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Oakland A's 2017 season preview

Can the Oakland A's get back on track, or are they looking at another 90-loss season?

Overview

After three consecutive playoff appearances, the Oakland A’s have fallen on hard times over the past two seasons, losing more than 90 games in each of those years. The A’s return most of their core from their 2016 team, but with a more unified clubhouse and a few veteran additions, the A’s are hoping to surprise the league in 2017.

The A’s coaching staff is mostly the same from 2016, with one notable exception. Third base coach and infield guru Ron Washington moved to the Atlanta Braves to be closer to his family. Former bench coach Chip Hale has returned to manager Bob Melvin’s staff after being fired as the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Last season, the A’s got off to a decent start in April, finishing the month with a 13-12 record. However, a rough stretch in May left the team five games under .500 and they never returned to .500 the rest of the season. Injuries to stars Sonny Gray, Rich Hill and Josh Reddick, as well as poor seasons from some veteran position players, left the A’s struggling to find a consistent rhythm all season. Oakland was busy during the July trading deadline and went with a youthful club from mid-August on. Rookies such as Sean Manaea and Ryon Healy established themselves as everyday big leaguers, giving the A’s a start to what they hope will eventually be a young core to build around.

As Oakland enters the 2017 season, they have added a few more young faces, but they haven’t yet completely committed to a youth movement. However, as the season progresses, the A’s are likely to call on several of their top prospects who will begin the season with Triple-A Nashville.

Pitching

For the A’s to have any chance of being competitive, the pitching staff will need to show marked improvement over their 2016 season. Last year, Oakland posted an uncharacteristic 4.51 team ERA. The A’s starting rotation played the biggest role in the staff’s struggles. A’s starters posted a 4.84 ERA and completed only two games. The A’s bullpen was often forced into action early in games, as A’s starters averaged only 5.1 innings per outing. The bullpen posted a 4.02 ERA and held opposing batters to a 693 OPS.

One of the biggest reasons the A’s rotation struggled in 2016 was that staff ace Sonny Gray had an uncharacteristically poor season. Gray never looked right the entire year, and he missed significant time with injury. He made just 22 starts and had a 5.69 ERA. The A’s were counting on a rebound season from Gray, but his season got off to an ominous start when he suffered a lat strain during his second start of the spring. Gray is hoping to return to the big leagues by early May, but the A’s will be without their ace for at least the first month of the season.

With Gray on the shelf, the A’s will open with a starting rotation short on experience. Opening Day starter Kendall Graveman is the most “veteran” of the five, and he has only two years of big league experience. Graveman made 31 starts for the A’s last season and was solid, if not spectacular. He had a 4.11 ERA overall but finished strong, posting a 3.84 ERA and a 2.94 K:BB during the second half of the season. Graveman’s fastball had a little more zip on it in 2016, averaging nearly 93 MPH on his sinker. He has proven durable in his first two seasons with the A’s, and Oakland will be relying on him to get into the sixth or seventh innings on a regular basis.

Sean Manaea finished second on the A’s staff last season in starts (24) and starter’s ERA (3.86). It was a very solid rookie season for the left-hander, who began the year in Nashville but joined the club for good in late April. Manaea missed a little time with injury, but it was a mostly healthy season for the Indiana native, who has struggled with injuries during his professional career. Manaea displayed impressive command last season, posting a 3.35 K:BB. He did allow 20 homeruns, but was able to limit the damage from those longballs by keeping runners off the bases. Manaea had a strong season despite not feeling comfortable with one of his main weapons – his slider – for most of the year. If he can regain his consistency with the slider, Manaea could be in for a breakout 2017 campaign.

Following Manaea will be rookie Jharel Cotton, who made his major-league debut with the A’s last September. Cotton was spectacular in September, posting a 2.15 ERA in five starts. Acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in late July in the Rich Hill/Josh Reddick deal, Cotton fell one out short of a perfect game in his second start for Triple-A Nashville. He struck-out 155 in 135.2 innings in Triple-A before making his big league debut. Cotton has an outstanding change-up and he has been using his curveball more frequently since joining the A’s. Cotton isn’t a big guy, but he has been durable throughout his career. The A’s will be asking a lot of the rookie right-hander, but he has more than lived up to expectations thus far.

With Gray out, the A’s will start the year with Andrew Triggs and Raul Alcantara as the back-end of their rotation. Triggs made his big league debut with the A’s last year and went back-and-forth between a rotation and a bullpen role. Overall, he had a 4.31 ERA in 56.1 innings for the A’s. Triggs also threw 18.1 innings in relief in Triple-A. Oakland liked what they saw from Triggs as a starter last year, but he isn’t likely to stay in the rotation all season given that he threw less than 80 innings in 2017.

