Playing Pepper 2018: Oakland Athletics

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Oakland Athletics
75-87, fifth in AL West
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

Oakland is one of those teams that always spurs some interest even as they deal with their economic realities.  It feels like they overcome those problems more often than not–which is the legend of Billy Beane–but even when things aren’t going their way, there’s something intriguing about the Athletics and I don’t think it’s just the unique green and gold color scheme.  We’ve got a blogger from one of the oldest and most respected blogs on the Internet with us today to talk about what will be happening by the bay in 2018. (EDIT: Bonus! Due to circumstances beyond his control, Mr. Leary got his answers to me late, but I wanted to go ahead and add them in since they were so good!)

Writer Site Twitter
Tim Eckert-Fong Athletics Nation teckertfong
Jason Leary Junk Ball JasonALeary

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Tim: The club did improve over the winter but were fairly conservative in doing so. This is a team that’s still waiting on a good number of prospects to graduate, and it’s not quite “go for it” time. Most of the A’s moves were an effort to get better now without getting worse in the future, like taking a low risk signing in Yusmeiro Petit. All in all, they were successful in doing so, though that means the offseason wasn’t particularly exciting. They also didn’t address their primary area of concern even a little bit. By not acquiring or signing a starter, the A’s are pretty clearly signaling the future is their first and foremost concern. 

Jason: After finishing in last place in 2017 for the third season in a row there was once again nowhere to go but up this offseason for the Oakland A’s. With the bar set that low the Athletics certainly managed to improve their roster in what shaped up as one of the strangest, slowest-moving offseasons in recent memory.

Outfielder Stephen Piscotty, acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals, fulfills Oakland’s desire to add a young, affordable source of right-handed power to their outfield. Free-agent Yusmeiro Petit and trade acquisition Emilio Pagan provide depth to a bullpen that will probably be called on often to limit the workload of Oakland’s relatively inexperienced starting rotation in 2018. The bullpen also gained a much-needed left-handed reliever when Ryan Buchter was acquired from the Kansas City Royals. And Spring Training free-agent signee Jonathan Lucroy gives the A’s a buy-low former All-Star catcher with the potential to improve the team’s offense and provide the pitching staff with some veteran guidance.

The A’s could have used a veteran starting pitcher and closer to bolster a pitching staff that sorely lacks experience but even in a slow-developing free agent market with bargains to be found, proven arms remained out of reach of the notoriously small-budget franchise. Overall, Oakland’s offseason was full of solid but unspectacular moves as the club continues to slowly build around promising young players such as third baseman Matt Chapman and first baseman Matt Olson while the maturing pitching staff rounds into shape and the promising farm system develops more reinforcements for the big league club.

C70: Cardinal fans are going to be keeping their eye on Stephen Piscotty. Will he be an upgrade from what you had in 2017?

Tim: Piscotty should be an upgrade, provided he can get back to his 2016 form. There’s a lot of hope among the fanbase that returning close to home to his ailing mother will help his on-field results. I don’t think there’s much doubt the physical tools are still there and everyone has a down year every now and then. He should provide a stabilizing defensive presence while slotting into a lineup of solid young hitters which is exactly what the A’s needed. He’ll be a good fit defensively, too. The A’s have been trotting out Khris Davis for two years now and while he’s got solid range, his extremely limited arm has made him a liability. 

Jason: Oakland’s right fielders only produced a combined OPS of .792 in 2017 which gives Piscotty a fairly low bar to clear to qualify as an upgrade but Baseball Reference only projects him for 2018 OPS of .780 – and that’s one of the most optimistic projections I can find. But any projection for Piscotty is going to be dragged down by an abysmal 2017 in which he cratered to a .700 OPS after a couple of solid seasons where he was at .800 or better.

My gut says that playing closer to home and his ailing mother along with getting a fresh start with the A’s who are intent on penciling him into the lineup everyday will lead to a rejuvenated Piscotty posting offensive numbers that are more reflective of his promising 2015 and 2016 seasons in St. Louis. But my gut also says that an extra slice of pizza and a few more beers is always a good idea at any party even though the stats on the bathroom scale always disagrees.

I’ll hope this is one of the rare time that my gut wins out over the available stats.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Tim: The A’s went .500 over the last half of the season once some younger guys came up and some older guys were jettisoned off at the deadline. The offense was the second best in the game per wRC+ in that timeframe, and while the youth movement isn’t complete, a lot of pieces have arrived. That’s pretty good for a rebuilding team, particularly one that was starting inning eaters over and over for the majority of the season. Top to bottom, the A’s have an enticing lineup both offensively and defensively so if the pitching staff can surprise, the A’s very well may contend.

Jason: I think people may be overlooking the high ceiling on this franchise after it hit the floor with yet another last place finish in 2017. Chapman and Olson each have 30-homer potential, Piscotty could easily chip in 20 or more with a solid glove in right field, Lucroy is an intriguing bounceback candidate, shortstop Marcus Semien has 20-20 potential and promising prospect Dustin Fowler has an opportunity to run away with the center field job. If Blake Treinen can settle in as a reliable closer there are some interesting arms around him in the bullpen and there is enough young potential in the rotation to surprise some people if things break right.

