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AL West Threat Assessment: Oakland Athletics

How are the A’s set up to compete in 2020 and beyond?

Cincinnati Reds vs Oakland Athletics Photo by Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Every year we run out a series of AL West previews designed to examine how the Mariners stack up against the teams they’ll be playing most often. This year, with the Mariners in another stepback season, we’re taking a slightly different tack and looking at how the rest of the AL West stacks up, not just for 2020, but for the theoretical re-opening of the Mariners’ window of competition in 2021 and beyond. We’re kicking off the series with the A’s, who will look to build on a 2019 season in which they won 97 games yet finished second in the division and were summarily bounced in the Wild Card round by the upstart Rays. Oakland has so far had the quietest off-season in the AL West, so consider this as a way to ensure they trade for Noah Syndergaard tomorrow. You’re welcome, A’s fans.

The A’s in 2020:

The rotation:

The A’s will presumably once again find their better starters from their own farm and look to supplement that with cheap bargain basement finds in trade or free agency. Sean Manaea is the best name with the big-league club, but the A’s have a Cerberus of their own making a full debut in 2020. Manaea, with A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo, form a terrifying set of talented arms for Oakland’s divisional foes, but with that comes the usual pitcher problem: injuries. Puk and Luzardo have already had Tommy John surgery—Puk’s was in spring 2018, Luzardo’s in 2016 while he was with the Nationals before coming to Oakland in the Sean Doolittle trade. Manaea missed almost all of 2019 after having a “left shoulder impingement” that required surgery. There’s a huge amount of variance here: Manaea looked good in 29.2 IP after returning, but shoulder injuries are scary, and Puk and Luzardo are immensely talented but will still be raw even in 2021-22 (Puk is currently 24, Luzardo is 22). Daniel Mengden and Paul Blackburn, never worldbeaters to begin with, are relatively unlikely to make it through more than one arbitration year each and aren’t more than organizational depth as far as starting pitching goes.

Then it’s the rest of their prospects. On the 40 man already, Daulton Jefferies has been impressive, missing time after Tommy John but returning to post dominant numbers in AA as he has everywhere he’s pitched in pro ball. Jefferies doesn’t throw hard enough to project to the top of a rotation, but could look a little like a right-handed Marco Gonzales. He figures to be a solid part of the club’s plan in 2021-22 as a cheap talent who, if healthy, can log serious innings. James Kaprielian, meanwhile, did throw hard in pro ball with the Yankees, but similar injury problems (Jefferies and Kaprielian had Tommy John a week apart) sapped his velocity to the low 90s. Getting back on the mound in 2019, Kaprielian was competent in AA. There seems to be some sense from Oakland’s player development staff that his velocity may tick back up as he regains health and confidence, so there may well be more potential here by the stated timeframe. Grant Holmes was a first rounder in 2014 and has been competent all the way up to AA, but has some history of shoulder trouble.

Parker Dunshee isn’t on the 40-man, but is a talented arm just a phone call away. Unfortunately, being a phone call away means he pitched in the brutal PCL in the brutal Las Vegas Aviator’s park, and had a miserable year to show for it. Ignoring those results, as seems wise, he’s posted good to great results at every single minor league stop. Lastly, Brian Howard followed a similar track to Dunshee—though he spent most of his year putting up great numbers in AA, a late-season jaunt to Las Vegas left him smarting from a brutal stretch. Howard is 6’9” is nearly big-league ready as well.

I’m not much of one for math, but you can analogize the pitching side of Oakland’s farm to Mariners outfielders: there’s a lot of options. Moreover, there’s a ton of youth: only Manaea is older than 24. In 2021-22, you will in all likelihood see this group do what groups of Oakland pitchers do: fill a rotation with young, serviceable talent, with the rest of them filling out a solid major-league bullpen.

Lineup stalwarts:

The A’s made it to the playoffs again in 2019 despite taking a slight step back from 2018, when their 31.7 offensive fWAR ranked third in baseball, tied with the Yankees. The 2019 A’s came in fifth, thanks to some offseason surgeries for Matt Chapman and a subsequent slow start, and a very poor year from Khris Davis, who was closer to an OBP of .247 than an average. (Fun fact: Davis had the most games at DH without a hit, with 51. Tough sledding when your one job is to, you know, hit.) Marcus Semien picked up the slack with a career year where he sunk his teeth into the juicy ball and slugged a hundred points higher than he ever had, as did Mark Canha, who is embarking on the classic “do one year of good to ingratiate yourself enough to then be your truest, awful-est self”. No matter where you are right now, Mark Canha is either on his way to buy a $1,200 wok or converting some room in his house into a slam poetry studio.

Oakland will return its young core in 2020, with Chapman, Matt Olson, Ramon Laureano and catcher-in-waiting Sean Murphy all pre-arb; Canha makes a modest 3.5M and Stephen Piscotty, looking to bounce back after a down 2019, a less-modest-but-manageable 7M. Semien and Davis are the big-ticket items at 13.5M and 16.75 M, respectively, but add it all up and that’s a reasonable cost for 8/9ths of your offense.

Key losses:

Ah, but what about that 9th player? The A’s need to replace the mercurial Jurickson Profar, traded away to the Padres, and find someone for the keystone. Chad Pinder, notably not a second baseman, is currently listed at the top of the official depth chart, with Sheldon Neuse and Franklin Barreto beneath him. Neuse is a bulky third baseman by trade whose strength is his arm more than his range, so second seems like a tough fit for him. Barreto is a better defender but has been underwhelming in three different MLB cups of coffee. Jorge Mateo, traded from the Yankees in the Sonny Gray deal, is also an option; Mateo is the best defender on this list, a legitimate shortstop, but has spent the last two years floundering at Triple-A (his 19 HR at the level in 2019 need to be taken with a large grain of salt, as he enjoyed the trifecta of hitting the juicy ball in the PCL with Las Vegas as his home park). It seems like the impecunious A’s, rather than seek outside help or trade from their thinning farm, will look internally to fill their 2B vacancy, hoping Barreto or Mateo lunges forward to win the job with an extended look at the majors. Given above-average production everywhere else on the field (and assuming a bounceback for at least one of Davis or Piscotty), the A’s can probably afford to absorb a lighter-hitting blow at second, provided whoever it is brings plus defense.

