What defined their 2019 campaign?
Oakland’s 2019 campaign ended in disappointing fashion in the American League Wildcard game. At their home venue, the Oakland Coliseum, of which the team bought another 20% during the winter, the A’s were defeated by the Tampa Bay Rays, 8-1, with Kevin Cash‘s side advancing to a five-game losing effort against the eventual AL champions Houston Astros.
Despite the loss in the ALWC, the Athletics were once again near the bottom of the league in payroll, and once again grabbed a postseason berth with a convincing 97-65 record, which guaranteed them a second-place finish in the AL West after the Astros.
The pitching staff made the difference in 2019. Mike Fiers, the ace of the rotation, posted a 15-4 record and a 3.90 ERA to go with his no-hitter against the Reds in May. Oakland finished with a starters ERA of 4.02, 8th-best in all of baseball, while the bullpen and Aussie closer Liam Hendricks were sensational. All this with no Frankie Montas (suspension) and Sean Manaea (returned from injury in September).
Although the A’s had a relatively good roster going into 2019, mid-season additions were the name of the game. Tanner Roark and Homer Bailey resurrected the starting pitching whilst Jake Diekman turned out to be a valuable and reliable relief option. Despite only the latter coming back for 2020 after re-signing on a 2-year deal, the organisation has more than enough options from within their system to fill in the rotation.
While losing Roark and Bailey, players that came on rental trades, isn’t too damaging, subtracting Profar and Anderson could indeed mean a weakening of particular components of the team. Profar’s loss only means a lack of depth – whoever replaces him will likely be no worse at his job – but without Anderson, there’s even more pressure on A. J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo, both rookies.
Treinen was a liability when healthy last season and he may not have a place in a strong bullpen like Oakland’s, and he certainly isn’t worth the $10 million he’ll get from the Dodgers in 2020. He was only going to be a setup guy to Hendricks at best.
The A’s didn’t have an active and aggressive offseason but they didn’t need to. They lost more than they added but the team overall wasn’t downgraded, and could even make the next step in a division that promises to be more intriguing than expected if newcoming prospects live up to the expectations. All centre-stage players, except for Anderson, Treinen, and Phegley, were going to return either way so getting Diekman back ultimately turned into their roster-settling move.
On the other hand, the David Frost-led front office still needed to bring in yet another difference-maker to establish the A’s as a contender and to exploit what is, in reality, a year in which most of their starting players return and in which the Astros could at least have some competition.
Out of everything that went right for the A’s last season, the performance that the bullpen group put in was probably the most sensational. Liam Hendricks stepped up closing games while Yusmeiro Petit and Joakim Soria also had excellent campaigns.
After the All-Star break, Jake Diekman joined them to further solidify Oakland’s bullpen as one of the best in the game. This upcoming year will see Lou Trivino trying to bounce back from a season in which he posted a 5.25 ERA in 61 games, in addition to reinforcements in McFarland, an experienced newcomer, and Paul Blackburn, coming back from a lengthy injured list stint.
Chris Bassitt‘s status isn’t fully clear to everyone just yet. However, most still expect him to be a sixth-man option to the rotation or to remain in the bullpen for the time being. This means all signs are pointing to him starting the year in relief with A.J. Puk in the fifth starting spot.
There’s still some bad news, which came early February and was lefty Daniel Mengden‘s injury and will sideline him and put him on the 60-day IL to start the year.
Still, this staff was one of the league’s best, if not the best, and it only has the potential to be much stronger entering 2020.
Top prospects enter the Big Leagues
A.J. Puk, Sean Murphy, and Jesus Luzardo were recently ranked inside the top 20 in Baseball America’s rookie rankings for the upcoming season. And rightfully so.
Two of the top three A’s prospects will come into the season possibly at the bottom of the rotation, which comes with lots of pressure. However, that really isn’t a problem for either Puk or Luzardo – they both dominated opposing hitters in the minors, then got called up in September 2019 and didn’t fail to deliver.
