The Oakland A’s last won a game on Sunday, in their home finale against the Rangers. Jharel Cotton threw seven sparkling innings, and Ryan Dull fanned three batters in a scoreless 9th. The lineup put together a seven-run rally, capped off by a towering homer by Ryon Healy; he and catcher Bruce Maxwell posted three-hit days. Matt Olson notched his first MLB hit, and Joey Wendle made one of the better slides I’ve seen in a while on a play at the plate.
These are the moments that keep my interest in a long September like this one, even days after the fact. The A’s have dropped eight of their last nine as they play out the string in another last-place campaign, but the standings stopped mattering long ago. Each of those losses brought at least a couple of constructive moments amid the bad news on the scoreboard, and those are what matter for a team that is building toward the future. A Ross Detwiler implosion on the side makes our Wednesday less interesting but won’t be remembered next spring during rookie auditions, or next summer when Oakland’s draft pick is slightly higher.
Ever since the great collapse and the ensuing transition sale, the A’s have been floating. There hasn’t been a particular goal or any specific timetable, just vague attempts to maintain relevance while the next winning core slowly identified itself. Things got dark in 2015, much darker than many of us feared, and 2016 brought a lot of the same. But during this current month, even with a 10-15 record, I can’t shake the feeling that the worst is behind us and things just get better from here. Rock bottom is in the rear-view mirror.
Part of that feeling comes simply from the absence of past ghosts. Gone are Billy Butler, who can now only torment us financially; Coco Crisp, whose beloved persona and declined skills made his presence this year bittersweet; and Jed Lowrie, out for the season though still on the roster. These players were all capable of making our day on a short-term basis, but there was never any question what they were this year: stopgap representative products, with a twist of nostalgia mixed in. Danny Valencia is still here for now, but the most recent word is still that he’s unlikely to return.
And with that space cleared, the prospects finally arrive. They don’t always look like much in their first impressions, but at least a few of them will prove themselves next season. And if they don’t, there’s another wave coming right behind them.
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The main pearl of the last two irritating seasons has been the emergence of some power in the lineup. Khris Davis and Marcus Semien have combined for nearly 70 homers this year, with Semien providing his from an up-the-middle defensive position that he plays adequately. They’re both a bit one-dimensional at the plate, but at least it’s a really good dimension instead of one in which Kouz leads the team in dingers. And out of nowhere, Healy has shown up as a legit middle-of-the-order threat -- at this point he’s been hitting well enough for long enough that it’s safe to start confidently inking him into our 2017 plans.
And now, the gaps are slowly starting to fill in. Maxwell is getting the hang of things at the plate, with discipline and extra-base power. Wendle’s batting line is a bit light so far, but he’s always slow to catch on at a new level and I’m already seeing the kinds of things he was lauded for in the minors -- the strong defense, the fundamentals, the hustle, the heads-up play. I don’t know if he’ll pan out, or if Chad Pinder or Matt Olson or Renato Nunez will find their bats in the bigs, but watching them try brings a whole new atmosphere to the team that no Zobrist rental or Coghlan experiment can replicate. The A’s are at their most enjoyable when they’re building something big from the ground up.
You can see it in the pitching staff too. Sonny Gray’s triumphant return to the mound provides a nice emotional boost heading into the offseason and Kendall Graveman has settled in as a reliable workhorse, but the real story has been the success of some of the new guys. Sean Manaea, having worked through rookie struggles and a couple brief injury scares, has an ERA a tick better than average, with encouraging peripherals and dynamite second-half numbers that have him looking like a top-of-the-rotation starter. Cotton, acquired in July in the Josh Reddick trade, has been brilliant all four times out and is yet to allow more than one earned run in a game. The others have taken their lumps, but at least Daniel Mengden is striking out batters in between shellings and Raul Alcantara has pounded the zone his last couple times out. It’s the little things in late September of a 90-loss season.
The bullpen still looks like a positive too. Ryan Madson is either a decent closer or a great trade chip, and Sean Doolittle is intimidating once again. Now Dull has joined them as a lockdown late-inning guy, and Liam Hendriks has quietly morphed back into the dynamic arm the A’s thought they were acquiring last winter. They even have Andrew Triggs as an exciting swingman experiment for next year, a la Jesse Chavez.
The infield is packed with exciting young options, and the real impact prospects -- Franklin Barreto and Matt Chapman, both ETA next year — aren’t even in that picture yet. The outfield still has a Reddick-sized hole, but at least one spot is filled with Davis and we still haven’t seen my longtime prospect crush, the MLB-ready Jaycob Brugman. With Maxwell joining two-time All-Star Stephen Vogt, the A’s will still get some offense from their catchers. The rotation should be far more stable, with the chance to be a plus. And the bullpen shouldn’t hold them back, with plenty more depth ready in the minors if need be.
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It’s easy to be jaded about the A’s right now, and to keep some distance from the new players for fear they’ll be ripped away once more. There will probably be trades, and maybe we’ll even lose one of the fun new names I’ve mentioned here as a building block, but I don’t anticipate this will be as crazy of an offseason as we’ve seen the last couple winters. This feels like a time to slow down and let the garden grow, rather than tearing everything sideways trying to arrange the plants just right, and if we see any big move I imagine it’ll be to acquire a win-now player at the expense of veterans and/or low-minors prospects.
In the meantime, I can only advise one course of action: Start to get excited about these guys. Nothing crazy yet, mind you. Just check Healy’s OPS now and then, and Manaea’s ERA, and Dull’s K/BB, and sneak a little smile. As the cold months trudge on, revel in all the young names you can mix and match in your sample lineups, and start to dream on their various upsides. Imagine what they’d look like if they formed into a contender. By the time next spring rolls around and the new season dawns, A’s fans will finally have something to look forward to again.