The Athletics’ position player group - aside from Khris Davis, Jed Lowrie, and Marcus Semien - is largely composed of relatively young, unheralded guys. But make no mistake: they know how to put a charge into a baseball. The A’s 2017 ISO of .190 tied them with the Diamondbacks for the second-highest in the big leagues, trailing only (who else?) the Astros. They clubbed 234 home runs, good for fourth-best in the league, and their season wRC+ of 102 put them in a three-way tie for fifth with the Twins and our very own Mariners.
However, as well as the A’s hit last year, much of that value was negated by their leaden gloves. Both DRS and UZR were very harsh towards Oakland’s defense, with DRS ranking them 28th and UZR putting them in dead last, and these marks would be even worse without Matt Chapman providing excellent defense at third base from the moment they called him up in June. The lumbering Khris Davis and Matt Joyce flanking an aging Rajai Davis for much of the season brought back unpleasant memories of the 2015 Mariners outfield, but the A’s outfield should be better in 2018 after a few new additions and the larger Davis sliding into a DH role. In all, though, while the A’s are once again rolling out several hitters who have names that sound like they were pulled out of a hat, this group is by no means a pushover, and could surprise many this year.
2017 production: 75 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR (25th in MLB)
2018 projection: (Steamer) Bruce Maxwell - 88 wRC+, 1.7 WAR, Josh Phegley, 90 wRC+, 0.8 WAR
One spot Oakland almost can’t help but improve is behind the dish. After several productive years from Stephen Vogt, the veteran Vogt fell off somewhat offensively and was unable to sustain his shoddy framing and defense. Vogt was placed on waivers and claimed by the Brewers, leaving Oakland to set the backstop with a mixture of underwhelming veterans (Dustin Garneau, Ryan Lavarnway, Josh Phegley) and a not-much-younger prospect in 27 year-old Bruce Maxwell. Maxwell has had a tumultuous offseason but the A’s have stated their commitment to him as the starter. Steamer’s projections are high on both Maxwell and Phegley to eclipse their production from last year, while ZiPS expects more mediocrity. Neither Maxwell nor Phegley have shown consistent power in recent years, making them outliers in Oakland.
2017 production: 123 wRC+, 3.8 fWAR (6th in MLB)
2018 projection: Matt Olson - 115 wRC+, 2.1 WAR
When the Mariners snagged Oakland’s lone 2017 All-Star, the emergent Yonder Alonso, last summer, it seemed likely the A’s would take a slight step back. Unfortunately for the M’s, Alonso’s replacement was ready for the big time. While Rhys Hoskins was drawing plenty of attention for his powerful debut campaign, Matt Olson was mashing homers commensurate with his 6’5, 245 lb frame. Olson is unequivocally a three-true-outcome (TTO) savant, with 106 of his 216 PAs falling in that category. Frighteningly for pitchers, 24 of Olson’s 49 hits were homers. You read that right - nearly half of the balls Olson got a hit on left the yard. Olson’s foot speed is nearly non-existent, but with most of Oakland’s roster built to maximize long balls, that may not be as consequential.
2017 production: 117 wRC+, 3.5 WAR (7th in MLB)
2018 projection: Jed Lowrie - 101 wRC+, 1.8 WAR
Of course the team that built an infield out of 50% Matt meat is also the team that both traded for Brett Lawrie and currently employs Jed Lowrie. While the former is at this point most notable for his relation to Danielle Lawrie, the latter made significant improvements in 2017 that helped him rebound from an abysmal 2016 to be one of the game’s best 2Bs again as he was in 2013. Lowrie cut his ground ball rate nearly in half and started making hard contact again, and added an over four percent boost to his walk rate to round out his rebound. Lowrie will be 34 in April and the projections anticipate some slippage as a result, but Lowrie’s offensive rebound last year seemed tangible and trackable.
2017 production: 102 wRC+, 2.6 WAR (17th in MLB)
2018 projection: Matt Chapman - 97 wRC+, 2.6 WAR
Sometimes average isn’t average. No position is more flush with talent throughout the league right now than the hot corner. 20 teams received 2.0 or greater wins above replacement from third base, and the A’s were one of them. Most impressively, that production came almost exclusively from rookie Matt Chapman. The other first round pick named Matt to receive a mid-season call-up for the A’s managed to outshine his partner on the cold corner, as Chapman earned high praise from evaluators and coaches alike in his rookie season. Inasmuch as any third baseman can stand out in this golden age, Chapman’s defense was nigh transcendant, and carried his decent bat (108 wrC+) forward. Chappie turns 25 in April and is not the hulking figure Olson is, but his pop projects for an Odor-ish 29 HRs and a below-average wRC+. If you haven’t gotten the picture yet, these A’s want their ball long or not at all.