Alcantara also made his big league debut last season. He joined the A’s in September after starting the year in Double-A. The right-hander threw 158 innings between the minor leagues and the major leagues last season, which was his first full season back after having Tommy John surgery in 2014. Alcantara had two poor starts and three solid starts with the A’s last September and he pitched well this spring. At the time of his surgery, Alcantara was the organization’s top pitching prospect and he showed a lot of promise last season. He has a live arm and good command, but can be prone to the longball at times. Alcantara is out of options, so the A’s are likely to keep him on the roster in either a starter’s or reliever’s role all season, unless he really struggles.

The A’s could be looking at a much different rotation come June. Right-hander Daniel Mengden was expected to be a part of the A's rotation, but he broke his foot just before spring training and will start the year on the DL. He should return for the second half of the season if not sooner. Right-hander Chris Bassitt is aiming for a mid-season return after he had Tommy John surgery early last year. The A’s could also see lefty Felix Doubront re-join the rotation mid-season. Doubront also had Tommy John surgery early last season. In addition, the A’s have three talented starters beginning the year in Triple-A – veteran Jesse Hahn and prospects Daniel Gossett and Paul Blackburn – who could make a push to join the A’s rotation at some point in 2017.

While the A’s are relying on youth in their rotation, they will balance that out with a veteran bullpen. The core of the A’s 2016 bullpen returns, with Ryan Madson, John Axford, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Dull, Liam Hendriks and Daniel Coulombe back with the team. The A’s have also added veteran Santiago Casilla and fireballing rookie Frankie Montas to the mix.

Oakland starts the year with no defined closer, but the team has plenty of options for the ninth inning. Casilla, Madson, Axford and Doolittle all have plenty of big league experience as closers, and Hendriks and Dull have also closed out games on occasion over the past two years. Montas looks like a potential future star closer, with his triple-digit fastball and sharp breaking ball. The A’s have several promising relief prospects in Triple-A and Double-A, as well, and several of them could factor into the A’s bullpen should Oakland trade any of their veteran relievers at the deadline.

The A’s will begin the year with eight relievers, but they may go back to the more traditional seven once Gray returns. Montas, Dull and Hendriks can all go multiple innings and match-up against both lefties and righties, giving the A’s some length in the middle innings. Melvin is likely to go with match-ups to determine who to turn to in the ninth inning in the early going. If one of the A’s “closers” gets on a hot streak, however, it wouldn’t be surprising for the A’s to go back to a more conventional bullpen arrangement with a set closer and set-up men. 

Position Players

Compared to some recent off-seasons, the A’s were relatively quiet on the acquisition front this off-season. However, the A’s did make several veteran additions to their position player pool, signing free agents Trevor Plouffe, Rajai Davis, Matt Joyce and Adam Rosales.

The A's are looking for a big turnaround from their offense, which finished last in the AL in several categories last season. While the off-season additions should help the A’s offense, Oakland will be counting on returning starters Khris Davis, Ryon Healy and Stephen Vogt to be the core of the everyday line-up. Khris Davis, the A’s left-fielder, had a big first season with the A’s in 2016, hitting 42 homeruns in 150 games. He struck-out a lot (166 times), but he gave the A’s an intimidating presence in the middle of their line-up that they lacked after trading Josh Donaldson. The A’s will need Davis to stay healthy this season. He played only 121 games in 2015 with Milwaukee and missed time late this spring with a minor quad injury.

Healy was a revelation for the A’s after he joined the team after the All-Star break. The A’s 2013 third-round pick began the year in Double-A, but he powered his way to Triple-A by early May and the big leagues by July. In 72 games with the A’s, Healy hit .305 with 13 homers. He doesn’t walk a lot, but Healy has hit for average throughout his professional career and his power numbers took a big leap forward in 2016. He should be the A’s number three or four hitter for most of the season. With Plouffe on the team as the everyday third baseman, Healy will likely DH for much of the year, although he could see time at first base and third base on occasion. Healy played a mix of all three roles during his minor league career, as well.

Vogt had a bit of a down year at the plate last season, with his OPS+ dropping from 117 in 2014 and 2015 to 96. The A’s will be looking for him to rebound as the left-handed bat in the middle of their line-up. Vogt controls the bat better than most of the players in the A’s everyday line-up and is generally a tough out. Vogt takes a beating behind the plate, and the A’s could look to give him some half-days off as the DH from time-to-time this season.

The other big left-handed bat in the A’s line-up is the newcomer Joyce, who signed a two-year deal with the A’s this off-season. Joyce isn’t fleet of foot, but he had a .403 OBP with Pittsburgh last season and the A’s could use him in a leadoff role to take advantage of his on-base skills. Joyce had a career-year with the Pirates last season, posting an 866 OPS. That came after a disastrous 2015 season with the Angels, during which he had a 564 OPS. Joyce doesn’t have huge power, but he has reached double-digits in homeruns in six of his nine big league seasons. Joyce is one of the few hitters in the projected A’s line-up that walks a lot and the A’s will be counting on him to improve their overall on-base numbers. Joyce isn't a strong defensive outfielder, but with Healy slated to get most of the at-bats at DH, Joyce will likely play everyday in right.

