In the NBA, they’re called “League Pass teams.” For one reason or another, these teams have drawn the public eye, and fans around the league make it a point to tune into as many of their games as possible. The high-flying Golden State Warriors are one such team (though they make it onto national TV plenty enough). The young Philadelphia 76ers are another, as are high-scoring outfits like the Portland Trail Blazers. The formula is simple: if your team is exciting, people will watch.
Consider the Oakland Athletics one of Major League Baseball’s League Pass teams in 2018.
The A’s might not be that good. They only won 75 games last year, and outperformed their pythagorean win expectancy by a couple games. They bolstered their bullpen during the offseason and improved defensively, if not offensively as well. Their starting pitching is a year older and wiser. However, that same pitching wasn’t anywhere close to good enough last year, and is now down one Jharel Cotton, who underwent Tommy John surgery last week. Their starting rotation is thin, and the bullpen has a lot of decent pitchers but no real shutdown arm.
But man, can they hit. In terms of runs scored, the A’s were roughly a league average offense last season. They scored 739 runs, just four more than the last-place Detroit Tigers. However, park-adjusted numbers tell a different story. The A’s had a 102 wRC+ as a team last season, tied for the fifth-best mark in Major League Baseball. Their .190 isolated power (ISO) isn’t park-adjusted, but was still the second-best mark in the majors. Only three teams hit more homers than they did, and they also finished in the top 10 in walk rate.
This year could be even better. Health permitting, the A’s will get full seasons from Matt Olson and Matt Chapman, two young infielders who hit the bejeezus out of the ball in the second half last year. They added Stephen Piscotty, a talented outfielder projected for above-average offensive numbers. They also picked up former All-Star Jonathan Lucroy, and return productive bats like Khris Davis, Matt Joyce, and Marcus Semien.
Long story short: the A’s are packing power and patience up and down their lineup. They might give up plenty of runs, but they’re going to score their share too. If that sounds like your particular brand of baseball, meet your new team to watch in 2018.
Team at a glance
2017 record: 75-87 | 2017 pythag: 73-89 | 2018 farm system rank: 18
Manager: Bob Melvin (8th year)
SB Nation site: Athletics Nation
Key additions: OF Stephen Piscotty, C Jonathan Lucroy, RHP Yusmeiro Petit, LHP Ryan Buchter, RHP Emilio Pagan, RHP Trevor Cahill
Key departures: IF Ryon Healy, RHP Jesse Hahn, CF Jaycob Brugman
Much of Oakland’s offensive production in 2017 came from rookies Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, who combined for 38 home runs in 542 plate appearances. Chapman, 24, did so with a sky-high fly ball rate, but also drew enough walks to help offset a meager .234 batting average. He’ll be a three-true-outcomes for as long as he continues selling out for that sweet, sweet launch angle, but there’s nothing wrong with that -- especially if he keeps playing elite defense at third base. He nearly matched Nolan Arenado’s defensive runs saved (DRS) total in roughly half as many innings. Olson, meanwhile, basically repeated what New York’s Gary Sanchez did down the stretch in 2016 without all that needless fanfare. Olson struck out a bit more, but hit 24 home runs in just 216 plate appearances, good enough for a 162 wRC+. He may also struggle to hit for average down the road, but posted astronomical walk rates in the minor leagues and is still only 23 years old.
The A’s also got solid offensive production from their middle infielders. Shortstop Marcus Semien was a tick below average with a 96 wRC+, but was also limited by a wrist injury. He has hit 52 homers in three seasons with the A’s, and is still only 27. His starting job doesn’t seem to be in jeopardy despite Franklin Barreto’s imminent arrival, as Barreto has also spent some time at second base over the past couple years. Semien’s steady improvement with the glove may have something to do with that — he was on pace for only 17 errors last season, half of what he committed in 2015. Barreto’s promotion may also be limited by
the Super-2 deadline second baseman Jed Lowrie, who was quietly Oakland’s best position player last year. Lowrie accumulated a surprising 4.0 rWAR, easily the highest total of his career. He hit .277/.360/.448 and walked nearly as often as he struck out. This is nothing new for him, but a clean bill of health was; it was the first time Lowrie had played in more than 100 games since 2014, and his first with more than 600 plate appearances since 2013. That 2013 season was also the last time he posted double-digit homers and an above-average OPS+. While his defensive range might soon start to deteriorate, his eye and contact skills should stick around for a little while.
