Last year, we called the Oakland Athletics a “League Pass team.” While the pitching staff was unproven, the lineup was expected to hit homers in bunches. Runs were not going to be hard to come by in Oakland on either side.
And, well, we were right. The A’s hit 227 home runs as a club, the third-highest total in baseball. They scored 813 runs (fourth), produced a .187 isolated power (ISO, third), and a 110 wRC+ (tied for third). Seven different players hit at least 15 homers, topped by Khris Davis’ MLB-leading 48 bombs.
The A’s also produced a respectable 3.82 ERA, good enough for sixth in the American League. Their pitching staff wasn’t dominant by any means — it was somewhat of a mess toward the end of the season, really — but it was good enough for the A’s to out-score their opponents by 139 runs, the sixth-highest margin in Major League Baseball. They won 97 games... and were unceremoniously dumped out of the playoffs by the New York Yankees.
If we learned anything from the 2018 A’s, it’s that life isn’t fair, but it can be a lot of fun. This year’s version of the A’s should hold a similar refrain, though perhaps without the playoff disappointment. Oakland is once again led by a powerful offense and questionable pitching staff, but one now without 2018 staff ace Sean Manaea. There is help on the way in the form of top prospect Jesus Luzardo, and the bullpen is arguably even better following the addition of Joakim Soria, but that might not be enough to push the A’s over the edge in what should be an entertaining AL Wild Card race.
Whether they contend or not, these A’s are going to hit a bunch of home runs, and will once again be one of the most fun teams to watch in all of baseball.
Team at a glance
2018 record: 97-65 | 2018 pythag: 95-67 | 2019 farm system rank: 11
Manager: Bob Melvin (9th year)
First series vs. Tigers: May 16-19
Key additions: IF Jurickson Profar, RHP Marco Estrada, C Nick Hundley, RHP Joakim Soria
Key subtractions: IF Jed Lowrie, C Jonathan Lucroy, RHP Trevor Cahill, RHP Edwin Jackson, RHP Jeurys Familia
Their rotation is... who?
Take a guess who is starting for the A’s on Opening Day. No, it’s not lefthander Sean Manaea, the ace of their staff last season; he will be out until at least the All-Star break after undergoing shoulder surgery last September. It’s not 2018 Opening Day starter Kendall Graveman either. Nor is it top prospect Jesus Luzardo, who feels he will get a three-week stint down in the minors for “further development,” (though the A’s brass has been overly insistent he is in the running for a roster spot).
It’s Mike Fiers.
Sure, Fiers surprised all of us by having an excellent 2018 season. He was Detroit’s most valuable pitcher last year, accumulating 2.9 rWAR in 21 starts. He continued that hot run after being traded to Oakland, winning five games with a 3.74 ERA in 53 innings. But asking him to repeat that performance in his age-34 season seems like a lot. He is projected for a 4.75 ERA by Steamer, with a kinder 4.29 figure from ZiPS. Combined (FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projection), that’s a 4.52 ERA, nearly a full run higher than what he managed last year.
Beyond Fiers, it’s even worse. Marco Estrada seems like a nice fit for Oakland’s expansive ballpark, but he has a 5.27 ERA over his last 330 innings, and his strikeout rate dropped precipitously last year. Brett Anderson hasn’t been able to stay healthy, and the results have been spotty when he does actually take the mound. Chris Bassitt is a perfectly acceptable fifth or sixth starter, but that assumes you have guys capable of taking up spots one through four. Righthander Frankie Montas is coming off a nice 2018, and just needs to prove he can do it again. Even Luzardo — who will join this group at some point in 2019 — is unproven, with just four Triple-A starts and 152 2⁄3 minor league innings in total to his name.
Their fans are optimistic, of course. Montas has looked sharp this spring, and Luzardo has top-of-the-rotation upside. But with their entire pitching staff projected for just 11.6 fWAR — less than half of some of the top teams in the game — the A’s will need Montas, Luzardo, and others to exceed expectations in order to replicate last season’s success.
Is Ramon Laureano really this good?
