We're in the waning days of a bad Oakland A's season, and there isn't as much to get excited about as there has been in the last few Septembers. There is no playoff hunt, and to make matters worse several recent former A's are preparing for the postseason with their new clubs. Football season is here to divide the attention of many fans, school is back for others, and even Oakland's minor league affiliates are more interesting than they are right now. The A's just got two-hit by Colby Lewis last night. Literally Colby Lewis, for nine innings, and he was perfect for the first seven.
But don't give up yet! There are still 21 games left in the season, and no matter what it might feel like right now, no matter how much fun it will be to follow the Warriors this winter as they defend their NBA title, you're going to be a little bit sadder when baseball season ends. If you can acknowledge that now, then you can avoid wasting the chance to enjoy these last few weeks of real regular season contests featuring the green and gold.
If you're still with me, and you're determined to watch these games while we still can, then let's at least find something to get excited about. Here are three things to watch this weekend against the Rangers, who by some sorcery hold the 2nd wild card and are 1.5 games out of the division.
1. Sean Nolin is starting Saturday
If you were going to make a list of giant bummers about 2015, the Josh Donaldson trade would probably be toward the top. No, the A's would not have won this year with Donaldson, but it still sucks to see your best player dealt and then immediately suffer through a last-place season while he cruises to a likely MVP award on his division-winner. But that's for another post and another thread -- this is a safe, happy space.
This month, we're getting our first real look at Sean Nolin. I would say the lefty was the fourth piece in that four-player package from Toronto -- Brett Lawrie was the prize, Franklin Barreto was the necessary top prospect, and Kendall Graveman was the more exciting pitcher. Furthermore, while the other three enjoyed varying levels of success this year, the 6'4 Nolin cemented his place as the smallest piece in the deal by missing half of the season due to a variety of injuries (recovery from sports hernia surgery, followed by shoulder issues). He only made it into 14 games for the Nashville Sounds before his recent call-up.
Finally, we get to see what we've got. In a campaign fraught with health problems (Coco, Doolittle, Zobrist, Ike, Hahn, Graveman, Bassitt, Ladendorf, etc.), one of the perpetually injured guys is actually back on the field. Nolin is scheduled to start on Saturday (tonight!) against Yovani Gallardo and a struggling Rangers lineup that has been shut out thrice in its last six games. Most of Texas' best hitters are lefties (Prince, Choo, Moreland, Odor, Venable, Gallo), so the pitcher will either have the platoon advantage or face some bench bats, but A's-killer Adrian Beltre still exists as an ultimate test. The Rangers are still competing for October, so Nolin won't facing a bunch of fellow September call-ups. This one really counts, and the other team will be gunning for the win.
Nolin's debut outing on Sunday was decent if unspectacular, featuring 3 runs on 5 hits in 6 innings but with a frightening 1 K to 3 walks. If you're interested in the A's future then you should be excited to see him follow it up tonight.
2. Mark Canha is outtadapak
Canha started his rookie year with a power surge, but he didn't get a lot of playing time during the summer as he was stuck behind some veterans. But by early August the team had already given up on competing and Ike Davis was on the verge of giving in to his injured leg, and Canha finally got a chance to start regularly. On Aug. 12 he was in the lineup at first base, and since then he has played every inning of every day, 27 games in total. His numbers since being unleashed:
Since Aug. 12: 121 PAs, .313/.355/.563, 6 HR, 25 RBI, 8 BB, 24 Ks, 15 XBH
His average won't stay that high long-term, but I think that as he gains respect (and sees fewer strikes) he'll also draw more walks to at least preserve his OBP. And more importantly, he is just shredding the ball when he hits it, with a ton of power to the pull side and enough left over to flip one out to the opposite field now and then. Add in his above-average speed, which lets him steal an occasional base and beat out some infield hits, as well as the ability to shift to LF when needed, and he's starting to look like a potential star. Fangraphs has him at 1.6 fWAR in just over half a season's worth of irregular plate appearances, and B-Ref is right behind at 1.1 bWAR. I think he could clear 3.0 in a full season of everyday playing time.
Canha could be the next Brandon Moss or Jack Cust, an overlooked hitter who puts it together in Oakland and becomes the MLB slugger he was always capable of being. Heck, why can't he follow Donaldson's career path, emerging at the end of his age-26 season and then breaking out next year at age 27? I'm not saying he will compete for an MVP, just that he could be in the middle of Oakland's lineup next year and that could be a good thing. If you're interested in the A's future, then you should be excited every time Canha comes to the plate right now.
3. Lawrie and Semien up the middle
The A's have been searching for a long-term solution in the middle infield for what seems like years. Jemile Weeks looked hopeful, but he didn't work out. Cliff Pennington didn't make the cut. Jed Lowrie was a short-term win-now option, and Ben Zobrist an even shorter one. Eric Sogard isn't the answer, at least not to that question. They had a promising minor league duo in Addision Russell and Daniel Robertson, but both were traded in the unyielding quest for a ring.
When the dust settled, the A's appeared to have Marcus Semien eating his own glove at shortstop and their fingers crossed that Joey Wendle would stick at second base in 2016. But over the last month, that outlook has changed drastically. Whether because of his work with Ron Washington or some other combination of factors, Semien looks like a new player in the field. He's made only 6 errors in 45 games since the All-Star break, and 5 of those were throwing miscues. His actual fielding looks completely acceptable, and he's even starting to make an occasional truly impressive play. He still has to sort out the accuracy of his throwing arm, but even in that department he's learned to limit the damage by erring on the side of bouncing it in the dirt rather than winging it over everyone's heads and into the stands. Semien is a legit defender now, and if he's not all the way up to average already then I'm confident he will be next year. Defensive Runs Saved has him at +1 run on defense for the season (though UZR still vehemently disagrees).
Meanwhile, Brett Lawrie has unexpectedly shifted from 3B to 2B, a position he had experimented with in Toronto but never stuck at. After watching him at the hot corner for a few months, I never really understood why he played there -- his arm is good but not 3B-cannon good, and he's prone to bobbling the ball a bit, which you have more time to do at 2B (with a shorter throw to make) than all the way across the diamond at 3B.
Given the chance at the keystone, Lawrie has impressed this set of eyeballs. There have been some growing pains and some "rookie" mistakes, but it seems like he could have the range and hands to make this work. He's making the routine plays, with only 2 errors in 21 games since taking over the position in early August. He's made a couple of tough plays, at least according to the Inside Edge fielding numbers listed on Fangraphs (in the "Unlikely" 10-40% range). And he can turn a double play, as evidenced here -- Semien fields a rocket, and Lawrie receives the feed and makes the turn perfectly with the runner bearing down on him:
Meanwhile, the two have combined for 26 homers; the A's got 10 from 2B/SS last year. They've hovered within arm's length of league-average at the plate this season, despite all kinds of distractions -- Semien focusing on his defense, and Lawrie changing teams/countries and then positions. Lawrie in particular is starting to flash some of his latent power (5 homers in last 19 games), and Semien is yet to turn 25 years old. In 2016, they would seem to have a floor of "average" with a chance that either or both could break out.
Even better, this experiment is low-risk. If it doesn't work out, then Wendle looks ready to give it a go in 2016, Colin Walsh will be waiting in the wings for his chance, and Chad Pinder is only one level away. There are good backup options, and this is the time to try something crazy while the wins and losses don't matter. With Danny Valencia looking like a keeper at 3B on both sides of the ball, the A's might finally have a long-term answer up the middle and a way to fit both Valencia and Lawrie into the same lineup. If you're interested in the A's future, then you should be watching Semien and Lawrie try to settle in together as a double-play combo.