The Rain Delay

Hard-Hitting Baseball Analysis

2016 MLB Team Preview: Oakland Athletics

This is part of my 2016 MLB team preview series. I will preview each team before Opening Day, unveiling teams in reverse order according to my power rankings.

Previous: 30) Braves 29) Phillies 28) Brewers 27) Reds 26) Rockies 25) Padres

24. Oakland Athletics2016 Oakland Athletics

  • 2015 Record: 68-94, 5th in AL West
  • Key Additions: LF Khris Davis, SP Rich Hill, IF Jed Lowrie, 1B Yonder Alonso, SU Ryan Madson, UTIL Chris Coghlan, RP Liam Hendriks, SP Henderson Alvarez, RP John Axford, RP Marc Rzepczynski
  • Key Losses: IF Brett Lawrie, SP/RP Drew Pomeranz, SP/RP Jesse Chavez

Heading into the All-Star break in 2014, the Oakland Athletics were the undisputed best team in Major League Baseball. They were pacing the league with 59 wins and had a strong lineup and pitching staff. The team began to slump a bit after the All-Star break, but that seemed more like a bump in the road than an ominous sign of things to come. At the Trade Deadline, GM Billy Beane boldly acquired Red Sox ace Jon Lester and glue guy Jonny Gomes in exchange for Yoenis Cespedes. The A’s had an embarrassment of riches in their rotation: Lester-Gray-Samardzija-Kazmir-Hammel.

Despite their recent struggles, the A’s were still 66-41 on August 1, 2014, good for the best record in baseball. Armed with a phenomenal starting rotation, the A’s appeared to be a boulder rolling downhill, destined to crush lesser opponents on their march to the playoffs. But the struggles continued and only got worse. Oakland’s collapse culminated in a 29-38 record in the 2nd half of the season. The A’s ultimately finished 10 games behind the Los Angeles Angels in the AL West and backed into the AL’s second wild card spot.

The American League wild card game played out like a microcosm of the Athletics’ season. Oakland held a commanding 7-3 lead going into the 8th inning with Lester on the mound. But, then Murphy’s Law struck Oakland. The pesky Royals refused to quit, plating three runs in the 8th before scoring the tying run in the 9th. After a few scoreless innings, Oakland scored the go-ahead run in the top of the 12th, but collapsed in the latter half of the inning, surrendering two runs and the game to Kansas City. Oakland’s epic meltdown was complete, and the feelings of ignominy and disappointment were palpable.

In the ensuing offseason, Beane shredded his once-promising club to pieces, letting Lester, Gomes, Jason Hammel walk in free agency and trading Josh Donaldson, Jeff Samardzija, Brandon Moss, and John Jaso. The A’s plummeted to 68 wins in 2015 while Donaldson went on to win the AL MVP award in Toronto, adding insult to injury in what’s been a trying last couple years for A’s fans.

Projected Line-up (with 2015 Slash Lines)2016 oakland athletics lineup

The A’s finished 2015 with the 14th most runs in baseball and tied for the 14th highest wRC+. After some offseason maneuvering, Oakland appears poised to match or exceed its offensive production from last year.

Oakland will welcome back speedy leadoff man Billy Burns, who was the fastest man from home to first base last year according to Statcast. Burns’ power is almost nonexistent, but if he can replicate his 2015 success, Oakland will be just fine with that. There weren’t many better leadoff hitters in the game than Burns last year.

Batting behind Burns will be Jed Lowrie, who returns to Oakland after an injury-riddled year in Houston. When healthy, Lowrie is a very solid hitter for an infielder. The A’s hope Lowrie can stay healthy and provide an upgrade over last season’s cadre of mediocre second basemen.

The biggest move of Oakland’s offseason happened in February with the acquisition of unheralded slugger Khris Davis. Davis and Josh Reddick, two sinewy power hitters, will give the A’s some much-needed thump in the middle of their lineup. Davis will likely see a dip in his numbers playing in cavernous O.co Coliseum, but his power plays in any ballpark, and Billy Beane was wise to get him. Unfortunately for Reddick, his powerful bat turns anemic when facing left-handed pitchers.

That’s where notorious lefty-killer Danny Valencia will come into play. Manager Bob Melvin would be wise to deploy Valencia as the club’s clean-up hitter against left-handed pitchers. Last year, Valencia was a revelation, mashing righties and lefties throughout the season. As a long-time journeyman, Valencia hopes to prove his monster 2015 season was no fluke, and parlay that into a big contract in the upcoming offseason.

