“Second-Least-Expensive Champagne,” an Oakland Athletics preview

Homer: “Time for a fill-up. Garcon! Another bottle of your second-least-expensive champagne!”

Out of nowhere, the Oakland Athletics launched another cycle of competing from the depths of the league’s payroll rankings. In 2018, the A’s were the only team to open the season with a lower payroll than the Chicago White Sox, but they rode the guys they decided they could afford to a very successful season. Fueled by an MVP-caliber year from superstar third baseman Matt Chapman and a ridiculous 4.2-WAR (!!!), 0.78 ERA campaign from closer Blake Treinen, the A’s cruised to 97 wins and a Wild Card berth.

Predictably, the 2019 Athletics are still a good team but with considerably more warts than their 2018 counterparts. For one thing, control lapses and more normal luck on balls in play has led to Treinen’s ERA ballooning over 4.00. Another blow was dealt when Jed Lowrie, who delivered an All-Star-caliber season for the A’s in 2018, departed via free agency. Neither former top prospect Franklin Barreto nor former number-one overall prospect Jurickson Profar have stepped up to fill the void.

Those issues have been far from enough to sink the 51-41 A’s. Chapman’s uptick in home runs has contributed to the league-wide record pace, and the A’s are getting plenty of power contributions from first baseman Matt Olson, utility man Mark Canha, and designated hitter Khris Davis (who, in one of the weirdest statistical anomalies you’ll ever see, winds up hitting .247 every year). Center fielder Ramon Laureano had essentially tumbled off the prospect radar in 2017 before rallying big last year and ending the season as a starter for the A’s. He’s no great shakes defensively, but he’s got plenty of power for the position, and Oakland actually allows him to steal a base now and then.

The A’s are still regularly using three guys from the Jeff Samardzija trade. Josh Phegley is not a plus catcher, as his free-swinging ways limit his OBP, but this season he’s slashed his strikeout rate enough to remain passable, and there’s still 20-homer potential there. Sinkerballer Chris Bassitt has been able to hold his own in the rotation, as an effective curveball allows him to get enough strikeouts to support his higher-than-desirable walk rate. Of course, the real prize of the Shark trade is shortstop Marcus Semien, who has evolved so much defensively that he’s now one of the league’s best shortstops with the glove. Semien is also in the midst of a strong offensive season, as his .350 OBP has allowed him to serve as Oakland’s leadoff hitter.

The A’s were getting a breakout campaign out of former White Sox farmhand Frankie Montas before he got slapped with a PED suspension. With Montas out of the picture, the nominal number-one starter is noted asshat Mike Fiers. It’s unclear exactly how Fiers has been able to keep runs off the board all these years. The 2019 version doesn’t strike out many guys and allows plenty of hard contact and fly balls. His velocity generally sits close to 90 mph. Fiers does, however, mix three different fastballs (fourseam, sinker, cutter), so there could be enough of a deception effect to keep hitters at bay.

Brett Anderson finally appears to be healthy again now that he’s back in Oakland, where his career started. He’s a sinker-slider pitcher that survives on grounders and gets even fewer whiffs than Fiers. Daniel Mengden has an 80-grade mustache but unfortunately the same can’t be said for his low-90s fastball, which gets pounded. He utilizes a diverse pitch mix with multiple fastballs and breaking balls, but when he has to turn to his fourseam to get a strike, things get ugly. Since Montas’ suspension the A’s have tried out righty Tanner Anderson as a fifth starter, who’s been fine outside of one disaster outing in Anaheim. He’s not on the roster for the time being (the A’s used the All-Star break to option him and get some extra bullpen depth) but he could be a factor the next time the Sox face Oakland.

***

In many ways, the newest competitive iteration of the A’s resembles the last one from 2012-2014. It’s been built on a fair amount of internal talent, the acquisition of low-cost undervalued guys, the aggressive use of platoon arrangements, creative defensive assignments, and a superstar third baseman (previously: Josh Donaldson) helping to make it all work. Along with the Tampa Bay Rays, the Oakland A’s are living proof that even as the older, more obvious market efficiencies have dried up, it’s still plenty possible to compete in the modern baseball landscape on a lower payroll as long as your scouting is on point. The Athletics will probably suck again in a few years, but with Billy Beane and David Forst at the helm, they’re never too far from pulling themselves out of the muck.

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Friday, July 12: Ivan Nova vs. Mike Fiers
  • Saturday, July 13: TBD (Dylan Covey?) vs. Chris Bassitt
  • Sunday, July 14: Reynaldo Lopez vs. Brett Anderson

Probable Lineup

  1. Marcus Semien – SS
  2. Matt Chapman – 3B
  3. Matt Olson – 1B
  4. Khris Davis – DH
  5. Mark Cahna – RF
  6. Ramon Laureano – CF
  7. Robbie Grossman – LF
  8. Josh Phegley – C
  9. Franklin Barreto – 2B

Pitching

  • SP1: Mike Fiers – RHP
  • SP2: Brett Anderson – LHP
  • SP3: Chris Bassitt – RHP
  • SP4: Daniel Mengden – RHP
  • SP5: Tanner Anderson – RHP
  • CL: Liam Hendriks – RHP
  • RP1: Blake Treinen – RHP
  • RP2: Joakim Soria – RHP
  • RP3: Yusmeiro Petit – RHP

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Patrick Nolan
Patrick Nolan
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fundman

Josh Phegley’s continued play in MLB reminds me of several lengthy posts on SSS by larry proclaiming the fact he wasn’t a major leaguer. I know larry knows his stuff but Beane knows all apparently.

dwjm3

Phegley has never been better than replacement level so I guess you could say Beane just hasn’t been able to find better.

PauliePaulie

Some teams can develop to a ceiling.

Jim Margalus

Some of it was an effort to differentiate Flowers’ receiving from Phegley’s. That was around the height of fan frustration with Flowers’ skill set, and I remember having to stress Phegley’s flaws a lot more than I would ordinarily in an effort to keep fans from advocating for a poor decision.

Didn’t work!

At any rate, it was even weirder when Phegley had an .851 OPS at the end of May, but he’s hit .192/.235/.321 since.

Greg Nix

It’s kind of unbelievable that Chris Bassitt and Josh Phegley are regular major leaguers on a good team. 

chisoxt

I often wonder if Marcus Semien  approaches anywhere near the same level of excellence had he stayed with the White Sox?

Trooper Galactus

Anderson, operating off a similar profile only with louder tools, suggests that it’s not out of the realm of possibility. It’s not like Semien was BAD while he was here, just never got a long look.

PauliePaulie

liked for asshat.

ParisSox

I’ve never clicked on so many links in one article before.  

35Shields

I’ll be there tonight – right next to the crazy dudes banging on drums for the whole game!