Joining Khris Davis and Joyce in the outfield is Rajai Davis, who returns to Oakland for the first time since 2010. Rajai played 134 games for the AL champion Cleveland Indians last season, hitting .249 with 12 homers. He stole 43 bases for the Indians. As a team, the A’s stole 50 bases last year. Davis doesn’t get on-base as much as one would like for a lead-off hitter, but he gives the A’s a speed element they have lacked and a positive veteran presence they sorely needed last year. Davis is the only true centerfielder on the A’s roster and should play everyday.

If Davis needs an off-day, the A’s will turn to Mark Canha in centerfield, at least early in the year. Canha is a bit of an odd choice for back-up centerfielder given that he has been a corner outfielder and infielder throughout his professional career and he missed most of last season with a hip injury. Canha saw some time in center this spring, but he isn’t likely to be an everyday option in center anytime soon. If Davis goes down with an injury, the A’s will likely look to Triple-A or the trade market for another centerfielder. Canha does give the A’s another right-handed power bat. He hit 16 homers in 124 games for the A’s in 2015.  

Another right-handed power hitter, Plouffe will take over the third base role for the A’s after he hit 12 homers in 84 games for the Minnesota Twins last season. Plouffe has five consecutive seasons with double-digit homeruns and he has a career 809 OPS against left-handed pitching. The A’s have struggled versus lefties the last two seasons. Plouffe signed a one-year deal and he is considered a placeholder at third for prospect Matt Chapman, who spent the entire spring in big league camp. Chapman will start the year in Triple-A, but he could push his way onto the big league roster by mid-season. If Plouffe has a strong first half, he could be a valuable trade chip for the A’s in July. 

Joining Plouffe on the left-side of the infield will be Marcus Semien, who returns for a third season in that role for Oakland. Semien took a big step forward defensively in 2016 and he hit 27 homers in 159 games. His defense is still just average, at best, but Semien is an iron man on the field and has above-average power for his position. He also is one of the better base-runners on the team and could run a bit more in 2017. 

The right-side of the A’s infield will feature second baseman Jed Lowrie and first baseman Yonder Alonso to begin the year. Both could be candidates to be traded in July if they play well early in the year. Lowrie appeared in just 87 games last season thanks to a foot injury that required surgery. He hit just .263/.314/.322, but he was dealing with the foot pain for much of the year before landing on the DL and it impacted his power. A switch-hitter, Lowrie can be a tough out with some pop when healthy. A rebound year at the plate for Lowrie would make the A’s offense much more potent. Should Lowrie land on the DL or be traded, the A’s will have a few options in Triple-A ready to replace him, including top prospect Franklin Barreto and prospects Joey Wendle (who starts the year on the DL with a shoulder strain) and Chad Pinder.

Alonso played in 156 games for the A’s last season but hit just .253/.316/.367. He revamped his approach this off-season and had a huge spring. The A’s are hoping that he gets back to being the hitter who batted .282 for the Padres in 2015. An excellent defensive first baseman, Alonso did bring value with the glove last year, saving several throwing errors with smooth scoops at first. Prospect Matt Olson is a candidate to replace Alonso at some point this season should Alonso land on the DL or be traded. 

In addition to Canha, the A’s will carry only two more bench players to start the year: utilityman Rosales and back-up catcher Josh Phegley. Rosales, who played with the A’s in 2010-2013, returns to Oakland after a big season with San Diego that saw him hit 13 homers and post an 814 OPS in 105 games. Rosales can play every position but pitcher and catcher and the A’s will be counting on him to fill a number of roles. He is the only back-up middle infielder on the roster and he could see some time in the corner outfield, as well.

Phegley returns after an injury-plagued season in which he played just 26 games. In 73 games for the A’s in 2015, Phegley had a 749 OPS and nine homers. A right-handed hitter, Phegley should get the majority of his starts against lefties. Should the A’s need to dip into Triple-A for catching help, Bruce Maxwell will be the first guy on the call list. Maxwell had a 739 OPS in 29 games for the A’s last season and had a good spring at the plate. He could be the A’s everyday catcher in 2018. 

Outlook

A lot would have to go right for the A’s to contend in an AL West division that includes two favorites for the league pennant and a third team with Mike Trout. However, the A’s were in a similar position in 2012 and they surprised everyone with a core that gelled mid-season. Even if the A’s don’t compete in 2017, it will be an important year for the franchise. On the field, the A’s will likely transition to what they hope will be their core for the next five years. Off the field, the A’s are hoping to announce plans for a new home in the City of Oakland. A mid-summer youth movement and a new venue announcement will keep the A’s interesting, even if they can’t stay atop the AL West.


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