With 68 wins last season, the Oakland A’s posted their worst record since the dark days of the late 1990s. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the A’s in 2015: injuries to key players, veterans under-performing and a bullpen that was incapable of holding a lead for most of the season.
For the first time since 2011, the A’s were sellers at the trade deadline, and they did well, acquiring several talented young players in exchange for Ben Zobrist, Scott Kazmir and Tyler Clippard. During the off-season, the A’s had very few free agent defections, but, as always, they were busy on the trade market. Oakland traded away veterans Jesse Chavez, Brett Lawrie and Drew Pomeranz, but they acquired more veteran talent than they traded away, picking up Yonder Alonso, Khris Davis, Jed Lowrie, Chris Coghlan and Marc Rzepczynski. The A’s also signed free agents John Axford and Ryan Madson in an attempt to shore up their porous bullpen, as well as starters Rich Hill and Henderson Alvarez.
The end result is an Opening Day roster that should be better than the team that the A’s put out on the field for most of the 2015 season. But in an AL West division that features Mike Trout and two pre-season AL pennant contenders, will an improved A’s roster result in more wins in 2016, or will the A’s find themselves in the basement of the division once again?
Normally an organizational strength, starting pitching is by far the A’s biggest question mark heading into the 2016 season. The A’s rotation is largely young and unproven, and the one longtime veteran may be the biggest question mark of them all. A’s starters as a group were ineffective during spring training, and those struggles cost Jesse Hahn his rotation spot at the start of the season. He should factor into the A’s rotation at some point in the season, as will Henderson Alvarez, who will begin the season on the disabled list but is expected to be ready to pitch in May or June. Top prospect Sean Manaea is also a decent bet to join the rotation sometime in 2016, and fellow prospect Dillon Overton could join him. In other words, the starting rotation previewed below may not come close to representing the rotation the A’s use for the majority of the season.
The only member of the A’s rotation who comes in with no questions surrounding him is Opening Day starter Sonny Gray.
Gray was third in the Cy Young Award balloting last season and, in his third season in the big leagues, may just now be starting to scratch the surface of how good he can be. The right-hander has been a rock since joining the A’s midway through the 2013 season. In each of the last two years, Gray has gone over the 200-inning mark. Last year, he threw 208 innings and posted a 2.73 ERA and a 147 ERA+. He struck-out 2.86 batters for every batter he walked and he threw three complete games.
With Gray under team control for four more seasons after this one, he is one of the most valuable trade commodities in baseball. The A’s have publicly stated that they have no intention of trading Gray, but rumors are likely to persist throughout the season. This is Gray’s first season where he is the clear number one starter with no talented number two behind him. He will need to block out trade rumors and handle the weight of being the only ace in the rotation. Gray has always been mentally tough and has performed well in pressure starts, however.
The A’s will begin the year with veteran Rich Hill as their number two starter, but his presence in the rotation could be short-lived if his struggles this spring carry over into the regular season.
The A’s signed the veteran left-hander to a one-year, $6 million deal this off-season after Hill put together an impressive September in the Boston Red Sox’s rotation (1.55 ERA and a 36:5 K:BB in 29 innings). Before that run with the Red Sox, Hill had split his season between the minor leagues and the independent leagues.
Hill made his major-league debut in 2005 and was a highly regarded prospect for the Chicago Cubs. He had a solid 2007 season in their rotation but was never able to recreate that success thanks to command issues that have plagued him for most of his career. Hill’s command was very shaky this spring, although it was a little better in his final Cactus League outing. The A’s made a sizable financial commitment to Hill for this season, but they have shown a willingness to eat money before if a veteran is under-performing on a short-term deal. Hill will need to last deep into games in order to stay in the rotation beyond the first few weeks of the season. He could move to the bullpen – where he has significant experience – should he not last in the rotation.