The A’s also non-tendered Josh Phegley to make room for top prospect Sean Murphy, who will be tasked with the majority of the catching duties, and are reportedly in talks to bring back Stephen Vogt to serve as backup catcher and a lefty bench bat. Murphy doesn’t have a standout skill—he’s an average defender with a strong arm and more of a gap-to-gap hitter than a traditional power-hitting catcher—but he’s solid all-around; the one knock on him is he’s had some injuries, troubling for a backstop, having broken both his hamate bones at various times and needing off-season knee surgery this year (he will reportedly be ready for spring training). Handing the majority of the catching duties off to an unproven rookie in a contention year is a big ask, but the A’s feel confident enough about their #2 prospect to give him the keys to the pitching staff.

Oakland will also need a closer after cutting free Blake Treinen, who was projected to make somewhere between $7.8 - $8M in arbitration, although they’ll probably just take whatever no-name reliever, sprinkle some Oakland Magic (TM) on them, and produce Lou Trivino 2.0 or whoever.

Key off-season additions:

Uhhh....Jake Diekman? The A’s have been quiet this off-season, as is their wont, as they perform their annual ritual of the baseball equivalent of getting up to go to the bathroom just before the check comes. The A’s also got Padres prospect CF Buddy Reed in the Profar deal, who was the PTBNL (C Austin Allen was the primary return), who is a personal favorite and I’m bummed he’s with the A’s now. Stop acquiring players I like, Oakland! [Shakes fist in general direction of the Bay Area]

Season projection:

Despite the Angels and Rangers avowing to go for it and the Astros being the Astros, the A’s return enough of their talented young core along with some shiny new prospects that they should again challenge for the top spot in the division, and might have a better shot at the title than they have in years if the Angels/Rangers stumble out of the gates in the strange new world of Contention, or if the cloud of the cheating scandal/misogynistic exec/World Series loss/general clownshoery hangs over the Astros into the season. If Luzardo grows into the ace he’s showed flashes of being, the A’s have a pitching staff that could challenge the Cole-less Astros, along with a lineup that can go toe-to-toe with the long-reigning bullies of the AL West.

Is this the year the A’s crack 100 wins, even in a theoretically more competitive AL West? Generally, the staff feeling is no; most of us peg the A’s as an 88-92 win team finishing second in the division to the Astros, and some think the Rendonified Angels could leapfrog the plucky little A’s. FanGraphs’ ZiPS + Depth Charts agrees, with the Astros projected as the best team by fWAR in baseball and the A’s currently finishing third to the Angels. I (Kate) am going to issue a very rare HOT TAKE and say that I think the A’s will surprise people this year and wind up on top of the AL West. Pitching is always a war of attrition and I like Oakland’s top-end options, but think their depth is the class of the division, and sets them up well going forward.

The A’s in 2021:

To trade or not to trade? In 2021 the A’s will finally be forced to start paying Matt Chapman his worth. The other Matt will also be up for arbitration for the first time, Manaea will be in his third year, and Khris Davis will still be on the books, as will Piscotty and a 34-year-old Jake Diekman. If Chapman doesn’t sign an extension, there’s a possibility the A’s pull a Josh Donaldson 2.0 trade, installing Neuse at third, but given that they’ve only recently cleared away the bad vibes from that trade (it takes a long time to sage smudge something as big as the Coliseum, ok), it seems like that would be willfully going backward. It’s fair to compare what Nolan Arenado got in arbitration ($5M, then $11.75M, $17.2, and then his record-breaking $26M before he signed his eight-year/$260M deal); Chapman has actually been a smidge better than Arenado through his first two full seasons, so those numbers project even higher.

The A’s in 2022:

Khris Davis’s salary will be cleared, and assuming the A’s don’t pick up any high-priced FAs between now and then (pause for laughter), only Piscotty and Diekman remain as salary commitments. These savings will be offset, however, by the rising arbitration salaries of the young core, or salary commitments if they manage to sign Chapman to a long-term deal. Meanwhile, the top-heavy farm will be largely emptied by this point, and with the A’s picking late in the draft over their contention years plus not being major players on the international market, it will take a while to rebuild. The onus is on this crew to bring a title to the Bay Area, and with the Giants in Rebuild Lite mode, this is an excellent time for the A’s to make like a middle school science experiment and turn orange hats across the Bay to green.

Oakland’s window is now; half of their top-10 prospects by MLB Pipeline are either in the majors or majors-adjacent, with another five of their #s 11-20 also knocking at the door of the bigs. If they sputter in 2020 and allow the Angels to overtake their perennial Wild Card spot, the A’s are well-positioned to make another run in 2021 and 2022, but each subsequent year will cost them more in salary as their first wave of prospects graduates up through the echelons of arbitration. By that time, the Mariners will theoretically also have returned from their contention hiatus, giving the A’s one more adversary desperate to contend and more than willing to outspend them. The Athletics are never short on surprises, but it seems like the next two years will be the peak of their powers. Their rotation should remain potent, but their star-powered infield seems likely to be on the way out as Seattle’s ascent begins. Go forth and take the division from the jackbooted Astros, Oakland. We (okay, mostly me) believe in you.