Given everyone’s excitement for Olson and Chapman, outfielder Khris Davis has almost become a forgotten man. However, it’s hard to forget about a player coming off consecutive 40-homer seasons, especially when those dingers came with a combined 212 RBI over the past two years. Davis’ defensive abilities (or lack thereof) were a problem in 2017, as he was forced to play 116 games in the field. Baseball Reference considered him 2.1 wins below replacement level as a defender, while Defensive Runs Saved “only” thought he cost his team 1.3 wins. However, he will slide into a full-time DH role this year thanks to the arrival of Stephen Piscotty from St. Louis. The 27-year-old Piscotty endured his worst MLB season to date last year, but was preoccupied by more important matters; his mother, Gretchen, was diagnosed with ALS in May. The Cardinals traded Piscotty to Oakland in December so he could be closer to his family. He will also get more playing time than he was afforded in a crowded Cardinals outfield, where he should hopefully build on that surprising 13 percent walk rate he managed last year.
The rest of the outfield is somewhat in flux. Old friend Matt Joyce is a likely candidate to platoon with super-utility player (and Made Up Name Award Winner) Chad Pinder. Joyce, now 33, has gotten back to mashing righties over the past couple years after a 2015 season that, at the time, looked like the beginning of the end for him. Now, he’s playing for his next contract, especially given how slow this offseason’s free agent market was. Pinder didn’t fare all that much better against lefties than righties last year, but drew walks three times as often while posting a manageable 26.5 percent strikeout rate. His home run rate against righties was unsustainable, but that seems like nitpicking for a utility player with some decent pop. Neither can play center field, though, where the A’s are still uncertain about who will make the Opening Day roster. Dustin Fowler seems like the favorite, but is coming off a knee injury so serious that he sued the Chicago White Sox after he collided with the wall. While healthy enough to play now, he struggled offensively this spring. Competitor Boog Powell wasn’t much better, though, and might be the odd man out (perhaps even by the time you read this).
Few teams benefited from the slow market this offseason like Oakland. They didn’t dip too heavily into the free agent pool, but they came away with a big fish: Jonathan Lucroy, who signed a one-year deal earlier this month. He is coming off the worst full season of his career, but he looked like his old self down the stretch with the Colorado Rockies last summer. His once-elite pitch framing has taken a big hit over the past couple years, but he should be a solid offensive option who provides great mentorship for a young pitching staff. Lucroy’s presence will also help hide Bruce Maxwell, who took a big step back in 2017 after a promising rookie season. His walk rate took a step forward, but doesn’t possess the power or defensive prowess to be an above-average starter at the major league level.
Nothing derails a promising baseball season like injuries. While the A’s aren’t as in bad of shape as their crosstown rivals, the Tommy John monster still got its claws on righthander Jharel Cotton. The 26-year-old wasn’t great last season, but was one of the more hyped young pitchers in baseball before 2017 thanks to a double-plus changeup and a strong statistical profile in the minors. Cotton underwent Tommy John surgery on March 22, and will miss the entire season. Taking his place will be righty Trevor Cahill, who signed with the A’s last week. Cahill had a fantastic season with the Chicago Cubs in 2016, striking out over a batter per inning in bullpen duty. He somehow got better when he transitioned to the rotation with the Padres last year, but also spent plenty of time on the disabled list with back and shoulder injuries. The A’s need him to stay healthy, as depth isn’t exactly abundant in this rotation.
In front of Cahill is a quartet of pitchers who have decent upside, but could also end up with back-of-the-rotation numbers. There’s no ace here, but lefthander Sean Manaea certainly looks the part. The big southpaw was a first round pick in 2013, but limped to the finish last season after a solid first half. He lost velocity on his fastball, which he attributes to significant weight loss he had during the year. Assuming those issues are under control, his first half numbers were really impressive last year. He struck out 24 percent of hitters while inducing ground balls at a near-50 percent clip, and generated whiffs on more than 11 percent of all pitches he threw last year. Righthander Kendall Graveman will get the ball on Opening Day after an injury-riddled 2017 season, albeit one that saw him throwing harder than ever before he was sidelined with a shoulder injury. The velocity helped him strike out a few more hitters, but his biggest strength lies in inducing ground balls and limiting home runs. He did both reasonably well last year, but his numbers were more No. 3-4 starter than Opening Day stud.
