Sonny Gray and the A's will try and earn a fourth straight postseason berth with a retooled roster
You can no longer tell the A’s without a scorecard. Quite a change from the team that won the American League West in 2012 and ‘13. A three-peat was expected last season, but the A’s crawled through the wild card door after owning the majors’ best record much of the summer. Their postseason lasted one game, a crushing loss to Kansas City despite holding a four-run lead in the eighth inning, so general manager Billy Beane changed the team’s complexion. Josh Donaldson, gone. Brandon Moss, gone. Jon Lester, gone. Jeff Samardzija, gone. Jed Lowrie, gone. Derek Norris, gone. Welcome Ben Zobrist and Tyler Clippard. That stunning Yoenis Cespedes trade on July 31 was a mere prelude to Beane’s laundry list of offseason moves, and some of the 2015 rotation and lineup will be occupied by a group of newcomers. As a result, the A’s are getting little love among prognosticators. Not that it matters to Beane, who relishes the underdog angle.
Lester and Samardzija made 27 combined starts with the A’s and produced a 2.82 ERA in 188.1 innings, and Jason Hammel, acquired in the Samardzija deal, made another 12 starts. They’ve dispersed, but not before making an impact on Sonny Gray, a 25-year-old from Vanderbilt who’s alone atop the rotation and entering his second full season after going 14–10 with a 3.08 ERA. Gray’s sidekick is lefty Scott Kazmir, who signed a two-year, $22 million contract and won 15 games in his first A’s season. From there, it’s the great unknown. Jesse Chavez had a sub-3.00 ERA through June but fell out of favor in July and was removed from the rotation in August. Lefty Drew Pomeranz, who forfeited his rotation spot in mid-June when he broke his hand punching a chair, is a candidate. Either way, the A’s need production from a newcomer or two from a list that includes Jesse Hahn (from the Padres in the Norris trade), Chris Bassitt (from the White Sox in the Samardzija trade), and Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin (from the Blue Jays in the Donaldson trade). Help is on the way: Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, who combined for 397 innings in 2013 but didn’t throw a pitch in 2014, are due to return from Tommy John surgery at midseason.
Unlike the rotation and lineup, the bullpen has several familiar faces. Sean Doolittle snatched the closer’s role in May (thanks for the memories, Jim Johnson), converted his first 10 save chances and hardly missed a beat — well, at least until his blown save in the Kansas City playoff game. Doolittle set an A’s record for saves by a lefty (22) after entering the season with three in his career. His 11.13 strikeout-to-walk ratio, tops among big-league relievers, was third best in A’s history. Setup man Luke Gregerson, who was last seen struggling in the KC playoff game after replacing Lester, is gone. To replace Gregerson, Beane acquired Tyler Clippard from the Nationals. Clippard joins fellow righties Ryan Cook and Dan Otero as well as lefties Eric O’Flaherty and Fernando Abad to make up the bulk of the relief corps. O’Flaherty was signed to a two-year deal coming off Tommy John surgery and made his A’s debut on Independence Day.
Zobrist brings versatility and steady production and figures to get the majority of his playing time at second. It’s uncertain who’ll play shortstop, though Marcus Semien (Samardzija deal) is a good bet. Beane says Semien, who can play multiple positions, is capable of 20-plus homers and will get a chance to play every day. Defensive-minded Eric Sogard, who prompts fans to rally around “nerd power,” hit .267 with a .346 on-base percentage in the second half after struggling at .186 in the first half. He will serve as the primary backup, as the other choices (Andy Parrino, Tyler Ladendorf) have minimal big-league experience.
The absences of Donaldson and Moss left big holes at the corners. For now, they’ll be filled by third baseman Brett Lawrie and first baseman Ike Davis, both of whom have issues. Lawrie hasn’t been able to stay healthy and peaked at 125 games in 2012. He hopes the grass surface at O.co Coliseum will do wonders for his body after he got banged up on Toronto’s artificial turf. Davis hasn’t been the same since hitting 32 homers for the 2012 Mets. The past two years, he homered a combined 20 times. As always, the A’s will mix and match across the diamond, so another newcomer, Billy Butler, will get time at first base. Rule 5 draftee Mark Canha played a lot of first and a little third in the minors.
When the A’s dealt Cespedes in July, they planned for a left-field platoon of Stephen Vogt and Jonny Gomes. That hardly lasted. Now the A’s need a solution. They’ve got Sam Fuld, but he hit just .209 in two stints with Oakland. They’ve got Craig Gentry, a plus defender and baserunner who batted .254, his lowest average in four years. Fuld and Gentry could platoon — Canha could be in the mix, too — and take turns filling in for valuable but oft-injured center fielder Coco Crisp. Right fielder Josh Reddick missed a lot of time again, thanks to a knee ailment, and hit 12 homers for the second straight year after pumping 32 in 2012. On the flip side, he was one of Oakland’s few productive hitters in the second half, batting .302 after July 22. Speedy Billy Burns, who stole 54 bases in 60 attempts before his September call-up, is a possible backup.