Oakland’s number three starter knows all about quick hooks when under-performing in the starting rotation. Kendall Graveman saw a bad start in 2015 land him in Triple-A by the end of April. He earned his way back into the rotation by late May and was one of the A’s most consistent starters from May 23 until August 23, when an oblique strain shut him down for the year.
Graveman also struggled with his command during the spring, although sinkers are a difficult pitch to throw in Arizona and that is Graveman’s biggest weapon. He spent a lot of time working on his change-up this spring, and that is a pitch he will need to find more consistent success in the big leagues. When Graveman is on his game, he pitches quickly and works deep into games. Besides Gray, Graveman is the only A’s starter with a history of pitching deep into games. Graveman could be extremely valuable for the A’s in an innings-eater role given the make-up of their staff.
Fourth starter Chris Bassitt might have the second-best arsenal of pitches in the A’s rotation behind Gray. However, his command lags behind Gray’s and has prevented Bassitt from putting a strange-hold on a rotation spot thus far in his year-plus in the A’s organization.
Bassitt is one of those rare sinkerballers who also strikes out his fair share of batters. He averaged nearly a strike-out an inning in the minor leagues while also posting a minor league career GO/AO of 1.39. Last year, Bassitt struggled during spring training and spent the first half of the year in Triple-A. Once up with the A’s, he was effective. In 86 innings, he had a 3.56 ERA. He walked a few too many (30), but he struck-out 64 and allowed just five homeruns. A sore shoulder shut Bassitt down for much of September, but he was able to return for the final week of the season and he has been healthy this spring. Like Graveman, Bassitt holds promise, but his track record in the big leagues is extremely limited.
The A’s expected left-hander Felix Doubront to fill a long relief role when they brought him into camp. However, with Hahn’s struggles, Doubront worked his way into the rotation, although he left his final start of the spring with left forearm tightness. His health will be monitored over the next few days. If healthy, Doubront will be looking to mimic the success of the last A’s long reliever to work his way into the rotation – Jesse Chavez.
Like Hill, Doubront was once a highly regarded prospect in a big market (Boston, in Doubront’s case) who has never fully met those expectations. He spent the 2012 and 2013 seasons in the Red Sox’s rotation before bouncing around for the next two seasons, finally landing with the A’s on a waiver claim late last season. The lefty has a career 4.89 ERA in 513.2 innings. He has some zip on his fastball and his curveball earned praise this spring, but Doubront will remain the most likely candidate to move into the bullpen when Alvarez or Hahn are ready unless he comes storming out of the gate in April.
There are no ifs-ands-or-buts about it, the A’s bullpen was an unmitigated disaster last season. The A’s under-performed their Pythagorean record by nine wins last season and the bullpen was a big part of the reason why. A’s relievers had a 6.98 ERA in save situations and 4.63 ERA overall.
The A’s front office was quick to respond to this weakness this off-season. They let go nearly every member of the 2015 bullpen and replaced them with a haul of established major league veterans. Heading into the 2016 season, the A’s bullpen looks like a strength, although it is always hard to tell how good bullpens will be until the games start counting.
The bullpen starts with closer Sean Doolittle, who missed most of last season with arm problems. Doolittle’s loss was significant, as it took nearly everyone out of their projected roles and left the A’s without a power arm in the late innings.
Going into the 2016 season, Doolittle appears to be healthy, although he still isn’t throwing in the mid-90s like he was during his All-Star 2014 campaign. Doolittle may not need those extra miles per hour to be successful given the deception he gets from his delivery, but it would be good to see that velocity tick up a little. Doolittle has been working on his secondary offerings this spring and should mix his change-up and breaking ball in more in 2016.
Should Doolittle land on the DL or struggle, the A’s have a couple of experienced late-inning options to replace him. The first in line will be right-hander Ryan Madson, who signed a three-year deal with the A’s this off-season.
