Three weaknesses the A’s must address this winter
The outcome was not equal to the sum of the parts for the 2016 Oakland Athletics.
They were fringe postseason contenders, if at all, prior to ace Sonny Gray‘s illness scratch on Opening Day — a preview of what was to come. Despite entering the season with Major League Baseball’s fourth-lowest payroll ($80.3 million), though, the team’s host of talent was such that a run at a .500 record was not outside the realm of possibility.
Instead of approaching the 80-win threshold, the A’s finished with a 69-93 record.
What caused the shortfall? The Oakland offense finished last in the American League in runs (653), on-base percentage (.304) and slugging percentage (.395). They also finished among the bottom of the league with 50 stolen bases (second-fewest), 169 home runs (fourth-fewest) and 460 extra-base hits (fourth-fewest).
Unable to make up that gap, the pitching staff mustered an ugly 4.51 team ERA (second-highest in the AL), .263 batting average against (third-highest), 23 blown saves (third-most) and 91.98 defense-independent ERA (second-highest). When the defense was involved, it committed 97 errors (T-second-most).
Minimal veteran leadership
When the 2016 A’s broke Spring Training camp, they eagerly approached the regular season led by an ample contingent of big league veterans.
Of the 14 wily been-there-done-that vets, however, six made mid-season departures. As many as four more account for possible off-season departures. That leaves John Axford, Sean Doolittle, Sonny Gray, Ryan Madson and Stephen Vogt representing the entirety of the team’s experienced on-field leadership group.
Instead, the organization must pony up (by its own comparison) to fill that gap. Especially considering the likelihood of as many as eight players who have yet to endure the ebbs and flows of a full big league season being part of the Opening Day roster in five months.
Farewell to the glove whisperer
In 2015, the Oakland defense committed a major league-worst 126 errors. In 2016, they squeezed that number to 97 (T-17).
A microcosm of that improvement was shortstop Marcus Semien, who saw his personal error number drop from 35 to 21 in that period. Even more telling, 28 of Semien’s 2015 errors came before the All-Star break (seven after it). There was one clear change that the organization underwent in that same time frame — bringing back third base coach and infield defense guru Ron Washington.
Washington departed Oakland early on in the current A’s offseason, landing the same position with the Atlanta Braves.
Widely considered one of the best defensive minds, and responsible for rookie Ryon Healy‘s seamless transition to the third base position, the two-time American League pennant winning manager creates a massive void in the coaching staff.
His mastery of the craft extends well beyond the 2016 season, into his first stint in the same role with the A’s spanning from 1996 to 2006. Over the period, Washington led Oakland to the AL’s top fielding percentage in 2004 and 2005 (second in 2006). His prized apprentice being third baseman Eric Chavez who, under Washington’s watch, became the game’s best defensive infielder — Chavez gave his coach one of the six Gold Glove Awards he claimed under that tutelage.
With their prospective infield featuring Semien (26), Healy (25) and Joey Wendle (25), the vacancy left by Washington’s departure may be the largest of all. Replacement Chip Hale brings nowhere near his predecessor’s reputation.
Major league-ready lineup depth
Infielder Jed Lowrie‘s retention is not a certainty, and with the emergence of Wendle, should Lowrie maintain his position on the roster, it is unclear what his role would be.
Should two of those players depart — Valencia and Alonso being likely departures — the other will be left representing the entirety of the A’s bench which has enjoyed no extended major league success.
This organization should know first-hand, after its injury-riddled 2016 season, depth, which it lacked in its 93-loss season, is crucial.
With Hale having already filled the coaching gap, it will be back to the drawing board for the Oakland front office, who must find ways to fill the roster gaps to support what is a very young, high-potential team.