Ever since the Oakland Athletics arrived in the Bay Area prior to the 1968 season, their history has intertwined closely with that of the Detroit Tigers despite the two teams residing approximately 2,500 miles apart. Charlie Finley's "Swingin' A's" bested the Tigers in the 1972 ALCS en route to their first World Series title since the franchise's days in Philadelphia. The Tigers' glory days in the 1980s immediately preceded the Bash Brothers era in Oakland, while Magglio Ordonez ended the original "Moneyball" era with a mighty swing in the 2006 ALCS.
And then there's their recent history, with the Tigers besting the A's in consecutive ALDS Game 5's, both in Oakland. The Detroit-Oakland relationship is a friendly rivalry, but a rivalry nonetheless, and it's always fun whenever these two teams get together.
In order to get to know the 2016 version of the Oakland A's, we spoke with Alex Hall, managing editor of Athletics Nation, SB Nation's founding site and excellent A's community.
1. The A's finished the 2015 season with a 68-94 record, worst in the American League. It was also their lowest win total of the Billy Beane era. They have gotten off to a nice start in 2016, winning 10 of their first 18 games. What did the A's do during the offseason to improve for 2016, and do they have a realistic shot at staying in first place all season long?
The biggest difference has got to be the bullpen. The relievers pitched the team out of seemingly every game last year, so Oakland more or less wiped the slate clean -- of the 10 relievers with the most innings last year, nine of them are gone. They brought in four new veteran arms and got Sean Doolittle back from the DL, and now the pen has not only stopped being awful but actually become a strength. The 10-9 A's are 5-3 in one-run games, but if they were 1-7 in close contests like they started last year, they'd be sitting in last place again.
As for staying in first place, I don't know if it's a realistic goal but it's certainly a possibility. Entering the year this felt like a club that could be .500 if a couple things broke right and could contend if absolutely everything went well, and so far a couple things are breaking right and they're right around .500. If they want to make a serious run, they'll need the rotation to start pitching deeper into games, and for the offense to do more damage than just a few solo homers per game.
2. Ace Sonny Gray is the class of the A's rotation and one of the best pitchers in the American League, but the rest of their starting staff seems underwhelming. Who is the best bet to step up as a legitimate No. 2 starter behind Gray this year?
What the rotation lacks in certainty, it makes up for in upside. Besides Sonny, you will see:
Kendall Graveman, a groundball specialist who looks like dynamite sometimes but can get blown up when his command is off. He's made three good starts so far this season, but last year he got into trouble when he started walking guys and/or when he left his sinkers up in the zone.
Rich Hill, who will either get shelled and leave in the 4th, or strike out double-digit batters while pitching into the 7th. The ball arcs and twirls around and nobody is really quite sure where it's going to end up, as evidenced by his 29 Ks and nine walks in 19 innings. It's yet to be seen whether Good Hill or Wild Hill will show up more times this year.
Chris Bassitt, who has struggled out of the gate this year. The big righty matched Sonny game-for-game last year for a nine-start stretch when he joined the rotation, but his stuff hasn't always been there this season so we'll have to wait and see. His biggest obstacle is retiring left-handed batters consistently, but he's improved quite a bit in that department over the last couple years.
If these guys all hit on their potential, the A's would have the rotation of a contender. Hill would fill Kazmir's old shoes as a No. 2, while Bassitt and Graveman could be a pair of No. 3 types behind him. Jesse Hahn got squeezed out to start the year but should be back from Triple-A soon, and he's another guy with the ability to be a No. 2. As depth, Oakland has former Marlins All-Star Henderson Alvarez rehabbing in the minors, and lefty Sean Manaea (top prospect acquired in the Ben Zobrist deadline trade) honing his mid-90s fastball in Triple-A -- either one of them could feasibly take the league by storm in the second half.
The rotation has a wide spectrum of possible results, from excellent to disastrous, and it's anybody's guess how it will turn out or who the heroes will be. Put me down for a big year from Graveman, quiet effectiveness from Hahn, a strong first half from Hill before he tails off, and Manaea emerging in the second half.
