To say the 2015 Oakland Athletics season was disappointing already reflects something about how you view them.  After 2014, a year where they looked championship-caliber only to sputter into a Wild Card game exit, the team was revamped for sustainability.  Despite trading away many star players, such as Josh Donaldson and Jeff Samardzija, one could still see a playoff berth, in sort of a “squint-your-eyes-assume-everything-goes-right” sort of way.  That didn’t happen.  Disappointing seasons from new arrivals like Billy Butler and Brett Lawrie led to a sputtering offense, and the normally strong bullpen completely cratered.  Amidst all this, rumors swirled of bad clubhouse chemistry, which only hurt the team’s chances of overcoming a slow start.  Even as some members started to gel again, like shortstop Marcus Semien, most of the rotation shriveled away in September.  When the dust cleared, the A’s finished 68-94, the worst record by 6 games in the American League.

Oak Record wRC+ SP ERA- RP ERA- DRS UZR BsR Pay – $M
2013 .593 (3) 108 (4) 96 (10)  83 (6) -56 (26) 13 (12) 9 (7) 73 (26)
2014 .543 (9)  101 (7) 96 (6)  78 (2)  32 (7)  24 (8) 10.3 (4) 96 (21)
2015 .420 (25)  96 (18)  100 (11) 119 (29) 16 (8) -33 (28)  -1 (20) 80 (26)

 

This offseason, Billy Beane was rewarded for this underwhelming season with a promotion to Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations, as his longtime number two, David Forst, became the GM.  The tandem emphasized a need to think about the long-term, but at the same time expressed no desire for an all-out rebuild. The plan would be the same as it always would be; make value trades that keep the team competitive now, but don’t push too many chips in.  Shore up the weak points, and think outside the box.  You can get plenty of breakdowns about the full offseason, but here’s a quick breakdown to avoid clicking elsewhere.  I’ve only listed players likely to make the opening day roster, for brevity’s sake.

Pitching Losses Pitching Gains
Lost SHP Pat Venditte to Waivers (Blue Jays) Signed free agent LHP Rich Hill
Traded RHP Jesse Chavez to the Blue Jays Traded for RHP Liam Hendriks from the Blue Jays
Lost RHP Dan Otero to Waivers (Phillies) Signed free agent RHP Ryan Madson
Traded RHP Evan Scribner to the Mariners Signed free agent RHP John Axford
Traded LHP Drew Pomeranz to the Padres Signed free agent RHP Henderson Alvarez
Traded RHP Arnold Leon to the Blue Jays Traded for LHP Marc Rzepczynski from the Padres
Hitting Losses Hitting Gains
Traded RHB IF Brett Lawrie to the White Sox Traded for SHB IF Jed Lowrie from Astros
Lost LHB IF Ike Davis to Free Agency Claimed RHB OF Andrew Lambo on Waivers (Pirates)
Traded for LHB IF Yonder Alonso from the Padres
Traded for RHB OF Khris Davis from the Brewers

 

Instead of doing a breakdown by position or player, I’m going to preview this team in a different way.  Let’s take a trip into the future, into mid-early July.  Where will the A’s be at that point, and what will their plan be?  Since I’m not a soothsayer, I’m going to present two potential scenarios.  In the 2012 model, the A’s are surprise contenders, where everything clicks.  They’re examining how to improve their team, and how can they make sure they’re playing meaningful games in September.  In the 2015 model, it hasn’t gone as well.  The team is floundering, and they once again must step on the brakes and look toward the future.  What will those scenarios look like?

Let’s tackle the good, 2012 model, first.  In this reality, the most notable improvements are in the bullpen and their performance against left-handed pitching.  Mark Canha improves his consistency, rounding out his reverse splits and taking over full-time at first base.  Khris Davis, despite selling out for pull-power in 2015, already has fifteen home runs at the All-Star Break, while Danny Valencia isn’t far behind.  Marcus Semien has held his own in his sophomore season, and platoon players Josh Phegley and Jake Smolinski provide plenty of punch to provide a very well balanced lineup.  The bullpen has turned around night and day.  Sean Doolittle has recovered his velocity and continues to excel with a strikingly low walk rate.  Hendriks and Madson give plenty of bridge into the ninth inning, and the A’s rarely lose games when they’re ahead.  It’s a stingy bullpen with a lot of depth, where guys are able to pitch to their strengths.  Elsewhere, Rich Hill has a strong first-half, but durability concerns question whether he should maintain his role in the rotation or move to the pen.  Jesse Hahn solidifies his role as a #2 starter and Henderson Alvarez is brilliant, if a bit inconsistent as he recovers from shoulder surgery.  Coco Crisp, relegated mostly to platoon-DH duty, nonetheless provides decent production against righties, while Josh Reddick is a stabilizing force amidst extension talks.

