If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper! For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear. It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about. It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.
These answers were obtained before (or very soon after) spring training was halted and Opening Day was delayed. Obviously, things may be very different when baseball returns but my hope is that this gives you a good feel for the A’s, even if some specific items may be affected.
We’ve gotten sort of used to the A’s being a playoff team, haven’t we? Losing in the Wild Card Game is a tough pill to swallow for a team that won 95 games, but early exits from October are, unfortunately, not all that uncommon for the green and gold. So what’s in store for this year? Can they overcome the rest of the division and then make a deep run through the playoffs? Let’s take a look.
C70: It was a relatively quiet offseason for the A’s. Is there something from this winter that sticks out to you?
Nico: Besides how unusually quiet the offseason was, what sticks out is how little the A’s felt they needed to worry about starting pitching. In recent years the front office seemed intent on maximizing depth and options, adding multiple reclamation projects, minor league free agents, non-roster invitees, you name it. This year the A’s truly seem to feel like their “core 6” (Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, Mike Fiers, Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk, Chris Bassitt) along with their AAA rotation (likely Daulton Jefferies, James Kaprielian, Grant Holmes, Daniel Gossett, Paul Blackburn) is enough to get them through the season as is. They haven’t been linked to any starting pitchers and don’t appear to be about to sign or trade for one.
Josh: The biggest on-field storyline this offseason for the A’s was second base. When they traded Jurickson Profar to the Padres in November, it seemed like a clear sign that the team would be making a significant addition at the position. But instead, they added two more fringe players in utility man Tony Kemp and Rule 5 pick-up Vimael Machin. Those two join former top prospects Franklin Barreto, Jorge Mateo and Sheldon Neuse for a five-man fight for only a couple roster spots – and of that bunch, Neuse is the only one the A’s can option to Triple-A. It should be one of Oakland’s most interesting spring training battles in recent memory.
C70: Mike Fiers obviously got a lot of attention this winter. Do you think that all of that will be a distraction for him this season?
Nico: He’s human, so if you’re hoping the whole Astros team will suffer from the distraction you have to accept the possibility that it will affect Fiers too. But one important difference is that while the Astros are reputed to be mired in a toxic environment, Oakland’s clubhouse and front office culture could not be better. So I imagine that Fiers will be fine overall — but it can’t be easy to be in his shoes right now.
Josh: I don’t think it will. Fiers is a veteran, and he’s dealt with controversy before – you’ll remember back in 2014, he hit Giancarlo Stanton in the face with an errant fastball and ended his season. People were upset, but Fiers didn’t let it slow him down. I think this will be similar, though I can’t wait to see him face the Astros this season.
I will add that it’s been fascinating to see baseball fans take sides regarding Fiers. I personally see him as more of a whistleblower than a snitch. He’s not quite a hero, since he waited two years to speak up and didn’t give up his World Series ring, but he was willing to put his name behind his words and that takes a lot of guts. We now know that multiple teams (including the A’s) complained about Houston’s cheating to MLB, but the league didn’t take action until Fiers spoke out. He put his career on the line to help put an end to a cheating scandal that was negatively affecting other teams and players. I think he should be respected for that.
C70: Which Oakland prospect will likely make the biggest impact on the major league team this year?
Nico: The odds on favorite would have to be Jesus Luzardo, who could already be the A’s best starting pitcher (and a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate). Of course much of that depends on his health, and it’s also unknown how many innings the A’s will let him throw in 2020. Sean Murphy figures to break camp as the A’s primary catcher, so he could also be a high impact player, and while he also has “innings limitation” questions A.J. Puk certainly has the tools to make a significant contribution. Put your smart money on one of those three — if not all three — making a huge impact for the big league club this year.
Josh: I’m going to cheat and give three names here – lefties Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk and catcher Sean Murphy. All three are consensus Top 50 prospects that debuted late last season and look almost certain to make the Opening Day roster. Luzardo and Puk are two of the most exciting young arms in baseball, drawing comparisons to Johan Santana and Randy Johnson respectively, while Murphy is a plus defender behind the plate with a ton of power. If you force me to pick only one, it’s Luzardo, but these three truly represent the final wave of star-level talent arriving in Oakland for the foreseeable future.