Formerly a prospect in the Houston Astros system, Laureano was acquired by the A’s for a song in November 2017. He celebrated by putting up monster numbers in Triple-A, batting .297/.380/.524 in 64 games. The A’s called him up in August, and he produced 2.1 WAR in just 176 plate appearances. Conventional wisdom suggests he will fall off — a 28.7 percent strikeout rate and .388 BABIP are warning signs for the season ahead — but there’s also a chance he’s just really good. Laureano managed a healthy 9.1 percent walk rate in his small stint in the majors last year, and his excellent 2016 season in the minors is what turned the A’s onto him in the first place.
Even if Laureano’s bat falls off, his glove will be a welcome addition for the full season in 2019. A’s center fielders had wildly different metrics as a unit, with a well above-average Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) score clashing with a subpar Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) mark. Laureano was a small part of this, managing +4 DRS in just 48 games (sample size warning, of course). Graded as an above-average defender by FanGraphs, Laureano could see his bat fall back to major league average and still be an effective and productive player. Case in point: Laureano is projected for a 100 wRC+ by ZiPS, but would still put up 2.7 WAR on the year.
So, you’re not even going to mention the Kyler Murray thing?
Other than this, no, not really.
Down on the farm
The A’s have graduated a few prospect to the majors in recent years, but still boast one of the better systems in baseball thanks to some top-end talent that is close to MLB ready. We have already mentioned Luzardo plenty, but the 21-year-old lefty has warranted the hype. He struck out 129 batters in 109 1⁄3 innings last year, and could quickly become one of the A’s better starters if he continues to improve his command. Lefthander A.J. Puk was supposed to fill a similar role last year, but he underwent Tommy John surgery in April. He is on target to return to game action this summer. Catcher Sean Murphy is the No. 3 guy behind Luzardo and Puk; Murphy is a Jake Rogers clone, an excellent, borderline elite defender with some pop in the bat. But Murphy is a consensus top-100 prospect because he hits for that power while striking out less than 20 percent of the time.
Beyond those three, it’s mostly outfielders and a few starting pitchers. Righthander James Kaprielian was a name we kept a close eye on leading up to the 2015 MLB draft, and Grant Holmes was a savvy pickup in August 2016. Outfielders Lazaro Armenteros and Austin Beck have plenty of upside, but haven’t made it out of A-ball yet. Jorge Mateo is likely a utility player, but a speedy one that will benefit greatly from MLB’s expanded rosters in 2020. Outfielder Jameson Hannah is another plus runner, but also stuck in the lower minors. After that, we’re getting into more future fourth outfielders and utility players.
Player to watch: Jurickson Profar
There are a lot of fun players to keep an eye on in Oakland this year, but for my money, none are as intriguing as Profar. Formerly the top overall prospect in baseball, Profar struggled with injuries and the like for a few years. He missed nearly all of the 2014 and 2015 seasons, and couldn’t quite find his footing at the MLB level in the two years after that.
But in 2018, it seemed to click for the young infielder. Profar finally got consistent playing time in the major leagues, amassing 594 plate appearances across 146 games. He hit .254/.335/.458 and played five different positions for the Rangers, totaling 2.9 fWAR in all. Still only 26, Profar is just now entering his prime. Statistical projections believe he’s a sure bet to replicate last year’s numbers in 2019, with maybe a slight dip in power. He is two years away from free agency — whatever that means these days — and has a chance to establish himself as one of the better mid-level options on the market.
Projected record: 84-78
Only three other MLB teams are projected to fall off more than the A’s from 2018 to 2019, and they all have built-in excuses. The Boston Red Sox, while amazing, are not going to win 108 games again this year. The Seattle Mariners were lucky to hit the 89-win mark last year and traded away some of their top players. And the Milwaukee Brewers overperformed a bit in their run to the NLCS.
Just behind those three teams (all projected to lose 14 more games than they did in 2018) are the A’s. They weren’t as lucky as the Mariners or Brewers last year, still finishing with a pythagorean expected record of 95-67. But they did over-perform in less obvious ways, and those who exceeded expectations last season may not carry that performance over to 2019. If the A’s can get enough pitching to support their incredible lineup, they may sneak back into the playoffs. They have a bit of room for regression — they finished seven games ahead of the next Wild Card contender last year — but rarely does baseball play out that cleanly.
Note: We have been previewing the Tigers’ 2019 opponents in the order Detroit plays them. But, with Oakland and Seattle heading to Japan to open the MLB regular season on Wednesday morning, we thought we would skip ahead to give fans the jump on what to expect from them in the season openers.