Here, the A’s must figure out if their success is real.  The American League West could have five teams above .500 in this scenario, so unfortunately, there’s no easy route to a division title.  The A’s are also “cursed” with a team that’s fairly well rounded with good depth, so it’s hard to pinpoint obvious areas of need.  The A’s are often linked to Brian Dozier and Dee Gordon in trade talks, but the Marlins seem to be asking the moon.  The A’s appear unwilling to part with top prospects Franklin Barreto and Sean Manaea, as both seem very close to contributing at the big-league level, and the stain of the Addison Russell trade still smells foul.  Despite good depth in the rotation, they’re also whispered to be looking for another front of the rotation arm, and the fans are clamoring for a reunion with Tyson Ross.

Flash over to the other reality, and things have not gone well at all.  Billy Butler continues to play so poorly that the post-game show on 95.7 The Game is flooded with calls to just release him.  Jed Lowrie is hurt once again, forcing the A’s to go to the Eric Sogard well with predictably poor results.  Yonder Alonso  is unspectacular, as he begins to press a bit to try and break out of a slump, causing a dip in his normally solid on-base percentage.  On the mound, the returns from 2015 trade season continue to not produce anything beyond a backend starter, as Kendall Graveman, Chris Bassitt, and Aaron Brooks continue to bounce back and forth between AAA and the MLB squad.  John Axford shows up more Hyde than Jekyll, as his walk rate balloons over 6, with many writers making Jim Johnson comparisons.   Jarrod Parker gets a shot back in the rotation after all of his injury woes, but it’s becoming clear that his arm is wrecked, and he lacks swing-and-miss stuff of any kind.

These A’s are in the cellar of a strong AL West.  Once again, they find themselves in a league mostly devoid of sellers, and opt to fold amidst the sea of sharks.  It quickly becomes apparent that this may have been a strategy all along.  Recent research from Jeff Zimmerman in the Hardball Times Annual 2016 (among others) suggests that teams pay a premium for pitchers, particularly relievers, at the deadline.  Beane and Forst open up shop on their pitching corps, entertaining offers for Doolittle and Hendriks in particular.  Rumors swirl about whether or not ace Sonny Gray will finally be traded, but a 15-day DL stint has teams wondering whether or not his slight frame may finally be catching up with him.  With surprising optimism around a new ballpark growing within Oakland, even the fanbase is getting behind the idea of a rebuild, preparing themselves for a few years of suffering before hopefully opening up their new oceanfront property with a bang.

So what’s the difference between these two realities?  There are a few players, I feel, upon whose shoulders rest a large chunk of the season’s hopes.  First of all, Sonny Gray absolutely has to excel.  While he always has, 2016 is a pivotal year for him.  PECOTA is pretty bearish on him, giving him just a 2.6 WARP and 3.81 ERA over 31 starts. If the A’s are going to succeed, Gray needs to provide an anchor for a rotation with a lot of question marks.  If they fail, the A’s need his value to be high enough to net strong prospects to make 2017 not a lost cause.  Forst says he has no interest in trading their young ace, but if they got a strong enough package, say the Dodgers come with something based around Julio Urias, it’d be hard for the A’s to say no.  Secondly, centerfielder Billy Burns needs to lock down centerfield with a strong showing.  Obviously, Burns will never win the MVP, but at the moment his arm is limiting his ability to command the outfield, and his range has yet to be the plus-plus tool it should be with his speed.  Burns needs to take the next step and not only become a plus defender in center, but also begin to beat fielders with his speed.  Last year he was just 26/34 on the basepaths, which is barely above break-even.

Stephen Vogt needs to produce the entire season.  He had a nice little coming-out party in 2015, but his body’s aches and pains continued to show in the second half offensively.  While hitting 100 games behind the dish was encouraging, Vogt needs to be the primary catcher for this team, catching closer to 120.  In order to justify that, he needs to improve on his disastrous -9.7 framing runs from 2015, and provide a receiver that helps his young pitching staff rather than hurts them.  Finally, Marcus Semien needs to justify some of the speculation regarding his glovework affecting his bat.  If Ron Washington can get Semien to become the 800 OPS shortstop with league-average defense we’ve all hoped for, that’s a huge win for this team going forward.

There are lots of fun storylines to watch for with this team, but with that variability comes a chance for disaster.  It’s easy to dream on this team surprising everyone, winning 90 and shooting for a wild card berth, but that’s less likely than the alternative.  I don’t think another 68-win season is likely, but the AL West is a tough division championed by a young-and-improving Astros team.  This year, overall, will be encouraging, though postseason games are a bit too ambitious for me to predict.

Final Prediction: 75-87, 4th place in the AL West.

 

Check out Effectively Wild‘s season previews and the schedule of our own companion previews.

2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs. Salaries via Spotrac.

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