Playing Pepper 2023: Oakland Athletics

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Oakland Athletics
60-102, fifth in the AL West
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Frankie Montas (1.9)
Top hitter by fWAR: Sean Murphy (5.1)

It’s probably a little unkind that the A’s now resemble a car that was stolen, stripped for parts, and left on cinderblocks.  However, it’s probably not too far from the truth, either.  Two years ago, the A’s reached the postseason for the third consecutive year.  Only one of the top 12 players in bWAR from that team (Ramon Laureano) is still on the team going into 2023.  Can the A’s do what the A’s do, strip down, retool, and get back to winning?  Let’s see what our experts have to say about it.

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Nico Pemantle Athletics Nation
Josh Iversen Baseball Trade Values jive_mlb
Jason Burke Locked On A's LockedOnAs

C70: It’s not been that long ago that the A’s were a playoff team but now it feels like ownership has waved the white flag. What’s your general feeling about the team and where it stands as 2023 begins?

Nico: The 2023 team will be better and not just because it would be hard to be worse. Black holes have been replaced by “league average” veterans (Jace Peterson, Aledmys Diaz), you might see the likes of Zach Gelof and even possibly Tyler Soderstrom mid-season, and there is some talent and depth in the rotation that will probably produce 5 pretty good SP. The A’s won’t make the post-season in all likelihood, but they should be more fun to watch and able to win more than 60 games.

Josh: Ambivalence. On the one hand, this team is not going to be very good, and it’ll need a lot of things to go right for it to be competitive again even by 2025. Plus, the stadium saga has gone very poorly in the last year and right now appears to be at a standstill, with Oakland making the most sense but A’s ownership refusing to budge on money and threatening Las Vegas instead. But on the other hand, this team has a much clearer direction than the 2022 squad, and will be giving the bulk of its playing time to interesting young players or bounceback candidates that can be flipped at the deadline. The 2023 season will be make-or-break in a lot of different ways, between the stadium situation, the futures of individual players as well as the team’s competitive timeline as a whole. So, at least that will be interesting.

Jason: I think the on-the-field product will be a lot better than it was last season. Oakland has some bounce back candidates like Aguilar and Kevin Smith that could have good years, and there’s a lot of breakout potential on the roster with guys like Ryan Noda and Shintaro Fujinami. That said, the main talking point this year will be whether or not the A’s are going to stay in Oakland. Las Vegas chatter is heating up, and if they’re going to move, we should know by about June. If they don’t have a deal with Vegas by then, they may actually stay. 

C70: A majority of the 26-man roster looks to be players that are not even arbitration eligible yet. Which name will be the most known by the end of the year?

Nico: Could be Shintaro Fujinami if everything falls into place. Or if the A’s scouting is in fact “on its game” it could be Esteury Ruiz. (With the new pickoff rules and larger bases, could Ruiz be the first big leaguer to swipe 131 bases in a season?)

Josh: My cynical answer is Seth Brown, because he’s the next obvious trade candidate as a slugging left-handed bat with solid corner outfield defense, and he’ll likely get lots of buzz before being moved at the deadline (or next offseason). But as far as the team’s younger players go, I’m going to pick Nick Allen. He doesn’t have the upside of a Shea Langeliers or Esteury Ruiz, but he is a defensive wizard at shortstop and is sure to make plenty of highlight reels throughout the year. I believe in his bat more than most, and if he can get his offensive production close to league average, he has a chance to carve out an Andrelton Simmons-esque career.

Jason: This one is tough, because there’s a lot of potential in this group, but Fuji has to be the answer here. His splitter is one of the hardest in the game and it’s just filthy. He’s shown he can make adjustments mid-game this spring, so if he can keep his pitch count under control (I.e. hone in his command a little) then he could end up as the A’s All Star representative. He’s going to make at least one team look foolish this season. He’s also on a one year deal, so he could end up as trade bait at the deadline. 

C70: What’s going to be the strongest aspect of this team, do you think?

Nico: I have a feeling that absent elite hitting talent the A’s are going to try to exploit the new rules to run, run, run and will be amongst the league leaders in stolen bases. That’s assuming, of course, that their fastest players can actually get on base.

Josh: This team doesn’t have an obvious strength (bullpen, rotation, lineup, defense, etc.) but I think overall this team’s strength relative to previous A’s teams will be its athleticism. The front office has clearly targeted athleticism in its recent trades and drafts and it’s starting to show. Outside of maybe recent veteran additions Jesus Aguilar and Manny Pina, every player on this team can move well in the field and on the basepaths and play multiple positions defensively. With the larger bases, pitch clock and pickoff restrictions, this team could cause some problems on the basepaths, even if it’s in a way that doesn’t show in raw stolen base totals, and their athleticism could help them navigate the shift restrictions on defense.

