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On tanking, big turnarounds, and why the A's can beat the norm

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Every now and then, the topic of "tanking" comes up in discussions. It's always polarizing and makes for an interesting debate, as I think both sides have merit. Tanking itself is hard to define. The word conjures up images of oufielders purposefully misplaying balls and managers starting Billy Butler at short, but it's hard to imagine anyone actually advocating for that. A more realistic definition is letting youngsters struggle to figure it out, trading away veteran talent, and not making moves to improve the immediate team.

I myself have advocated for "tanking" at times for a variety of reasons. Draft picks aren't guaranteed, but a higher one is undeniably better. There are years where the A's are unwatchable as is, why not make them just a touch more unwatchable by trying AAA sensations? But when I think of the 2016 A's, the last thing I want is for them to do anything resembling tanking, and here's why.

Teams that tank are less likely to make the postseason the following season

This isn't exactly groundbreaking analysis, but teams with horrible, tank-esque win totals usually don't compete the year following near triple digit losses. It happens, but it's not that common. Here are all the playoff teams to make the playoffs following a year of missing the postseason from the past five (arbitrary) years:

Year Team Win total Previous total MLB Finish
2011 Diamondbacks 94 65 28
2015 Rangers 88 67 28
2013 Indians 92 68 26
2012 Orioles 92 69 27
2013 Red Sox 97 69 T-25
2015 Astros 86 70 T-26
2015 Cubs 97 73 22
2012 Oakland A's 94 74 21
2012 Giants 88 76 T-11
2011 Brewers 96 77 22
2014 Angels 98 78 17
2012 Reds 97 79 T-16
2013 Pirates 94 79 19
2015 Mets 90 79 17
2012 Nationals 98 80 T-15
2015 Blue Jays 93 83 14
2015 Yankees 87 84 14
2011 Cardinals 90 86 12
2013 Dodgers 92 86 13
2014 Nationals 96 86 12
2014 Giants 94 86 T-16
2012 Braves 94 89 10
2013 Rays 92 90 9
2016 Oakland A's ?? 68 T-24

There are six teams in the past five years that pulled off the turnaround the Athletics hope to in 2016. That number actually surprised me some, but it's still not great for the A's odds. Some teams from that bunch are similar to the A's (the Astros riding young talent) some are very different (the Rangers/Red Sox getting guys back from injury, buying free agents) but at any rate, turning it around in one season is possible but very difficult.

A bad team would indicate a major step back

Projections differ, but most A's fans hope for a team that might sniff contention if things go right. The A's more definitive contention window is presumably opening in 2017 and in order for that to happen, players on the current roster will have to take steps forward. A bad 2016 would likely delay that window as players we're hoping to be part of the playoff window will have to have failed.

Of the current roster, the only major free agents to be are Rich Hill and Josh Reddick. The former has much to prove, and the latter might be extended. Sam Fuld and Mark Rzepczynski will also be free agents but neither are likely to play a major role in 2016 and the A's could always attempt to re-sign them if they wish. All this is to say 2016 will be a major indicator for how the playoff window will go as the players from this year are key to that time frame. The A's might not be likely to make the major jump from near worst team in the league to playoff contender, but it's still imperative the win total in 2016 be a step forward.

So are the A's doomed to fail in 2016?

The list above should give you a touch of hope that the A's won't be bottom dwellers in 2016 as they build towards a playoff window, but it is a little disheartening for our hopes of the A's reaching the postseason so soon after a disastrous year. Can the A's be an exception to the norm? You all know about the A's promise, but let's recap why it's not completely out of the picture.

The A's were the best of the bad

The 2015 A's were like the cleanest vendor at O.Co Coliseum, not much to brag about but still the best of their crowd. With a Pythagorean record of 77-85, the team showed signs of being non-god awful even without considering the fact they essentially gave up in early August and had an outrageous run of injuries.

That isn't exactly a rousing endorsement of the A's in 2015 but as you saw on the chart above, teams make the jump from around that win total to the playoffs at a pretty decent clip. If the A's true talent in 2015 was around that level, their chances of making the jump are much higher than other similar win total teams.

The roster itself

The bullpen: The bullpen was likely a big part of the A's mismatched win total and Pythagorean record, and the front office jettisoned almost the entire bunch. Even an average bullpen would be a big upgrade for 2016, and if the A's can avoid the hilariously bad timing and horrible pitching that ruined 2015, the pen should give the A's an easy and substantial win bump.

The Rotation: The rotation dominated for stretches in 2015 but faced many injuries. The 2016 version has all that upside plus a little bit of refinement and a touch of Rich Hill, but with the usual risk of injury.

Position Players: The upside on the field perhaps doesn't rival that of the rotation or pen, but every position is filled by either a productive returnee, a youngster with upside, or a newbie who really doesn't have to do much to blow the previous occupant out of the water.

Final thoughts

I've written previously about how 2016 can be a big success if the farm takes the necessary steps to fill in the big league gaps in 2016. The big league crew has to fill their end of the bargain and take a step forward in 2016, even if it doesn't end in the A's playing meaningful games in October.