The A’s have a myriad of options at first base and DH this year, with Billy Butler, Yonder Alonso, Mark Canha, and Stephen Vogt – when he’s not playing catcher – competing for at-bats. The bulk of the at-bats figure to go to Alonso and Butler out of the gate, but Manager Bob Melvin will not hesitate to bench Butler in favor of Canha if Butler’s 2015 struggles continue. At his best, Alonso is an on-base maven but has the power of a candle in the wind. Melvin would be wise to platoon the left-handed Alonso and the right-handed Canha at first base.

oakland athletics shortstop marcus semien

After improving defensively in the 2nd half, Marcus Semien has high hopes for 2016. (Photo: Keith Allison)

Another platoon situation for Melvin to exploit is at catcher with Vogt and Josh Phegley. Vogt ripped through the league the first two months of the season, but stumbled the rest of the way, finishing with a still-solid 111 wRC+. Vogt is undoubtedly weaker against lefties, which is where Phegley thrives. Against southpaws last season, Phegley hit a robust .276/.323/.476. The two-headed monster should give the A’s elite offensive production from the catcher position in 2016.

Book-ending the A’s lineup is toolsy shortstop Marcus Semien. Semien led the majors with 35 errors last season, but made tremendous strides defensively, finishing with just eight errors in the 2nd half of the year. Semien has 20/20 potential at the plate and has good range in the field. Due to the progress he showed toward the latter end of 2015 and his natural talent level, Semien appears primed for a breakout season in 2016.

Overall, the A’s should field a decent offensive club in 2016, with competence abundant throughout the entire batting order. Unfortunately, Oakland lacks true star power, which will hold back the lineup from ranking amongst baseball’s best.

Projected Starting Rotation (with 2015 Stats)2016 oakland athletics starting rotation

The A’s have an ace in Sonny Gray and a good young starter in Jesse Hahn. Gray was phenomenal last year, finishing third in the American League Cy Young voting. If Oakland struggles this year, look for Gray’s name to come up in trade talks. Billy Beane will surely demand a king’s ransom in return for his ace, but teams like the Red Sox or Yankees may be willing to pay a steep price.

In his first year in Oakland, Jesse Hahn impressed, but missed the second half of the year due to nebulous arm injuries. He’s able to induce groundballs with his sinker and changeup, and strikeouts with his Bugs Bunny curveball. Just 26 years old, Hahn is already a very good pitcher due to his precocious poise and command on the mound, but health is a major concern here. Hopefully he can stay healthy throughout the season because he’s a real treat to watch.

While Gray and Hahn, health permitting, should give the A’s a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, the rest of the pitching staff is mired in uncertainty.

Rich Hill, whose career has been severely hampered by injuries, made a triumphant late-season return to a Major League mound last year, posting a sterling 1.55 and 0.66 WHIP over four starts. It was a tremendous feel-good story since Hill hadn’t started a big league game since 2009. The A’s took a gamble on Hill this offseason, inking him to a one-year, $6 million deal. Hill has been torched so far this spring, but the A’s hope he can turn it around once the games start to count.

In his first prolonged taste of big league action, Kendall Graveman acquitted himself decently, sporting a 4.05 ERA and 4.60 FIP over 115.2 innings. Lacking swing-and-miss stuff, Graveman relies on guile and command to get his outs. He hopes to solidify himself as a capable Major League starter and bestow Oakland with some much-needed stability in its starting rotation.

Projected fifth starter Chris Bassitt was effective in 18 games for Oakland last year, largely due to his propensity to prevent extra-base hits. Bassitt has a fastball that can reach 95 MPH and a bevy of secondary pitches, an arsenal that is conducive to long-term success. Bassitt will likely have to improve upon his 17.7 K% from last year to sustain success in the majors, but he has the makings of a pitcher that could surprise some folks in 2016.

If Hill, Graveman, or Bassitt prove to be ineffective, look for Henderson Alvarez to slot in the rotation upon his projected return in May. Alvarez had an excellent 2014 season before having his 2015 slate ruined by injury troubles. Alvarez is a highly intelligent pitcher, able to succeed in spite of his high contact rates. It will be interesting to watch his comeback this year.

Projected Bullpen (with 2015 Stats)2016 oakland athletics bullpen

Oakland’s bullpen last year was a disaster, finishing below replacement level and blowing 25 saves. The bullpen should be significantly better in 2016 with the additions of Ryan Madson, Liam Hendriks, John Axford, and LOOGY (lefty one out guy) Marc Rzcepzynski. Madson and Hendriks will buttress the bridge to closer Sean Doolittle that was under construction all of last year. Axford had an uneven year in Colorado last year, but still possesses strikeout stuff. He’ll need to trim his walk rate in 2016, but the potential for a resurgent season is there. Rzcepzynski posted a dreadful 5.66 ERA last year, which – under further review – was almost as strange as his surname. He posted a career-best 10.54 K/9 and had an astoundingly unlucky .381 BABIP against. The A’s appear to have stolen a good lefty who simply had horrendous luck.

Give Billy Beane credit this offseason. Without breaking the bank, he has pieced together a bullpen that will be much better than it was last year.

Conclusion

The A’s can make the playoffs in 2016. The problem is that so can the other 14 teams in the American League. This level of parity is truly astounding and is one of the most under-discussed storylines heading into the season. The A’s certainly have their fair share of holes, but this roster is much better than your typical preseason basement pick for the American League. 2016 is going to be a wild year in the American League.

Prediction: 5th place, AL West

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