Taking a look around the AL West, it would be easy to suggest the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros have playoff potential. The Seattle Mariners are a Jerry Dipoto tradefest, which at least creates content and conversation throughout the season. The Angels have Mike Trout, so that’s tight as hell.
Looking at the Oakland Athletics this year, though, you really aren’t getting much. Sure, the A’s made some weird signings this off season that offer some intrigue, but not many people are going to be excited when Marcus Semien is projected as their best player by ZiPS. The real story for the A’s this year is ownership getting serious about finding a new stadium.
Lew Wolff has stepped down, transferring his ownership stake over to Dave Kaval, which feels like a step forward for the Athletics. Kaval immediately moved the A’s Fan Fest (formerly a somber affair at the Coliseum) to Jack London Square, and it appears to be working to improve fans’ relationship with management. Nothing says the A’s are fashionable quite like 15,000 people getting together to eat free food from gourmet trucks and cheer on Stephen Vogt. Kaval made a point to assert his plans for a new stadium at Fan Fest too, setting a deadline for the end of 2017 to decide on a site. Kaval doesn’t really have any other choice, none of the other functions of a big league club can be pushed forward before the stadium.
This season is more about Dave Kaval than Trevor Plouffe, Santiago Casilla or the A’s pitching prospects. The A’s finished 29th in attendance last year, drawing an average 18,784 per game – truly showing Tampa Bay who’s the boss. The stadium problem has been real for years but with the A’s losing out on revenue sharing, as per the new CBA, the A’s need to start representing the market they inhabit. Good news is he tweets like he gives a shit, has open office hours for fans to pop in and voice their opinions, and started a city positive hashtag “#rootedinoakland”.
Kaval recently announced that he will be revamping the west side of the Coliseum to include a “Champions Pavilion” which will remind fans of the rich winning history of the ball club. This same stretch between the Coliseum and Oracle Arena where the Golden State Warriors play will feature up to 16 food trucks at every home game. If you zoom out though, some of the things Kaval is doing seem like great press and no substance but considering that the food in the Coliseum is pretty remedial and that Lew Wolff ran the team primarily as a business while raking in on revenue sharing cash each year, all of these moves feel like a breath of fresh air.
2017 marks the 50th season the franchise has been in Oakland and there are only 4 older stadiums in MLB; 3 of them are considered “historic.” All four of the stadiums also manage to be famous without the feces that rains on players in the showers like Oakland. The Braves, Marlins, and possibly the Rangers will all have had two ball parks in the span that the A’s have been in the Coliseum.
The Bay Area is the 6th biggest media market in the country and clearly MLB wants the Athletics to take advantage. With the success of the Warriors and Giants in recent years, fans have an idea of what winning feels like and what city support feels like. Kaval’s experience as a President of the San Jose Earthquakes MLS franchise should lend well to developing a new culture in Oakland. Also by working with private money, Kaval managed to do what Lew Wolff never could, build a stadium in San Jose; unfortunately it was for the ‘Quakes.
Stadium issues aside, the A’s will still need to put a team the field at the Coliseum for now. Marcus Semien, the best asset of the Jeff Samardzija trade, is possibly the A’s most valuable position player, projected for 3 WAR by ZiPS. Semien has started finding his way at shortstop after Oakland brought back infield guru Ron Washington for the past two seasons. He improved from his 2015 “poor” UZR of -10 to a “below average” -3.7 with 14 fewer errors, which is nice. In a pregame interview with A’s broadcaster Ken Korach, A’s Executive Vice President Billy Beane remarked the franchise’s interest in maintaining a player’s defensive development at the major league level. Beane noted that this was especially true about Semien, a player that the organization wants to develop in a similar way defensively to former AL MVP Miguel Tejada. Tejada had similar defensive struggles his first two years in Oakland but he managed to clean up his act and slug his brains off so that fans quickly forgot.
2017 should be a critical year for Semien, with the A’s best infield prospect likely to make it to AAA Nashville and up to the big league club this year. Franklin Barreto is coming off a fantastic year in which the 20 year old Venezuelan native hit .281/.340/.413 at AA Midland.
Taking in the first few games of Spring Training, the depth of the organization becomes super evident, as we get to see young players who came up toward the end last year or who had been moving towards AAA with a chance to play against big league talent. In half a season with the A’s, Ryon Healy showed off his improved power with 13 HR’s and 37 RBI while hitting .305/.337/.505. Similar to the Semien situation, Healy has already begun his transition into a first base/DH role as the organization expects the power to stay. Renato Nunez and Matt Chapman have already gotten a decent amount of playing time in the first few games this spring, Chapman going yard in his first at bat.
The fifth starter is open and the battle has begun right out of the gate. Jesse Hahn is looking to move on from 2016 when he was rapidly bounced back and forth between the big league club and AAA. Hahn went 3-11 in 24 starts been AAA and the majors with an ERA of 5.61. The A’s also get to spend a little more time deciding if Andrew Triggs has the potential to be the fifth starter or join a crowded bullpen. Daniel Gossett had his chance early this spring, pitching two solid innings against Angels where he didn’t give up a hit but had two walks.
Baseball fans should look forward to seeing how lefty starter Sean Manaea progresses in 2017. The 6’5 second year pitcher came over in 2015 in the Ben Zobrist deal and had a great season last year developing himself as a potential front line starter. Manaea gained more control of his fastball and his changeup became a really effective out pitch. If he can come into the 2017 season with more control of his slider, Manaea could become the ace of this squad in the very near future. Jharel Cotton is also generating a lot of buzz after a stellar debut late in 2016 following his arrival in the Rich Hill trade. Cotton could turn into at least a number three if his other pitches can even come close to the quality of his outstanding changeup.
The A’s will enter 2017 with a few more established names as well. Khris Davis will return in left field after an excellent 2016 where he was good enough offensively for 2.5 WAR while hitting 41 home runs and driving in 102 RBIs, even if his defense leaves something to be desired. Sonny Gray produced an amazing 2015 season where he went 14-7 with a 2.73 ERA, looking like he would be the next great A’s player to be dealt by Billy Beane. In 2016 Gray sadly never really found his footing: he saw a dip in the velocity of both his 2-seam and 4-seam fastball resulting in a 64 point uptick in his BABIP with an ERA well over 5. Injuries were a big issue and a healthy season will be key if Gray is to return to anything near his 2014-15 form.
The rotation has potential, the team looks like it can slug but might not be able to field, so all that’s left is the bullpen. The A’s have built a nice veteran-heavy bullpen that hopefully can stay healthy. The squad has five guys with closing experience and Bob Melvin has expressed interest in going with a closer by committee, with Ryan Madson perhaps the leading candidate to get the most work in the role, but Casilla and Sean Doolittle are also strong candidates to pick up saves. Ryan Dull, perhaps the least familiar name of the group, was exceptional last season with 73 strikeouts in 74.1 innings with a 0.87 WHIP. Both Steamer and ZIPS expect Dull’s production and appearances to drop just a bit but this might just be an effect of the crowd toward the back end of the A’s pen.
So maybe things aren’t all uninteresting in Oakland. Let’s just hope Kaval and the rest of the ownership team can find a way to get the team to stay.Next post: An NL Central Podcast – Fulfilling Its Obligation with a 2017 Division Preview
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