Madson was one of the top closers in baseball during the Philadelphia Phillies’ heyday in the late 2000s. Injuries kept him off the mound from 2012 until last season, when he made a remarkable comeback with the Kansas City Royals. Madson posted a 2.13 ERA in 63.1 innings. He walked only 14 and had a 4.14 K/BB. Madson looked sharp all spring and, whether his role is in the eighth inning or the ninth, he will be a critical piece to the A’s bullpen this season.
Fellow veteran John Axford led the National League in saves in 2011, but he has been inconsistent in seasons since that breakout year. Last year, Axford had the unenviable position of serving as the Rockies’ closer. He saved 25 games but posted a 4.20 ERA and allowed 56 hits in 55.2 innings.
Axford’s command has wavered at times (he has a career 4.5 BB/9), but he has the kind of swing-and-miss stuff the A’s have lacked in the seventh and eighth innings since Ryan Cook began to struggle in 2014. Axford struck-out 10 per nine innings last year and carries a career 10.6 K/9. If he can keep the walks down some, Axford could be a big weapon for the A’s this year.
Liam Hendriks joins Axford and Madson as a right-hander in the A’s bullpen who can throw 94+.
A relatively soft-tossing right-hander in the Minnesota rotation at the start of his career, Hendriks moved to the bullpen and found roughly 5 miles per hour on his fastball. Last year, Hendriks was a key component to the Toronto bullpen. He posted a 2.92 ERA in 64.2 innings. Hendriks’ K/BB was a remarkable 6.45 and he struck-out 9.9 per nine innings. The A’s will mix Hendriks into the seventh and eighth inning roles, and he could serve as a two-inning reliever if A’s starters falter early in games.
Marc Rzepczynski will be the only left-hander available in the middle innings while Doolittle is the closer. Acquired from San Diego this off-season, Rzepczynski had a rough 2015 season but the A’s are counting on him to be their situational left-hander.
The 30-year-old has been in the big leagues since 2009 and he carries a 3.96 ERA in 345.1 innings. He has been much more effective against left-handers for his entire career. Rzepczynski has a career .215 BAA against lefties and a .281 BAA versus righties. The A’s will play match-up with Rzepczynski as much as they can, and he is likely to top 70 appearances this season if he is healthy and effective.
Right-handers Fernando Rodriguez and Ryan Dull earned the last two spots in the bullpen after strong springs. Both spent some time in the A’s bullpen last year and were among the team’s most effective relievers in those limited opportunities.
Rodriguez joined the A’s from Houston before the 2013 season, but he missed that entire year after injuring his elbow during spring training and undergoing Tommy John surgery. He threw only nine innings with the A’s in 2014 but split his 2015 season between Triple-A and the big leagues. With the A’s, Rodriguez had a 3.84 ERA in 58.2 innings. He walked too many (3.7 BB/9), but he struck-out 10 per nine innings and allowed just 6.6 hits per nine innings. Rodriguez is out-of-options and must remain on the A’s roster all season or risk being exposed to waivers. Like Madson and Axford, Rodriguez has some zip on his fastball, averaging 94 MPH last season.
Dull doesn’t have the same velocity as the other right-handers in the A’s bullpen, but hitters often react to his fastball as if it is coming at them at 95 MPH. Dull gets plenty of deception and movement on his fastball, which has been nicknamed since A-ball as “ghostball” for how it disappears on hitters. In 209 career minor league innings, Dull has struck-out 259 and walked only 49. He had 16 strike-outs in 17 innings in his major-league debut last September and continued to impress this spring. Because he throws strikes and gets swings-and-misses and weak contact, Dull is a good option to bring into situations with runners on base. He’ll begin the year in the middle innings but could maneuver his way into a more prominent role as the season goes on.
The A’s infield struggled both offensively and defensively last season. Not surprisingly, the A’s are bringing back almost an entirely new crew for the 2016 season. In fact, only one player remains from the infield the A’s carried on Opening Day last year, shortstop Marcus Semien.