On top of all that, the promising farm system has a potential ace in A.J. Puk leading rising fast and hard-hitting infielder Franklin Barreto knocking on the door with more intriguing prospects in the wings. With such a young team the A’s could easily stumble through another disappointing season as everyone endures growing pains but there’s also the potential for everything to come together in a hurry like it did for Oakland in 2012 when they went from an afterthought in rebuilding mode to surprising AL West champions.

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the A’s to do well?

Tim: There are a number of guys on the starting staff who will have to put up good years, but I’m going to single out Sean Manaea. A few years ago, Manaea was a top prospect with top of the rotation potential. He’s been good, but more of a #3 or #4 type. If the A’s are going to surprise in the standings this year, they’ll need a pitcher to step up. Manaea has the best pedigree and stuff to be that guy, but he’ll have to refine his command for extended periods of time. He’s done it before and been a good pitcher, but it’s time to take the next step.

Jason: Considering the depressing fact that the A’s have made the basement of the AL West their home for three consecutive seasons just finishing in fourth place in 2018 would qualify as doing well. But when you’ve been that bad for that long you clearly have a lot of problems which means it takes a lot of things to break right to start turning things around. In my opinion, the A’s will do well in 2018 if they finally break free of the AL West’s cellar and show some promise that they’re heading into 2019 as a dark horse playoff contender. With that in mind, I believe that there’s a key player from the starting rotation, bullpen, position players and minor leagues for the team to qualify as doing well this season.

In the rotation, Sean Manaea has to lock down a spot as a reliable option on a staff desperately seeking stability. Kendall Graveman is the most experienced starter the A’s currently have but Manaea seems to have the most untapped upside. If he can find some consistency, Oakland can at least feature a solid (if unspectacular) 1-2 punch of Manaea and Graveman.

In the bullpen, Treinen needs to nail down the closer’s job in Oakland after failing to do so with the Nationals in 2017. If the back end of the A’s bullpen can settle down all the other pieces can fall into place and manager Bob Melvin can simply as his young starters to give him several good innings while he mixes and matches his relievers leading up to Treinen.

As for position players, Dustin Fowler needs to shake off the rust after missing a ton of playing time after suffering a gruesome knee injury with the New York Yankees last season. The former top prospect has a chance to be Oakland’s everyday center fielder and if he can harness the potential he showed with New York, the A’s could have another young offensive and defensive building block to work with along with Chapman and Olson.

In the minor leagues, Puk is the prospect who probably has the most potential to put the A’s on track to emerge from 2018 as one of the rising young teams in the American League. While Manaea and Graveman have the potential to be No. 2 or No. 3 starters on their best days, Puk is the one young arm toward the top of the A’s system with ace potential. If he can force his way into Oakland’s rotation around the All-Star break and all the other pieces fall into place, the A’s could play spoiler in the second half of the 2018 season.

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Tim: I think the A’s end up around .500, which would certainly be a win. There’s too much youth for the A’s to not endure a losing streak here and a rough patch of injuries there, but the talent is obvious from that 2017 second half. A season of .500 ball would put the A’s squarely in line to go out and acquire or sign some talent next offseason and compete in 2019. The name of 2018 is finding out who’s real and who isn’t, seeing if the guys who showed so much promise last season can stick. Once that inevitable attrition happens, the A’s can truly go for it. It’s still a figuring out kind of year, but it’s imperative the A’s show some on field success.

Jason: After making the playoffs for the third year in a row in 2015, the A’s have only managed to win 68, 69 and 75 games a season. At this point, just finishing at .500 in 2018 will seem like an amazing accomplishment and that’s about as high as I set my expectations this year.

Give me 81 or 82 wins in a season where Chapman, Olson, Fowler and Barreto form a core of strong, young everyday players and Puk, Manaea and Graveman lead a promising rotation supported by a reliable, versatile bullpen anchored by Treinen. Throw in a return to form by Piscotty, a bounceback season by Lucroy that yields some decent prospects in a deadline trade and a farm system that kicks into high gear and 2018 will be a success for the A’s.

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Tim: You should have asked about the Matts (Chapman and Olson) who looked like superstars in 2017. You should have asked are they real, and boy am I glad you didn’t. Sophomores are hard to predict! I’ll tell you this: Chapman’s glove and Olson’s power are two of the best tools in the game. The former is nearly certain to make Chapman at least leave average, and he may well be the best defensive third baseman in a game chalk full. The latter is more of a question mark, but how many guys hit 24 home runs in 59 games? This team desperately needed superstar ability, and those two guys showed the tools. The results of 2018 rest largely on their shoulders.

Jason: How about, “Will the A’s ever get a new ballpark in Oakland?” And the answer is: I think it’ll eventually happen. At this pace, the A’s may not be playing ball in that new Oakland stadium for a decade but I think a deal will get done if the team actually delivers on its promise of a privately financed facility. The Coliseum site will be wide open for development once the Oakland Raiders and Golden State Warriors leave town and Howard Terminal is as intriguing as it is logistically challenging. Then again, I also wouldn’t be surprised if the franchise was calling Montreal home in a decade since the franchise has shown a knack for jumping from town to town (Philadelphia to Kansas City to Oakland) and the city of Oakland has shown a knack for losing professional sports franchises (Warriors and the Raiders twice). 

Really appreciate Tim (and Jason!) spending a little time with us to talk about the Oakland club.  We’ll all be keeping eyes on Piscotty but there may be other reasons to follow the A’s this year!

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