Today is New Year’s Day. That means 2016 is officially over and in the past, and the world has moved on to 2017. That’s good news for Oakland A’s fans, because 2016 sucked for almost every reason imaginable for our baseball team.
The flip of the calendar brings a clean slate and a renewed sense of hope. The flaws and mistakes of yesterday can be addressed, our dreams for the future come one step closer to realization, and most importantly the club is back in a five-way tie for first place.
I’m not going to say there’s nowhere to go but up, because that’s never true. Eight teams had worse rotations than Oakland’s trainwreck Surkamp ‘n’ Detwiler Show last year. The Twins lost 10 more games than the A’s did even though they were supposed to be on the upswing — a couple ESPN folks even picked Minnesota to win its division. Things can always get worse. Or they can stay just as bad, which would also be awful.
But the most likely scenario, overwhelmingly so, is that 2017 will be better. Maybe not awesome, and probably not a playoff year unless some big additions are coming imminently, but it’ll be better, more interesting, and more exciting. Here are five reasons why.
1. New leadership
If you want to put a finger on the pulse of the greater A’s fan base, then take a stroll through the comments on our Facebook page sometime. You’ll see a lot of people saying a lot of different things, with varying degrees of logic and tact, but the single most common theme is always easy to detect: “Sell the team!” Usually with more expletives. It shows up on almost every post, even the positive, happy articles.
A’s fans don’t like their team’s owners. That’s far from a unique stance for sports fans, but here it’s particularly justified. We spent a decade with an ownership group whose cheapness was so legendary that it helped foster the development of an entirely new quantitative-based strategic model. Then they sold to a new group, and we spent the next decade with about the same level of cheapness but also active efforts to move the team out of Oakland. And all the while, we watched as the neighboring Warriors went from generational laughingstock to historic greatness within five years of shifting from their clown show owner to a more skilled and focused top dog.
The A’s weren’t literally sold this winter, but it almost feels like they were. Managing partner Lew Wolff was the despised face of the group, and when he divested and stepped down it symbolized a changing of the guard. The figurative king is gone, which is the first step toward finding a better one. Majority owner John Fisher is now the managing partner, and Dave Kaval is the new team president.
We don’t yet know how it will go with this new leadership. The early returns are good, as they seem open both to change and to fan input, but the time will come to put action behind those good intentions. I’m optimistic, though. The A’s brand and culture needed an overhaul, and that starts at the top. The team recognized the problem and took legitimate, substantial action toward addressing it, and those are the first two steps toward fixing it.
Lew Wolff is out of the picture and the A’s appear re-committed to long-term goals of winning and doing so in Oakland. That’s the best news we could have gotten this winter, even if 2017 itself is still looking like a lean year as they get back on their feet.
2. No more Billy Butler
Sometimes in life, you just need to make a clean break and move on. Things didn’t work out like you’d hoped, and you can either make yourself miserable trying to force it or cut your losses and let everyone benefit from a change of scenery. The A’s were in such a situation with Billy Butler, leading to his release in September. And there was much rejoicing.
There are any number of complaints you may have had about Butler, but one way or other you almost definitely didn’t like having him on the team. He was so bad that he was below replacement-level in his overall Oakland career, by any conceivable measure. He’s such a specialized player that his mere presence clogged up the roster, lineup, and basepaths. His lackluster physique led many to question his effort level, especially when it never seemed to improve. And all the while he was on an expensive, long-term contract, the kind the A’s never give. He represented a frivolous waste of the money that was saved by trading away [insert your favorite player here] instead of signing him to an extension, and he perfectly symbolized the sluggish, boring, iron-gloved, underperforming, inefficient, last-place 2015-16 A’s.
And now he’s gone. It’s the first day of a new year, and he is officially not in the organization (albeit still on the payroll). The DH spot is open in your projected lineups and you can fill it with any prospect or platoon masher or breakout waiver target you want. The roster has its 25th spot back, and now you can include an extra infielder or a third catcher instead of sinking a spot on a dedicated DH. The world is your oyster, as long as you’re OK with canned tuna instead of actual oysters. Still better than BBQ gristle, which is what we were eating before.
3. Rookie Revolution
This list isn’t all addition by subtraction, though. After a couple years of stockpiling and developing prospects, some of them are finally arriving. They aren’t sure things, but I for one am stoked on them.