C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?
Nico: Each of the last two seasons I have been deferential and picked the Astros, who have earned the right to be dubbed “the team to beat” in the AL West. This year, though, I can see the A’s taking the leap over Houston and winning the division. In Oakland’s case, they return almost all of their 97 win team from 2019 — consider that their two main losses, Jurickson Profar and Blake Treinen, were two of their weaknesses — and with decent health their rotation has the potential to be elite front to back.
Meanwhile, the Astros have lost Gerrit Cole, Wade Miley, and Will Harris, have the cloud of the scandal hovering over them, and have the more practical problem of not enjoying the benefits of sign stealing. We saw how much their swinging strike rates dropped in the “sign stealing era,” so you may see the Astros’ offense dip a little just because they are back on a level playing field. And I think it’s not going to be fun or easy to be the Astros on the road this year. Without being a homer, I could see Houston dropping to 95 wins and the A’s rising to 100. I still think it’s Houston’s division until someone unseats them, but I also think the A’s have a real chance to do it in 2020.
Josh: This is tough because, in my eyes, it all hinges on the Astros. How do they rebound from this scandal? How much was the cheating truly helping them? The Rangers aren’t even remotely threatening, and the Angels have a strong lineup but that rotation might be one of the weakest in baseball – at the very least, it’s one of the weakest among contenders. So, again, it’s a two-horse race between Houston and Oakland. The rational side of me has to give the slight edge to the Astros because, banging scheme or not, that roster is stacked. But they lost a huge piece in Gerrit Cole, and the A’s are going to be right on their tail all season. It should be an exciting race.
C70: What’s the main topic A’s fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?
Nico: Obvious topics would be the new ballpark Oakland is trying to build at Jack London Square, the Astros’ scandal, and who the heck is going to play 2B. On the less obvious front, much discussion has arisen regarding possible extensions to key players such as Marcus Semien (a hometown kid eligible for free agency after 2020), Matt Chapman, and Matt Olson.
Historically, the A’s don’t keep their best players long term but the front office has been clear that the new ballpark is an avenue to potentially shifting that narrative. The A’s hope to move into the new ballpark in 2023, which happens to be the year Chapman’s and Olson’s contracts are up. The hope is that once the A’s break ground on a new ballpark, extensions will follow. Time will tell.
Josh: Probably the new ballpark and possible extensions, which go hand-in-hand. The A’s are making serious progress toward their new ballpark at Howard Terminal near downtown Oakland, but it’s a slow process. The current plan is for the park to be ready for Opening Day 2023, but until they see shovels in the dirt, A’s fans are going to be skeptical.
Hopefully, the new ballpark would mean a significant increase in revenue, and thus higher payrolls. A’s fans are sick of the team’s perennially low budgets and affinity for trading stars and fan favorites. The team has three true superstar infielders right now in Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien, and Matt Olson, and as it stands currently, Semien be a free agent after 2020 and the Matts will hit the market after 2023. In my view, the front office needs to lock up at least two of these three players if they want fans to take them seriously going into the new ballpark.
C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?
Nico: This is a truly exciting team to watch, from the talented guys already mentioned to other “impact players” such as Ramon Laureano and Khris Davis. I think most A’s fans have a “bring it on” feeling around going toe to toe with the Astros for the AL West. Then mid-summer the front office hopes to have the official announcement that the new ballpark is a go. It could be a magical season on many fronts. Can we get started already?
Josh: Honestly? Winning a darn playoff series! It’s only happened once in my lifetime. We’re sick of heartbreaking first-round exits, and the team has to snap this Wild Card losing streak. If they’re going to do it, this is the year. This is the most talented A’s roster I can remember. The team proved late last year that they can beat Houston head-to-head, and now they just need to do that for a full season and they might be able to take the division. From there? Who knows. As some guy once said, “our sh*t doesn’t work in the playoffs.”