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Oakland Athletics 2016 Preview and Prediction

Sonny Gray

Sonny Gray

As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.

So it didn’t work in 2015. At all. Now comes Year 2 of the transformation, and the A’s seem hard-pressed to return to the playoffs, where they surfaced three straight years before posting the American League’s worst record last season. Billy Beane, now the VP of baseball operations, added starting pitchers and infielders and revamped the league’s worst bullpen after his team lost 35 one-run games. But fans can’t help but reflect on what life was like with Josh Donaldson and Co. After the 2014 season, Beane attempted to make the roster younger and healthier. He made nine trades involving 27 players, dealt four All-Stars and retooled his infield. The results weren’t pretty. With Donaldson winning an MVP award in Toronto, 2015 was the worst in Beane’s 18 years on the job. The A’s can only go up from here.

Rotation

Well, Sonny Gray will keep hitters off balance every fifth game, and how great is that? The ace went 14–7 with a 2.73 ERA and 1.082 WHIP and surpassed 200 innings for the second straight year. He’s one of the game’s premier starters and is coveted by many teams, and we’ll see how long the A’s stand by him. Beyond Gray, rotation spots are there for the taking. The A’s signed Henderson Alvarez ($4 million), who might open on the disabled list after last summer’s shoulder surgery, and 35-year-old lefty Rich Hill ($6 million), who made four September starts for Boston to complete a comeback journey that included independent ball last year. Hill, an intriguing acquisition, posted a 1.55 ERA for Boston, collecting 36 strikeouts and five walks in 29 innings. Others in the mix include promising young pitchers acquired in deals: Jesse Hahn (Derek Norris trade), Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin (Donaldson trade), Chris Bassitt (Jeff Samardzija trade) and Aaron Brooks (Ben Zobrist trade). Jarrod Parker is trying to re-establish himself after a second Tommy John surgery, but the A’s released fellow Tommy John patient A.J. Griffin.

Bullpen

Relief help was an offseason focus after the A’s bullpen stumbled to a league-high 4.63 ERA and lacked power arms. Four experienced relievers arrived: Ryan Madson ($22 million over three years) and John Axford ($10 million over two years) through free agency and Liam Hendriks (from Toronto) and lefty Marc Rzepczynski (from San Diego) via trades. Closer Sean Doolittle is due back after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury. Suddenly the A’s have several relievers who throw in the mid- to high-90s, a refreshing twist. Madson, an ex-Phillies closer, was out of baseball for three years before signing a minor league deal with the Royals last spring. Fernando Rodriguez and Felix Doubront remain. Gone are Dan Otero, Drew Pomeranz, Fernando Abad, Evan Scribner, Edward Mujica and switch-pitcher Pat Venditte, as well as swingman Jesse Chavez.

Middle Infield

The A’s remain faithful to shortstop Marcus Semien despite his league-leading 35 errors in 2015, breaking Bert Campaneris’ franchise record. To his credit, his defense improved in the second half. He made three errors in his final 30 games, and the A’s see a defensive progression with Ron Washington on board as the infield coach. Semien showed pop (15 homers, 45 RBIs) but needs to improve his average (.257) and OBP (.310). His likely double-play partner is Jed Lowrie, the A’s shortstop in 2013 and 2014 before signing a three-year, $23 million contract with Houston and missing most of the season with a thumb injury. It was the second time the A’s acquired Lowrie from the Astros. Brett Lawrie, who had been acquired from Toronto in the Donaldson trade and was the Opening Night third baseman, finished last season at second before being shipped to the White Sox, so the A’s are making a Lowrie-for-Lawrie transition.

Corners

Danny Valencia has played for six teams in six years and joined the A’s after he was claimed off waivers from Toronto in early August. His numbers were impressive over 47 games: .284/.356/.530 with 11 homers and 37 RBIs. Has he finally found a home? That’s never a sure thing in Oakland, but it’s at least encouraging for Valencia that Beane chose to keep him over Lawrie. Across the diamond, Yonder Alonso is the first baseman, acquired from the Padres. He hasn’t hit more than nine home runs in a season and averaged just 95 games the past three years. But he hit .282 with a .361 OBP in 2015, usually makes contact (48 strikeouts, 354 at-bats) and claims his stroke finally felt right late last season in the wake of his 2014 wrist surgery. It’s possible he could platoon with Mark Canha as Ike Davis did last year.

