AL West preview: A’s power their way back to the pack
As is, Oakland is not a playoff team. It is not a last-place team, but the squad the Athletics will put on the field Thursday will not be a legitimate postseason contender.
The emphasis being on *as is*.
The A’s (75-87 last season) are coming off their best finish since qualifying for the Wild Card game in 2014, pushed to within one good run of a .500 record in large part by their own internal growth. Now they find themselves one or two pieces from a legitimate playoff run. Could those needed pieces come from their organization? Yes.
It is no secret that Oakland is in need of a veteran starter, someone with experience pitching in the heat of a playoff race to lead the rotation from the top. They would also do well to add — or develop — a lead-off man.
First, the starter. Kendall Graveman is undoubtedly the ace of this staff, and at his best he could be exactly what manager Bob Melvin and pitching coach Scott Emerson need to be the true head of the staff. At his best, Sean Manaea could be that as well. The problem is that neither starter, has developed a reputation that would support these abilities.
The two, far and away most experienced starters in the Opening Day rotation, have made a combined 124 big league starts none of which in meaningful September baseball. Trevor Cahill, who will be called up at some point in April, has made 188 — and pitched in the postseason. The trio could fill the need in the aggregate.
Oakland’s rotation is in line for a huge assist from the rebuilt relief corps. The A’s have not had a bullpen finish among the American League’s top five in ERA since 2014 (their last postseason appearance). Their current group, led by closer Blake Treinen, set-up man Chris Hatcher and offseason acquisition Yusmeiro Petit — each of whom have pitched in the heat of the October hunt — could be the one to break that streak.
Speaking of streaks, Oakland cracked the 700-run ceiling for the first time since 2014 last year. Much of that scoring came in the second half, when the insertions of Matt Olson (.259/.352/.651, 24 home runs, 45 RBIs last season) and Matt Chapman (.234/.313/.472, 14, 40) helped the A’s attack go from 4.29 runs per game to 4.89.
Adding the Matts to a lineup heart that already contained Khris Davis (.247/.336/.528, 43, 110) and Jed Lowrie (.277/.360/.448, 14, 69) for a full season could put the punch over the top. If it doesn’t, Jonathan Lucroy (.265/.345/.371, 6, 40) and Matthew Joyce (.243/.335/.473, 25, 68) certainly will.
Joyce is an interesting piece to this East Bay puzzle. He has built his career around the ability to get on base, and has the speed to steal bases, but is far from the model lead-off man.
Boog Powell, who did not steal a single base in 52 big league games last year, won the starting center field assignment — one that is normally counted on for some base stealing — out of spring. If he can develop this skill, that would help his team’s cause greatly. Of course, the A’s could try to make a move midseason — Reds speedster Billy Hamilton comes to mind.
The other option is letting either Powell, who has stolen 74 bases in 419 minor league games (29 per 162 games), or Dustin Fowler, who lost the center field battle but has stolen 74 bases in 421 games (29) become that guy.
After all, the “Bash Brothers” wouldn’t have 1989 World Series wings if Rickey Henderson wasn’t stealing 52 bases and causing havoc in front of them.
Yeah, the art of the stolen base has gone the way of the dinosaur, for the most part, but having a speedy runner on the base paths distracting a pitcher facing someone like Olson or Davis could prove monumentally beneficial. And that is what this team’s success, or lack thereof, is going to come down to in 2018: monumental power.
Until the last few tweaks are made to their lineup the A’s are a team that will stay our of the cellar and challenge the .500 mark.
Projected record: 80-82
Astros: 95-67 (Division crown)
Angels: 89-73 (Wild Card)