Oakland Athletics 2017 season preview: An active winter doesn't guarantee more wins
Are the A's contending or rebuilding? Neither, it seems
The 2014 Oakland Athletics won 88 games, stole the headlines at the non-waiver deadline, and made the postseason for a third straight year. Since then, however, the wheels have come off the Oakland jalopy.
While the A’s this offseason were fairly active on the free agent market by their standards, they didn’t move the needle. In an AL West that features three likely contenders plus an improved Angels team, Oakland indeed seems bound for a third-straight last-place finish. The Athletics haven’t suffered that particular fate since Connie Mack was in the dugout. Unfortunately for A’s rooters, that’s probably what’s going to happen.
Now let’s take a bit of a deeper dive into what could be yet another disappointing season for Oakland. Maybe the best they can hope for is that things will be interesting en route to 90 or so losses (note that “interesting” can have both good and bad connotations) ...
Welcome to Oakland, gentlemen
As noted above, the A’s made a little noise on the free agent market this offseason, which isn’t entirely characteristic for them. That said, none of the moves advanced the Oakland cause all that much.
Consider their most notable additions on the market ...
- Santiago Casilla: Two years, $11 million.
- Matt Joyce: Two years, $11 million.
- Trevor Plouffe: One year, $5.25 million.
- Rajai Davis: One year, $6 million.
Those aren’t the sort of moves that grab all the headlines, but a total outlay of more than $30 million in guaranteed salary is notable by Oakland standards. The problem is that these moves don’t make them that much better, and in some instances may block players who, unlike the names above, could be long-term assets for the A’s.
Sure, there’s a chance that Joyce’s new, more patient approach sticks, but he’s still a 32-year-old with an inconsistent track record of health and performance. As for Davis, perhaps the most notable addition, he’s a solid glove in center and his base-running skills were on full display last season with the Indians. However, Davis is going into his age-36 campaign, and in 2016 he put up an OPS+ of just 78.
Elsewhere, the Plouffe addition is also puzzling, in that it pushes a superior player -- Ryon Healy -- to the DH role. The A’s don’t yet know what they have in the 25-year-old Healy, but regular DH duty can be a detriment to a young player’s development. And that’s a chance you take so as to wedge Trevor Plouffe into the lineup? Strange decision, that.
The hope for a Sonny Gray renaissance
From 2013-15, Gray authored an ERA+ of 133 across his first 76 major-league games, 74 of which were starts. Coming into last season, Gray was 26 and looked very much like one of the top young aces in baseball.
Well, then 2016 happened. In 117 innings this past year, Gray spit out an ERA of 5.69 and put up the worst K/BB ratio of his career. As such, one of the most compelling subplots in Oakland this season will be whether Gray resumes pitching like an ace or continues the premature decline he showed in 2016.
On that front, it’s a mixed bag for Gray. The first bit of good news is that he didn’t experience any significant velocity decline last season. Also, in 2016 he had a highly elevated batting average on balls in play and home runs as a percentage of fly balls. Those two measures are highly prone to random variation and could be in for a positive correction in 2017. The same goes for Gray’s lack of success in stranding runners last year -- that’s probably going to improve.
What’s not good is that Gray simply had a hard time avoiding the barrel of the bat. Specifically, he gave up hard contact more than a third of time after posting figures of around 25 percent in 2014 and 2015.
In the end, you should probably expect improvement from Gray this season. However, it may be that he’s not going to rise to his 2015 levels, when he finished third in the AL Cy Young balloting. The reality of Gray may be that 2016 will stand as his worst season, but it may also be the case that 2015 will be his best. When it comes to their cornerstone pitcher, the A’s may have to console themselves with a middle ground moving forward.
Will the Khris Davis show be a hit again?
Despite playing his home games in a park that’s fairly hostile toward power hitters, Davis last season cracked 42 homers, which was a total outdone by just Mark Trumbo and Nelson Cruz in 2016. That’s nothing new, as Davis across parts of four big-league seasons has averaged 35 homers per 162 games played.
In 2017, he’ll be presented with a chance to join an elite group of franchise sluggers. In club history, just three sluggers -- Jimmie Foxx, Mark McGwire, and Jose Canseco -- have put up multiple 40-homer seasons while in an Athletics uniform. Only Foxx hit 40 or more in consecutive seasons (he actually did it in three straight seasons) while with the A’s, so Davis also has a shot at joining The Beast on that very short list.
Still a ways to go on the farm
The A’s are not a good team, as you’re aware. As a team that lost 93 games a season ago and played to a negative-108 run differential, the major-league roster isn’t strong. Also worth noting is that the A’s farm system isn’t especially loaded.
Yes, you’ve got some high-end talents like Franklin Barreto, A.J. Puk, and Matt Chapman, but Baseball America ranks the A’s farm system as just 17th out of 30 MLB organizations. The system’s gradually improved a bit, but it’s still in the lower tier. In part, that’s because the A’s haven’t fully embraced a rebuilding process in a long time. However, it may be time to do just that. They’re bad at the major-league level and mediocre at the minor-league level.
That means it’s time to ...
Pick a lane
If you’re angling to contend, you need to move boldly to do just that, even in the era of the second wild-card berth. Signing the likes of those free agents named above, though, doesn’t get you any closer to relevance.
If the first half of the 2017 season goes as badly as it figures to for Oakland, then they need to sell off at the deadline. That may mean moving a Stephen Vogt and an improved Gray. It may also mean finding takers for those veteran free agents they brought in. It may even mean trading away Khris Davis’ power bat. They need to supplement this run of high draft picks with additional young talent procured via trade. Gray, Vogt, Khris Davis, and perhaps even Sean Doolittle should be able to fetch decent returns on the market. It’s probably past time for the A’s to go into “tank mode,” as unappealing as that sounds.
- Rajai Davis, CF
- Stephen Vogt, C
- Ryon Healy, DH
- Khris Davis, LF
- Matt Joyce, RF
- Marcus Semien, SS
- Trevor Plouffe, 3B
- Yonder Alonso, 1B
- Jed Lowrie, 2B
When your first baseman’s batting eighth, you should perhaps reconsider your personnel decisions on that front.
Right now, Ryan Madson seems in line to get most of the save opps, and Doolittle is still on board from the left side. Casilla figures to be the primary right-handed setup man, and John Axford, Ryan Dull, and Liam Hendriks are there to provide depth. Raul Alcantara might crack the roster as the long man, although that would leave the Oakland bullpen with only one lefty.
SportsLine projection: 75-87, fifth place in the AL West
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