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The Oakland Athletics sure do change themselves a lot from year to year. It’s been a sticking point for A’s fans, who are tired of seeing players they love shipped out of town. I’m guessing that more wins might assuage those complaints, though that would change the one thing that’s been constant about the Athletics for the past three years: they aren’t very good.
Like the Rays, Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics are trying to achieve the difficult goal of building a credible contender around a deep core of pre-arb players and scrap-heap free agents. When your player pool is so limited, the stars really have to align just right to become a threat to contend. Worse still, many seasons bring an air of hopelessness as early as Opening Day, and when fans get the sense that any player that turns out well won’t be in an Oakland uniform in a couple years, it’s hard to get too attached.
So, after that rosy overview, let’s take a look at this year’s ragtag Oakland squad.
One thing that the A’s have is a healthy crop of players that can hit the ball out of their decrepit, cavernous ballpark. The most intriguing such player is first baseman Matt Olson, who hit a whopping 24 dingers over just 216 plate appearances last season. For some context, that’s a better homer-per-plate-appearance rate than Barry Bonds had in his record-setting 2001 season. Across the diamond is third baseman Matt Chapman who is great at picking it at the hot corner and was setting something close to a 30-homer pace in a half-season’s work last year, despite a concerning strikeout rate. Chapman’s raking like crazy to begin the 2018 campaign.
Shortstop Marcus Semien chips in enough power to be a league-average bat from the shortstop position. Errors used to be the biggest issue for the former White Sox, but he’s made enough strides in that department to make himself respectable (but a little below-average) defensively. His double-play partner is Jed Lowrie, who posted a 4.0 bWAR season out of nowhere last year. Lowrie has posted exactly a 119 OPS+ in the two seasons of his ten-year career that he’s been healthy enough to log 600 plate appearances. “Two” is the problematic number in that sentence.
You probably know that Aaron Judge led the American League in home runs last year, but what you’d probably have more trouble pulling is the fact that Oakland’s Khris Davis was second. With 85 in total, “Khrush” leads the junior circuit in home runs over the last two seasons. The problem with Davis is the whole glove thing; the A’s partially shifted him to DH with the acquisition of 2017 slumper Stephen Piscotty to man right field. That’s probably for the best. The addition of Piscotty leaves left field in the hands of Matt Joyce, who’s 1) still in the league, apparently, 2) has posted a wRC+ of at least 111 in eight of nine major league seasons with at least 250 plate appearances, 3) draws lots of walks, 4) clubbed a surprising 25 homers last season, 5) still can’t hit lefties, and 6) has basically spent his entire career playing for various teams with extreme pitchers’ parks. That is the list of Six Matt Joyce Things.
The A’s have enough bats to keep games interesting, but where they’re really going to struggle is run prevention. Kendall Graveman was anointed as the nominal “ace” of the staff, but he doesn’t miss many bats, probably because he’s a sinker/cutter pitcher that throws one of the two similar-velocity offerings about 80% of the time. With off-speed pitches appearing infrequently, hitters typically aren’t too off-balance on their timing. That’s especially true this season, as Graveman’s been getting blasted.
Lefty Sean Manaea has a lower-than-normal arm slot that results in very little backspin on his pitches; his changeup has practically no vertical movement. Manaea’s out pitch is his slider, thus completing the prototypical profile for a guy who’s murder on lefties. Daniel Mengden is a control artist whose arm slot seems to be dropping down a little each year. He had a rosy ERA last season because his relievers were kind enough to strand most of his inherited runners. Side-arming righty Andrew Triggs might be the most interesting pitcher in the A’s rotation, as his nasty curveball can bewilder opposing hitters. You might think a guy with that profile would struggle against lefties, but Triggs has exhibited no meaningful platoon split to-date. Trevor Cahill‘s being activated for this series and is back to starting games after a good turn with the Padres last year. Cahill loves his off-speed stuff and his curve is particularly tough to hit, but the groundballer’s two-seamer is rather punishable, particularly when he elevates it.
With plenty of thunder in the lineup but a suspect pitching staff, the A’s are likely to get tagged as an also-ran again this season, but they have a roster that should prove to be a cut above the bottom-feeders. With a farm system that’s good, but not spectacular, the A’s will need to strike it rich on a player or two in order to fill the void left by Josh Donaldson and emerge as a credible contender. That’s not even half the battle, however. The larger problem is that the Houston Astros have taken up residence at the top of the division and boast young talent, deep pockets, and a strong farm system, all of which suggest that they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. The second Wild Card means that the A’s still have a chance to get back to October baseball in the next couple years, but being forced to compete with such a juggernaut makes the situation even more unfair for a team that’s perpetually being asked to do more with less.
Probable Starting Pitchers
- Monday, April 16: Reynaldo Lopez vs. Daniel Mengden
- Tuesday, April 17: Miguel Gonzalez vs. Trevor Cahill
- Wednesday, April 18: Carson Fulmer vs. Andrew Triggs
Probable Starting Lineup
- Matt Joyce – LF
- Marcus Semien – SS
- Jed Lowrie – 2B
- Khris Davis – DH
- Matt Olson – 1B
- Matt Chapman – 3B
- Jonathan Lucroy – C
- Stephen Piscotty – RF
- Jake Smolinski – CF
- SP1: Kendall Graveman – RHP
- SP2: Sean Manaea – LHP
- SP3: Daniel Mengden – RHP
- SP4: Andrew Triggs – RHP
- SP5: Trevor Cahill – RHP
- CL: Blake Treinen – RHP
- RP1: Chris Hatcher – RHP
- RP2: Emilio Pagan – RHP
- RP3: Danny Coloumbe – LHP