The A’s went from having the majors’ best catching depth late last season to lacking catchers, thanks to John Jaso’s latest concussion and nagging injuries to Norris and Vogt. On Aug. 24, the A’s obtained Geovany Soto, who started the playoff game but got hurt himself and left after two innings. Josh Phegley has replaced Norris as the right-handed-hitting complement in any platoon. The left-handed Vogt, whose foot injury turned him into a first baseman and corner outfielder, had offseason surgery and is expected to be ready for the season.
Manager Bob Melvin mixes and matches. He goes deep into his roster. So bench players get used a lot. That might be especially true with so many newcomers playing their way in and out of the lineup. Few players are locks for everyday jobs: Crisp, Reddick, Zobrist, Lawrie and Butler, whose three-year, $30 million contract was consummated before several core players were traded. That leaves a lot of folks vying for playing time, including Gentry, Fuld and Burns in the outfield, Davis, Sogard, Semien and Canha on the infield and Phegley and Vogt behind the plate. Butler should handle DH duties.
With a limited budget and decrepit ballpark, Beane conducts business differently from other GMs and often sells high. That was the case with the Donaldson trade, moving someone at his peak value for younger players who come on the cheap. The system creates financial flexibility, and A’s fans can only hope the latest trades pay off as well as Beane’s moves have historically. Meantime, they’ll continue second-guessing.
It’s a redesign. The A’s went for it in 2014, trading Cespedes for Lester and trading two elite prospects (including Addison Russell, their former shortstop of the future) for Samardzija and Hammel. But once the Royals eliminated the A’s, Beane quickly went to work. Instead of putting all the focus on 2015, it’s about succeeding the next three years or so. The A’s might take some lumps in the short term, but Beane believes long-term health is achievable with periodic makeovers, and this certainly was that.
2015 Prediction: 5th in AL West
CF Coco Crisp (S) Batting average and SLG were lowest in his five A’s seasons, but had 66 walks to boost OBP to .336.
2B Ben Zobrist (S) One of three players (Andrew McCutchen, Hanley Ramirez) with double-digit HRs, SBs every year since ’09.
DH Billy Butler (R) Helps fill the right-handed power void left by Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson.
RF Josh Reddick (L) Struggles against lefties but hit .280 with all 12 of his homers and 46 of his 54 RBIs against righties.
3B Brett Lawrie (R) Replacing Donaldson at third base is a lot to ask. A’s hope he can finally enjoy an injury-free season.
1B Ike Davis (L) His stock has plummeted, but A’s still believe he has upside.
SS Marcus Semien (R) Could be answer as Jed Lowrie’s replacement though he has started just four big-league games at short.
LF Sam Fuld (L) Valuable on defense and on basepaths but batted .209 in two stints with the A’s.
C/1B Stephen Vogt (L) Started at four positions in the field but limited to eight starts at catcher because of foot injury.
OF Craig Gentry (R) No power but plenty of speed: Stole 20 of 22 bags, and 14 of the steals came with a lefty on the mound.
INF Andy Parrino (S) Fine defender who can play three infield positions but batted just .152 in three Oakland stints.
C Josh Phegley (R) Replaces Derek Norris as right-handed-hitting platoon catcher.
2B Eric Sogard (L) Management tried to replace him before trade deadline; one of few offensive bright spots in second half.
RH Sonny Gray Undisputed ace won 14 games with a 3.08 ERA in first full season; led staff in starts, innings and strikeouts.
LH Scott Kazmir Tale of two halves: 9–2 with a 2.08 ERA his first 15 starts but 6–7 with a 5.00 ERA his final 17.
RH Jesse Chavez Moved to rotation after six seasons in the bullpen, enjoyed career year even though he returned to relieving.
RH Jesse Hahn Went 7–4 with a 3.07 ERA as a Padres rookie, a big enough sample size to pique Oakland’s interest.
RH Chris Bassitt Made five starts for White Sox in 2014, one against the A’s in which he surrendered one run in six innings.
LH Sean Doolittle (Closer) Solidified closer’s role after Jim Johnson lost the gig, and batters posted a .197 OBP against him.
RH Tyler Clippard Two-time All-Star with wipe-out stuff would be hands-down closer on most other teams.
RH Ryan Cook Hopes for bounce-back year after an inconsistent season (too many walks) caused in part by arm injuries.
RH Dan Otero His 86.2 innings were most by an A’s reliever since Justin Duchscherer’s 96.1 in 2004.
