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5 Things that went right during the Oakland A’s last-place season

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Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland A’s went 69-93 in their 2016 campaign. That’s a one-game improvement over 2015! It’s still good for last place in the AL West, though, for the second straight year. There’s no way to spin it: the A’s had a bad season.

The good news is that this was expected. Every fan base can squint in March and see a way their team could possibly contend, but this looked like a rebuilding year from the start. Some key injuries made things even worse than they could have been, but the odds were always against this group.

With that in mind, let’s look for some positives in this otherwise bummer of a season. Following a rebuilding team means paying attention to more than just wins and losses, and enjoying some of the bigger-picture developments along the way. Here are five from 2016.

1. Khrush Davis becomes a certified slugger

Khris Davis had been a budding power hitter for a few years in Milwaukee, but he hadn’t yet put together that one full monster season that really reaches out and grabs you when you see it on the stat sheet. He did just that in 2016, with 42 homers and 102 RBI, and with that he took the leap to being a bona fide Slugger™. That dinger total is tied for sixth-most in Oakland history.

Khrush was an absolute marvel this season. He hits the ball as hard as anyone we’ve seen in Oakland for a while, and he can send it over the fence to any field, from pole to pole. Behold:

And of course, the most important comparison:

Khris Davis: .247/.307/.524, 42 HR, 102 RBI, 166 Ks
Chris Davis: .221/.332/.459, 38 HR, 84 RBI, 219 Ks

Khrushed it.

2. Impact rookies

It’s nice to have a shining beacon like Khrush in an otherwise stormy season, but the real hope during a rebuilding year is that some of your prospects will reach the majors and begin to establish themselves as the stars of the next good team. On that front the A’s made admirable progress, with three youngsters in particular breaking through as true impact rookies: starter Sean Manaea, reliever Ryan Dull, and corner infielder Ryon Healy.

It took a couple months for Manaea to settle in, but by the end of the year he had emerged as the kind of No. 2 starter we’d hoped for. He topped our Community Prospect List last winter, so it was especially good consolation to see such a highly touted arm pan out. Meanwhile, we’d already watched Dull debut last year, but this year he elevated himself to near-All-Star status as a set-up man. Even if 2016 proves to be his best season, it’s still easy to see him being a fixture in the pen for years to come, which is incredible for a 32nd-round pick.

And then there’s Healy. He was barely on the radar entering the year, but he tore through the upper minors, passed a slew of bigger-name prospects in Triple-A, made the bigs in July, and just kept right on hitting. He’ll need to prove he wasn’t just a half-year wonder (remember Jemile Weeks?), and his low OBP remains at least a small red flag, but even if he drops down a notch from his 134 wRC+ he’d still be a quality hitter who is adequate defensively. I’m sure not betting against him.

And those three weren’t the only exciting youngsters, just the ones who looked good over extended time. Starters Jharel Cotton and Daniel Mengden provide optimism for the 2017 rotation, catcher Bruce Maxwell looks like he could be a keeper, and Joey Wendle showed some of the hustle he’s known for. And that’s only scratching the surface of the 15 MLB debuts the A’s recorded this year. Spring training is going to be wild.

3. Nailed their trades, again

Watching those prospects take their first steps is the fun part of rebuilding, but it does come with a downside (well, other than losing a lot of games and being in last place). You also have to say goodbye to some of your favorite veterans in forward-thinking deadline deals, and the A’s did so with Josh Reddick and Rich Hill. (And Marc Rzepczynski. Long live Scrabble.)

Fortunately, for the second straight year they absolutely nailed their trades. In 2015 they dealt three impending free agents and ended up with Manaea, Mengden, and Khrush (indirectly), which was an excellent haul. This year they cut loose three more free agents and wound up with four more dynamic prospects.

The headliner was RHP Grant Holmes, who immediately becomes one of the team’s top five prospects, but the 20-year-old is still a long way away. More imminently exciting are the additions of Cotton, who has already debuted to great fanfare; RHP Frankie Montas, who is currently dominating the Arizona Fall League with his 100 mph heat; and 2B Max Schrock, a popular sleeper pick who never strikes out.

Of course, acquiring prospects only gets you so far. The A’s still have to develop them into big leaguers who can be on their next winning team. But as far as the steps they took in that direction this summer, Oakland added as much young talent as you could hope for without giving up anyone who was signed beyond the end of the season.

4. Diamond in the rough: Andrew Triggs

Losing all your pitchers to injury gives a team a chance to try out some wild stuff, and every so often you accidentally invent the Post-It note. The A’s may have done just that with sidewinding reliever-turned-starter Andrew Triggs.

Time will tell if Triggs can make it long-term as a starter, but the early returns were good enough that he is expected to enter the spring competing for a job in the rotation. It’s not hard to imagine, either, considering the A’s turned long reliever Jesse Chavez into a serviceable starter just a couple years ago.

Out of all the youngsters they acquired and auditioned, perhaps the one who sticks in the rotation will be the 27-year-old reliever they plucked off waivers. At least the A’s are staying on brand as the Island of Misfit Toys.

5. Revamped bullpen holds up

Remember how bad the bullpen was last year? No wait, don’t think about it. That’s the whole point of this last item. Just say “Mujica” out loud and let the sound swirl around you in the air for a moment, and then spray some Febreze.

The relief corps was a disaster in 2015, and now that seems like a distant memory just 12 months later. That’s not to say the pen was amazing this year, but it was at least adequate. It certainly wasn’t the team’s undoing, and for a while it even looked like the strongest area of the roster. The final numbers aren’t great, as the A’s had to reach deep to fill all their innings later in the season, but even still there was improvement — they converted 83% of their save/hold situations, up from 75% last year.

But more importantly, there were success stories. Ryan Madson was decent as a closer, though he’d be even better if pushed to a set-up role. Dull emerged as a keeper. Liam Hendriks posted a 2.23 ERA over his final 42 games. Sean Doolittle was mostly healthy, and still late-inning material. Any reliever can go kaplooey at any moment with an injury or an off-year*, but the point is that there’s plenty of optimism in an area where there was absolutely zero not so long ago.

* Try not to think about how Dan Otero is bringing his 1.53 ERA to the World Series for another team.

Honorable Mention

A few other happy thoughts:

  • Marcus Semien took some big steps forward. His continued work with Ron Washington helped turn him into a legitimate shortstop, and though he wore down a bit at the end of the season he still cut his errors by 40% and looked visibly competent (and confident) at the position. He also stepped up at the plate, adding 27 homers. And he’ll play next year at age 26, so it’s even possible he hasn’t peaked yet.
  • Kendall Graveman was the one consistent presence in the rotation, as the only starter who made it wire to wire without getting hurt or demoted. Once he began relying more on his sinker, he started to look like the kind of dependable innings eater we’d hoped for. He’s not lights out, but he found his efficiency and he got the job done more often than not.
  • Stephen Vogt was named to his second straight All-Star team!
  • We got to watch Rich Hill’s curveball for four months.