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Puncher's chance - An Oakland Athletics preview

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A look ahead at the first opponent of the 2016 season

"Forget the fat kid, you're obsessed with the fat kid. Drive us out of here!" - Jaff Goldbloom, Interdependence Day
"Forget the fat kid, you're obsessed with the fat kid. Drive us out of here!" - Jaff Goldbloom, Interdependence Day
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Before last season, I wondered which American League teams besides the Minnesota Twins (the only team that appeared out of it at the time) would wind up soaking up all the losses. The team that wound up hurting the most was the Oakland Athletics.

It may have been a predictable result if you only looked at the moves the A's made between mid-2014 and the beginning of the 2015 season. Consider the talent they lost:

  • Yoenis Cespedes was traded to rent Jon Lester for the 2014 stretch run
  • Jeff Samardzija was traded to the White Sox
  • Josh Donaldson was traded to the Blue Jays
  • Brandon Moss was traded to the Indians
  • Jed Lowrie, Luke Gregerson, Jason Hammel, and Geovany Soto departed via free agency

Yet, projections didn't look all that unfavorably upon the 2015 Athletics, and even though some things went wrong, the A's still had to underperform their Pythagorean record by 9 games to fall all the way to a 68-94 record. The rebuild was on, sure, but the remaining players still comprised a respectable team.

Coming into 2016, Oakland is sitting in pretty much the same place. They're probably one of the worst teams in the American League, and certainly the least recognizable, but I'm not sure how much that really means. Most American League teams, including the Athletics, are within six projected wins of one another. The A's will have an outside shot at competing even while they retool their roster, which potentially makes them more compelling than a typical rebuilding squad.

If Oakland will make any noise this year in the playoff picture, they'll need repeat (or better) performances from their position players that were pleasant surprises on last year's team, including a couple of old friends from Chicago. Backup catcher Josh Phegley is still a bit of a wreck behind the plate, but Freebird finally showed some restraint in his approach on offense, allowing his plus power to be a real asset. Shortstop Marcus Semien spent the first half of last year trying to convince everyone that errors are still a pretty useful defensive stat. For awhile, his butchery overshadowed the fact that the A's were getting the luxury of a league-average bat at a premium defensive position. In the second half, though, Ron Washington helped turn Semien into a pickin' machine at a position that's incredibly hard. Semien cut his errors by more than half after the calendar flipped to July, and if this is the new normal, Semien is at least a league average shortstop and a legitimate reason for the White Sox to regret the Jeff Samardzija trade.

Unexpected production wasn't just limited to ex-White Sox. Speedster Billy Burns slapped his way to a good on-base percentage at the top of the Oakland lineup with a very aggressive approach. The A's plucked Danny Valencia from the Blue Jays, who apparently had no use for a guy OPS'ing .837.  Valencia improved upon that mark in Oakland by continuing to hammer baseballs. There's real hope that he's finally figured things out. Finally, Rule 5 pick Mark Canha provided a nice power boost and close to league-average production at first base and left field. That's a total of five dirt-cheap players that should play useful roles for Oakland in the near future that couldn't be counted on a year ago.

Canha and Burns comprise part of an increasingly crowded outfield picture for the Athletics. The other incumbents were the power-hitting Josh Reddick and the possibly-fried Coco Crisp. Late in the offseason, however, the A's added two more pieces to an already-complete outfield. Oakland acquired middling-OBP thumper Khris ("Khrush") Davis in a trade with the Brewers, who should provide the A's with plenty of thump at the plate and suspect glove work. They followed this up by obtaining utilityman Chris Coghlan from the Cubs, who decided there's no need for an imitation Ben Zobrist when you've already got the original model in-hand.

On the pitching side of things, the A's are led by one of the best starters in the game, Sonny Gray, and the Sox will face him on Opening Day unless he gets food poisoning or something. Other than Gray, there aren't any pitchers with much in the way of a major league track record, save for the dramatically reanimated corpse of Rich Hill. Jesse Hahn's 65.8 percent strand rate would have been the lowest in the American League had he qualified, yet he still managed an ERA in the low-threes. That's bizarre given that he doesn't fan many hitters. The key to Hahn's success seems to be ground balls and inducing weak contact; it remains to be seen whether the latter is a sustainable skill. He'll be the fifth starter to open the season if Felix Doubront's pending MRI doesn't go well.

Kendall Graveman somewhat tried to follow the Jesse Hahn formula last year, but it was a concerning campaign for the 25-year-old former prospect. Graveman relies heavily on his sinker and generates his fair share of grounders, but unfortunately the sinker hasn't overall been a plus pitch, as he tends to get wild within the zone, leaving too many over the middle of the plate. Extra-base hits ensue. Continuing down the line, Chris Bassitt superficially looks like just another reason to regret the Samardzija trade as he did a solid turn in the A's rotation last season. Fear not, xFIP tells us that the chickens will come home to roost once fly balls start leaving the yard and that C-Bass stands a good chance at becoming the next Eric Stults. Who? Exactly.

Year in and year out, the Oakland Athletics are one of the most difficult squads in the league to figure out from a team-building standpoint. The sudden teardown of the 2012-14 playoff core fits their history, but it's still remarkable how they fell from grace so quickly. Plenty of folks will still tell you that the trade of Yoenis Cespedes was the start of the downward spiral in which the A's have found themselves. Conspiracy theorists posit that last year was a tanking effort to build a case that Oakland should continue to receive revenue-sharing money, a preposterous idea given that last year's team really wasn't all that bad at its core.

Whatever the case, the Athletics are still the 'Island of Misfit Toys' you heard about in Moneyball; they're just shaped a little differently now. There's more parity than ever before in the American League and a team like the A's that has a deep bullpen and will be involved in a lot of low-scoring games still registers as dangerous. Oakland will open the season on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, but that's just fine for a team that usually proves itself to be better than you think they are.

Predicted Record and Finish: 77-85, 5th place AL West

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Monday, April 4: Chris Sale vs. Sonny Gray
  • Tuesday, April 5: Jose Quintana vs. Rich Hill (seriously)
  • Wednesday, April 6: Carlos Rodon vs. Chris Bassitt
  • Thursday, April 7: Mat Latos vs. Kendall Graveman

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Billy Burns - CF

SP1. Sonny Gray - RHP

2. Jed Lowrie - 2B

SP2. Rich Hill - LHP

3. Josh Reddick - RF

SP3. Chris Bassitt - RHP

4. Danny Valencia - 3B

SP4. Kendall Graveman - RHP

5. Stephen Vogt - C

SP5. Jesse Hahn - RHP

6. Billy Butler - DH

CL. Sean Doolittle - LHP

7. Khris Davis - LF

RP1. Ryan Madson - RHP

8. Yonder Alonso - 1B

RP2. John Axford - RHP

9. Marcus Semien - SS

RP3. Liam Hendricks - RHP