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AL West Preview: Oakland Athletics

The A's are hoping for a lot to fall their way in 2016.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

At a glance:

Athletics (2015)

Batting (wRC+)

96 (11th in AL)

Fielding (FanGraphs Defense)

-27.2 (14th)

Starting Pitching (FIP-)

101 (8th)

Bullpen (FIP-)

110 (14th)

2015 was a year to forget for the Athletics. General Manager Billy Beane had constructed a roster that looked like it was more than the sum of its parts, but a rash of injuries and one of the worst bullpens in the league undermined any hope of competition. What looked like a deep roster at the outset was stretched to its limits, and players like Eric Sogard and Sam Fuld saw more time in the field than expected. It all added up to the franchise's worst record since 1997.

Key Additions:

Key Losses:

1B Yonder Alonso

2B Brett Lawrie

2B/SS Jed Lowrie

OF Craig Gentry

2B/OF Chris Coghlan

RHP Jesse Chavez

OF Khris Davis

LHP Drew Pomeranz

LHP Rich Hill

RHP Tyler Clippard

RHP Henderson Alvarez

RHP Evan Scribner

RHP John Axford

LHP Fernando Abad

RHP Ryan Madson

RHP Sean Nolin

With their ever-limited budget, it was surprising to see the A’s spend a fair amount of money on a number of pitchers, each with some risk looming over them. There is some potential for reward if everything breaks their way, but just one of these free agents is under 30. Because they spent most of their budget on their pitching staff, their lineup was bolstered through a number of small trades. A year after being included in the package for Josh Donaldon, A’s cut ties with Brett Lawrie, trading him to the White Sox for a pair of middling prospects. They also sent two prospects to the Brewers for Khris Davis. With no major upgrades, it seems like Billy Beane is betting on better luck and better health in 2015.

Projected Lineup

C Stephen Vogt
1B Yonder Alonso
2B Jed Lowrie
SS Marcus Semien
3B Danny Valencia
LF Khris Davis
CF Billy Burns
RF Josh Reddick
DH Billy Butler

What the A’s lineup lacks in star talent, it makes up for in flexibility. A number of players who aren’t listed above could see significant time on the field, either in platoon roles or by pushing others to the bench if they’re playing poorly. Chris Coghlan could be the player who has the most impact off the bench. He’s quietly put up two straight years of above average offensive production, accumulating 5.7 fWAR for the Cubs as both an outfielder and infielder. His main obstacle to playing time is the reacquired Jed Lowrie. Finally playing a position more fitting to his defensive skill, the A’s are hoping Lowrie can recover some of the luster he showed in 2013 when he put up 3.5 fWAR as their starting shortstop. Moving from the hitter friendly confines of Miller Park to the wide open Colosseum, Khris Davis’s offensive production should take a hit. An increasing strikeout rate is a little worrying, but he almost doubled his walk rate last year and he has enough raw power to overcome his home stadium.

Projected Rotation

RHP Sonny Gray
LHP Rich Hill
RHP Jesse Hahn
RHP Kendall Graveman
RHP Chris Bassitt

The A’s rotation is led by their ace, Sonny Gray. Developing a third plus pitch to go along with his fastball and his signature curveball led to a third place finish in the Cy Young voting last year. In almost 500 major league innings, he’s shown an ability to depress his opponent’s BABIP despite a batted ball profile that might indicate otherwise. Whether it’s just good fortune or some secret sauce, he should continue to be one of the best pitcher’s in the American League.

Behind Gray is a motley crew of pitchers who are each intriguing in their own way. The A’s are betting $6 million that a 36-year-old lefty made some career altering mechanical adjustments last year. Rich Hill dominated in his 29 innings in September, with an outrageous 7.2 K/BB ratio and a 2.27 FIP. Expecting him to repeat that kind of performance is wishful thinking, but he’s a risk that could pay dividends if the adjustments he made are for real. Jesse Hahn is healthy once again and should provide decent production out of the third spot in the rotation. He’s abandoned his slider in an effort to avoid the injuries that have plagued him his entire career. Luckily, his curveball is by far his best pitch and it’s helped him post an excellent K/BB ratio and above average ground ball rates. Henderson Alvarez should return from his shoulder injury sometime mid-season and should slot into the rotation when he does.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the A’s overhauled bullpen. As a group, A’s relievers posted an incredible 4.63 ERA, worst in the American League. Gone is more than half of the bullpen, replaced by a group of veteran relievers including Ryan Madson, Liam Hendriks, John Axford, and Marc Rzepczynski. On paper, it looks like a group that should post better results than their predecessors, but you can never know with relievers.

* * *

FanGraphs is projecting 79 wins for the A’s—good for last place in the AL West, a game behind the Rangers. If everything goes right for them—they keep all of their players on the field and they see a few breakouts from some of their role players—they could find themselves in the midst of the race for the second Wild Card. The more likely outcome is a middling team that sits towards the bottom of the pack. With such limited resources and a farm system that was depleted in their bid to win in 2014, its going to be hard for the A’s to compete year after year without tearing everything down. Instead, they’re hoping for a lot of luck and a lot more on top of that to have a chance at making the playoffs in 2016.