They made no major splash. No huge individual addition.
But the Oakland Athletics spent the offseason tending to every perceived need, with a major focus on an offense that scored barely four runs per game a season ago.
The A’s finished 2016 with major league baseball’s fifth-fewest stolen bases. Their inability to swipe an extra bag coupled with the game’s third-worst team on-base percentage (.304) and fifth-lowest slugging percentage (.395) led to the league’s third-fewest runs (653).
An obvious point of interest in the offseason, the Oakland front office addressed the team’s need for speed at the top of the order, adding the American League’s reigning stolen base king, Rajai Davis (43). Peppering in Trevor Plouffe and Matt Joyce, the A’s also added a pair of veteran bats to bolster an otherwise green offense.
Two-time All-Star and offensive elder statesman Stephen Vogt said that the new A’s will bring more than proven bats to a needing roster:
“These are three unbelievable players — three unbelievable people — that you’re bringing in that are going to bring some veteran presence to this clubhouse. And, they’re veteran hitters that can talk about approach with some of the young guys, and that’s where you start to take off in your career.”
Veteran minds are something that this team needed, perhaps more than steals, walks or gappers.
As the 2016 season came to a close with a 3-2 victory over the Mariners in Seattle, A’s starters included three rookies — Ryon Healy, Joey Wendle and Bruce Maxwell — expected to impact the team this year. Healy, Oakland’s middle-of-the-lineup slugger of the future, not only gains a leader on the corners of the infield and in the right-handed batter’s box, but also a mentor with which he has long been bonded.
Both Plouffe and Healy are products of Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino, California, and had been partnering in off-season workouts prior to the elder reaching a free agent agreement with the A’s. Exactly the type of guidance that can maximize the growth of a young ballplayer set to embark on his first 162-game journey through the tough terrain of a season in the bigs.
As for his own production, Plouffe told SFBay:
“The image I have of the A’s is, they’re a bunch of grinders that don’t give away at-bats, scoring runs how ever they can. That wins games. I’m excited to be a part of that.”
Healy will likely join Khris Davis, who mashed 42 (T-3 in MLB) home runs and drove in 102 runs in 2016, in the heart of the order, while Plouffe may find himself in the bottom half alongside Marcus Semien.
Semien, who swatted 27 homers (T-2 among shortstops) and stole 10 bases, led the A’s with a 3.6 offensive wins above replacement (OWAR). Manager Bob Melvin’s ability to leave his slugging shortstop at the bottom of the order will be significant, as the distribution of power and speed is throughout the batting order is paramount to the prosperity of a small market team.
More than just distributing production within the lineup, the skipper is excited about what will be the ability to lean on depth he hasn’t had in the past two seasons. He added that this type of depth, which will force the guys at the end of the bench into regular starts, will produce momentum:
“We do things a little bit different here, we have to use all 25. We’re not going to be a team that is going to dominate with three or four high-payroll guys. It’s important that all 25 guys know that they’re involved.”
Part of maximizing his use of depth will call for Melvin to deploy the use of platoons perhaps even more than previous years, which is where Joyce comes in.
Joyce, a lefty swinger, boasts a career .252/.353/.449 slash against right-handed pitchers. His probable opposite, Jake Smolinski, has not fared nearly as well, while he has spent his career punishing lefties (.290/.361/.505).
A similar comparison can be made in the pairing of Plouffe and Yonder Alonso, each of whom holding big league experience on both corners of the infield. Plouffe has slashed .268/.344/.465 facing southpaws, while Alonso has strummed righties to the tune of a .276/.341/.400 slash.
Davis, who will not be doing much platooning due to his defensive and base-stealing capabilities, has been more productive facing left-handers (.288/.343/.437) in his own right. But, speed doesn’t favor one side of the mound or another.
A five-time 40-plus base thief, including a career high 50 as an Athletic in 2010, Davis gives the Green and Gold an element of speed it has been without since 2011 when Coco Crisp swiped 49 bags, and was at a complete lack of a season ago, when Billy Burns led the team with 14 despite being traded in July.
Starter Kendall Graveman, the staff’s 2016 leader in wins (10), innings (186) and WAR (3.3), told SFBay that while it will be the pitchers’ job to hold the opposition to four or fewer runs, he has the utmost confidence that the newly restructured offense will be there as a safety net:
“The goal for us is to keep the game within striking distance, because I know that at any moment this offense — Semien hit 27 homers, Khris with over 40 and then you got Raj who can steal bags — will be able to score some runs.”