3. From an outsider's perspective, it seems like the A's were fielding great bullpens before the Royals made it cool. This year's unit has been retooled a little bit, with Ryan Madson and John Axford seeing some late-inning action. Who is handling the ninth inning at the moment, and what should Tigers fans expect to see if the A's have a one-run lead late in the game?
The bullpen you see this year will be nothing like the one you saw last year, which is good news for Oakland fans. The official word is that the 9th inning is being played based on matchups, with Doolittle and Madson as the primary candidates. That has most often led to Madson getting the 9th, but the point is that in a close game you'll see both of them at their most opportune moment rather than in a pre-dictated inning. Axford has been lights out so far, and you'll see him if the starter can't make it to the 7th. The other standout has been rookie Ryan Dull, a 32nd-round pick who rose up from Double-A last year with his strong command and sharp slider. The pen has stranded 29 of 31 inherited runners.
4. Catcher Stephen Vogt is one of the better kept secrets in the AL, though he did make the All-Star team in 2015. What led to this breakout in his late 20s/early 30s, and can he sustain it? I was amazed to see that he's still under club control through the 2019 season.
Vogt is an absolute treasure. He's the biggest personality on a team that is full of them, and at this point I don't think there's any question he's the leader of the clubhouse. Go to the Video section of MLB.com, search for "Athletics commercial" and watch the firework dance, the trust falls, and The Shift.
I think we're at a point where we can accept that Vogt's performance isn't a fluke, but he does have a tendency to get beaten up behind the plate and that can sap his performance later in seasons (unfortunately for you, it's April right now). He started 2014 on a tear for two months, but injuries caught up to him and slowed him down. In 2015, his huge first half earned him an All-Star berth, but the wear and tear of catching took its toll again and he tailed off in the second half. I often wonder whether it would make sense to start shifting him toward first base, because I think he could really break out if he got out from behind the plate, but in the meantime he's thrown out 6-of-13 baserunners so at least he's doing well back there.
5. Power threats Khris Davis, Danny Valencia, and Marcus Semien have all gotten off to slow starts, with Valencia currently on the disabled list. Which of these three do you expect to break out of his slump and still put up great numbers, and who is the biggest risk to turn in a dud 2016?
Semien actually leads the team with 4 homers, but he can be streaky and right now he's slumping a bit. By the end of the year I expect 20 homers and an above-average batting line, though. Davis is showing signs of life, with two monstrous dingers in his last four games, so, watch out for that. He's still a threat to hit 30, because he can get in a special dinger zone in which he lights up like Super Mario on an invincibility star and everything he swings at goes over the fence. Valencia looked great in the spring and appears to be hustling his tail off to repeat last year's success, but he was off to a slow start and now he's hurt. There are some infield prospects in Triple-A hoping to challenge for his spot, so it would behoove him to get hot in a hurry upon his return.
Overall, Semien is my safe bet, and he'll be a 3-4 WAR guy as solid hitter with much-improved shortstop defense. Between the other two, I think Davis has the biggest upside and the highest floor. Valencia is a huge bust risk based on his inconsistent career, but he sure looked good last year so you never know. But if I had to bet on one it would be Davis, and in fact he'd be my bet to lead the whole team in long balls. The guy who needs to get going is Yonder Alonso, who currently has an OPS+ of 2 (two) and a wRC+ of -7 (negative-seven).
6. How many games will the A's win in 2016? Where will they finish in the AL West?
Before the season, I said 78 wins but also hedged and gave a range of 75-85 (in other words, .500ish almost-contender). I still think that's a fair estimate, but between the impressive power output so far and the early excellence of the pen there is always the chance for an unexpected run. If a couple starters step up and join Sonny in the rotation, then these guys could pull off a 2012-like surge back to October.
Once again, a big thank you goes out to Alex and the rest of the Athletics Nation staff for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to check out Athletics Nation for the very best Oakland A's news coverage and analysis all season long!