In late May, I investigated the Oakland Athletics to find out why they were in a large predicament – the worst record in the Majors through 40 games. I gave my explanation how their season was nowhere near over and that solutions to their problems were in reach. I doubled down on my prediction that the A’s would win the World Series, not giving up on my sleeper pick. Even though they’re not technically out of it, Billy Beane’s moves in late July cemented the fact that my prediction would be wrong. 2015 did not go in the direction that Beane desired. How will the Athletics look in 2016?
I pointed out two flaws that were contributing to the early season struggles and then addressed how they could be easily corrected. The A’s defense was performing horribly at that point, almost record-breakingly so. They had 43 errors in the first 40 games. Of their 15 one run games, they had errors in 12 of them and five games with more than one error. Since then, in the next 80 games they have had “only” 56 errors. Even though that still has them in last place (by quite a margin) it’s at a more reasonable rate. Marcus Semien’s impossible error rate has slowed as well. After incurring 15 errors in the first 40 games, he’s had 16 since. I predicted that the return of Ben Zobrist would help the defense due to his versatility but realistically it was impossible to keep up the “bad luck” that the A’s were facing defensively.
The other facet that I believed was contributing to the lack of success was an incomplete bullpen. Sean Doolittle, the Athletics proven successful closer, who like Zobrist was due to come off the DL shortly after my article. The team would have then been able to move their other relievers to roles that more fit their skills and it should have made for a better fit. Doolittle pitched one inning before returning to the disabled list. The A’s had to go back to Tyler Clippard at closer, before trading him to the Mets to be a set-up man, which is probably will be his actual role for the remainder of his career.
The defense and the incomplete bullpen have been big factors to a large reason why the A’s record isn’t reversed – their record in one-run games. How teams fare in one-run games is assumed to have a large degree of luck but with correlating factors such as errors and a poor bullpen, the record can not be tasked to just bad luck. The A’s are now 13-27 in one run games which is good for the worst record in the league. The defense has improved over the season – of the last 25 one run games, only 13 had errors and only one with more than one error. However, the 4.52 bullpen ERA has not gotten better as the season has passed. Doolittle remains on the disabled list, Clippard is now in New York, and the A’s don’t have an active closer who the manager can trust right now. Doolittle should hopefully return healthy for the 2016 season. What can Billy Beane do about the rest of the organization?
The A’s had one of the more active offseasons but unlike the White Sox or Padres, the direction wasn’t always clear. After signing Billy Butler early in free agency, it was believed that the A’s would be adding to the team built to win that Beane had created the previous year. They then followed up that move by dismantling some, if not most of that team. Trades of Brandon Moss, Jeff Samardzija and Derek Norris left analysts scratching their heads but none more than moving stud third baseman Josh Donaldson. Sportingnews.com touched on why the A’s can’t be disappointed in the Donaldson trade even with his breakout-possible-MVP year occurring in a Blue Jays uniform. The A’s used these trades to build back up their farm system and then traded current major leaguer John Jaso to the Rays for Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar, the latter flipped for setup man Tyler Clippard from the Nationals. Analysts changed their mind again, including myself, and now labeled the Athletics as going for it in the 2015 season.
With all of the moves this offseason and the ones right before the trade deadline, the A’s find themselves with only three players under contract for next year – closer Doolittle, an aging Billy Butler (30 next April) and a past-his-prime Coco Crisp (36 in November). They do have several players that are either in pre-arbitration or under arbitration for the 2016 year. While Billy Beane remains anything but predictable, here is where I think he may go at each position moving into next year.
Catcher – Beane was very aggressive with the catcher position this offseason as he traded All-Star Derek Norris and John Jaso and went with Stephen Vogt and Josh Phegley (from the Jeff Samardzija trade) as his Opening Day catchers. Vogt rewarded Beane with an All-Star appearance albeit followed with a much weaker second half (3 homers vs 13 before the ASB). Neither Vogt nor Phegley are known for their defense and with Beane’s prowess of building a team with sabermetrics it can be predicted he may go after a catcher that’s more known for pitch framing – a growing belief that is where a catcher truly earns their keep.
First base – First base has been a mixed bag as well this season as Ike Davis has started the most games there this season. Davis has not been a good pickup (.652 OPS and only three homers). His fielding doesn’t make it any better. Keith Law’s #1 prospect for the A’s going into the season is Matt Olson who is a natural first baseman, but has been moved to the outfield. In 2014, Olson hit 37 homeruns in High-A ball but this season he has only hit 14 in AA. It doesn’t look like Olson is ready so it may be time for another free agent.
Middle infield – Ben Zobrist and Marcus Semien were brought in via trade this year to man the infield for possibly the considerable future. The A’s traded stud shortstop Addison Russel last season for their playoff push but part of the reason was that the team is stocked with solid middle infielders in their farm system. A key part of the Josh Donaldson trade was bringing in shortstop Franklin Barreto. He is only in Single-A ball but could be moving up the system in the near future. Semien and Eric Sogard could be brought back on the cheaper side and at some point the A’s will have to keep some of their current roster.
Third base – Brett Lawrie was the big piece from the Josh Donaldson trade as the A’s hoped to have more success than the Blue Jays had with the former first-round pick. A .263 average isn’t going to turn heads and his defense has been worse. However, it still is a good bet they will give him another crack at it on Opening Day 2016.
Outfield – Here’s where Beane has had a little more success. Josh Reddick has had a solid year – not as good as his 2012 year where he received MVP votes, but that Reddick may not return. Reddick may look to hit free agency as his contract will be in arbitration this offseason. The success story has been rookie Billy Burns. Burns has been a prototypical lead-off man this year and will most likely be taking the first at-bat for the 2016 A’s. Left field has been mostly a hodgepodge this season but Coco Crisp is still under contract for next year. The .157 average will most likely have Beane looking to free agency for at least one outfielder. Outfield is also the biggest weakness in the Athletics farm system.
Starting pitching – There has been some bad luck and injuries for the Athletics rotation, but this can still be labeled the strength of the team. They still put up top 10 numbers in FIP and ERA+ and have the core in place. Sonny Gray is considered an ace now and still under team control. Jesse Chavez has had success even with a bumpy 2015 season. Jesse Hahn was brought in on the Derek Norris trade and has only started 16 games this year but has a below 3.50 FIP. Kendall Graveman was another piece in the Josh Donaldson trade and after a rough start to the season has seemed to find his footing in the big leagues. Sean Nolin was the last piece of that trade and could be part of next year’s rotation. Scott Kazmir and Ben Zobrist both brought in young pitchers for their trades before the deadlines. Beane has always featured a young, solid rotation on his past teams and 2016 seems to be no different.
Relief pitching – We have discussed Sean Doolittle and the hopes that he can be good to go for Opening Day next year as the closer. Beane has often sported a relief pitching that doesn’t cost the team much money, which is why the Tyler Clippard trade was unique this past offseason. Bullpens are often a dynamic, volatile facet to a team but with Doolittle taking up any high-leverage situations, there is at least hope that the A’s can turn around a big weakness from this season.
I may not be going with the Athletics as my World Series prediction next season, but missing the playoffs after three straight appearances may just be a variance and it would not be shocking to see them return to success next year.