Feb 28, 2017; Mesa, AZ, USA; Oakland Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien (10) celebrates with second baseman Jed Lowrie (8) after hitting a 2 run home run in the first inning against the Cleveland Indians during a spring training game at HoHoKam Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
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The Oakland Athletics aren’t expected to compete for a playoff spot in 2017, but they could still be a very intriguing team that has a say in who does make postseason play.
The Oakland Athletics are in unfamiliar territory in the Billy Beane era. After taking the reigns from Sandy Alderson in Oakland after the ’97 season, Beane’s A’s had never won less than 74 games up until the 2015 and 2016 seasons. In those years the A’s have won 68 and 69 games, which is typically the mark of a team that has blown up their roster and has started a rebuild–which the A’s haven’t done.
So what went wrong last year? The club was a little thin on the roster already, relying on guys like Danny Valencia, Billy Butler and Yonder Alonso in traditional power positions of third base, designated hitter and first base. They got some of that power from the likes of Marcus Semien‘s 27 bombs and Khris Davis putting up 42 of his own and becoming the first A since Jason Giambi‘s 2000 AL MVP season to hit 40 home runs. Those two were the main forces in the lineup up until Ryon Healy arrived and started carrying some of the load as well. The lineup just wasn’t deep enough, and their team defense ranked last in baseball per FanGraphs.
Then of course there were the injuries to the starting rotation. Sonny Gray missed his opening day start with food poisoning, which could have been an omen for the entire year. Gray just wasn’t the same pitcher that saw him finished third in AL Cy Young voting the year before, perhaps due to injuries throughout the season. Those struggles may be the only reason that Gray is still with the club, as Oakland would be unwise to trade one of their most likable players when his value is on a dip.
Rich Hill was a force in the rotation and he almost didn’t get traded due to a pesky blister than plagued him for the rest of the season with Los Angeles. With Gray on the DL and Hill in L.A., some other options got a chance to shine. Kendall Graveman had his moments, as did rookie Sean Manaea, both of whom came over in trades in recent years.
Another fan favorite, Coco Crisp, seemingly forced his way out of Oakland at the trade deadline when he complained about being sat on the bench so that his option wouldn’t vest. Butler and Valencia got in a fight about shoes. There was probably a sewage problem at some point, because of course there was. It just wasn’t a great season for feel-good stories.
At 69-93, the bar is still relatively low for the A’s to improve upon last season. So what did they do to jump over that bar and potentially surprise us in 2017?
Feb 28, 2017; Mesa, AZ, USA; Oakland Athletics third baseman Trevor Plouffe (3) celebrates with first baseman Mark Canha (20) after hitting a solo home run in the third inning against the Cleveland Indians during a spring training game at HoHoKam Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
The Oakland Athletics made some under-the-radar signings, as well as bringing back some players that they are already familiar with this offseason. It’s doubtful that the front office set out this offseason to bring back 2008 nostalgia, but that is in essence what they’ve done by adding Santiago Casilla, Rajai Davis and Adam Rosales.
Casilla had a rough time across the bay in 2016, getting a large portion of the blame for the Giants bullpen woes, and then basically being shown the door after winning three championships with the club. When he was still available on the market come January, the A’s figured why not and signed him to a two-year deal. In desperate need for a centerfielder, the team took a similar tact with Davis to a one year deal.
Rosales will be a bench player that can fill in and do the job anywhere on the infield, which will be a nice boost if Jed Lowrie misses time again.
The other two additions that the A’s made were signing Trevor Plouffe to man third base and Matt Joyce to play right field. Plouffe has 20 homer potential if he gets the playing time. Joyce only hit .242 last season, but his OBP was a selling point for Oakland at .403. With Joyce and Khris Davis on either side of Rajai Davis, the hope is that Rajai can cover a little extra ground to help compensate for any defensive shortcomings on the corners.
Arguably the biggest offseason addition that Oakland made however didn’t come on the field. Dave Kaval, the team’s new president, takes over for Lew Wolff, who was not terribly beloved in the bay area.
Kaval has brought excitement to the fan base, expressing a desire to stay in Oakland with a new “Rooted in Oakland” marketing campaign that really hits home since both the Golden State Warriors and Oakland Raiders (presumably) are on their way out of the city. He has been holding office hours every Tuesday to get input from the fans and has added more food options to the ballpark menu outside of the Coliseum’s usual hot dogs and burgers.
Kaval has reignited the fan base and hopes to have a new ballpark location picked out by the end of the year. After a decade and a half, we may have some resolution to this whole fiasco, and that is why Kaval has been such a big addition to the A’s.