I’m not just talking about a few prospects who might help balance the lineup if everything works out perfectly. There are at least five starting pitchers who have already made MLB debuts, plus a catcher, three corner sluggers, and two middle infielders who have all debuted, and then another outfielder, a closer, an elite 3B, and an elite middle infielder who have reached Triple-A and (mostly) been added to the 40-man roster. This isn’t run-of-the-mill dreaming on some youngsters. This is a dang revolution, and so far the team appears to be opening the door wide open to let it happen.
Those kinds of numbers provide two guarantees. First, someone is going to pan out. Maybe not enough to turn the 2017 A’s into a good team, but of the 15 players referenced above, all of whom I expect we’ll see this season, at least a couple will stick. That means there’s a good chance your favorite player on the 2019 team will be a rookie this summer. As for the second guarantee: spring training is going to be the most fun it’s been in years. This audition is going to be wild, especially if you’ve been closely following the farm system with us here on AN.
The A’s are never as fun as when they’re building a young team of scrappy rookies, and that’s the direction 2017 is currently headed. I couldn’t be happier.
From that second paragraph, I’m talking about, in order of reference: Cotton, Mengden, Alcantara, Overton, Montas, Maxwell, Healy, Olson, Nunez, Wendle, Pinder, Brugman, Wahl, Chapman, Barreto. Of that group, Chapman isn’t on the 40-man yet, but that’ll just be a formality.
As much as I love rookies and prospects, though, they do require patience. They might stumble out of the gate, or go through long slumps, or play great all day and then maddeningly blow it in the 9th. In the meantime, it’s nice to have something else to keep things fun in the present day. Dingers are the perfect remedy.
Our LF hit 42 homers last year. Our SS hit 27. Our catcher has double-digit pop. Our young 3B was on pace for 30 over a full season, and the guy behind him in line nearly hit 40 in the upper minors. The new free agent bat is good for double-digits, and those unproven prospects themselves bring enough power to the table that they should run into a few regardless of their overall effectiveness on the diamond. Even in the worst-case scenario, the A’s should do their share of bashing in 2017.
5. The MiLB pitching lotto
So far we’ve covered four items: two negatives being removed, one budding positive, and one piece of instant gratification. This last one is sort of the dormant wild card.
Pitching is the key in baseball. It’s land, or gold, or oil, or energon cubes, or whatever symbol you want to use for value. The teams with the most pitching have the advantage, whether because they can build their own dominant staff or because they can trade the surplus for the other things they need.
For the A’s, that’s particularly important. They can’t afford to buy a rotation, so they have to grow one. Failure to do so can be costly — when they felt they’d run out of juice in mid-2014, the price for an upgrade was Yoenis Cespedes. The best way to avoid ever having to make that kind of decision again is to build as much depth as possible, so that there’s always another option on hand before turning to such a dire last resort. OK, now do I have your attention?
Good news! The A’s have assembled that depth. By my count, there will be as many as 21 deserving candidates competing for 15 combined rotation spots in Oakland, Triple-A Nashville, and Double-A Midland, plus two more returning from Tommy John recovery midseason. A dozen of them have already reached the MLB level, and at least three more have realistic shots at debuting in 2017. And none of that counts their top three picks from last year’s draft, all of whom are highly touted (including one Top 100 prospect).
Those pitchers, in general order of depth, with stars for TJS guys: Sonny, Manaea, Graveman, Triggs, Cotton, Mengden, Alcantara, Hahn, Overton, Montas, Bassitt*, Doubront*, Gossett, Blackburn, Ruiz, Fillmyer, Seddon, Walter, Naile, Holmes, Friedrichs, Manarino, Graves. And then from the draft: Puk, Jefferies, Shore.
Not all of those arms are going to work out. Some will wind up in the bullpen, others will flame out entirely, or get hurt. A few might be traded, if it helps the team elsewhere. But the A’s currently have so much of both quantity and quality that it will be interesting just to follow along and see who emerges. Heck, before a regular season game has even been played, I’ll be fascinated just to learn how the rosters all shake out and who starts at each level.
So, after the A’s have chosen their Opening Day five, I’ll be keeping an eye on the minor league pitching lottery to see which numbers get called throughout the summer. I hope you’ll join me! Maybe we’ll make a Bingo card out of it or something.