March 16, 2017
Looking Back on Tomorrow
Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.
The Oakland Athletics include a group of young men who will play baseball in the year 2017. What will you remember about the 2017 Oakland Athletics, years from now?
The answer: You won’t.
There is an end in every beginning and a beginning in every end, but rarely are they evident at the time. Life isn’t like stories: when you read story, you know where it begins because you’re the one beginning it. The author picks a point to start writing, you pick a moment to start reading, and the existence flows between the two. But life doesn’t work that way, doesn’t exist in the present tense. By the time we’ve taken in the moment and understood it, it’s behind us.
This will also be true of the 2017 Oakland Athletics. Only by 2018, perhaps, will we know the truth: whether this was the end of an era, or the beginning of one.
It would certainly appear, at first glance, to be the former. The Athletics finished 2016 with a record of 69-93, their second consecutive 90-loss season, something that hadn’t happened since the Charlie Finley charity drive of the late 70s. A small-market team trapped in a crumbling stadium, the franchise has now been stripped of the revenue-sharing profits that gave the front office what little room to maneuver it had. Co-owner Lew Wolff stepped down as managing partner after a dozen years, and a decade of undermining the city’s own loyalty by casting furtive eyes at San Jose and Fremont, while degrading the Coliseum in vain hopes of earning a new stadium.
Despite being fiscally hamstrung even by A’s standards, the front office of Billy Beane and David Forst has been characteristically active in free agency, shedding one starter (Danny Valencia, in a trade to the Mariners) and signing a new starting center fielder, right fielder, third baseman, and late-inning reliever. None of these trades and signings were inadvisable, or even really questionable, as the Billy Butler and Jim Johnson deals of yore were; at the same time, Oakland no longer has the budget to even make a mistake in the three-year, $30 million range. Add the wound of the Josh Donaldson deal, its scar healed over but the principal reward still sharpening in Triple-A, and you have the formula for a forgettable ballclub.
Besides, it’s not a team built to be memorable, particularly in the lineup. Their best player, Marcus Semien, hit 27 home runs last year and played FRAA-positive shortstop, yet couldn’t be named by most fans, probably holds a poor defensive reputation with the rest, and is listed as a third baseman on his BP player page. Their actual third baseman, Trevor Plouffe, could easily have been confused for Brian Dozier back when that wasn’t such a compliment. Their free agent signee center fielder is of such stature that, if he hadn’t hit that famous home run off Aroldis Chapman, folks outside the Bay Area might have assumed he was already an Athletic.
It’s not a terrible lineup; Stephen Vogt, Khris Davis, and Matt Joyce are all decent, if flawed (and thus affordable) players. But it’s also not a good lineup, and beyond the powerful Davis and surprising 2016 rookie Ryon Healy, there isn’t a lot of upside. PECOTA projects them to once again have the worst on-base percentage and the third-worst True Average in the American league.
But despite all the activity, holes remain. Jed Lowrie will surely rebound, but probably not enough. Yonder Alonso, who started 145 games at first base for the team last year, is somehow slated to do the same again this year. The farm system is deep and talented, but with the exception of Matt Chapman, most of it won’t see the majors for a year, at least. It’s as if the front office didn’t get a chance to finish their offseason when they were told to put their pencils down.
But the story of the Athletics in the new millennium has never centered around their lineup, even in the days of Giambi, Tejada, and Chavez. It’s always been a story of starting pitching. The Moneyball days were, as some have pointed out, the days of Hudson, Mulder, and Zito. That trio flowed smoothly into the era of Haren, Harden, and Blanton, and then somewhat less smoothly to Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Brett Anderson. Each wave of young, early-20s pitchers worked through their inexpensive years in the green and gold before being traded for the next round of talent. It was an efficient, self-propelling, infinitely disappointing cycle borne out of necessity.
But then, even at the crest of the team’s success in 2012-2014, the machine broke, because its parts did. A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker, Brett Anderson and Dan Straily all broke, physically, leaving the next young nucleus with nothing but Sonny Gray and Drew Pomeranz from which to grow. And after the disastrous trade with the Padres that brought Yonder Alonso up the coast, fans resigned themselves to watching Beane trade Gray for as many magic beans as he could get, and staring at the soil.
It didn’t happen. Beane swore he would never trade Gray, at least not so far ahead of his free agency as he’d been doing with others, and instead the All-Star struggled through a disastrous 2016 before tearing a lat muscle in spring training. He leaves behind six starters who share a combined four years’ worth of starting experience, most of it coming in 2016. But while the A's lineup is low-ceiling predictability, the rotation is the opposite. Averaging by innings pitched, PECOTA considers the A’s to have the seventh-highest breakout rate among pitchers:
It’s unknown how long Gray will be out for: the current timetable is to shut him down for three weeks, but this type of injury can often take longer than expected to recover from. Mets left-hander Steven Matz, for example, suffered a similar injury in 2015 and it cost him two months.
Still, the A’s are better equipped, relatively speaking, to handle the loss of their no. 1 starter than other teams. PECOTA isn’t as bullish as some sleeper-minded fantasy experts, but a combination of Sean Manaea, Kendall Graveman, Jharel Cotton, and Andrew Triggs project to a perfectly able two through five, while Jesse Hahn and last year’s default fifth starter, Daniel Mengden, are technically serviceable in a pinch.
It’s not, on the surface, a dominating cast: the seven project to an average K/9 of 6.76, which would have been league average a decade ago. And despite the roomy foul territory of the Coliseum, failing to strike batters out puts a lot of faith in a defense that, while perhaps improved, still looks to be among the low end of the AL spectrum. But what the staff lacks in power it makes up for in command: all six pitchers with more than 40 innings ranked in the top half of Called Strikes Above Average last year (out of 385 qualifying pitchers).
Oakland’s bullpen, meanwhile, is a source of strength this year. What it lacks in an impact closer, it more than makes up for in sheer depth, with Ryan Madson, Santiago Casilla, Sean Doolittle, and John Axford all proven at least capable saving games in the past, and righty setup man Liam Hendriks perhaps better than any of them. Frankie Montas waits in the wings as well, the rare reliever prospect who carries some excitement with him. When the A’s do have a lead, opponents will find it difficult to wrest back.
But if 2017 is the beginning of the next chapter of the Oakland Athletics, it’ll be headlined by several of those names in the rotation table, particularly Manaea, Graveman (who could be a Joe Blanton for a new generation), and newcomer Cotton, who arrived in the Rich Hill deadline trade. Only, the light of the new set of stars probably won’t reach us for a year at least, as is often the wont of talented pitchers still harnessing their talents.
So it may be the end, or the beginning, or both; Sonny Gray seemed to be the symbol for how the scales will fall, but his injury pushes that decision back as well. In the meantime, new team president David Kaval has refocused his efforts on the city of Oakland, rebuilding community ties in hopes of creating a new home in a time and especially a region where public funding for stadiums has grown scarce. Prospects like Franklin Barreto, Grant Holmes, and Daniel Gossett will be ready to arrive. This season may not be an exciting year for the Athletics, but with hindsight, it won’t be hard to find pieces of what would become the next exciting A’s team.