Playing Pepper 2021: Oakland Athletics

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

Oakland Athletics
36-24, first in the AL West, lost in the ALDS
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

The OG team that kicked off the era of sabermetrics, Oakland has found a ton of success with limited resources.  However, they haven’t been to the ALCS since 2006 and the 1990 team remains the last to make it to the World Series.  Can the A’s translate regular season success into something that lasts longer in October?  Let’s see what the blogger says!

Blogger Site Twitter
Joshua Iversen Baseball Trade Values jive_mlb

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

Joshua: Pandemic baseball was certainly strange! Some things, like the crowd noise or fan cutouts in the stands, only took a few games to get used to. Others, like the rule changes, expanded rosters and just the sheer dissonance of seeing players interact without masks while we’re all stuck in our homes, took some time. From a safety standpoint, I think the league learned a lot as the season went on, and between that and positive vaccination news, I feel pretty confident that the 2021 season will be very safe.

For that safety, the regional schedules made perfect sense, but I can’t wait to see the A’s play Central and East teams again. I’ve been pushing for the universal DH since day one, so I enjoyed that (and I’m a bit disappointed it’s gone for 2021). I’m very much on the fence about the runner on second in extra innings – on any given day, I’ll either tell you I like the tension it adds to the game, or I’ll tell you I hate that they’re trying to artificially shorten the sport I love to watch.

I’m not sure my baseball viewing experience changed all that much, to be honest. I already tried to plan my days around games, so it wasn’t like all the extra time on my hands changed much for me in that regard. Plus, I spend more than half the season out of state, so I didn’t miss a ton in terms of in-person attendance, either. Obviously, I wish the season could have been longer, but given the circumstances (both with health and tense MLB/Union negotiations), I’m happy with what we had.

C70: The A’s made a deal recently, sending out Khris Davis for longtime divisional foe Elvis Andrus. What did you make of this swap?

Joshua: This was a rare deal that made perfect sense for both teams and improved their short and long term pictures, but also did significant damage to both fanbases. For the A’s, as usual, it was largely driven by money. They spent most of the offseason sitting on their hands, with some sources saying they didn’t expect the team to be able to spend anything at all. Then, they offloaded Davis’ $16.75M, and all the other pieces fell into place from there.

Davis was a fan favorite and really bucked the norm with his two-year contract extension in 2019. But just weeks after he was extended, the usual DH was forced to play in the outfield in Pittsburgh and crashed into a wall. The resulting hip injury derailed his season and he was quickly reduced to a platoon DH role after a slow start to 2020. He came alive in the playoffs, though, and there’s reason to believe in a 2021 bounceback. But on a team with plenty of right-handed power, no middle infield and no money to spend, his salary was better allocated elsewhere.

Rangers fans were probably more upset about losing Andrus than A’s fans were about Davis. He’s into his 30s now and starting to deal with some back issues. By wRC+, he hasn’t been an above average hitter since 2017. All that being said, shortstop was such a black hole for the A’s after losing Marcus Semien that Andrus doesn’t need to do much to be an improvement. If he provides average defense and offense roughly within the ~80 wRC+ range, the A’s and their fans should be content, especially since he’s seen as a great clubhouse presence. In reality, he’s just keeping the spot warm for top shortstop prospect Nick Allen, who can really pick it and is growing into a little bit of pop.

As for the smaller pieces – Jonah Heim is a talented, but late-blooming catcher. He’s blocked in Oakland by Sean Murphy, but as a switch-hitter with skills on both sides of the ball, he’ll fit in nicely in Texas. The A’s also sent righty Dane Acker, as they’ve shown a willingness to move some of their less exciting lower-minors arms in deals like this. They also added a back-up catcher, Aramis Garcia, who they seem to like as a defender and think could develop a bit as a hitter.

C70: It seems like Stephen Piscotty has struggled a little the last couple of seasons. Is there any concern about him and what are your expectations for him this year?

