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AL West Threat Assessment: Oakland Athletics

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Despite losing some long-tenured players, the A’s figure to continue to be a pain in the AL West.

MLB: Wild Card-Chicago White Sox at Oakland Athletics Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to LL’s annual overview of our division rivals in the AL West. While the Mariners won’t have to face a Russian Doll-like repetition of California and Texas teams day after day with some Colorado spice sprinkled on top again, make no mistake, these are the teams you will become so very sick of seeing. Our goal with this series is to do a deep dive on what exactly the flavor of that malaise will be. As we do every year, we’ll be summarizing each team’s offseason moves, taking stock of the general state of the team, analyzing best and worst-case outcomes for 2021, and trying to peer into the future to try to predict what the team will look like when the Mariners are, as we are constantly reminded, on The Rise. You can check out Addie’s deep dive into the hapless Texas Rangers here, and this series marches on with a look at the perpetual Mariner fun-suckers that are the Oakland Athletics.

Threat level: A deep, forest green; gentle yet ever-so-slightly menacing

Key additions: Trevor Rosenthal, Elvis Andrus, Sergio Romo, Jed Lowrie, Adam Kolarek, Nik Turley

Key subtractions: Khris Davis, Liam Hendriks, Joakim Soria, Sheldon Neuse, Marcus Semien, Robbie Grossman, Tommy La Stella, Mike Minor

Key returns: Yusmeiro Petit, Mike Fiers

PECOTA projection: 80-82

FanGraphs projection: 83-79, third in the AL West

LL Staff projection: 88-74, 14-5 against Seattle

State of the team:

The Oakland Athletics are coming off a 2020 season in which they won the AL West and beat an opponent in the postseason for the first time since 2006, and for just the second time since Billy Beane took over running the team after the 1997 season. For comparison, the Mariners have won just as many postseason series as the Athletics have in the same time frame. After losing a few key pieces of the team this offseason, the A’s find themselves facing the conundrum that pops up every few years or so: Try to Moneyball their way into contending for another chance at losing a first-round postseason series, or tear it all down and rebuild for another shot at high-end mediocrity?

With several key members of the Astros’ core leaving this past offseason, the A’s should remain a strong contender to win the AL West after making several moves to bolster their relief corps, and with a solid rotation headlined by Jesús Luzardo and supplanted by Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, and Mike Fiers, they should be a source of curses and hair-pulling for Mariner fans all year long. The good times might be coming to an end soon, though: corner infield titans Matts Chapman and Olson have both entered their arb years, and with a hefty raise likely for both after the coming season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see ever-impecunious Oakland move one or both of them to keep payroll down. Marcus Semien, Khris Davis (admittedly, he had been an afterthought for a couple years now), and Tommy La Stella have also moved on, and while the lineup still packs a Matt-and-Mark-based punch, it wouldn’t be a shocker to see Oakland’s offensive numbers lose a step.

What could go right:

The A’s may not have done anything to get meaningfully better outside of their bullpen, but neither have any of the other teams in the AL West. Despite winning the division, the A’s got disappointing performances out of several key players in 2020. First baseman Matt Olson couldn’t crack the Mendoza Line and his 31.4% K% was 6 points higher than in his previous two full major league seasons. Matt Chapman didn’t fare quite as poorly at the plate, slashing .232/.276/.535 for a 117 wRC+, but he suffered a torn hip labrum in September and played - by his standards - poorly defensively all season, earning a DRC+ of 92, nearly 30 points lower than his previous career averages. Ramón Laureano also fell off last season, both offensively and defensively. If these three players can play like they have in previous years, the A’s could overcome some of their offseason losses. They are also hoping that Elvis Andrus, who was brought to replace Marcus Semien at shortstop, can rebound after an off year in 2020. Catcher Sean Murphy improved significantly from his 2019 debut in the pandemic-shortened season and could be an offensive force if he continues to showcase a late power surge.

On the pitching front, the rotation will likely feature Jesús Luzardo, Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea, Frankie Montas, and Mike Fiers, with A.J. Puk, and Daulton Jefferies waiting in the wings. If the A’s young pitchers keep developing and manage to remain injury-free (which is a big concern with Puk in particular), the rotation plus a revamped bullpen sets the team up well for success.

