The crack of the bat. The pop of gloves. The fizzle of a frosty beer. At last, baseball is back.
The goal for the A’s this season — just as important as remaining in the playoff race down the stretch — is returning to the winning culture of years past in Oakland. Before they can make any moves in the direction of their winning ways of yesteryear, there are a few questions the Green and Gold must answer in March.
Much of those questions revolve around the pitching staff, though the distribution of innings at nearly every position has yet to be decided.
Which of the six pitchers in the running will solidify the final two spots on the staff? How will the innings at first and third base be distributed among the trio of Yonder Alonso, Ryon Healy and Trevor Plouffe? Is manager Bob Melvin confident in a closer-by-committee approach or does someone — perhaps Ryan Madson, who converted 30 saves for the A’s a season ago — lock down the role?
As is the case in every camp around the league, there are an abundance of tantalizing story lines surrounding the Athletics this spring. Here are the top three.
Alcantara’s last stand
The only bubble player in the A’s camp who is without a minor league option, Raul Alcantara will either play his way onto the Opening Day roster or be placed on waivers to be claimed by another team.
Over a short five-game stint in Oakland last season, the 24-year-old Dominican showed signs of what makes him a promising prospect, but also signs of what makes him a prospect rather than a big leaguer. He struggled to keep the ball in the yard, allowing nine home runs in 22-1/3 innings, but limited rallies, holding to the opposition to just six runs outside of those scored on long balls.
In his best outing, Alcantara tallied his first career win beating the eventual AL West champion Texas Rangers, holding the AL’s fourth-highest scoring offense to two runs in 5-2/3 frames — needing just 85 pitches to do so.
In his worst outing — to be fair, it was the first of his major league career — he walked one batter and hit three more, allowing five runs over 3 innings against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Given his disposition — lacking an option and holding the ability to start of relieve — Alcantara has a leg up on the competition. Should he continue to pitch the way he did in Oakland’s Cactus League opener, working through two innings while allowing just one base runner, the right hander will hear his name called on April 3.
Has the Gray cloud passed?
The staff ace, Sonny Gray suffered through a long and painful 2016. Enduring two trips to the disabled list, the 27 year-old made just 22 starts.
When he was healthy — enough to battle his way onto the mound, at least — finding outs was a chore for the former All-Star as he posted career-worsts in ERA (5.69), losses (11), WHIP (1.496) and home runs allowed (18).
Adding salt to the wound of a season he’d like to forget, on Sunday Gray’s 2016 injuries disqualified him from representing his country in the World Baseball Classic when the company that insures the players denied his policy.
For Gray, a return to Cy Young form will begin in March rather than April. And, with the competitive juices flowing, it will be interesting to watch what type of performances he will be able to put together come March 6, when the WBC commences.
In his Cy Young-type form, Gray gives the Oakland staff a bonafide ace which pushes it beyond the ranks of up-and-coming and into the realm of dominating.
Despite the readiness Joey Wendle displayed during a one-month stint with the big club in 2016, Jed Lowrie is the clear favorite to claim the everyday second baseman position out of camp. He offers a veteran presence and an established bat.
Like Gray, though, the 2016 season was one riddled with injury.
When he was on the field (87 games played), Lowrie slashed a respectable .263/.314/.322. And those numbers only went up in the clutch, with runners in scoring position the veteran infielder slashed .281/.357/.368.
A healthy and productive Lowrie adds much-needed depth to the bottom of the Oakland order, joining Marcus Semien (who mashed 27 homers). Also, due to his involvement in several magical moments in the A’s postseason runs of 2013 and 2014, the switch-hitting 32 year-old will always hold a soft spot in Oakland hearts.