It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning. For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper! We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat. This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal. It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.
68-94, fifth in the AL West
Last year’s Pepper
This team just sometimes can’t catch a break. When they are good, they stumble in the playoffs. When they set a trend, the big financial boys come along and copy it. And when things go bad, they go really bad, like last place and sewer issues in the clubhouse. It’s not easy being green (and gold).
However, some folks not only deal with the issues, but enjoy writing about them as well. I’ve got Jason Leary of Junk Ball with us today. This is Jason’s fourth year (though he’s working on just a one-year streak) and he’s a great Twitter follow at @JasonALeary.
C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?
JB: If there’s one thing that killed the Oakland A’s in 2015 (aside from the Josh Donaldson trade during the previous offseason) it was the bullpen and that’s where general manager David Forst focused his efforts over the winter.
Despite ranking near the bottom of the Major Leagues in save opportunities in 2015 the A’s tied with the Detroit Tigers and Colorado Rockies for the third-most blown saves with 25 and they had the worst save percentage at just 52.83 percent.
To make matters worse, even though Oakland’s bullpen only ranked in the middle of the pack in runners inherited last season, A’s relievers allowed the highest percentage of inherited runners to score with more than 34 percent crossing the plate when manager Bob Melvin made the call to the ‘pen in 2015.
This offseason Oakland’s front office rebuilt the team’s ineffective bullpen by trading for Liam Hendriks and Marc Rzepczynski and signing hard-throwing free agents John Axford and Ryan Madson. Combine those acquisitions with a return to health by incumbent closer Sean Doolittle and the A’s hope the team’s biggest weakness in 2015 could be its greatest strength in 2016.
C70: It was a very tough 2015. What do you point to when making the case 2016 is going to be better?
JB: After going 68-94 as the worst team in the American League hopefully there’s almost nowhere to go but up for the A’s.
As mentioned above, a porous bullpen has been overhauled which should improve the A’s performance in close games where Oakland lost a league-leading 35 one-run games in 2015.
Another glaring area of weakness in 2015 was Oakland’s lack of power which left the team in the bottom third of the league in home runs and slugging percentage. A full season of production out of power-hitting 2015 waiver acquisition Danny Valencia along with the offseason addition of slugging outfielder Khris Davis will go a long way toward righting the ship.
The return of Jed Lowrie to Oakland’s lineup after a winter trade with the Houston Astros could also boost the team’s slugging percentage if the new second baseman can come close to his 2013 performance with the A’s when he finished second in the American League with 45 doubles.
One of the other nails in the coffin for Oakland’s forgettable 2015 season was its defense which saw the franchise post a league-worst .979 fielding percentage while leading the league in errors. A full season of work from revered infield coach Ron Washington could significantly improve the team’s performance with the leather.
Combine a revamped bullpen with a more potent offense and an improved defense and the ingredients are there for the A’s to take a big step forward in 2016. Unfortunately, Oakland could improve by 10 wins over 2015 and still finish this season in the basement of a very competitive American League West.
C70: The A’s had three prospects on the Top 100 list. When do you expect to see them in Oakland?
JB: Left-handed pitching prospect Sean Manaea is easily the top candidate to make his Oakland debut tihs season.
Manaea, acquired from the Kansas City Royals last season in the Ben Zobrist trade, has been impressive in every opportunity with the A’s from the minor leagues to the Arizona Fall League to the early stages of spring training.
With few sure things currently in Oakland’s Major League rotation behind ace Sonny Gray it’s easy to envision Manaea forcing his way to the bigs if he continues to impress and Gray’s supporting cast falters or inevitably succumbs to injuries.
Slugging first baseman/outfielder Matt Olson is probably the next in line to don green and gold in the near future. Depending on Olson’s perfomance this season and how things unfold in Oakland as 2016 rolls along, there’s an outside chance Olson could crack the majors before September roster expansion.
The team’s top prospect, shortstop Franklin Barreto probably has the highest ceiling of the three players mentioned here but at just 20 years of age, he’s probably the furthest away from the big leagues.
C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?
JB: Personally, my vote is split on this one between starting pitcher Jesse Hahn and recently-acquired outfielder Khris Davis.
Hahn’s upside and the wide open opportunity to seize a spot in Oakland’s rotation makes him an intriguing player to watch. If all the pieces fall into place, Hahn could ride his strong fastball-curveball combination to form a solid 1-2 punch with Gray at the top of Oakland’s roatation.
As for Davis, at 28-years-old he should be in his athletic prime and ready to build on his impressive post-All Star break 21-homer power display from last season. While his batting average may never be much to write home about and the move from Milwaukee’s Miller Park to Oakland’s Coliseum could cost him some homers, the A’s have a glaring need for a right-handed slugger in the middle of the lineup which could put Davis in a great position to rack up 90 or more RBIs.
C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?
JB: Let’s say 80-82 for fourth place in the American League West ahead of the Seattle Mariners.
The AL West just looks too tough and the A’s ceiling with the current roster doesn’t look quite high enough right now to push for a playoff spot this season.
I get the feeling that Oakland’s front office has built a 2016 team that’s good enough to be competitive while the relatively inexperienced starting rotation rounds into form and the next wave of position player prospects works its way up from the minor leagues.
If everything breaks right the A’s could certainly take a big jump forward a year ahead of expectations just like they did in 2012 but my gut feeling right now is that the leap back into playoff contention is still about a year away.
C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?
JB: It’s always fun to see the A’s beat the Los Angeles Angels and it has nothing to do with any sort of Northern California/Southern California animosity. It’s all about my eternal bitterness over Oakland’s loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 World Series.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia played behind the dish for those annoying Dodgers and that’s enough for me to harbor a little disdain for his current ballclub anytime the Angels face off against the A’s.
As for how the A’s will fare against Scioscia’s team, I can see Oakland going .500 or maybe a little better in their matchup with the Halos. I’m just not impressed with L.A.’s rotation or bullpen and I think Oakland has made enough across-the-board improvments to get the best of their in-state division rivals.
I appreciate Jason talking about the A’s with us today. I’ve always kinda liked Oakland since the TLR days and it’s fun to watch them late at night on MLB.tv!