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"Core Growing Up Together" Could Be A's Aha Moment

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A's fans are used to the roster churn in which players are often dealt, for younger and cheaper talent, earlier rather than later. The upside of this approach is that you get, in a sense, "double value" for your best players. Oakland got a lot of production from Dan Haren, Gio Gonzalez, and Josh Donaldson, but also got ample returns for them because they had several years left on their contract when dealt.

However, the downside of this approach is that you never have a core that all grows up together to form -- and you can decide for yourself if these things matter -- an identity, a chemistry, a confidence and culture that comes with being part of a winning era of A's baseball.

Oakland's great run from 2000-2003 was built on the backs of "The Big 3" (Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito) and another special trio of position players (Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada, Jason Giambi) and with the exception of Giambi this group grew up together and stayed together throughout Oakland's long window of excellence.

More recently the A's stumbled into a similar group with Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon Moss, Josh Donaldson, and a core of young pitchers (Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily, and soon Sonny Gray), but the position players were older and the starting pitchers not as excellent, and this group was massively broken up within 3 years.

I am, personally, a believer of bringing up a core of exciting young players and letting them grow up together for several years. And I do feel that the roster churn has been a bit too constant for the team to find any continuity. The A's may have reached the same conclusion this week, opting for younger talent in their 3 deadline deals, with Billy Beane telling the Chronicle, following the trade of Tyler Clippard, "It may take a little bit longer, but hopefully we’ll be able to hold on to them longer."

That quote gave me as much hope as the deals themselves, as it suggests a shift in philosophy from the way things have been done recently to the way I believe in. Of course for this to work, you have to be bringing up the right talent. Have the A's amassed the type of talent worthy of bringing up together, and keeping together?

Let's take a look at the post-trade landscape, with an eye on contending at least for the wild card in 2016 and then being legitimate contenders for the division and a deep post-season run in 2017-19. As you gauge, you have to consider that even when looking at good prospects probably half of them will bust and only half the rest will be anything special. Likely ETAs for making impact -- if any impact is actually made -- are in parentheses.

First Base

I think the A's are in good shape here. Rangel Ravelo (2016), Matt Olson (2017), and Renato Nuñez (2017) offer enough promising possibilities that Oakland should have at least one worthy player manning 1B for years to come. Ravelo's pure gap to gap hitting, Olson's raw power, keen eye, and excellent defense, and Nuñez' high ceiling, suggest that Oakland has enough depth here to make 1B a strength in the coming years.

Middle Infield

I am combining 2B and SS because even at the major league level, with Marcus Semien, it is not entirely clear who will wind up where. Suddenly the A's have some organizational depth up the middle, with Semien under contract through 2020, Joey Wendle (2016) and Tyler Ladendorf (2016) at AAA, Chad Pinder (2017) raising his stock considerably with a great 2015 season at AA, and the recent drafts of Richie Martin and Mikey White. Additionally, 19 year old Franklin Barreto was opening eyes by mashing the ball at Stockton in May, June, and July until a wrist injury has shut him down probably for the season.

There is certainly no dearth of legitimate prospects in the pipeline, but Is there enough talent there to yield several actually productive players? Hard to say, but with Semien already in the big leagues and Pinder showing some upside, if half of them make it and half of those excel then the answer is probably yes. (For example, a platoon of Wendle and Ladendorf could be pretty solid at 2B and then by 2017 it's possible that Pinder would be better than that combo. And then you have Martin, White, and Barreto coming up.)

If anything, the middle infield looks better the farther out you project, but since lower level prospects are harder to project than older prospects, in a way it works well that you have Wendle at AAA with a great chance to contribute something but without a high ceiling, and your more exciting prospects lower down where the upside gets higher as time passes. So one way or another, there is probably a good core there to work with but it's awfully hard to say yet exactly when, or with whom, Semien can team up for a solid run.

Third Base

Brett Lawrie is under contract through 2017 and while you don't want to put too many eggs in one basket you don't have to squint much to see Matt Chapman as a worthy heir apparent. With plus defense and legitimate power, Chapman appears to have a floor of Matt Dominguez and after his sparkling second half of 2015 at Stockton it's easy to see him becoming a quality every day starter. He's a 1st round pick who has met or exceeded expectations so far, and at age 22 he will be more than ready to take over for Lawrie whenever the time comes.

Additionally, the A's have some fallback options in house with Ravelo and Nuñez, though it's unclear whether either can stick at the position. So perhaps there is not tremendous depth at 3B, but in Chapman there is a likely solution along with the assurance that the incumbent, Lawrie, is under contract for two more seasons.

Catcher

Stephen Vogt is under contract through at least 2019, Josh Phegley through 2020, and Jacob Nottingham (2017) becomes the next big thing if 2015's breakout season at A-ball is any indication. I would say the A's are ok at catcher going forward less because they have depth and more because the two guys currently succeeding in the big leagues are under contract for the next 4-5 years.

If Nottingham makes it, and sticks at catcher, it offers the A's a chance to utilize Vogt elsewhere, which could be a boon both for the team and also for Vogt's durability. If Nottingham makes it but has to move to the outfield, then at least he will help at the position where the A's have the least organizational depth -- as we are about to see.

