Let’s begin by reviewing Oakland’s 2021 campaign.
Close, But No Cigar
Although the A’s missed the postseason, the team did notch a fourth consecutive winning season with an 86-76 record. Unfortunately, that was only good enough for a distant third place behind the division-champion Astros. From an offensive standpoint, Oakland hitters were essentially league-average.
While the offense delivered mid-pack results, the pitching staff was the team’s backbone. Particularly, a starting rotation that logged an MLB-leading 894 innings. In fact, the A’s tied for the fewest starters used (nine) with Houston and the White Sox – both division champions.
Oakland’s bullpen was middle-of-the-pack in ERA and xwOBA, although it did have the third lowest walk rate (8.3%) in the majors. Conversely, A’s relievers weren’t proficient at missing bats, which is reflected in a 29th ranked 20.5% strikeout rate.
Unfortunately for A’s fans, all of these numbers are essentially irrelevant due to the team’s decision to jettison its best (and most expensive) players in the offseason.
The first sign of things to come was the unexpected departure of long-time manager Bob Melvin. The team and the three-time Manager of the Year parted ways once his contract expired after last season. So many others have since left via trade or free agency.
Notable departures: Bob Melvin, Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea, Mark Canha, Khris Davis, Mike Fiers, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison, Starling Marte, Mitch Moreland, Yusmeiro Petit, Sergio Romo, Burch Smith, Andrew Chafin, Jake Diekman, Homer Bailey
With the A’s roster in a state of flux, expect the club to be patching things together in the short-term. Especially when there aren’t clear-cut favorites at several positions. That said, one thing rookie manager Mark Kotsay should have at his disposal this season is versatile players.
Key Position Players
1B – Seth Brown
2B – Tony Kemp
SS – Elvis Andrus
3B – Kevin Smith
LF – Chad Pinder
CF – Cristian Pache/Ramon Laureano*
RF – Stephen Piscotty
C – Sean Murphy
C/1B – Austin Allen
C/1B – Stephen Vogt
1B- Eric Thames
INF/OF – Sheldon Neuse
IF – Jed Lowrie
IF – Luis Barrera
OF – Skye Bolt
I put Seth Brown at first base but acknowledge he could end up in the outfield. Wherever the left-handed hitter does play, I suspect it will be in a platoon role. Last year, Brown hit 23 doubles, 17 home runs with a 107 OPS+ in 111 games, although 91.5% of his plate appearances were against right-handed pitching.
On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average.
Tony Kemp, who split time between second base and left field, enjoyed a breakout campaign. The left-handed hitter led the team with a .279 AVG and .386 OBP, while his 126 OPS+ was Oakland’s second-best. Similar to but not as extreme as Brown, Kemp primarily faced right-handers last season with 75% of his 397 plate appearances coming against righties.
Fun fact: Tony Kemp finished 2021 with 52 walks and 51 strikeouts. Only two other hitters with 350+ plate appearances had more walks than strikeouts – Juan Soto (52 more) and Yasmani Grandal (5 more).
Recently re-signed Jed Lowrie may see time at first base and second base. For Lowrie, 2021 was a welcome change after essentially missing two seasons with injuries. The 37-year-old made 69 starts at the keystone last season producing a 101 OPS+. Still, it’s important to note that his -11 defensive runs saved (DRS) ranked 28 of 28 among second baseman with 500-plus innings. By contrast, Kemp was at 0 DRS, which was essentially league-average.
Shortstop Elvis Andrus suffered a fractured fibula requiring surgery last September but appears ready for Opening Day. That said, the 13-year veteran may not have much left to offer. His 76 OPS+ from 2018 to 2021 ranks last among 132 hitters with over 1,500 plate appearances. During that same span, Andrus’ -19 DRS was 37th lowest among 43 shortstops with 1,000-plus innings.
Kevin Smith is penciled-in at the hot corner, although Sheldon Neuse could also be the starter. Both players are right-handed and capable of playing multiple positions. That said, neither has any history of offensive success during a combined 345 plate appearances in the majors.
The corner outfield spots will be a mish-mash of familiar names and youngsters. Expect long-time Athletic Chad Pinder to occupy one of those spots. Pinder has made starts at every position in the infield and outfield during his six-year career, although the metrics suggest he’s an above-average glove in left field.
Normally, Stephen Piscotty would be the choice in right field. However, he’s been slowed by a shoulder injury and didn’t make his spring debut until March 29. Health has been a recurring problem for the veteran, who’s appeared in just 54.6% of Oakland’s games since the beginning of 2019. The 31-year-old’s bat has also suffered during this period – 31 doubles, 23 home runs, a .237/.293/.385 slash-line, and an 86 OPS+ in 210 games.
Cristian Pache, acquired from Atlanta in the deal for Matt Olson, will patrol center field. There’s a belief in Pache’s defensive prowess, although there have been doubts regarding the 23-year-old’s ability to produce with his bat. That said, Oakland will have a decision to make regarding center field once Ramon Laureano returns in about a month.
Laureano was having a solid campaign last season until being suspended 80 games for PED use in early August. Prior to the suspension, the 27-year-old was slashing .246/.317/.443 with 21 doubles, 14 home runs, and 12 stolen bases. Laureano has 27 games remaining on his suspension, which projects to an estimated May 5 return.