Joshua: There is plenty of concern about Piscotty. He’ll earn $7.25M this year and next, which isn’t much for most teams, but serves as a bit of a burden for the A’s. Presumably, they tried to move him this offseason but, unsurprisingly, found no takers.

He was excellent down the stretch in 2018, but battled injuries in 2019 and just couldn’t make contact in 2020. It’s hard to tell exactly what the issue is, whether it’s pitch recognition, selling out for power, lingering injuries or something else. Whatever the case, if the struggles continue, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Oakland cut bait. He’s a fan favorite and local guy, but right now, he’s blocking a handful of interesting young outfielders that the A’s are going to want to get some looks.

C70: What do you think is the strength of this team?

Joshua: I’m not sure this team has a clear, definitive strength. The offense is solid, but falls off when you get to the bottom, with Piscotty, Andrus and a likely second base platoon of Tony Kemp and Chad Pinder (or, potentially, the rotting husk of Jed Lowrie). The rotation has plenty of upside, but Jesus Luzardo, Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas each struggled at times in 2020, and Mike Fiers doesn’t seem to have much left in the tank. The bullpen looks strong, but it’s built on guys in their late 30s (Yusmeiro Petit, Sergio Romo) and guys coming off elite 2020 seasons, but with less reliable track records (Jake Diekman, Trevor Rosenthal).

Their main strength is probably defense. They have four Gold Glove candidates – two previous winners in Matt Chapman and Matt Olson at third base and first base respectively, young catcher Sean Murphy, who shines on both sides of the ball, and outfielder Ramon Laureano, who significantly improved his reads last season in center. Every other position projects to be at least somewhere around average defensively, pending Andrus’ health and the eventual second base solution.

The A’s are also fairly deep. They have a handful of young players waiting in the wings at every position except the infield, and even there, there are a couple names they could look to in an emergency. With the jump from 60 games in 2020 to 162 in 2021, I think every team’s depth will really be tested, and the A’s have the talent and flexibility to weather the storm.

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

Joshua: I think Oakland is the team to beat in the division. The Astros, A’s and Rangers all got worse this offseason, the Angels treaded water at best and the Mariners aren’t going to be a threat for another year or two. I think Houston’s sub-.500 record in 2020 was a fluke, but after losing George Springer and Justin Verlander, they aren’t the powerhouse they used to be. I’m especially interested to see how long the cheating scandal follows them, now that fans are returning to the stands a year later. The Angels continue to do a great job of pairing an excellent offense with mediocre pitching and missing the playoffs as a result. I expect that to continue in 2021.

The A’s won 97 games each in 2018 and 2019, and were on pace for 97 again in 2020. I won’t go that high – losing Semien, Liam Hendriks and Tommy La Stella hurts – but I’m comfortable guessing somewhere in the 92-94 win range for 2021, enough to win the AL West again.

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

Joshua: This might be the toughest question you’ve asked. It really depends what facet of the organization we’re looking at. Ownership gets a big, fat F. John Fisher is one of the richest owners in the sport, and he runs the team like he’s one of the poorest. The rest of the front office gets a B+, maybe an A-. Billy Beane, David Forst and co. do an excellent job of working within their financial constraints and still finding talent wherever they can. There’s a reason this team is coming off of three consecutive playoff appearances. Player development hasn’t been as great; I’d probably give it a C or a D. They’ve mismanaged plenty of talented young players like Franklin Barreto and Austin Beck, and there’s enough of a pattern there for it to be seen as an organizational issue, not just one or two outliers.

Overall, I guess I’d go with a solid B. It’s hard to be too upset with the type of major league success the organization has had, but the farm looks as weak as it ever has (partially because of stars like Luzardo, Murphy, Chapman and Olson graduating, but also because of poor development) and the constant refusal to spend is getting old. Plans for the new ballpark were delayed by at least a year due to COVID, but hopefully that process continues smoothly and we’ll all be looking at this organization very differently in three or four years.

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