Jason: The strongest aspect is going to be youth and platoons. Lots of young guys on this club that are looking to make a name for themselves in this league, but the front office also went out and signed a few veterans to help the team’s overall production. I foresee a lot of platoons that make the A’s roughly league average at just about every position. One example: Seth Brown was 29% above league average against righties, but 40% below average against lefties last season. If the A’s put Jace Peterson in left against southpaws, he’s another guy that was better than league average by 5%. Combined, that’s a top 10 or so left fielder. Kevin Smith would be my pick to man the hot corner with Peterson in left, and Smith provided excellent defense and mashed left-handers (16% above league avg) even while struggling overall last season. 

C70: While trading off many pieces, the A’s went out and signed Shintaro Fujinami. What do you expect from him this season?

Nico: No one knows, but the stuff is reportedly electric so the upside is substantial. Or he could be wild and continue the A’s trend of failed overseas projects. Sadly, I suspect the better he is the shorter his time will be with Oakland as he is on a one-year deal and could draw a lot of interest at the trading deadline if he proves to be “all that”.

Josh: Fujinami is already a fan favorite. Hopes are high for him and he’s been guaranteed an Opening Day rotation spot. This spring we’ve already seen the highs and the lows of Fujinami – he pairs a high-90s fastball with an unhittable wipeout splitter, but he also struggles to consistently throw strikes. He also likely isn’t ready for a full 30-start workload in 2023, so the A’s have discussed getting creative in the rotation to accommodate him. I think the likeliest outcome is Fujinami gets a solid run in the rotation to start the year but ultimately ends up in the bullpen as a dominant high-leverage arm capable of pitching multiple innings. But there’s a slight chance he can put it all together and be a mid-rotation starter or better, and that’s what makes him so tantalizing.

Jason: I think he’s given us a good glimpse into what to expect from him this spring. He’ll dominate one inning, then walk the bases loaded the next. He’ll be his own worst enemy at times, but when he’s on he’s going to be a lot of fun to watch. 

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Nico: Best case is probably a lot like 2017, when the A’s started slow as they awaited the arrival of the Matts but then finished really strong as a precursor to 97 win seasons in 2018 and 2019. Worst case is that the A’s prospects have another year like they had in 2022, when pretty much every prospect they dealt for either disappointed or got hurt, and Oakland is forced to rely heavily on filler like Peterson and Diaz from day 1 to day 162. I would say realistically the range of possible win totals is something like 60-75 which, knowing the A’s, probably means Adam Oller will post a 2.33 ERA in 30 starts and the team will finish 95-67.

Josh: The worst case scenario is the A’s sink deeper than their 2022 record of 60-102. After all, they lost their best hitter in Sean Murphy and their best pitcher in Frankie Montas, along with a handful of other quality players, and did little to replace them in terms of proven MLB talent. It’s possible Fujinami can’t throw enough strikes to start, Cristian Pache still can’t hit and is DFA’d in May, Esteury Ruiz can’t hit the ball hard enough to be more than a utility player, Shea Langeliers can’t make enough contact to be more than a backup and the A’s crop of interesting young arms are nothing more than 5th/6th starters.

The best case scenario is probably a 75ish-win season, but one that shows promise. I don’t think something similar to the 2017 season is out of the cards, when the A’s finished 75-87 but Matt Chapman and Matt Olson made their presence known and signaled the start of the A’s next competitive window. The 2023 A’s 99th percentile season likely has Ruiz and Langeliers filling those same roles, perhaps with steps forward from some number of Pache, Allen, Ryan Noda, Jordan Diaz, Ken Waldichuk and Kyle Muller, and perhaps favorable trade returns for Aguilar, Brown and Tony Kemp.

The most likely scenario is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 wins. While the A’s lost star talent in Montas and Murphy, they’ve added floor in players like Aguilar, Aledmys Diaz and Jace Peterson, and will likely give less playing time to sub-replacement players. Their bullpen also looks okay, and veterans Kemp and Ramon Laureano are likely to take steps forward from their rough 2022 seasons. Some young players will impress, others will disappoint, and we’ll likely have a much clearer image by the end of the season of how long it will take this team to compete again – and in which city they will do it.

Jason: Best case scenario is the A’s end up just a few wins shy of .500. Maybe 78 wins. I’m not sure what their worst case win total would be, but I still think it’d be above the 60 they won last year. Their depth is much improved, and they have more talent this year, too. Most likely scenario is probably somewhere between 69-72 wins. The May have the talent and the depth to reach 78, but there’s a lot of pieces that could get traded at mid-season too. This team may not grab a bunch of headlines, but I’m expecting them to be a very watchable club, even while not necessarily vying for a playoff spot. 

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