Sep 29, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Oakland Athletics right fielder Danny Valencia (26) hits a double against the Seattle Mariners during the second inning at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
There wasn’t a team out there that could avoid making a deal with Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto this offseason. He made somewhere in the realm of 1,004 moves this winter for marginal upgrades and The Ringer MLB Podcast even wrote a song to introduce their discussions about what Dipoto did each week.
Suffice it to say, the A’s and M’s made two deals this winter, with one potentially making a big impact for Seattle and the other being a mere depth add.
The first trade was sending Danny Valencia to his seventh team in eight seasons for minor league pitcher Paul Blackburn. Valencia figures to fit in wherever he’s needed for Seattle and Blackburn held a 3.27 ERA between both the Cubs and Mariners Double-A affiliates. He should be looking at a stop in Triple-A Nashville for Oakland this season.
The second trade with the Mariners involved A’s 29th ranked prospect Dillon Overton headed to Seattle for 2016 draftee, catcher Jason Goldstein. Overton appeared in seven games last season, his first in the bigs, and held an 11.47 ERA when all was said and done. Goldstein was a 9th round selection of the Mariners last June and threw out 50% of potential base stealers in his time in pro ball between Rookie ball and Lo-A. He’ll likely get a bump up to Hi-A Stockton this season where his offensive numbers could take off in the California League.
Finally, the A’s traded Brett Eibner to the Los Angeles Dodgers a couple of weeks after agreeing to terms with Rajai Davis, adding to the Dodgers’ outfield confusion, while netting the Oakland Athletics third base prospect Jordan Tarsovich. It’ll be interesting to see how they play Tarsovich this season in the minors, as they already have Ryon Healy being displaced by Plouffe at third, and have Matt Chapman knocking on the door in the minors. With Tarsovich getting experience in Double-A last season, his proximity to the majors may lead to a position change. He’s already seen time at both second and short, so those would be the most likely solutions.
The main subtractions were done at the tail end of the 2016 season in Crisp being shipped to Cleveland and Butler getting some time in slimming pinstripes. Both of these subtractions, as well as the trade of Valencia, could lead to some better clubhouse chemistry moving forward.
Aug 17, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sean Manaea (55) looks at smoke on the field after a home run hit by Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (not pictured) in the fourth inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
If you’re an optimist like myself, you’re going to look at the depth in both the bullpen and the rotation and see that the A’s have enough to keep them in plenty of ballgames. At the same time, they didn’t do a whole lot to improve upon their defense, which was horrific last year, and they lack the offensive firepower to compete with teams like the Astros and Mariners in their own division, let alone the Red Sox and Indians.
Here is likely who we’re looking at in the rotation:
If Gray returns to form and Manaea continues to improve, they have a solid one-two punch in the rotation. Graveman is a solid starter, though unspectacular, and both Triggs and Cotton have a lot of upside. If someone gets injured or falters, there are other options available like Frankie Montas, Jesse Hahn, and down the line Chris Bassitt, depending on how his recovery from Tommy John progresses.
Each of those eight has plenty of upside and should be one of the strengths of the club this season. The other strength will be having four closers on the roster. Granted, none of them is a top-end closer, but Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, John Axford and Casilla all have plenty of experience in the ninth and give manager Bob Melvin plenty of options to close out a game.
The offense will be a bit tougher to piece together with so many moving parts. True to Oakland Athletics form, they’ll be utilizing a number of players in different positions on a daily basis. Healy could man first, third or DH on any given day, but Alonso, Plouffe and Stephen Vogt will be in each of those spots as well, so finding playing time for everyone will be tricky.
How well the team performs overall will depend on the pitching staff, particularly the starters. If Sonny Gray bounces back and the A’s are out of it, do the Red Sox come knocking with an apparent need for another starter? Do the A’s make him available and potentially waste some of the newfound goodwill within the fan base?
Predictions: I’m going to put the A’s at 76 wins this season, but if they can stay relatively healthy I’ll add a tack a few more to that total to get them to .500. They won’t make the playoffs either way, but seeing some of the younger players develop is almost more important for the upcoming year. There is a chance that they could end up in third place in the AL West if the Angels don’t get a full season out of Garrett Richards and the Rangers prove to be an apparition after all of their one-run wins a year ago. A’s fans may finally get a look at Franklin Barreto in Oakland this year, too. He’s the guy that sent Josh Donaldson to Toronto in essence, so no pressure young man.