospect, who turns 26 in April. Irvin, Jefferies and Puk all have options remaining this season, according to Fangraphs, so the organization can freely shuttle them between the bigs and the minors without fear of putting them on waivers.

Puk’s health will be key to this whole situation, but the A’s have appear to have some in-house depth to soften the loss of Fiers, who has been a valuable innings eater during his time in Oakland.