The Oakland A's started out the 2016 season by dropping three out of four games in their opening series against the White Sox. There are still five teams who haven't yet won a game, including the Cardinals, so it could be worse. But for the A's, a 1-3 record means taking up residence in the familiar confines of the AL West cellar. At least they're sharing that space with the Rangers, for now.
But what can you really learn from the first four days of the baseball season? Honestly, very little, if anything at all. But here are the early hints of takeaways ... or, in some cases, lack thereof.
1. We still don't know anything about the starting rotation
The rotation is not off to a great start, but I'm giving them a mulligan for that first series since everything got thrown out of sync when Sonny Gray got the flu. Rich Hill was certainly shaky Opening Day, and after the spring he had that's not a good sign, but he also wasn't even supposed to be starting that day. It can't be easy to wake up thinking you'll be watching the game from the dugout, and then get to work to find out you're now the star of the show. I'm more interested in seeing what he does on Saturday when he has the chance to properly prepare. In general, I will judge the entire rotation more seriously once it has settled into a regular schedule and recovered from the illness that affected Sonny and later Kendall Graveman.
Keep an eye on: Eric Surkamp, who will be taking the fifth spot in this first turn through the rotation. He may just be keeping the seat warm for Jesse Hahn, but you never know if a guy might unexpectedly run with an opportunity like this.
2. The revamped bullpen is already an upgrade
It's too early to say if the bullpen will be good or bad this year, but I think we can already declare that it is better than it was last season. They haven't yet walked a batter in 15⅔ innings, and after finishing nearly dead last in fastball velocity last year they're in the top 10 in MLB so far in 2016. Sean Doolittle, despite blowing a tie game already, looks healthy and might even finally have a secondary pitch. Ryan Madson oozes confidence, and his presence gives the A's another quality 9th-inning option. John Axford is a former closer pitching in the 7th inning. I'm currently happy with every single member of this unit, which is a really weird feeling after last year.
Keep an eye on: Ryan Dull. After grabbing the final bullpen spot on the Opening Day roster, the rookie has retired all nine batters he's faced in his first three outings. His fastball isn't overpowering but his slider looks sharp so far, and he could turn out to be a valuable member of the relief corps this year.
3. Don't judge a lineup after one series
The A's didn't hit much against the Pale Hose, but like with the rotation I'm withholding judgment. Chicago trotted out three excellent lefties to start the year, including superstar Chris Sale, and Oakland made a lot of great contact that went right at defenders. The only offensive performance that bummed me out was being one-hit for six innings by Mat Latos. The stars so far seem to be Jed Lowrie and Billy Butler, but facing three right-handers in Seattle could help some of the big lefties wake up (Reddick, Vogt, Alonso). Someone will need to start hitting for power, as Mark Canha has the only homer so far and I'm unwilling to blame a lack of dingers entirely on the unfriendly confines of the Coliseum and Safeco.
Keep an eye on: Chris Coghlan, who only has six at-bats so far due to all the southpaws the A's have seen. He should get a couple of starts in Seattle, and I'm excited to see what he can do after his resurgent performance the last two seasons. He's notched a couple hits already and drove in the team's only run on Thursday. Also keep an eye on his infield defense when he gets the chance to play there -- he's looked capable so far, and if he continues to do so then he's one step closer to living up to his Zobrist-lite billing.
4. The jury is still out on the defense
After an offseason spent hoping and praying that the A's defense would improve after an abysmal 2015, it was frustrating to see a sloppy error lead to a loss on Opening Day. It was even worse that Marcus Semien was involved in the play, though the error was properly charged to first baseman Mark Canha. Semien and Danny Valencia also made Graveman work harder than he needed to on Thursday. But overall the infield seemed to sharpen up after those miscues, and in particular I think Lowrie looks better-suited for 2B than he was at SS and I have appreciated Valencia's hustle and strong arm. The starting rotation leads MLB in groundball rate so far, so it's important for this group to be at the top of its game as often as possible even if its ceiling ends up being "average." Having Yonder Alonso in there for a few games against righties should help.
Keep an eye on: Billy Burns. He's got all the speed in the world in center field, but sometimes he wastes some of it by taking a poor route to a fly ball. Can he improve on that as time goes on?