The Athletics are assembling something special in Oakland.
Sure, 2016 was a tough season for the green and gold. For the first time in franchise history, the A’s suffered back-to-back last place finishes in their division.
Despite their 93 losses, however, Oakland heads into the offseason with several positives to be used as a foundation in building towards a fruitful future.
Much like the development of any noteworthy undertaking, that foundation is paramount in solidifying success.
Organizational architects, Executive VP of Baseball Operations Billy Beane and General Manager David Forst, have a foreman, manager Bob Melvin, with which they are very satisfied. At what may be the game’s most influential on-field position, Stephen Vogt brings a veteran leadership and savvy of a two-time All-Star to his role as the team’s civil engineer.
Make no mistake, though, while that leadership provides a solid framework for success, the franchise’s base is steeped in a youthful workforce.
Here are the A’s three greatest positives from the season that was.
A young yet impressive group of starting pitcher
When the dust settled on their injury-plagued 2016 season, the A’s were left with a 4.84 starter’s ERA — second-worst in the American League. But, the five starters who made up the rotation at season’s end were an average age of just under 25 years old — the youngest in baseball.
Heading up that group was Sean Manaea, 24 years old, (7-9, 3.86 ERA in 2016), whose ERA was a team-best among hurlers with 10 or more starts. Kendall Graveman, 25, (10-11, 4.11 ERA) took on the role of ace when the struggling Sonny Gray, 27, (5-11, 5.69 ERA) made the first of his two trips to the disabled list in May, and finished with a team-high in wins.
Jharel Cotton, 23, (2-0, 2.15 ERA) enjoyed a grand introduction to the big leagues in five starts over the final month of the season.
With the emergence of Manaea and Graveman, the A’s have, at worst, a reliable back-up plan for the top of their rotation should Gray’s scuffle spill into 2017. At best, the duo provide very convincing 2-3 options for the heart of the rotation behind a proven ace in the former All-Star.
In what will likely be the sandwiched center of Oakland’s rotation come April, Graveman, Manaea and Cotton combined to allow 154 earned runs in 360 innings over 61 games (60 starts) in 2016. That 3.85 ERA is good enough to best all but one AL rotation of the year past — Toronto Blue Jays, 3.64. They add a 1.22 combined WHIP.
Allowing for an aggregate half-run per nine innings worth of growing pains, the middle three of the prospective rotation are good enough to lead the staff into cracking the AL’s top 10 starter ERAs. They are young enough to bolster the group for years to come.
Powerful heart of the order
In his first year with the team, Khris Davis (.247/.307/.524 2016 slash) etched his name in the A’s history books. With 42 home rins, “Khrush” slugged his way into a tie for the ninth-most in a season by an Athletics hitter, tying Jose Canseco (1988), Mark McGwire (1992) and Gus Zernial (1953).
His massive power and production — 102 RBIs — will be supplanted in the middle of the 2017 Oakland lineup by standout greenhorn Ryon Healy (.305/.337/.524).
The 24-year-old third baseman, who made his debut with the club in the first game of the second half, led all American League rookies in batting average (also a team high). He added 82 hits — 33 extra-base hits — 13 home runs and 37 RBIs.
Healy and Davis will join Vogt (.251/.305/.406), in some order, to make up the 3-4-5 portion of a lineup that scored just 653 runs (fewest in AL) in 2016. In the last month of the season, when Healy hit his groove (.336/.369/.595 September-October slash), the Oakland offense kicked into gear, scoring 117 runs (No. 9).
While it it will be difficult to reach his 26-home run projection, Healy and his potent bat leave little to doubt when it comes to overall production — 80 to 90 RBIs are, by no means, outside of the realm of possibility.
It will also be difficult for Davis to to backup his home run output — nearly double that of his previous single-season high. But, playing 150 games apiece, reaching a combined 200 RBIs and 170 runs scored should be quite attainable for the duo. Add 12 to 15 home runs and 60 to -70 RBIs from Vogt and you have a viable offensive core.
Four-A players with experience
One advantage to what was a franchise record 27 disabled list uses was the opportunity for several youngsters to see big league innings which were otherwise unlikely.
Players like Matt Olson (.095/.321/.143 2016 slash), Chad Pinder (.235/.273/.373) and Renato Nunez (.133/.133/.133) will almost certainly play into the organization’s future plans. And, while none will have an Opening Day roster spot waiting for them come February, each will be called upon for contributions during the coming campaign. This is where the term “Four-A” comes into play.
Players in limbo between the big leagues and the bus leagues are those relied upon for stints of success.
One factor that makes that success easier to come across is a level of comfort that can only be attained through repetition. As those same players showed in a combined 87 at-bats, finding your way in a big league batter’s box is no easy task.
Heading into the 2017 season, though, each of the youngsters will have game-time experience to draw from. They will stride into their Spring Training at-bats with wet feet, wide eyes and bushy tails. They will be much more eager and primed to improve at the triple-A level in hopes of forcing a call-up.
This is not by any means an integral part to the prosperity of any major league team, but having a contingent of these players adds a necessary dimension to any up-and-coming franchise.
And that is what this Oakland Athletics team is looking to be: not just a team that competes for their customary two- to three-year stretch, but one that stakes claim to being a perennial contender.