Luzardo is certainly able to perform on a level worthy of Rookie of the Year consideration. In three years in MiLB, he had a record of 14-7 with 2.53 ERA. He never had an ERA north of 3 in a season. In 2019, he rebounded in AAA, posting 3.19 ERA in 7 starts with the Las Vegas Aviators. Later last year, he surrendered just 2 runs in 12 innings as a reliever at the major-league level. He’s now MLB Pipeline’s No. 12 prospect and is a guaranteed piece of the A’s 2020 rotation come Opening Day.
Puk, meanwhile, hasn’t disappointed either in his development. Sean Murphy, now more than likely to be the manager Bob Melvin‘s top choice at catcher, batted .308 in Triple-A before getting a promotion to the A’s. All three are in a good situation to thrive in a deep Athletics roster.
Versatile top of the order
You might be looking at one of the most effective opening fours in baseball. Marcus Semien has established himself as the perfect leadoff, having posted .363 OBP, 84 RBI, and 31 homers out of that spot, placing him amongst MLB’s best. Ramon Laureano will likely follow him, whose .288 average was higher than any A’s player with more than 400 plate appearances. They will be followed by Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and Khris Davis, the A’s three power hitters.
As it is known, AL teams usually put their three most powerful hitters at 3-4-5. Semien and Laureano have elite on-base potential that will create a lot of opportunities for the dangerous trio.
Khris Davis’s demise
One season after he hit 48 homers in a breakout year and received MVP consideration, Khris Davis didn’t have the production that he’s expected to have out of the DH spot. While his usually low batting average dipped to .220, he hit just 23 big flies.
Davis isn’t out of his prime yet and has room for improvement. When good, he provides a decent big-ball production that the A’s value at the DH. However, his performance from last season resembled a real hole in the lineup, and as he continues to swing for the fences more and more, there are more and more reasons to think that he’ll get in a slump that will be one of the few downsides for the A’s offensively.
Unwillingness to spend
David Frost is one of the few people in baseball that can afford to do less than others at his position and still claim that he’s done his job well. In reality, that’s a true statement, the A’s, a small-market team, has more consecutive playoff appearances that the almighty Boston Red Sox, for instance. His organisation has done a terrific job developing players at all levels. Great – now what?
On the other hand, the Athletics’ scarily deep roster still fails to significantly improve on an annual basis. They have one of the most balanced, upside-ridden and issue-free squads in all of baseball and the A’s still aren’t anything near favourites to win the AL West, despite all of Houston’s questions.
Take teams like Yankees and Astros – they have more downsides than Oakland but have MVP and Cy Young contenders that the Athletics rarely have. And until the A’s have that dominant figure, either from their current roster or by acquiring him, the top teams will continue to be top teams given that they have minimal holes in their game.
Oakland Athletics were absolutely a postseason team in 2019. On paper, they should remain such but they will have stiffer competition both inside the division and in the race for the two AL Wildcard spots.
Astros, without Gerrit Cole and in a messy situation amidst the sign-stealing scandal, might be on the downslide, which could open the door for everyone else except the Mariners. The A’s could take advantage of that but they weren’t alone in realising that opportunity. The Angels and the Rangers both improved their teams and could look like contenders. The task doesn’t get easier when it comes to the Wildcard – White Sox are emerging, Indians are still well and alive, Blue Jays and Red Sox promise to be sneakily good, and the Rays are, as always, dangerous and talented. If all goes as planned, the A’s should be better than all those.
Best case: The A’s deep team outplays Houston, Texas, and LA and wins its first AL West title since 2013 with the second-best record in the AL and nearly 100 wins. They ultimately fall to the Yankees in the ALCS.
Worst case: Injuries spoil the fun but the A’s are still in the postseason chase late into the season. They finish with a positive record but their efforts come up short and they fail to reach a playoff series for the seventh-straight season.
Prediction: 95-67, 2nd place in AL West, 1st AL Wildcard