2017 prediction: A’s leap toward postseason

In 2012, the Oakland Athletics were the popular pick to finish dead last in the American League West. They won 94 games and surprised the baseball world by swiping the division crown from the collective heads of the consecutive AL Pennant winning Texas Rangers.

Following back-to-back seasons of 90-plus losses — the team’s first such nadir since 1977 to 1979 — the A’s are primed to once again rise from the American League West cellar and eclipse the .500 mark. Their predicted 83 wins will not be enough to propel Oakland into postseason play, but this new batch of green talent will announce its presence with demonstrative authority, setting themselves up for a golden future.

After an injury-laden 2016 led to 93 losses and a third-to-last finish in the AL in 2016, Oakland essentially removed itself from the national radar, largely dismissed from contention before the first pitch in 2017 has been thrown.

Tempered expectations, however, shouldn’t hamper the A’s play. Rather, this young team has embraced its traditional role of underdog, and has the chance to upset the balance once again. Speaking at FanFest in late January, two-time All-Star catcher Stephen Vogt said the veteran leadership of the team will not allow the bitterness of 2016 to linger on anyone’s palate:

“Obviously, no one was excited about our results last year but I think everybody is hungry for more. … We want to get back to that winning mindset.”

That winning mindset is produced at the top of the organization, where the front office spent the offseason making moves in the direction of improvement.

Beyond the placement of a new leadership group, and its commitment to the city of Oakland, the front office addressed every roster need, strengthening every weakness.

Biggest addition

The free agent signing of Rajai Davis — who led the American League with 43 stolen bases a year ago — solves the A’s obvious need for speed at the top of the order. But Trevor Plouffe who will go the furthest among new A’s in shoring up the success of the team.

Davis certainly possesses the ability to electrify an offense that has, at times, gone stagnant, while Plouffe offers something statistics can’t capture — mentorship.

Manager Bob Melvin said, prior to a March 12 9-8 Spring Training victory over the Chicago Cubs, that he has been enthralled by Plouffe’s seamless transition into the A’s clubhouse:

“He isn’t afraid to be that veteran guy and he has leadership qualities, all of the above, and to be able to get off to a good start too I know makes you fell good when you’re with a new team. He’s been absolutely terrific. … He’s just one of those quality human beings that fits well in any clubhouse, and he’s been impactful here.”

In what will undoubtedly be the longest year of his baseball career, 2016 breakout star Ryon Healy will find solace in the constant that is Plouffe, a fellow Crespi Carmelite High School grad and off-season workout partner.

When the difficulties of a sophomore slump puts Healy on the verge of making wholesale changes to his approach, it will be Plouffe in his ear assuring him of his talents. When the toll of a 162-game major league season begins to wear his body down, it will be Plouffe offering veteran advice. When a major fielding or base running blunder embarrasses the 25 year-old, it will be Plouffe offering gentle jabs to relieve the pressure.

Further bolstering the already strong mental game of one of the game’s top young talents will be the most significant role of the 30-year-old former Minnesota Twin.

And, on top of all he provides to the growth of a young star being groomed as the face of the franchise’s future, Plouffe adds a 150-game average of about 20 home runs and 75 RBIs over a seven-year career. Along with a respectable .247/.308/.420 career slash.

He doesn’t have the flash of a stolen base king or the stature of the 127-save and three-ringed closer Santiago Casilla, and he does stunt the playing time of Yonder Alonso, but Plouffe was Oakland’s biggest add of the offseason.

Biggest loss

Oakland trimmed most of the fat off its roster via mid-season trades last year, giving way to a lean roster heading into the offseason. The only departure from the A’s full-season squad was Danny Valencia (Seattle Mariners), whose production is replaced by Plouffe.

With no clear losses from the roster, third base coach and infield defense guru Ron Washington leaving for the Atlanta Braves becomes the only key subtraction of the winter.

Under Washington’s watchful eye, the A’s defense improved its fielding percentage from .979 in 2015 to .984 in 2016. The benchmark of that improvement is shortstop Marcus Semien, who committed 28 errors in his first 90 games in Oakland. Since then, under Washington’s tutelage, he has committed 28 errors in 224 games.

About moving on in his defensive development without “Wash,” Semien told SFBay:

“We worked every day. With all that work every day, that becomes muscle-memory — things that are instilled in your brain that you just naturally do. When I take ground balls now, I still hear all the things he would tell me. He built a great routine for us all that I think we can carry on.”

Now, with youngsters in Semien, Healy and a crop of young talent still looking to find their way as big league infielders without access to the glove whisperer, they have no choice but keep those tips on memory recall.

Greatest strength

The 2017 Oakland rotation is packed with worlds of promise. But so much of that group’s success will rely on a bounce back from Sonny Gray, who will miss the first month of the season, and production from a group of starters who will be experiencing Opening Day for the first time this year.

The bullpen, on the other hand, has as much experience as any other group in the game. With John Axford (144), Casilla (127), Ryan Madson (85) and Sean Doolittle (33) the A’s have four relievers well versed in saving wins. The newest Athletic, Plouffe likened the relief corps to that of the pas two World Series winners — the 2015 Kansas City Royals and 2016 Cubs — telling SFBay that he never liked hitting against the A’s:

“Not only our starting pitching, our back-end of the bullpen is looking really good. That’s a shift that’s happening throughout baseball, you have to have that back-end of the bullpen to win, and we have that.”

Joining the wily, seasoned vets will be Ryan Dull, who set a MLB record in his 2016 rookie campaign, stranding his first 36 inherited runners. The 27-year-old righty, Melvin said, is capable of landing any role in the bullpen during what will be a solid career, but, with this team, he brings his highest as a tourniquet man, entering messy frames and escaping his teammate’s jam.

The twelfth and final spot in the ‘pen has yet to be decided, with one week — six games — left to make decisions before the April 3 Opening Day.

Greatest weakness

En route to the AL’s lowest-scoring offense in 2016 (653 runs), the A’s posted junior circuit lows in team on-base percentage (.304) and slugging percentage (.395). A key factor being the second-lowest team batting average (.246).

Only Healy will break camp with a career batting average over .285 among all current A’s, and he has played only 72 games in that young career. The additions of Davis (.267/.314/.387 career slash), Matt Joyce (.242/.341/.429) and Plouffe offer production in the form of speed and power, but save for Joyce’s ability to draw a walk (one per every 2.47 games played) do little for the offense’s weaknesses.

Can Khris Davis, Healy, Plouffe and Semien combine for 100 home runs? Sure. Will that alleviate the team’s on-base deficiencies? Some of it.

But, a top-of-the-order hitter who can consistently be on base in front of those home runs would be the difference between scoring 4 and 4.5 runs per game, winning 81 and 88 games, and watching the postseason or participating in it.

Should the green and gold get off to a strong start, there could be moves made. And while it is an outside chance, acquiring a guy like Joey Votto (Cincinnati Reds), Freddie Freeman (Atlanta Braves) or Charlie Blackmon (Colorado Rockies) would solidify those weaknesses.

A season ago, it took 95 wins for the Rangers to claim the division crown, and 89 wins for the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles to lock up spots in the Wild Card game. This A’s team is not built to reach either mark, but that won’t stop them from expecting it from themselves.

The man Vogt said is the perfect leader for this type of expedition due to his “quiet confidence,” Melvin said being the only ones with that belief will fortify their efforts:

“It’s just kinda who we are and who we’ve been, at least the last 10 years or so. A lot of younger guys getting a chance to perform, that’s the way we do it here. We’re not afraid to be that underdog and some times being under the radar to start the season might not be a bad thing.”


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.