The Oakland Athletics remained relatively quiet this offseason. Despite the inactivity, the A’s can contend this year. But the low-revenue club has little room for error.
What else is new?
Before digging into Oakland’s hot stove action, let’s reflect on last season. Doing so should provide insight on potential weaknesses the A’s may still need to address.
Last season was much like the prior one for Oakland – 97 wins; a distant second-place finish in the AL West; a Wild Card game defeat. The club succeeded for many reasons.
The pitching staff lacked marquee names, but still managed to rank in the upper-third of MLB in a variety of categories including innings pitched, ERA, WHIP, AVG, and WAR.
2019 Pitching Numbers & MLB Rankings
Leading the staff in starts (33) and innings (184.2) was Mike Fiers, who posted a 3.90 ERA. The rotation’s other workhorse was veteran left-hander Brett Anderson with 31 starts, 176 innings, and a 3.89 ERA.
One area that wasn’t a strength – missing bats. The starting staff’s 7.1 SO/9 rate was second lowest in the majors ahead of only the Mariners. This may explain why the rotation’s .325 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) fell slightly below the league-average (.322) for starters.
The rotation’s success beyond what the metrics suggest was possible is attributable to three on-field components of the A’s game – an effective bullpen, strong defense, and a productive offense.
The bullpen had the fourth best xwOBA (.295) in the majors last season. Only the Dodgers, Astros, and Rays were better. Oakland relievers proved particularly adept at avoiding the long ball. Their 1.09 HR/9 rate was second lowest in the majors behind two NL teams – the Giants and Cardinals (1.07).
Leading the way was closer Liam Hendriks, who had a breakout campaign. The Australian recorded a .223 xwOBA – lowest among any MLB pitcher facing at least 300 batters. Yusmeiro Petit, Joakim Soria, Lou Trivino were also heavily relied upon by manager Bob Melvin.
Oakland infielders collectively ranked seventh in the newest Baseball Savant product – infield outs above average (OAA). Individually, Matt Olson was tops among MLB first basemen. At third base, Matt Chapman was second only to Colorado’s Nolan Arenado. Both Olson and Chapman earned a second consecutive Gold Glove.
Marcus Semien shook his reputation as a defensive liability transforming himself into a reliable glove at shortstop. The outfield didn’t have Gold Glovers, although Robbie Grossman was a runner-up. Overall, the unit proved to be defensively competent.
Oakland had five hitters with over 300 plate appearances and an adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS+) greater than 100 (league-average) – Chapman, Olsen, Semien, Mark Canha, and Ramon Laureano. Collectively, the team ranked fifth in the majors in OPS+.
2019 Offensive Production & MLB Rankings
Only two shortstops had a higher OPS+ than Semien’s 138 last season – Alex Bregman (162) and Xander Bogaerts (140). The former Cal Bear finished third in MVP voting. Chapman and Olson also received MVP consideration. All three hit 30-plus home runs.
Fun fact: The A’s were the only team with three infielders reaching 30 home runs last year.
Injuries slowed Stephen Piscotty, who posted career lows in AVG/OBP/SLG. Piscotty’s absence from the lineup provided more playing time for Canha, who capitalized on the opportunity.
Canha recorded career bests in every slash category, plus he hit 26 home runs and led the with a 145 OPS+. The versatile 30-year-old played all outfield positions and started 11 games at first base.
After leading the majors with 48 home runs in 2018, designated hitter Khris Davis experienced his worst performance in seven big-league seasons with 23 homers and a .220/.293/.387 slash-line. Davis’ 82 OPS+ ranked last behind 10 teammates with 300-plus plate appearances.
The A’s most noteworthy transactions this offseason were trading second baseman Jurickson Profar to the Padres and non-tendering former closer Blake Treinen just one year after Treinen received Cy Young consideration.
In the Profar deal, Oakland received light-hitting outfielder Buddy Reed and catcher Austin Allen. Reed likely begins 2020 in the minors, but Allen could potentially factor into the catcher rotation this year.
The other significant acquisition was former Astros outfield prospect Tony Kemp arriving from the Cubs in exchange for a minor leaguer.
That’s it for “big” moves made by GM David Forst. Now, let’s turn our attention to the club’s 2020 outlook with Spring Training set to begin this month.
Olson and Chapman are holding down first and third base respectively with Semien back at shortstop. But second base remains an enigma. Oakland second basemen collectively ranked in the bottom-third of MLB in WAR and every significant offensive category in 2019.
Still only 23-years-old, Barreto hasn’t delivered much production in very limited action in 80 big-league game spread over three seasons.
Neuse has a combined 30 starts at second base as a professional; 13 came as a September call-up last season. His main position in the minors was third base, which Chapman has a stranglehold on.
