Right now, the A's are a bad team but they're also a team missing 80% of their starting rotation. Even at full strength, though, Oakland stumbled through bullpen disasters, defensive breakdowns, and at the end of the year they will have pretty much been a 90-loss team from wire to wire.
Does that mean you can't expect the team to win 90 in 2016, because a jump of 20 games is unrealistic? I'm not suggesting the 2016 A's will win the AL West or compete hard for a post-season bid, but I also don't think it's especially hard to see it happening.
History is actually on their side. First of all, while on paper and intuitively a big jump in wins seems unlikely, in fact in baseball it happens a lot, from the recent "worst to first" Rays and Red Sox to this year's Mets and Blue Jays. And it happens for a lot of reasons...
One Key Player
This year's Astros, who are stumbling big time but have led the division much of the year and are currently in a wild card spot, lost 90 games in 2014. In Houston's case, it sure helped to turn SS from a significant weakness to a significant strength, which speaks to how much improving in one place can help.
You cannot (or should not) just look at WAR to see the impact one key addition can make. In the Astros example, the difference in WAR between Carlos Correa and Jonathan Villar is not the only issue. When your second best hitter becomes your third best hitter, when your lineup depth increases down to the 7th spot, suddenly the whole picture looks different.
In the A's case, at least against RHPs Josh Reddick and Stephen Vogt are very good hitters who are the A's top threats in the order. Add an impact player who is the team's best hitter, make Reddick and Vogt your second and third best hitters, and allow a Lawrie or Valencia to drop down to the 7th spot instead of the 6th spot, and your whole lineup has a different feel and depth to it.
This is one reason I am keen for the A's to focus on turning LF from a significant weakness to a significant strength. Add a LFer (or 1Bman if you want to roll with Mark Canha in LF) who hits better than Reddick or Vogt and your lineup suddenly has some real vitality up and down the order.
I believe that in allowing the other players to slot in lower, a "best player" creates a domino effect -- kind of like if you add a #2 SP and suddenly Jesse Hahn is your #3, Chris Bassitt your #4, Kendall Graveman your #5. Now you're rocking and rolling.
Baseball: The Most Unpredictable Game
Another reason the A's could rise quickly is simply the profoundly unpredictable nature of baseball. J.D. Martinez and Jeff Samardzija -- need I say more? OK, I will.
Let's play a game. Don't worry, you won't need your hands.
Raise your hand if you foresaw the Texas Rangers leading the AL West mid-September? No? OK, raise your hand if you had Minnesota within a game of a playoff spot. No? OK, the Mets running away with the AL East? Toronto 13 games better than Baltimore?
Like I said, you won't need your hands for this.
In 2014, the A's went "all in" during a season when the Angels had 98 wins in them. This year, the supposedly strong AL West may or may not produce a single 90-win team. You might think that if you produce a team, in spring training, that looks like about an 80-win team, you can expect to win about half your games, give or take a few. In reality, you might well win 70 and you might well win 90.
Health, breakout years and inexplicable performance drops, fortune, mid-season moves, and the nebulous "it's our year/it's just not our year" can all have a profound impact on a long season. You just don't really know and so you try to position yourself best you can and then realize that you won't know what you really have until later.
I like the nucleus of Gray, Hahn, Bassitt, and Graveman, backed by Nolin, Brooks, and Manaea. I like the bullpen if it's led by Sean Doolittle and Ryan Dull, allowing others (e.g., Drew Pomeranz, Fernando Rodriguez, perhaps even Jesse Chavez) to slot in third, fourth, and fifth in the pen.
I like the breakout potential of Marcus Semien and Mark Canha, the power and overall ability of Stephen Vogt and Josh Phegley, the offensive presence of Josh Reddick and Danny Valencia, the versatility and defensive ability of Brett Lawrie. Add one player who can move each of those guys down a slot and I think you might have a very good lineup both offensively and defensively.
There's a lot there if the A's just address one key need. They could totally come together and win 90+ games. They could also totally fall apart and lose another 90+. That's baseball, where hope springs eternal in the spring and where sometimes reality bites.