No projection systems saw the 2018 A’s coming: PECOTA pegged them at 76-86, as did 538. ZiPS saw the entire A’s outfield being worth three combined wins, and Matt Chapman and Khris Davis each being worth three wins. It, along with everything else, failed to see Jed Lowrie coming. The A’s wound up with 97 wins and a Wild Card berth as nearly every one of their position players beat his projection into the ground. The Mariners have set their sights on 2021 for the team to challenge their AL West rivals. Let’s gaze into our crystal balls to see what the Athletics might look like during that window.
Oakland Athletics, 2021
|1B||Matt Olson||27||Arb 1|
|2B||Franklin Barreto||25||Arb 1|
|3B||Matt Chapman||28||Arb 1|
|LF||Chad Pinder||29||Arb 2|
|RF||Dustin Fowler||26||Arb 1|
|DH||Stephen Piscotty||30||$7.58M (Arb 3)|
|SP||Sean Manaea||29||Arb 2|
|SP||Jharel Cotton||29||Arb 2|
|SP||Andrew Triggs||32||Arb 2|
|RP||Lou Trivino||29||Arb 1|
Unsurprisingly, the historically low-payroll A’s have big money committed to only one player in 2021: RF Stephen Piscotty. We have him slotted in as DH here simply because there was space there, with Khris Davis a free agent after the 2019 season, but he’ll be just 30 and still playable in the field if the A’s want to re-up the 31-year-old Davis. The outfield has some other question marks: a 29-year-old Chad Pinder who produced more WAR last year than in his first two seasons combined might be more of a super-utility player than an everyday starter, but it’s unclear if any of the A’s outfield prospects, most of whom don’t fit this window at their current paces, will take a significant leap forward. Of course there’s always the possibility the A’s will spend in free agency to add a little more pop to their outfield, but then again, is there really? Dustin Fowler and Ramon Laureano are also unknown quantities, for now; by the end of this season we’ll have a better sense of whether or not Laureano will be able to bottle the lightning of his blistering 176 PAs in 2018 (129 wRC+), or if another year away from a devastating knee injury will improve Dustin Fowler’s 66 wRC+ in 200+ PAs.
The infield, so solid for the A’s in their current window, will develop a big hole in the middle in 2021. While the corners will be locked down by the Matts, Marcus Semien and Jurickson Profar will both be free agents, to be theoretically replaced by the tandem of Franklin Barreto and Jorge Mateo. Barreto hasn’t yet had success at the big-league level and Mateo failed his first year of Triple-A, although with Profar and Semien in place over the next two seasons, both have time to actually work on things in the minors, and with neither of them having a clearly defined position, they might actually be working on their defense. If Profar finally fulfills his prospect potential in Oakland, he’s a solid candidate for an extension coming into his age-28 season.
Unlike every other divisional rival, the A’s have an answer for who will be their catcher of the future: top prospect Sean Murphy should be installed with the team by 2021, and could make a push for a mid-season promotion to Oakland this year provided he destroys Triple-A as he did Double-A in 2018. Murphy is equally gifted defensively and offensively and barring disaster should be a long-term piece for the A’s.
Where the A’s of the future will delineate most sharply from the current version is in the pitching staff. Gone will be the days of making fun of Oakland’s perennial staff of retreads and bargain-bin specials, replaced by a core of homegrown talent. Top prospect Jesus Luzardo might be with the team as soon as mid-2019, and will most likely depose Sean Manaea as the staff ace. A.J. Puk has front-end starter upside and will be fully healed from the TJ that sidelined him this past year. If there’s one thing Oakland is vulnerable to, it’s pitcher injuries (what is it with California AL teams and pitcher injuries). Just this week news broke that Luzardo, who already had TJ back when he was a student at Stoneman Douglas High, is being shut down with a shoulder injury, continuing a troubling organizational trend of health issues with the pitching staff. (Go read the FanGraphs Top 30 prospects writeup and count how many pitcher blurbs mention health problems if you don’t believe us.) Even if health issues keep pitchers like James Kaprielian or Daulton Jefferies from meeting their lofty potential as front-end starters, they still might be able to carve out roles in the bullpen, which, while a current strength for the team, is as yet to be populated with anyone other than the improbably-named J.B. Wendelken in the future. If this staff is healthy in 2021, it could be the missing piece Oakland has needed in their offense-only playoff push.