Despite winning 97 games in 2018-19, the Oakland A’s couldn’t advance past the Wild Card game both years. Will 2020 be different? Could the A’s win the AL West and perhaps make a deep postseason run?
It’s important to recognize that wresting the AL West title from the Houston Astros won’t be easy. After all, the Astros are defending AL champions and have won three consecutive division titles. Still, there are reasons to believe 2020 could be Oakland’s year, assuming its starting rotation thrives this season.
To see what I mean, let’s review the A’s starting staff and its supporting cast. Doing so led me to arrive at the conclusion Oakland can be 2020 AL West champions. Perhaps you’ll feel the same way after our discussion.
Last year’s staff lacked marquee names, yet managed to be top-10 in ERA, WHIP, AVG, and WAR. There’s a chance the rotation is even better in 2020.
Entering Summer Camp, the main contributors projected to be Mike Fiers, Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, and top-100 prospects A.J. Puk, and Jesús Luzardo. However, a health-related development will affect the club’s plan.
Luzardo tested positive for COVID-19 and won’t be available for Opening Day. It’s unknown when the Peru native may rejoin the team. Moreover, we don’t how much time he’ll require to ramp-up to game-ready status.
Even a short delay for Luzardo must be frustrating for the player and team after shoulder issues early last season delayed his MLB debut until September. When he finally joined the team, the 22-year-old briefly demonstrated why MLB Pipeline ranks him as its twelfth best prospect. In 12 relief innings, the southpaw allowed two runs and struck out 16. Luzardo also tossed three scoreless innings in the Wild Card game.
Luzardo’s diagnosis had a ripple effect on his training partner Fiers, who was a late arrival until testing negative for COVID-19 twice. The delay may cost Fiers the opportunity to be Oakland’s Opening Day starter for a second consecutive year. Last season, the 35-year-old had a 3.90 ERA and led the A’s in starts (33) and innings (184.2)
If Fiers isn’t ready for the season opener, Montas is the front-runner to take the ball. The 27-year-old was having a breakout campaign in 2019 before receiving an 80-game suspension last June for performance-enhancing drug use. Through the 16 starts leading up to his suspension, Montas had a 2.63 ERA – eighth best in the majors at the time.
Manaea didn’t pitch last season until September due to shoulder surgery a year prior. Despite the long layoff, the 28-year-old was sharp in five starts holding opponents to a .160 AVG and .287 xwOBA, while posting a 1.21 ERA. The former Indiana State Sycamore also started last year’s Wild Came game.
Puk’s journey to the majors experienced a significant setback when Tommy John surgery cost him the entire 2018 minor-league season. The 25-year-old performed well when he finally made his big-league debut last year. In 10 relief appearances, he posted a 3.18 ERA with 13 strikeouts in 11.1 innings. The former Florida Gator’s strong audition resulted in selection to Oakland’s postseason roster, although he didn’t pitch.
Bassitt is a versatile performer, who may have begun the season in the bullpen if Luzardo was available. Still, the Akron alum’s .307 xwOBA last year was top-40 among starters facing 500-plus hitters placing him ahead of notable names Marco Gonzales (.312), Masahiro Tanaka (.314), and Madison Bumgarner (.316). The unheralded Bassitt could emerge as a valuable weapon in Oakland’s arsenal.
Potential depth pieces for the rotation, and perhaps the bullpen, include Daniel Gossett, Daniel Mengden, and Paul Blackburn. Gossett missed all of 2019 due to TJ surgery, but did pitch in the Arizona Fall League. Mengden shuttled between AAA and the big-league team last year, while Blackburn spent most of last season with Class-AAA Las Vegas.
A few other young arms – Daulton Jefferies (24), James Kaprielian (25), and Grant Holmes (23) – could potentially provide another layer of depth. It’s worth noting all three experienced delays in their development due to recent arm issues.
In 2019, Oakland relief pitchers had the fourth best xwOBA (.295) in MLB behind the Dodgers, Astros, and Rays. With most of the main contributors returning, the bullpen should be a strength. That’s assuming the team avoids the dreaded “reliever volatility.”