Catcher is set with Sean Murphy (98 OPS+) returning as the starter. The 26-year-old hit 23 doubles and 17 home runs in 119 games last year, while also earning his first Gold Glove. Backing up Murphy will be Austin Allen. Fan-favorite Stephen Vogt may be in the mix behind the plate. Vogt could also see time at first base and designated hitter.
Speaking of DH, I’m not identifying a specific name since there are multiple candidates to spend time there. Vogt, Lowrie, and Eric Thames, are notable examples. Thames last appeared in the majors in 2020 when hit had a subpar 68 OPS+ in 41 games with the Nationals. Last year, the 35-year-old suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon as a member of the Yomiuri Giants in Japan and missed most of the season.
Despite the purge being performed by the front office and ownership, the A’s currently have two pitchers remaining who made 30-plus starts last year – Frankie Montas and Cole Irvin. “Currently” will be the operative phrase for this club all season.
Still, it’s unclear whether there’s enough rotational quality and depth to survive a 162-game schedule.
The .303 xwOBA of Oakland’s top starter Frankie Montas tells us he’d be a top-of-the rotation arm on any staff. The right-hander also led the staff with 187 innings pitched and a 26.6% strikeout rate, while putting up an impressive 3.37 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .372 SLG.
Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA last year = .316
The other experienced A’s starter is a favorite of Emerald City fans – Cole Irvin. The southpaw’s 8.69 ERA against the Mariners was his worst against any club. When he wasn’t facing Seattle, the 28-year-old held opposing hitters to league-average-ish production numbers and a 3.69 ERA.
Rookie Daulton Jefferies projects to fill the number-three spot. MLB Prospect Pipeline ranks Jefferies as Oakland’s number-13 prospect. After the top three pitchers in the rotation, things begin to become a bit squishy with uncertainty being the underlying theme.
One-time Seattle farmhand Paul Blackburn gets the initial shot to fill the number-4 spot in the rotation. Since debuting with Oakland in 2017, Blackburn has a 5.54 ERA and .333 xwOBA in 27 starts.
With today’s deal sending Sean Manaea to the Padres, Adam Oller who was recently acquired from the Mets for Chris Bassitt, is the team’s fifth starter. Next man up after that would be Zach Logue, who came from Toronto in the Matt Chapman trade. Neither has MLB experience.
Injuries have derailed the chances of two other potential rotation candidates.
James Kaprielian entered Spring Training with AC joint irritation and is behind the rest of the staff as a result. This is a setback for both pitcher and team considering he delivered a respectable 4.01 ERA and .323 xwOBA in 21 starts during his rookie campaign.
Once a heralded prospect, Brent Honeywell Jr. had a chance to make the starting rotation. Unfortunately, arm troubles have once again have slowed the 27-year-old’s march towards being a major-league starter. Honeywell made his MLB debut last year with Tampa Bay after suffering multiple injury setbacks in the minors, including Tommy John surgery. A stress reaction in his elbow is the cause of his most recent setback.
As with the lineup, there’s been significant upheaval with the relievers. So much so, there is one sure thing remaining in the bullpen after the recent forearm injury to setup man Deolis Guerra – closer Lou Trivino. The right-handed throwing Trivino appeared in a career-best 71 games recording 22 saves. But the 30-year-old’s strikeout rate has dropped nearly seven percent from 2020, while his average-ish .319 xwOBA in 2021 was his worst ever.
Although there won’t be any household names involved, it’s possible GM David Forst cobbles together an effective bullpen. We shouldn’t forget that the Mariners didn’t haven’t any recognizable relievers at the beginning of last season and went on to have a superb bullpen. Perhaps the A’s enjoy the same good fortune. It’s certainly better than the alternative, especially with so many questions in the rotation.
Considering the A’s recent pattern of behavior, we should consider players Forst may attempt to trade away during the season as he attempts to reload for the future.
Barring injury, Montas will constantly be attached to trade rumors until he’s no longer an Oakland Athletic. Perhaps he remains with the team through the entire season since the club retains club control through the 2023 campaign. But anyone performing well on an expiring contract is likely to be playing elsewhere by August.
*$15 million team option with $1 million buyout for 2023
Although Andrus is listed as a pending free agent by some websites, I believe the 2023 vesting option in his contract became a player option when the Rangers traded him to Oakland prior to the 2021 season. At least that’s how I interpret the language found at his page on Spotrac.
Beyond free agents, it’s reasonable to believe that any effective reliever would be available this summer.
Trevino is the most prominent name he’s the most established relief arm, making $3 million this year, and could potentially be more expensive in his final two years of arbitration eligibility. Along the same line, productive players with one year of arbitration eligibility remaining may also be available – Montas and Kemp fit that description.
I truly hope I’m wrong. But Oakland looks a really bad team that may only get worse, assuming the dismantling of the big-league roster continues this season. That would be a shame for A’s fans considering how strong the club’s core was just a season ago.
Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up as a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home.
In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team. During baseball season, he can often be found observing the local team at T-Mobile Park.
You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins