Growth from young bats a major focus for Athletics

The 2015 Oakland Athletics relied heavily on the contributions of largely untested rookies.

That resulted in a 68-94 record, but provided substantial playing time for several young up-and-comers that the team hopes will help turn things around.

Players like center fielder Billy Burns, who finished fifth in last year’s AL Rookie of the Year race, getting their feet wet last season Oakland has developed a homegrown foundation.

Along with the Oakland leadoff man players like slugging utility man Mark Canha and shortstop Marcus Semien have a year of experience to lean on. They also are coming off their first offseason as major leaguers in which they were able to sharpen the tools they knew would be necessary to maximize production.

For Burns, the offseason regiment was focused on conditioning:

“There’s not one thing in particular, but there’s a lot of things in general that I’ve been working on. I’m always working on my speed, always got to maintain that aspect of my game. Working on different things, hitting-wise, to get back into the groove, and get my muscles conditioned for Spring Training. Really, just getting stronger, that’s a big part of the offseason – just working out in the gym – trying to beef up a little because I lose a couple of pounds throughout the season.”

The 26-year-old speedster, who spent 117 games in the leadoff spot, led Oakland with 26 stolen bases (T-10th in MLB) on 34 attempts. He also boasted a healthy .294/.334/.392 slash with five home runs and a team-leading 70 runs scored.

Fellow 26 year-old Canha, who split time between first base and left field, provided considerable power with 16 home runs (T-3rd on the A’s) and 70 RBIs (3rd on the A’s). He posted a modest .254 batting average with a .315 on-base percentage and .426 slugging percentage.

With the acquisition of intended everyday first baseman Yonder Alonso, though, much of the San Jose native’s offseason workouts were focused on improving his outfield defense:

“I am focusing more, not more on the position – left field – specifically, but on making myself a little more athletic… I’m doing balancing techniques and stuff like that, just to make myself a better athlete and a better defender in general, because I really wasn’t happy. I didn’t think my defense was as good as it can be. I think I’m a better athlete than I showed last year on defense.”

Not only will his heightened focus on athleticism improve his defense and range – in the outfield in particular – his seven steals on nine attempts will almost certainly see an increase.

The growth of both youngsters is something that 2015 Oakland all-star catcher Stephen Vogt is excited about, but he believes that his team’s shortstop should not be left out:

“I’m excited to see what Burns and Canha are going to do in year two. The other one is Semien, you’ve got to put him in that group too, he had a great year offensively and a great second half defensively. I’m looking forward to those three guys being that young core that’s going to be here for a long time hopefully, and I think they’re going to be three staples for us this year.”

Semien, who posted a .257/.310/.405 slash with 15 home runs and 45 RBIs, saw his offense plummet during the mid-season months – June and July – when he refocused his defense.

The attention to defense began with the return of assistant coach and defense whisperer Ron Washington at the end of May. The man they call “Wash” was very happy with the work the 25 year-old put in, but acknowledged that the demand  limited the normally offensive minded infielder’s bat.

Coming into this season, however, Washington expects the workload for the San Francisco native to be focused on maintenance, much like August when he put up his best month with a .299/.337/.483 slash.

In addition to longtime pros Vogt and outfielder Josh Reddick, as well as key acquisition Alonso, the growth of the three pivotal youngsters will play a huge role in the success of the Oakland offense.