Outfield

Here is where the A's may still need reinforcements that are not currently in the organization. Josh Reddick is under contract only through 2016, Billy Burns is having an exciting rookie season but he is going to have to walk more than 3 times every 30 games in order to sustain success. Jake Smolinski has a chance to be a vintage A's scrap heap find, but it's not yet known whether he is anything good or just a pleasant platoon bat. I will believe Crisp's health when I see it and I don't expect to see it.

On one hand, you could stumble into a really good outfield of displaced toys -- it's conceivable that Olson and Nottingham could wind up manning the corners or that at some point Barreto could man CF. You don't know, but what you can say is that currently, the 2017 outfield is very, very much in flux.

So here's where the A's might need to use the free agent market, the international market, or the trade market, in order to put together more of a true core than a cobbled mosaic. They could certainly pursue an extension with Reddick, and they could possibly pursue one of the second-tier free agents this off-season while attention is on Jason Heyward and Justin Upton.

I do think something still has to give here, but the A's do have the payroll flexibility to make a splash -- not the big splash a couple teams will make with Heyward, Upton, and perhaps the next Moncada, but potentially an area where they could unearth a solid COFer to give depth to what is currently "a year of Reddick, and the skill sets that Burns and Smolinski can offer." Help may not be on the way within the organization, but add one solid piece (as the A's did in 2012 with the signing of Yoenis Cespedes) and the landscape could change quickly.

Starting Pitching

Here is where the A's put almost all their emphasis this week, and boy did it pay off. I look at rotations in three parts -- front end, middle of the rotation, and back end -- and I think the A's were able to successfully address depth in all three places.

There is now some depth at the front of the rotation, with Sonny Gray, Jesse Hahn, and Sean Manaea (who I believe will vie for a spot in the rotation out of spring training in 2016). No question there are health questions around Hahn and Manaea, and just generally around any pitcher, which is why you need to have an "embarrass de riches" in order to have anything at all. So it's not as if the A's are set up to have 3 aces for several years, but it does appear as if they have multiple SPs with front end upside.

Note that the A's could certainly use another "potential front end" SP to replace Scott Kazmir and perhaps the A's will, as they have often done (Colon, Kazmir) try to use free agent dollars to strengthen the front of the rotation. Doug Fister seems like a classic A's target, as does Wei-In Chen, but you can envision your free agent of choice.

Perhaps more importantly, Oakland is suddenly in very good shape in the middle of their rotation. Along with incumbent Jesse Chavez, who is under contract through 2016, the A's now have Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin (2016), Daniel Mengden (2017), Raul Alcantara (2017?) and Casey Meisner (2018) as pitchers with perceived "middle of the rotation" upside, along with Chris Bassitt, Aaron Brooks, A.J. Griffin, Dillon Overton (2017) as depth towards the back.

Is this enough depth, and enough quality, to survive the usual spate of injuries and flameouts? Hard to say, but one can at least imagine that going into the off-season the A's are well positioned.

Bullpen

It's not as bleak as it seems. 2015 has been the worst of worst case scenarios, but bullpen fortunes change quickly and all you can do is to have a lot of promising possibilities, and I think the A's will have several of those. It starts, of course, with Sean Doolittle and continues with R.J. Alvarez, who is considered by scouts to have "closer stuff". Ryan Dull has been flat out dominant at AA (an 0.60 ERA in 45 IP) and just earned a late promotion to AAA. If he stays with the team, Drew Pomeranz has a chance to be an effective reliever. Fernando Rodriguez has actually been really good overall. Pat Venditte may actually be good and he sure is fun. Dan Otero could bounce back and Fernando Abad continues to exist.

For 2016, if the A's SP depth turns out to be sufficient and if Chavez continues to stumble in the second half this year, you might consider turning Chavez into a reliever who can throw 94MPH out of the pen either in a set up role or for 2 IP. He won't be Wade Davis, but with that kind of velocity and his signature cutter, he could be Davis-lite and that could still be pretty dominant. The point is, relievers are sometimes discovered or created, not just signed or acquired.


Have I described a potential core to grow up and thrive together? As is the case when you are discussing so many prospects who are not yet even at AAA, it's impossible to say. But if Oakland were to roll with the following transitioning core, build around them and try to keep them together for a sustained run, I think it looks more exciting than bleak:

C - Vogt/Phegley --> Nottingham
1B - Ravelo, Olson, Nuñez
2B/SS - Semien with Wendle/Ladendorf --> Pinder --> Martin/White/Barreto
3B - Lawrie --> Chapman
COF - Reddick, Smolinsky, Canha --> One key addition, possibly Olson and/or Nottingham
CF - Burns

SP - Gray, Hahn, Manaea, Graveman, Chavez --> Nolin, Bassitt, Griffin, Mengden, Overton, Meisner...
RP - Doolittle, Alvarez, Rodriguez, Pomeranz, Venditte, Dull...

Not quite there yet, maybe, but I think they're close. The question I come back to is: Do the A's have enough pieces that could succeed and stay together for several years instead of being churned midway for a new future core? I think it's "yes". I hope it's "yes" -- because those eras of A's baseball, where a beloved group forms a winning rhythm, are the best.