What could go wrong:

Besides sewage flowing as freely as AJ Puk’s long locks in a gentle summer breeze through the tunnels and catacombs of the Coliseum? For one, restaurants will open up across the country and we’ll be subjected to Mark Canha’s Instagram account again. Fans will be allowed back into games and we’ll be subjected to the slow, steady, relentless drum banging during games in Oakland. On the field, injury concerns plague the pitching staff, and Montas in particular had a rough 2020 after a scintillating 2019 was cut short by a suspension due to testing positive for ostarine. Offensively, the lineup depends on bounceback years from most of its members, which feels likelier for some players (the assorted Matts) than it does for others (Chad Pinder and Stephen Piscotty, who have both been trending steadily downwards).

Reinforcements coming?

Not really. Murphy will be slated as the starting catcher after a strong 2020 in which he finished fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, and AJ Puk should be on the opening day roster, whether he cracks the rotation or starts in the bullpen. The only changes will come because of injuries, or because the A’s don’t get off to a good start. If that’s the case, trades will be made with an eye toward restocking the organization for their next contention cycle and not toward making a run at the 2021 postseason.

The future, Conan?

The Athletics are the only team without a single prospect on the MLB Pipeline Top 100 list, and only just snuck Tyler Soderstrom onto the Baseball America list at #92. This is largely because their top prospects from past years, Jesús Luzardo, AJ Puk, and Sean Murphy will all be with Oakland this season. The top prospects the A’s have in the system right now, Robert Puason and Soderstrom, would have had their first seasons last year, but were unable to play due to COVID. Puason did play at the alternate site, but the 18-year-old still needs some seasons in the minor leagues before he’s ready to make the jump and fill in the hole at shortstop in Oakland. Another promising shortstop prospect, Logan Davidson, has only played in Short-A, but impressed the team at the alternate site in 2020.

The farm system is consistently ranked near or at the bottom of baseball and the best prospects are still a few years away from having an impact. Unless the A’s decided to dump players who could command higher salaries in arbitration and trade them for farm replenishments, the near future looks pretty dismal on the farm.

[Ed. note: Also, let’s not forget Oakland’s first-rounder in 2018 is currently playing football for the Arizona Cardinals. Keith Law says “that’s not their fault.” I disagree! -KP]

Depending on how the season begins, the A’s could find themselves regrouping sooner rather than later. Should the remaining core offensive players not rebound or injuries strike the pitching staff, Oakland may well decide to break it down this year and jettison players like Matt Olson and Matt Chapman who could command salary increases in arbitration. If the past decades are any guide, though, the A’s are never more than a few years out from contention, so it’s a safe bet that they’ll be there, lurking and ready to foil the Mariners’ future postseason runs.

Summary:

The A’s organizational philosophy is simple: If at first you don’t succeed, just keep doing the same thing. The A’s and Billy Beane are credited with kicking off the statistical revolution and proving that low-budget teams can compete with the smart use of statistical data. In reality, all they’ve proven is that you can do a lot of math and, without spending a lot of money, build a team that is good enough to play in the postseason, but is not good enough to advance. This has been the strategy for two decades and ownership shows no inclination to change the approach. A lot of math and middling reward is the Athletic way. Still, they are likely to at least secure a Wild Card spot in 2021, or maybe even capture the division if the Astros and Angels falter, and make a lackluster attempt at postseason glory.

*****

Think back to the past decade and the three (3) teams the Mariners managed to field that were competitive, yet each time they fell short of getting into the playoff door. Who pulled out of their September tailspin on the last day of 2014 to keep the Mariners out? Who dealt Seattle the loss in 2016 in the most thrilling Game 161 ever? Who played .750 ball across the entirety of the second half in 2018 and subsequently caught, chewed, and spit the Mariners out to quickly douse any hopes of playoffs? That’s right, it was the Oakland Athletics - the team that never passes up the chance to soil Mariner fans’ Cheerios. It might not happen this year, but looking at the future trajectory of each ballclub’s farm systems, it’s entirely possible that the M’s are the first to dethrone them in the 2020s. Wilder things have happened.