It was a weird first season for Semien in the green and gold. One the one hand, he played in a career-high 155 major-league games and hit 15 homeruns while posting a .405 SLG – both solid numbers for a shortstop. On the other hand, he endured one of the most difficult defensive seasons any A’s shortstop has had to go through in some time. He made a league-high 35 errors and became the face of the A’s defensive failings.
Semien worked closely with A’s infield coach Ron Washington during the season and his defensive noticeably improved under Washington’s tutelage. For what it is worth, Semien had a positive dWAR according to Baseball-Reference, despite the errors. The A’s were patient with Semien’s defense last year, in part, because they didn’t have any other options to play everyday at short. This year, they begin the season in a similar situation, but prospect Chad Pinder could change that dynamic during the season if he gets off to a hot start and Semien struggles. Semien was one of the few A’s who struggled at the plate this spring, which will be something to monitor at the start of the season.
Semien’s new double-play partner is second baseman Jed Lowrie, who returns to the A’s after one season in Houston. Lowrie was the A’s shortstop before Semien took over in 2015, and he will serve as Semien’s backup at the position, but should see the majority of his playing time at second base.
Lowrie had an injury-plagued 2015 season with Houston and then saw his starting job at shortstop taken by phenom Carlos Correa while he was on the DL. He hit only .222 in 69 games with Houston, although Lowrie did slug .400. The A’s are hoping they are getting the Lowrie who slashed .290/.344/.446 for them in 2013 – and not the Lowrie who has struggled through injuries to post an OPS under 700 the past two seasons. Lowrie had a good spring at the plate and looks more comfortable at second base than he did at shortstop defensively. Lowrie is generally a tough at-bat and his ability to hit from both sides of the plate gives the A’s some line-up flexibility, as well.
When Lowrie isn’t at second base, the position is likely to be filled by Chris Coghlan, who was acquired by the A’s during the first week of camp from the Chicago Cubs. Coghlan is very versatile and will likely get into the line-up on a daily basis playing a variety of positions including second base, all three outfield positions and even some third base.
Coghlan was the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year with the Florida Marlins. He missed significant time with injury in 2010 and then struggled for the next three seasons before finding a home with the Chicago Cubs. Coghlan posted an 804 OPS for Chicago in 2014 and then hit a career-high 16 homers and stole a career-best 11 bases in 2015. He had an excellent spring at the plate, as well. A’s manager Bob Melvin will have to be creative to figure out how to get Coghlan into the line-up, but he should make an appearance most games, even if he doesn’t start every one of them.
If the A’s are going to surprise offensively, they will need to get a similar level of production from third baseman Danny Valencia that they got from him during his 47 games with the team last season. Claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays, Valencia mashed with the A’s, posting an 886 OPS with 11 homers in only 205 at-bats. He hit .290/.345/.519 with 18 homers in 105 games between Toronto and Oakland.
Valencia has been a bit of an enigma throughout his career. He’s had seasons where he has looked like an above-average regular at the plate – but he has often followed up those seasons with disappointing years. Valencia made a significant change with his hit mechanics last season, adding a leg kick, so it’s possible that his 2015 performance was the sign of a breakout and not an aberration. Valencia had a huge spring, but the real test will come when the season begins. Defensively, Valencia was below average last season and has been throughout his career, although he looked better at the hot corner this spring than he has in the past.
One area where the A’s definitively upgraded defensively this off-season was at first base with the addition of Yonder Alonso. Alonso is one of the better defensive first basemen in the game and he could help cut down on the A’s infield woes by catching more errant throws than A’s first basemen were able to last season.
Offensively, Alonso has never hit for the kind of power that scouts thought he would when he was a prospect. However, he has an excellent approach at the plate and is the kind of hitter that extends a line-up by wearing down a pitcher. Alonso had a 48:42 K:BB last season and a .282/.361 BA/OBP. Alonso only played in 103 games because of injury and health has been an issue for him throughout his career. He will likely get regular days off to keep the strain off of his back, which has given him trouble in the past. Alonso is likely to sit against left-handed pitchers, in particular, with Mark Canha or Billy Butler getting the starts at first versus lefties.