2017 production: 76 wRC+, 1.3 WAR (20th in MLB)
2018 projection: Marcus Semien - 102 wRC+, 1.9 WAR
Marcus Semien missed nearly half the season last year with a bruised wrist, forcing Oakland into a tough spot, using Adam Rosales and Chad Pinder to little effect. Upon his return, Semien was roughly the same guy he’s always been - a decent all-around player with a little more pop than the average SS. He didn’t quite sustain the power surge of 2016, where he whacked 27 dingers in an otherwise lost A’s season, but if healthy, he remains just 27 years old and seems likely to once again produce passably. Behind Semien is top prospect Franklin Barreto, who fell on his face hard in his first taste of MLB action last year, but will be just 22 this season.
2017 production: 96 wRC+, 0.0 WAR (5th in MLB)
2018 projection: Khris Davis - 116 wRC+, 1.7 WAR
For as flush as the third base position is, the state of designated hitting has never been feebler. Just two AL teams recorded overall production from the DH position that was measurably above replacement-level - Seattle (thanks Nellie) and Cleveland (good job, Edwin Encarnacion’s parrot). Oakland ran out 11 different DHs at some point, but the most prevalent were new Mariner Ryon Healy and longtime Mariner-bane Khris Davis. Davis seems likely to take this role full-time as he’s been bumped out of the outfield, and Khrush will set his sights on a third straight 40+ HR season. It’s never easy to accrue value as a DH, and despite his pop, Davis’ K-rate, like the rest of the 26th-lowest K% having Athletics, is gargantuan. No team is more blatantly dependent on cluster luck than the 2018 Oakland Athletics, and Khris Davis is their poster child.
The A’s immediate depth is unenviable, as Chad Pinder seems the likeliest utility infield backup, while Brandon Moss, Mark Canha, Jake Smolinski, and Renato Nunez will battle it out for time and at-bats in the outfield and at first in case of injury. What Oakland does have is reinforcements in their mid-to-upper minors that could arrive as soon as mid-season. The afore-mentioned Franklin Barreto could feasibly break camp with the team as another infield option, and if SS Jorge Mateo, one of the jewels of the Sonny Gray trade, opens in AAA and continues to perform as he did in AA last season, Oakland might be scrambling to find at-bats for all their intriguing infielders. Overall, the infield is chock full of power, whiffs, and decent potential. They should be nightmares to face one night and cake walks the next.
2017 Performance: 104 wRC+ (T-10th in MLB), 4.4 fWAR (23rd in MLB)
2018 Projections: Matt Joyce, 112 wRC+/1.2 fWAR (Steamer), 106 wRC+/0.6 zWAR (ZiPS); Dustin Fowler, 83 wRC+/0.0 fWAR (Steamer), 92 wRC+/0.6 zWAR (ZiPS); Stephen Piscotty, 105 wRC+/1.5 fWAR (Steamer); Boog Powell, 96 wRC+/1.2 fWAR (Steamer), 91 wRC+/0.6 zWAR (ZiPS)
The A’s outfield stands to be a lot more athletic in 2018, with Matt Joyce being the only returning member. Joyce should be penciled in as their regular left fielder after a strong 2017 in which he put up 2.4 fWAR with very solid strikeout and walk numbers (20.8% and 12.1%, respectively). While he has never been a very good defender, his bat should be a steady presence against right-handers, although Oakland would be wise to shield him against lefties, against whom he has run a lowly 59 wRC+ against for his career.
Dustin Fowler‘s Steamer projection should be taken with a grain of salt; it only projects him for 59 plate appearances after his big league debut - and season - was cut short by a brutal collision with a low outfield wall. Prior to being called up, the 23-year-old Fowler was tearing apart the International League, running a 138 wRC+ with a .249 ISO over 313 plate appearances to go with excellent defense. He came to the A’s from the Yankees as part of the Sonny Gray deal, and he sits atop the team’s depth chart in center field. Fowler’s plate discipline is still a little raw, but he’s on track to be ready to go for spring, and should prove to be an obnoxious opponent.
Stephen Piscotty, acquired from St. Louis for infield prospects Yairo Munoz and Max Schrock, slots in as Oakland’s starting right fielder. Piscotty had a rough year in 2017 - dealing both with injuries and his mother being diagnosed with ALS, he posted a 92 wRC+ (though with a career-best 13% walk rate) over just 407 plate appearances. The trade had the added benefit of allowing Piscotty to be much closer to his family, who lives about thirty miles away from Oakland. He is a strong defender in right, and if he can prove that the bump in plate discipline is legit, a fully healthy Piscotty could be a dangerous hitter in the A’s lineup.
Our old friend Boog Powell figures to be the Athletics’ fourth outfielder to open the year. Swapped for two good months of Yonder Alonso, Boog caught fire in a small sample with Oakland, putting up a 135 wRC+ over 92 plate appearances. While he almost certainly won’t match that mark in 2018, his good eye and ability to play all three outfield positions should make him a good bench option, and he could force his way into starting consideration if Fowler either struggles or isn’t quite ready to go.
With Khris Davis bumped out, the Oakland outfield’s hitting prowess definitely takes a hit. They should be much more efficient at preventing runs, though, and the projections on at least Fowler and Piscotty are on the conservative side. It is easy to imagine them annoyingly taking away hits from Mariner hitters, and none of them feel like easy outs on paper.