I could basically copy and paste the above section when talking about righthander Andrew Triggs, but there are a few differences between him and Graveman. Triggs’ breaking ball is a true slider (not a cutter), and he throws his curveball more often. Also, his injury issues in 2017 were not arm-related, though it’s not like back injuries offer a better prognosis. He also had to go under the knife to fix his hip labrum last summer, which ended his season after just 65 1⁄3 innings. While many of those frames were quite encouraging — he had a 2.12 ERA and 3.24 FIP through his first eight starts — he still has yet to throw 100 innings in a professional season. Righty Daniel Mengden is your obligatory mustachioed A’s pitcher, and the youngest of the group. He too missed significant time due to injury last year, totaling just 89 innings between the majors and minors. His 3.14 ERA was over a full run lower than his 4.25 FIP, and a .240 BABIP suggests some regression might be on the way.
Given the rotation’s deficiencies, the bullpen may be asked to pick up some of the slack. The A’s did what they could to bolster this unit over the offseason, acquiring a trio of pitchers that could all pitch in middle relief or the later innings. Yusmeiro Petit was the lone free agent signing, but a savvy one after Petit enjoyed a fantastic 2.2 fWAR season with the Los Angeles Angels last year. The ever-durable Petit logged 91 1⁄3 innings, his third season in four years above the 75-inning plateau. He will help set up for closer Blake Treinen, who pitched 38 strong innings for the A’s after arriving in Oakland last summer. Also arriving via trade was lefthander Ryan Buchter, who struck out a batter per inning but also had some home run trouble in a solid 2017 season. Righthander Emilio Pagan arrived in the Ryon Healy deal this winter, and might be the best of the group — he struck out 56 batters to just eight walks in 34 appearances last season.
Down on the farm
Here’s where the A’s really shine. MLB Pipeline rated the A’s farm system as the sixth-best in baseball following last summer’s trade deadline, and they fell to seventh this spring after Chapman exceeded his rookie limits last fall. They have four players on MLB Pipeline’s top 100 list, and this comes after graduating three players to the majors last year. Much of their top talent was acquired in recent trades, be it infielder Franklin Barreto (the Josh Donaldson trade), shortstop Jorge Mateo (Sonny Gray), infielder Sheldon Neuse (Sean Doolittle), or righthander Grant Holmes (Rich Hill). Barreto is the best of this group, and has a chance to salvage some of the production the A’s lost when they inexplicably dealt Donaldson a few years too early. Dustin Fowler, James Kaprelian, and Jesus Luzardo are a few other players the A’s have acquired via trade over the past few years.
The A’s have also drafted well in recent years. Lefthander A.J. Puk, their first round pick in 2016, is already on the cusp of the majors after striking out 184 hitters in 125 innings last year. Outfielder Austin Beck didn’t have the best pro debut last summer after the A’s picked him sixth overall, but has plenty of upside. Catcher Sean Murphy has a high floor thanks to his glove, but like so many catching prospects, still has room to grow offensively. Outfielder Lazaro Armenteros wasn’t a draft pick — the A’s signed him for $3 million out of Cuba in 2016 — but he looked like a stud in his stateside debut last summer.
Player to watch: Sean Manaea
Our friends at Athletics Nation identified Matt Chapman as the A’s “key player” in this year’s SB Nation season preview, but Manaea might be the most important player in the entire organization. The one-time top-50 prospect has shown flashes of dominance in his two seasons in Oakland, and even looked to be on the path to ace-dom during the first half of 2017. He doesn’t have the monster strikeout one would hope for from a top-of-the-rotation arm, but could certainly develop that over the next couple years. The A’s offense was just fine last year — they were tied for fifth in baseball with a 102 wRC+ — and should get better as more of their prized prospects arrive in the majors, but there aren’t many arms coming through the system like Manaea’s. If he can take a step (or two) forward and become a top-end starter, Oakland’s timeline for contention moves up significantly.
While they seem like somewhat of a sideshow this year — I really think we could see a lot of crooked numbers on both sides of the ball — the A’s might actually be the next big thing in the AL West. The Mariners are on their last legs of contention, while the Angels aren’t far behind (Mike Trout’s contract is up in three years). And we don’t really know what Texas is doing. The Astros look like the cream of the crop both now and in the future, but will have to turn over most of their pitching staff within the next two years.
I’m not saying, I’m just saying. With a bit of luck, Oakland could find themselves in lockstep with the Astros in a couple years, or at least the clear No. 2. They don’t have the same spending power Houston does, but we’ve seen Billy Beane close that gap multiple times before. And even if they don’t get all the way there, they will sure be fun to watch.