Butler is a man in need of a hot start. Now in the second year of a three-year deal, Butler is coming off of a disappointing 2015 season with Oakland. He hit only .251/.323/.390, well below what the A’s expected from him when they gave him $33 million.
Butler’s production has been declining the past two seasons, so it is possible that he is done being an asset. Unfortunately for the A’s, they owe Butler $22 million and aren’t in a position financially to eat that kind of money. He is limited to DH and the rare appearance at first base, which limits how the A’s can move around their other players, such as Coghlan and LF Khris Davis, who would be a better fit at DH than LF. The A’s reportedly tried to move Butler this off-season, but not surprisingly, there weren’t any takers. If Butler gets off to a hot start, the A’s could look to move him then. If he struggles, he may find himself on the bench despite the high salary.
Last year's starting second baseman Eric Sogard begins the season on the disabled list with a neck injury. He was a bit of a longshot to make the Opening Day roster, but he could land back on the A's active roster when healthy if the A's feel they need a true backup shortstop.
This doesn’t happen that often, but the A’s most productive offensive position last season was at catcher. A’s backstops combined to post a 795 OPS and slug 27 homers. Starting catcher Stephen Vogt made the All-Star team, but back-up Josh Phegley proved to be very valuable, as well. Not surprisingly, this is the only area of the A’s roster that returns intact from Opening Day 2015.
Vogt had a dream season last year, in many respects. He played in a career-high 136 games and hit .261/.341/.443 with 18 homers, 71 RBI and 56 walks. Vogt’s OPS was 853 in his 94 games as a catcher. He also saw time at first base, as the DH and as a pinch-hitter. Vogt was significantly more productive offensively when catching. Given the A’s depth at first base and DH, he isn’t likely to see as much playing time away from catcher this season. Vogt is coming off of minor elbow surgery and may be eased back into playing everyday at the start of the season.
If Phegley sees more playing time this year, it won’t likely be a bad thing for Oakland. He hit .249/.300/.449 with nine homers in 73 games last season. He played well defensively, catching 39% of would-be base-stealers (league average is 32%). Phegley has had a strong spring and is just entering the prime of his career. He should get most of the starts when the A’s are facing a left-handed pitcher and could spell Vogt on occasion versus a right-hander to keep Vogt fresh.
Although Billy Burns didn’t start the 2015 season on the A’s roster, he played the majority of the games in center for the A’s last year, meaning the A’s will be returning two-thirds of their regular starting outfield in 2016. Josh Reddick will be looking to build on his breakout 2015 season while playing in his final year before free agency.
Reddick was healthy for the first time since 2012 and he put together his best offensive season as a member of the A’s. He hit .272 and improved his contact rate significantly, striking out just 65 times in 582 at-bats. Reddick’s .333 OBP was the best of his career. He also hit 20 homers and swiped 10 bases in 12 chances. Reddick’s production was a continuation of his hot second half in 2014, when he hit .299/.337/.533. If the A’s have any hope of fielding a consistent offense, Reddick will need to remain as productive as he has been the past season and a half. Reddick and the A’s have been in contract discussions on a possible extension since the start of spring training. If Reddick doesn’t sign an extension, he is a candidate to be traded at the deadline.
Burns was one of the biggest bright spots for the A’s last season. After a relatively disappointing first season in the A’s organization, Burns took advantage of early injuries to A’s outfielders to land a spot on the big league roster. He played so well that he became a fixture at the top of the A’s line-up for the entire season.
