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Oakland A’s 5 Needs for 2017

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MLB: Oakland Athletics at Los Angeles Angels Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Despite knowing for months that the Oakland A’s were not going to reach the postseason I decided to tune out the final weeks of the regular season. Doing that allowed for some minor relaxation away from box scores, recaps, and MLB.tv. On the flip side it created for some surprises as I scanned some team statistics following the conclusion of the season.

That lead me to putting this list together. These are five areas in which I believe the A’s need to improve in 2017 or they are headed for another 90-loss season.

1. This team needs a leadoff hitter

The A’s ranked 29th in baseball in production from their leadoff hitters. The 75 wRC+ Oakland leadoff hitters put up was slightly better than the 66 wRC+ from Kansas City Hitters, but was a far cry from the 28th best Washington Nationals and their 90 wRC+ and the major league average was 105 wRC+.

The largest contributors to the A’s from the leadoff spot were Coco Crisp (87 wRC+) and Billy Burns (60 wRC+). Neither is with the team anymore. Marcus Semien and Joey Wendle each received a decent amount of plate appearances batting first, but neither did much with it. The only Athletics with any amount of positive success batting leadoff were Yonder Alonso (1 PA) and Jed Lowrie (30 PAs).

That leads me to believe this: If Lowrie is a member of the 2017 Oakland A’s is he the best in-house option to bat leadoff? He doesn’t have much speed and it seems his once above-average power has completely left him. He still has strong control over the strike zone and good contact abilities.

Sleeper option: Chad Pinder. He was one of eight Athletics to receive a PA batting leadoff and he did all he could in that role to prove he may have a future there. His 281 wRC+ in 7 PAs batting first is indeed a prime example of a small sample. However, if Pinder can solidify his role on the team next year as a regular or near-regular his power/speed combo would be a fit to leadoff for the 2017 A’s.

2. This team needs a center fielder

Oakland centerfielders were 29th in baseball in production. Their 73 wRC+ bested only the Houston Astros. However, overall Oakland center fielders were the worst in baseball due to their defensive liabilities and came in at -1.4 fWAR. Fo contrast Toronto centerfielders were worth nearly 3 fWAR despite a 74 wRC+ because of their strong defensive play.

Crisp and Burns again were the largest contributors to the A’s centerfield woes. The combined for 173 games at the position and -0.5 fWAR. Still, not one of the five Athletics to receive time in centerfield was able to be a positive contributor.

That leads me to believe that the 2017 Oakland A’s centerfielder isn’t currently on the team. Perhaps a Jake Smolinski/Jaycob Brugman platoon is in order, as some believe would work. Maybe Kevin Kiermaier or Ender Inciarte will be landed in a trade. Whatever the A’s do they need to improve centerfield play on both sides of the ball for 2017 to be successful.

3. More innings from Starting Pitchers

I was shocked to learn that a guy named Chris Smith pitched in 13 games for the A’s this year.

That knowledge was soon followed up by this revelation:

For the 2017 A’s to be successful they will need to get more innings from their better pitchers and better pitching from the pitchers who are inevitably thrust into prominent roles. The team put up the 21st best season by fWAR and was 25th in team ERA. Oakland starters ranked 23rd in fWAR and 27th in ERA. The A’s received 27th most innings from their starters. 14 different pitchers made five or more starts for the A’s in 2016. That is just unacceptable.

This leads me to believe that among the top items on the 2017 shopping list a veteran starter should be one of the highest priorities. There are several candidates who are available, or will be via trade, that would satisfy this need. The reason I think a veteran starter is a must-have for 2017 is because veteran starters tend to be low-risk, high-reward type players. Someone who can soak up 170-200 innings with a 4-ish ERA would be very valuable to a staff whose best starter this year was Kendall Graveman.

Additionally the team needs Sonny Gray to be both healthy and good again. Hopefully the former will lead to the latter.

Give me a rotation of Gray, Gio Gonzalez or Rich Hill, Kendall Graveman, Sean Manaea, and Jharel Cotton to start 2017 and I’d be satisfied, if not excited.

4. Defense, defense, defense

The A’s were far and away the worst defensive team in baseball in 2016, leading me to actually think the team took its strategy straight out of that scene in Moneyball when Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane famously asserted that, “his defense does not matter.”

The A’s -72 defensive runs saved and -53.4 UZR were easily the lowest in baseball this year and are among the worst ratings of any team in the past decade.

This leads me to believe that not only do the A’s need better offensive production from a position like centerfield, they need a stalwart on defense. Inciarte and Kiermaier would satisfy this need easily. Acquiring Kole Calhoun to play right field would also be a big plus. Getting more innings from Joey Wendle up the middle would improve the overall defense, even if he doesn’t make any super meaningful contributions on his own.

5. Health (Depth)

This is sort of the catch-all critique of any failed team. How can a team perform well if its best players (or all of its players) are either sick, or broken, or strained.

Injuries to starting pitchers in particular were devastating blows to the 2016 version of the Oakland A’s. Before the season even started the lost Felix Doubront to Tommy John Surgery, which unfortunately was a big loss. Henderson Alvarez never even reached the major leagues after months of rehab. I won’t even go into what ailed Gray.

In addition to that Lowrie missing time undoubtedly took a toll on the team in some for or another. Mark Canha didn’t contribute at all after being a popular breakout candidate. Josh Phegley went missing for almost all of the second half.

Not much went Oakland’s way in 2016, which leads me to believe this team, more than ever, needs depth to be successful in 2017. I was convinced Chris Coghlan was the heir to the Ben Zobrist throne but that turned out to be an inconsequential trade in a meaningless season.

This team, as it currently exists, lacks even a single legitimate star player. There many good players and improving players so it will be even more important for the front office to find average or better players to help fill in the gaps so that an injury to Khris Davis or Ryon Healy won’t cripple the As chances.