The bullpen’s foundation projects to be closer Liam Hendriks, Yusmeiro Petit, Joakim Soria, Lou Trivino, J.B. Wendelken, plus lefties Jake Diekman and T.J. McFarland. Reinforcements include Lucas Luetge, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since being with the Mariners in 2015, Jaime Schultz, Burch Smith, and minor-leaguer Jordan Weems.
Three-quarters of the infield was a strength last year with the same players returning. Gold Glovers Matt Olson and Matt Chapman will cover first and third base respectively. Meanwhile, AL MVP finalist Marcus Semien remains the starting shortstop.
Fun fact: Oakland was the only team with three 30-home run infielders in 2019 – Olson, Chapman, and Semien.
On the other hand, second base was problematic. Collectively, Oakland second basemen ranked in the bottom-third of MLB in WAR and every significant offensive category. This season, 24-year-old Franklin Barreto and former Astros prospect Tony Kemp likely form a platoon. Rule 5 pickup Vimael Machin may be a factor at some point.
The right-handed hitting Barreto has appeared in 80 MLB games since 2017. Regular playing time has alluded him with established players such as Jed Lowrie and Jurickson Profar holding down second base in previous seasons.
Kemp has started 161 big-league 300 contests, but the vast majority have come in the outfield (129) compared to second base (32). That said, the left-handed hitter did make 300-plus starts at second base in the minors.
It’s worth noting Machin has played just 26 games above AA, but the 26-year-old made 20-plus starts at second base, shortstop, and the hot corner last year. Moreover, he possesses first base experience and even played catcher for an inning last year.
Another player likely to see some time at second base is Chad Pinder. However, he’s more valuable to the A’s in a utility role. Pinder played a career-high 124 games last season with double-digit appearances at both corner outfield spots, plus second and third base. In addition, manager Bob Melvin occasionally used the 28-year-old at shortstop, center field, and first base.
Injuries slowed Piscotty, who delivered a below average .249/.309/.412 slash-line and 93 OPS+ in 93 games. Oakland will be looking for the now-healthy 29-year-old to deliver production similar to his 2018 output (27 home runs and .267/.331/.491).
Conversely, Canha quietly set career bests in every slash category, plus he hit 26 home runs and paced the A’s with a 145 OPS+. The 30-year-old also played every outfield position and started 11 games at first base.
Laureano enjoyed a strong sophomore campaign with an impressive .288/.340/.521 slash and 24 home runs. Furthermore, his 128 OPS+ was fourth best among center fielder behind only Mike Trout (185), George Springer (150), and former Mariner Ketel Marte (149).
Although Piscotty and Canha project to be the corner outfielders, Robbie Grossman will see playing time also. The seven-year veteran had a down season at the plate. Nevertheless, he was a 2019 AL Gold Glove finalist in left field.
How the A’s decide to round out the outfield contingent likely hinges on how the club plans to utilize the versatile trio of Pinder, Canha, and Kemp. Perhaps management eventually integrates youngsters Dustin Fowler (25) and Skye Bolt (26), who have a combined 75 MLB games of experience.
Khris Davis will once again be designated hitter. The 32-year-old led the majors with 48 home runs in 2018, but his 82 OPS+ ranked last among 11 teammates with 300-plus plate appearances last year. Overall, the Cal State Fullerton product hit just 23 home runs with a career-worst .220/.293/.387 slash.
Prospect Sean Murphy will be the everyday catcher. Ranked number-33 overall by MLB Prospect Watch, the right-handed hitting Murphy started 13 games as a September call-up last year and made Oakland’s postseason roster. The 25-year-old has nothing left to prove in the minors.
Left-handed hitting 25-year-old Austin Allen may be an appealing platoon option to pair with Murphy. Another prospect – Jonah Heim – is the third backstop on the 40-man roster. Heim is the same age as Allen, a switch-hitter, and was a strong offensive performer at AA and AAA in 2019.
New AL West Champs?
Oakland is coming off consecutive 97-win seasons boasting an offense and defense capable of buoying their cadre of young arms seemingly on the verge of blossoming into something special. It’s the ideal roster blend to overtake the Astros in the AL West and avoid another one-and-done postseason scenario.
Sure, many moving parts in the rotation must align to guarantee success. But I like the A’s chances of pulling it off and being crowned AL West champs in 2020.
My Oh My…
(Photo of Frankie Montas – Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)
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