In a strong rookie season, Burns hit .294/.334/.392 and he stole 26 bases. Burns also homered five times, which was three more times than he had homered total in his minor league career. Despite being a leadoff hitter, Burns employed an aggressive approach at the plate, frequently swinging at the first pitch. Burns hit .479 on the first pitch of an at-bat and hit four of his five homeruns. Although the scouting report on Burns was fairly obvious early in the season, pitchers didn’t have much more success against him on the first pitch as the season went on. It’s not the ideal approach for a leadoff hitter, but it has worked for Burns thus far. He will be looking to avoid a sophomore slump, but has had a strong spring training.
Khris Davis is the newest member of the A’s outfield. Acquired from the Brewers just before spring training, Davis brings a potential 30-homer bat to an A’s line-up that didn’t have any before his arrival. Davis hit 27 homeruns in 121 games for Milwaukee last season and was one of baseball’s hottest hitters the second half of last year. He will need to make an adjustment to the American League and to playing his home games in a pitcher’s park.
Davis will strike-out a lot, but the A’s are counting on the fact that he is so productive when he makes contact that the impact of the strike-outs will be minimal. He has a career 38.9% hard-hit rate and a 14.3% soft-hit rate, according to FanGraphs. The A’s charted Davis’ 2015 homeruns and overlayed them with the dimensions of the O.co Coliseum to determine that nearly all of his 27 homers last year would have gone out at the Coliseum, as well. Davis will be tested in the pitcher-friendly nature of three-fifths of the AL West home parks, but his history suggests that his power isn’t just a Miller Park creation.
Ideally, the A’s would be able to slot Davis at DH frequently, as he is a below-average left fielder. However, with Butler on the roster, most of Davis’ starts are likely to be in left field. When Davis does DH, Coghlan and Mark Canha are likely to man left field.
Canha was slowed by a back injury early in the spring and didn’t post great numbers in Arizona, but he was one of the A’s most productive hitters in 2015. Canha hit .254/.315/.426 with 16 homers in 124 games during his rookie season. Like Davis, Canha has a history of swing-and-miss to his game (96 strike-outs in 441 at-bats), but his power helped to mitigate that some. Canha hit much better against right-handed pitchers (821 OPS) than he did versus lefties last season (587 OPS), but he could see the bulk of his playing time against left-handers as a platoon first baseman with Alonso or a right fielder when Reddick needs a day off. Canha will also see time in left and could get a few starts in center if the A’s have a need.
The biggest wild card on the A’s roster is veteran Coco Crisp, who comes into the season with no defined role.
Crisp missed nearly all of last year with a variety of ailments to his neck and elbow and wasn’t productive when he did play. He has been healthy, for the most part, this spring, but has had little to show for his at-bats in the Cactus League (.167 BA). He is the A’s most expensive player, but he may be nothing more than a pinch-hitter and occasional starter unless he shows some signs that he is back to his 2012-2014 form. Anything they get from Crisp will be a bonus at this point. If Crisp lands back on the disabled list, look for the A’s to replace him with a utility infielder type who can back-up shortstop, such as Sogard or Tyler Ladendorf.
The A’s have surprised before, but they go into the season as the definitive underdog in the American League West. The American League, in general, is going to be a slog this season, as there are no pure rebuilding teams in the AL (as opposed to the several currently in the National League). Consequently, the A’s could be much improved over last year and still not see their place in the standings change much.
The A’s front office has rarely punted on a season, and this season is no different. While the A’s aren’t loaded, they are in a position to compete if everything goes right, as it did in 2012. The A’s also have plenty of talent in Triple-A that could provide for mid-season reinforcements, as Brandon Moss, Chris Carter, Sean Doolittle and others did in 2012.
It is a stretch to see the A’s making the playoffs this season, but stranger things have happened. There is no question that the 2016 season is a vital one for the future of the A’s franchise, however. The A’s should graduate several players from their farm system who could play important roles over the next few years. The A’s are also entering their most important draft since 1999, the last time they had a selection in the top-10. How all of those subplots play out will be as important as the A’s overall win-loss record at the end of this season.