LH Eric O’Flaherty Returned from Tommy John surgery July 4 and produced a 2.25 ERA in 21 games.
LH Fernando Abad Emerged as lefty setup man after Doolittle became the closer.
LH Drew Pomeranz Succeeded in both roles: 1.62 ERA in 10 relief appearances, 2.58 ERA in 10 starts.
Beyond the Box Score
Diminished returns Of Oakland’s six All-Stars — eight if you count Jeff Samardzija, who arrived shortly before the All-Star break, and Jon Lester, who arrived from Boston after the break — only two were still with the A’s as of Jan. 1: Sean Doolittle and Scott Kazmir.
Statistical oddity In 38 plate appearances with the White Sox, Josh Phegley had a higher batting average (.216) than on-base percentage (.211). How so? He drew zero walks and got hit by zero pitches. But he hit one sacrifice fly, which counts against OBP but not average. Billy Beane, of all people, had a higher average than OBP in his final season as a player.
College rivals The A’s lost Jed Lowrie and are down to one Stanford product, Sam Fuld. He’ll be outnumbered in spring training by two former Cal players, Marcus Semien and Mark Canha. Three if you count manager Bob Melvin.
Switch pitcher The whole world loves an ambidextrous pitcher, and that’s righty/lefty Pat Venditte, 29, who was signed to a minor league contract with an invite to big-league camp. His ERA is 2.46 ERA in seven seasons, most recently in the Yankees system, and he’ll throw with whichever arm he thinks will benefit him. Hey, it’s the new Moneyball.
The collapse On Aug. 9, the A’s were a majors-best 28 games above .500 and had a four-game lead in the AL West and 11-game lead over the third-place team in the wild card race. They went 16–30 the rest of the way, finishing 10 games behind the first-place Angels and one game ahead of Seattle for the final wild card.
Adoring child Perhaps no one took Brett Lawrie’s departure from Toronto harder than a 6-year-old named Amelia, whose crying outburst over his trade to the A’s was captured on video and went viral. Lawrie saw it, visited the girl, took her out for pizza and posed for pictures that he posted on his Twitter account.
Still here When the A’s signed Yoenis Cespedes, they promoted Ariel Prieto to be an extra coach and interpreter for the Cuban outfielder. With Cespedes gone, the A’s assigned Prieto to their rookie league team to work with pitchers. He’ll also help coordinate the team’s operations in the Dominican Republic.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Matt Chapman, 3B
When Chapman worked out with the A’s shortly after receiving a $1.75 million bonus as the 25th overall pick, his arm stood out. “He’s got a cannon. I don’t want to take groundballs with him and have him show me up,” quipped All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson. Chapman’s arm is so strong that the former Cal State Fullerton star actually pitched out of the bullpen for Team USA, but he’s strictly a position player with the A’s, whose director of scouting, Eric Kubota, says he sees a little Donaldson in Chapman: “When I sit back and dream, that’s kind of what we envision three, four, five years down the road.”
Top 10 Prospects
1. Matt Olson, 1B (21) Bat is easily his best tool. He collected 37 homers and 97 RBIs at Stockton, and the A’s love his OBP: .404, thanks to 117 walks.
2. Kendall Graveman ,RHP (24) Made a quick rise through the Blue Jays’ system last season, going from A-ball all the way to the majors.
3. Raul Alcantara, RHP (22) He was the A’s top pitching prospect before undergoing Tommy John surgery. In 2013, he had a 3.11 ERA and 1.158 WHIP.
4. Renato Nunez, 3B (20) Part of Stockton’s all-prospect infield, Nunez collected 29 homers and 96 RBIs. It would help if he improved his plate discipline. He struck out 113 times, walked 34 times.
5. Matt Chapman, 3B (21) In three minor league stops in his first pro season, including one game at Double-A, Chapman hit .246 with a .291 on-base percentage, five homers and 20 RBIs.
6. Chris Bassitt, RHP (26) Has a 2.97 ERA in the minors, got his first taste of the bigs last season (with the White Sox) and has a chance to slip into the back end of the A’s season-opening rotation.
7. Franklin Barreto, SS (19) Venezuelan is showing maturity on both defense and offense, thanks to quick hands and a powerful, yet short, build.
8. Mark Canha, 1B/3B/LF (26) Acquired from the Rockies, who took him from the Marlins in the Rule 5 draft. If he doesn’t stick in the majors all season, he must be offered back to Miami.
9. Joe Wendle, 2B (24) Acquired from Cleveland in the Brandon Moss trade, Wendle is expected to open the season in Triple-A and projects as an everyday player in the majors.
10. Sean Nolin, LHP (25) Part of the Josh Donaldson trade with Toronto, has a 27.00 ERA in 2.1 innings in the majors.