A's deal with another down year but have ingredients for solid lineup, intrigue in 2018
Matt Chapman and Matt Olson give the A's hope
On Friday night, the Oakland Athletics were eliminated from playoff contention, stretching their postseason drought to three seasons.
The main difference between the A's and other teams is they seldom "rebuild" in the conventional sense. Usually, Oakland puts effort into being a mediocre squad by signing veterans and avoiding the kind of nihilistic approach employed by the Houston Astros or San Diego Padres. Their rosters aren't always great, and even average results are far from guaranteed -- to wit, they could lose 90-plus for a third year in a row -- but their process separates them from everyone else.
If there's a takeaway from these A's, though, it's that they look like a standard rebuild job -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the A's have reason to enter 2018 with hope. Really.
Most of the optimism is due to the A's lineup. Yes, they rank 10th in the American League in runs scored. Yey they hit the fourth-most home runs and have the fifth-best OPS. Given the A's had a number of underperforming veterans -- Rajai Davis, Trevor Plouffe, and Stephen Vogt -- it's fair to write better days lie ahead.
Heck, it's fair to write that regardless of the older players' sabotage of the overall line -- know why? Because the A's have some promising homegrown hitters.
Third baseman Matt Chapman has dazzled with his glove over half a season of play. Defensive metrics are untrustworthy, so it's hard to know how valid it is when Baseball-Reference credits Chapman with 20 defensive runs. Nonetheless, he appears to have what scouts call a plus-plus glove, in addition to his well-above-average arm.
The question with Chapman is how much he'll hit. He's sporting a 106 OPS+ right now, but that's with a ton of power production. Too much slippage on that front could threaten his upside as the best player on the roster.
Across the infield, first baseman Matt Olson has impressed nearly as much as Chapman in much less time. Olson has swatted 24 home runs in 57 games, and that's laughable for two reasons: one, Olson has 48 hits total; and two, Olson has driven in 45 runs. In other words, half of everything is a dinger, and almost every dinger is a solo shot. Rest assured, he's not going to keep up this level of power production; his ISO currently sits over .400 -- Giancarlo Stanton, for reference, has a .352 ISO. Still, Olson should be an asset provided he maintains his walk rate and good defense at the cold corner.
In addition to the corner infield anchors, the A's also have Chad Pinder and Ryon Healy to fit into the lineup. Pinder has played all over the place, seeing action at five positions. He's hit, too, tying his professional high with 15 home runs. Healy burst onto the scene in 2016 and seems like a decent approximation of Mark Trumbo: a big bopper with less tolerance for defense than walking, and this is a guy who walks in less than four percent of his plate appearances. He's going to have to mash and maintain a solid-to-good average to be playable.
In those four, the A's have the start of a solid lineup. That's without considering how youngster Franklin Barreto fits in; ditto for established quality hands like Khris Davis and Matt Joyce. The A's play in a tough ballpark, and they'll probably move a piece or two to augment the rest of their roster and/or their budget, but still -- the A's lineup looks healthy.
Naturally, we should touch on the pitching staff -- or what we mean by "the rest of their roster." Kendall Graveman and Sean Manaea both seem like average-at-worst starters. From there, things get sketchy. Andrew Triggs needs to prove his smoke-and-mirrors-and-sidearm-fueled early-season success is genuine and not a fluke; Paul Blackburn has to show his shiny ERA is repeatable with a 3.4 strikeout rate (it's not); Jharel Cotton, Jesse Hahn, and Daniel Gossett each need to give the A's reason to avoid shifting them to the bullpen; and so on.
There is a bright side there, too: the A's have talented young arms on the way. Grant Holmes, acquired in the Josh Reddick/Rich Hill deal of 2016, could reach the majors next season. So too could former first-round pick A.J. Puk. Whether either or both can contribute to the 2018 A's the performance that the 2018 A's need contributed in order to reach the postseason is anyone's guess.
All the same, the A's could be a sneakily intriguing team by this time next year.
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