The A’s are making no promises about contending in 2017. It would be a stretch to suggest this team could keep up with the Rangers or Astros. The A’s finished last in consecutive seasons and seem to have 2019 in their sights more than 2017. Maybe some of their young players will be reaching stardom by then. Maybe their hopes for a new ballpark will be more than a dream by then. Maybe they’d consider keeping their best players long term by then.
Until further notice, it’s more of the same: Give young players the chance to succeed at the major-league level and, before they can reach their peak earning potential, dump them for younger players. It’s a vicious cycle that sometimes works and sometimes turns ugly. The system seemed perfectly fine when the A’s built playoff teams three straight seasons from 2012-14, but the past two years were a tough learning experience. The pattern isn’t expected to change in the immediate future. That’s not to say the next wave of young players doesn’t have promise, including starting pitcher Sean Manaea, third/first baseman Ryon Healy, catcher Bruce Maxwell and second baseman Joey Wendle, all of whom had nice runs in their first big-league seasons. But the anticipated growing pains and deficiencies throughout the roster make it tough to believe the A’s will make much noise in 2016.
Manager Bob Melvin went into the new year able to pencil in three starters: Sonny Gray, Kendall Graveman and Manaea. Unless a veteran arm is added, the other two spots will be determined in spring training among a young field of Jharel Cotton, Andrew Triggs, Daniel Mengden, Raul Alcantara, Dillon Overton and Frankie Montas. The rotation ranked next to last in the league in ERA (4.84), and Gray posted his worst season (5–11, 5.69 ERA, 1.496 WHIP) while battling injuries — a far cry from his first three years in Oakland (2.88 ERA, 1.134 WHIP). A bounce-back year is a must for all concerned. The A’s would be better with their ace returning to form, and his trade value would be better in case the A’s decide to move him before the deadline or next winter. He’s 27 with three more years of club control. While Gray struggled, Graveman was steady over a career-high 31 starts and 186 innings. Manaea scuffled after getting called up in April but eventually figured it out. His ERA was 3.86 in 25 games (24 starts) and 1.13 in four September starts. Cotton, acquired in the trade that shipped Josh Reddick to the Dodgers, posted a 2.15 ERA in five September starts.
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The 2016 bullpen was better than the disastrous 2015 version, and the hope is for more improvement in 2017. Setup man Ryan Dull could be front and center after enjoying a stellar rookie season. Dull stranded his first 36 inherited runners, the longest known streak in big-league history (complete records date to 1961), and he had the best season of any A’s reliever with a 2.42 ERA and staff-high 70 appearances. Most of the bullpen is returning, and the A’s would love a full season from Sean Doolittle, the projected closer last season who continued to have shoulder problems. Ryan Madson took over the closer’s role and saved 30 games, and John Axford and Liam Hendriks are returning as complementary pieces. Alcantara and Daniel Coulombe will vie for jobs. Oakland also brought back Santiago Casilla, the Giants’ former closer who started his career with the A’s (2004-09). Casilla’s role has yet to be determined, as he has collected 88 saves over the past three seasons combined, but also has seen his ERA increase incrementally over that span.
After Marcus Semien’s vast defensive improvement, the A’s are set at shortstop. Second base is a different story. Jed Lowrie will need to prove he’s healthy after August surgery to his left foot, and the top prospect at the position, Wendle, has only one month of big-league experience. Executive VP of baseball operations Billy Beane called second base “a concern” and was seeking depth. The A’s could look long term at Chad Pinder or their top overall prospect, Franklin Barreto, a shortstop by trade who’ll probably open at Triple-A. Semien cut his error total from 35 to 21 and supplied power with 27 homers and 75 RBIs, second on the team to Khris Davis in both categories, while hitting in eight spots in the batting order.
Healy was a pleasant surprise, called up after the All-Star break and eventually taking over at third base. He hit .305 with 13 homers in half a season and likely will open 2017 in the middle of the lineup. Oakland signed former Twin Trevor Plouffe to a one-year deal, which means Healy will move over to first base, his natural position. Plouffe was limited to just 84 games last season because of injuries, but prior to that he had averaged 21 home runs from 2012-15. With Healy moving to first, that shifts Yonder Alonso, who was arbitration eligible and re-signed for $4 million, to DH/reserve duty. Alonso is a super defender, but Healy offers more with the bat. The A’s also have third baseman Matt Champan, a first-round pick in 2014 who collected 36 homers and 96 RBIs in two minor-league stops, waiting in the wings. Chapman appears destined to start at Triple-A Nashville, but if he’s able to break into the majors it could mean Healy shifts to DH with Plouffe moving across the diamond to first.
Davis will return to left field after smacking 42 homers and collecting 102 RBIs and joining four Oakland heavyweights in the 40-homers club: Reggie Jackson, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and Jason Giambi. He will be joined by two newcomers, Rajai Davis and Matt Joyce. The AL leader in stolen bases last season (43) with Cleveland, Davis inked a one-year deal in January to play center field. Joyce was signed for two years and $11 million, mostly to play right and face right-handed pitchers. His .403 OBP was fourth best in the National League among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances.
Two-time All-Star Stephen Vogt might open the season as the No. 1 catcher, but Bruce Maxwell is waiting in the wings after impressing the brass in his rookie season. Maxwell, who like Vogt bats left-handed, hit .283 in 33 games and started 17 times in September to give decision-makers a good look. It’s possible Vogt and Josh Phegley will open the season as the catchers, but Maxwell might not be far away.
The A’s agreed that Billy Butler was a $30 million failure at DH and released him with more than a year to go in his contract. The A’s pursued Edwin Encarnacion, who signed with Cleveland, and might rotate players at the DH spot, including Healy, Davis, Vogt and Alonso. The A’s don’t have much infield depth, although Barreto could emerge quickly, and Chapman is worth keeping an eye on too. Former starting infielder Adam Rosales also is back in Oakland after playing last year for the Padres. Rosales was with the A’s from 2010-13, making starts all over the infield. Jake Smolinski and prospect Matt Olson are the likely outfield options, as is Mark Canha, who’s coming off hip surgery.
With the A’s incrementally losing their revenue-sharing checks over the next four years, thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, the team must get serious about a new park to generate more revenue. Meantime, team president Dave Kaval said every dollar generated would go to “the on-field product and the fan experience” but didn’t provide specifics or say whether payroll would be slashed.
The A’s play in an antiquated stadium. They don’t draw well. They trade their top players instead of paying them top dollar, making it tough for fans to be faithful. Of course, the sentiment would improve if the A’s got off to a quick start, re-energized their fan base and even took steps toward constructing a baseball-only facility in Oakland. Miracles do happen.