Outfield

With injuries to Coco Crisp, Billy Burns emerged as the leadoff hitter and center fielder, hitting .294 and legging out 38 infield hits (second-most in the majors) and nine triples (third-most in Oakland history). He stole 26 bases and also homered five times after hitting just two homers in 1,798 minor league plate appearances. Known as a team that works the count, the A’s love Burns despite his aggressiveness from the leadoff spot: He was a .479 hitter when making contact on first pitches (117 at-bats). Burns will be flanked by Khris Davis in left and Josh Reddick in right. Davis, acquired from Milwaukee in February, hit 21 home runs after the All-Star break last season. Old standby Reddick led the team in both categories (20, 77). Reddick has survived four seasons with the A’s, who say they’re open to a long-term contract.

Catching

Stephen Vogt made his first All-Star team, led all major league catchers in OPS at .853 (counting games in which he caught) and hit .316 with runners in scoring position, a long way from being a journeyman minor leaguer who opened his big league career 0-for-32. It’s a neat story, and it was no surprise Vogt won both the Catfish Hunter Award (as the team’s most inspirational player) and Dave Stewart Community Services Award.

DH/Bench

Billy Butler was considered a bust in the first year of a three-year, $30 million contract, hitting a career low .251 — .233 with two outs and runners in scoring position. The A’s need more from their most expensive player. A wild card is Crisp, 36, who was limited to 44 games because of a chronic back issue. When healthy and in the lineup, Crisp has provided energy and an improved winning percentage — it was .554 from 2010-13 when he was in the starting lineup, .485 when he wasn’t. Eric Sogard backs up at second and short, and catcher Josh Phegley, who bats right-handed, will spell the lefty-swinging Vogt. Canha, a Rule 5 acquisition who collected 16 homers and 70 RBIs, will see time at first and in the outfield.

Management

Manager Bob Melvin is signed through 2018 after getting a two-year extension in September, just as a lost season was ending. It showed how much Beane and GM David Forst value Melvin and didn’t blame him for the poor play that led to a last-place finish, though Melvin himself accepted blame. He guided the A’s to the playoffs in his first three full seasons and is widely respected by players as a boss and communicator. A day after the season, Beane and Forst were promoted and received new job titles, though Beane said the duties wouldn’t dramatically change. Forst has been Beane’s top assistant for more than a decade.

Final Analysis

The A’s desperately need a fast start. Last year, after a majors-best 22–11 record in spring training, they were 6.5 games out of first place by April 30 with a 9–14 record. The slow start and roster revamping caught up with the team, and Beane was left to dump stars at the trade deadline, sending Zobrist to Kansas City and Scott Kazmir to Houston. There were reports that the clubhouse didn’t jell and chemistry was bad. The goal is to get the good vibes back in the clubhouse and, more important, a winning environment back on the field.

Prediction: 5th NL West

Lineup

CF Billy Burns (S)

2B Jed Lowrie (S)

C Stephen Vogt (L)

3B Danny Valencia (R)

RF Josh Reddick (L)

LF Khris Davis (R)

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1B Yonder Alonso (L)

DH Billy Butler (R)

SS Marcus Semien (R)

Bench

OF Coco Crisp (S)

OF Sam Fuld (L)

INF Eric Sogard (L)

C Josh Phegley (R)

1B/OF Mark Canha (R)

Rotation

RHP Sonny Gray

RHP Henderson Alvarez

LHP Rich Hill

RHP Jesse Hahn

RHP Kendall Graveman

Bullpen

LHP Sean Doolittle (Closer)

RHP Ryan Madson

RHP John Axford

RHP Liam Hendriks

RHP Fernando Rodriguez

LHP Marc Rzepczynski