Similarly, Mateo primarily played shortstop in the minors. He has 66 career starts at second base.
Rule 5 draft selection Vimael Machin may be a factor, although he has just 26 games above AA-level.
As we discuss various roster competitions, we should consider minor-league options. When everything else is equal, options could be the difference-maker. In the case of second base, Barreto and Mateo don’t have options remaining; Neuse has three remaining.
Players With No Options Remaining
Kemp may also be in the second base mix. The Vanderbilt alum has limited MLB experience at the position (32 starts) compared to his outfield time (129 starts). However, he had over 300 second base starts in the minors. He too is out options.
Currently, the outfield looks like Ramón Laureano, Canha, and Piscotty are the main cogs. Grossman figures to be a key contributor along with Pinder.
Davis will be the designated hitter once again. The Cal State Fullerton product is making $16.7 million annually through the 2021 season, so it’s unlikely he’ll be anywhere but Oakland for the next two years. Obviously, a bounce back season from the 31-year-old helps the club’s postseason aspirations.
Top-100 prospect Sean Murphy was a September call-up last year and appears poised to be the Opening Day catcher. Perhaps Allen’s left-handed bat and the right-handed hitting Murphy form a platoon. Minor leaguer Jonah Heim is the third receiver on the 40-man roster.
Fiers and Bassitt return to the rotation. But the success of 2020 season may hinge on the development of the organization‘s deep stable of young starters.
Montas was in the midst of a breakout season when the right-hander received an 80-game suspension in June for performance-enhancing drug use.
The left-handed Manaea didn’t pitch until September due to shoulder surgery performed 12 months earlier. Injuries and subsequent recoveries also slowed Luzardo and Puk.
There are more young pitchers on the depth chart behind those just mentioned. Some could make their presence known this season. Unfortunately, most have endured injuries also.
Daulton Jefferies (24-years-old) missed 2017-18 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Elbow issues and TJ surgery delayed the progress of James Kaprielian (25) until last season and then he had to deal with a lat strain.
Grant Holmes (23) missed most of 2018 with shoulder issues, which continued into early 2019. Although not as youthful as the others, Daniel Gossett (27) missed all of last season with the exception to Arizona Fall League action thanks to TJ surgery.
Considering the number of starters facing potential innings limits, the team will have to be creative as it attempts to balance managing the workload of their youngsters with competing in the AL West. Perhaps Melvin utilizes a six-man rotation or places a pitcher like Bassitt in a long-relief role.
Bassitt made 25 starts in 2019 before joining the bullpen in late-September. It’s plausible the righty serves as a bridge helping shoulder some of the workload for the youngsters coming off injury.
Then again, Bassitt’s .307 xwOBA was top-40 among starters facing 500-plus hitters and a notch better than notable names such as Marco Gonzales (.312), Masahiro Tanaka (.314), and Madison Bumgarner (.316). Leaving the Akron alum in the rotation may be the team’s best option.
Other depth pieces for the rotation, and perhaps the bullpen, include Daniel Mengden (26) and Paul Blackburn (26). Mengden shuttled between the minors and majors last season; Blackburn spent the majority of 2019 with Class-AAA Las Vegas.
It’s important to remember pitchers with options remaining give clubs added roster flexibility. In theory, these individuals can shuttle between the majors and minors when needed. As illustrated earlier, Montas, Wendelken, Mengden have no options remaining.
Regarding second base, Oakland has reportedly engaged the Mets and Pirates to determine the availability of former Athletic Jed Lowrie and Adam Frazier respectively. Perhaps the A’s begin the season by giving their young players a shot before going outside the organization.
Adding a veteran catcher could make sense. It’d take some pressure off Murphy, while potentially providing him with a mentor. The team has allegedly expressed interest in free agent Matt Wieters.
Another established rotation arm certainly would benefit a club with some many talented, yet inexperienced and oft-injured arms. Every team can always use more relief help.
Fowler and Bolt have yet to demonstrate a readiness to take on a larger role with the big-league club during very limited auditions. Barrera has yet to play in the majors.
If the A’s were to unexpectedly crater this season, the club will have several pending free agents to peddle at the July 31 trade deadline. The most intriguing names – Semien and Hendriks.
Pending Free Agents
Management is reportedly interested in retaining Semien. But the budget-constrained franchise may struggle to satisfy their 29-year-old shortstop’s demands, especially if he repeats his stellar 2019 productivity.
The same applies to Hendriks, who may prefer testing the free agent market. If the 30-year-old is having another great season and the club isn’t contending, he may be on the trading block.
Then again, the A’s may continue their current run of success and be deadline buyers. Considering the organization’s recent track record, I wouldn’t bet against them.