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The winning tradition of the Oakland A’s incoming rookies

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All they do is win.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

In baseball, prospects will break your heart. Sometimes your team will pick and develop the right one, but more often you will be left disappointed when your supposed future star turns out to be a bench player – or even worse, flames out entirely and never puts on your uniform. Relying on too many rookies at once can sound new and exciting, but is often a recipe for a long, losing season.

With all that in mind, I have high hopes for the Oakland A’s current crop of MLB-readyish position player prospects. I’ve advocated a lot for them to get as much playing time as possible this season, for all kinds of reasons. But in this post I want to share one of my favorite stats about this group.

On Athletics Nation we debate a lot about the value of continuity. Many complaints about Oakland’s free-wheeling, cold-and-calculating, value-maximizing ways center around the failure to let the team grow into a cohesive unit, instead opting for constantly interchanging parts who never get to jell. What we have here is the polar opposite — a group that has spent years together, growing and developing and winning. Like, every year. At every level.

Here’s a look at what I’m talking about:

2012 AZL Athletics

Record: 37-17
Place: 1st (in the whole 13-team league)
Playoffs: Reached championship game (but lost)

  • 1B Matt Olson (1st in PAs, 121 wRC+)
  • 3B Renato Nunez (2nd in PAs, 147 wRC+)
  • C Bruce Maxwell (26 PAs, 248 wRC+)

I don’t care too much about Rookie League, but they did put up the best record out of 13 teams. And right there at the top were Olson (a recent high school draft pick) and Nunez (a teenage int’l signing), logging the most playing time and putting up quality numbers. (Maxwell, a college pick, was only there for a week before moving up to Low-A.)

Addison Russell and Daniel Robertson, two more recent high school first-rounders, were also big contributors on this team. They were originally part of this group that I’m advocating for, and Olson has remained friends with them since they were traded away.

The AZL playoffs consisted of a semifinal game and a final. The A’s cruised through the semis, with Nunez leading the way: 3-for-5, HR, triple, 5 RBI. Olson added a hit and a run. (Maxwell, Russell, and Robertson had already moved up before the playoffs.) Nunez homered again in the finals, for the team’s only run, but it wasn’t enough as the Rangers won the title. Still, it would begin a trend of Nunez coming through in nearly every big series he ever plays.

2013 Single-A Beloit Snappers

Record: 77-62
Place: 5th (in 16-team league; won division in 1st half)
Playoffs: Reached semifinal round

  • 1B Matt Olson (1st in PAs, 114 wRC+)
  • 3B Renato Nunez (4th in PAs, 102 wRC+)
  • C Bruce Maxwell (228 PAs, 113 wRC+)

Robertson was also on this team, but Russell went straight to Stockton. Olson and Nunez were two of seven full-season regulars, though not the only two above-average performers. Olson led the team in homers, with Nunez in third. Maxwell did his quiet plate discipline thing.

The playoffs were three rounds of best-of-three. The Snappers swept the quarters, with Nunez once again homering in the first game. However, they lost in the semis, to the Astros affiliate.

These first two years were mostly just Olson and Nunez getting their feet wet. Now the real story begins.

2014 High-A Stockton Ports

Record: 85-55
Place: 1st (in 10-team league)
Playoffs: Reached semifinal round

  • 1B Matt Olson (2nd in PAs, 145 wRC+, 37 HR)
  • 3B Renato Nunez (4th in PAs, 117 wRC+, 29 HR)
  • C Bruce Maxwell (7th in PAs, 100 wRC+)
  • 3B Ryon Healy (3rd in PAs, 91 wRC+)
  • 2B Chad Pinder (6th in PAs, 112 wRC+)
  • OF Jaycob Brugman (joined in July, 117 wRC+)

Robertson was still there and was probably the second-best hitter behind Olson. More important, though, was the addition of some 2013 college draft picks: Healy, Pinder, and Brugman. Overall, the group listed above accounted for most of the starting lineup of the best team in the Cal League.

Unfortunately, their postseason didn’t last long. There were quickly swept out of the first round in two games by the D’Backs affiliate. The lineup largely went quiet, outside of a couple doubles by Olson and a few hits by Brugman (and catcher Beau Taylor homered!).

2015 Double-A Midland RockHounds

Record: 83-57
Place: 2nd (in 8-team league)
Playoffs: Won championship!

  • 1B Matt Olson (2nd in PAs, 132 wRC+)
  • 3B Renato Nunez (7th in PAs, 124 wRC+)
  • C Bruce Maxwell (9th in PAs, 79 wRC+)
  • 3B Ryon Healy (4th in PAs, 113 wRC+)
  • SS Chad Pinder (5th in PAs, 135 wRC+, MVP)
  • OF Jaycob Brugman (3rd in PAs, 105 wRC+)

Even without Robertson (traded to the Rays), the group continued to thrive -- in fact, Pinder slid into the vacant shortstop position and made the most of the opportunity by winning Texas League MVP honors. Once again, these guys formed the core lineup of a top-notch team, even without a particularly noteworthy pitching staff (though Sean Manaea did show up for the playoffs).

In the postseason, Nunez was once again the heavy lifter, this time with Brugman joining forces to destroy the opposition. The Hounds needed only seven total games to clinch a pair of best-of-five series en route to the championship.

2016 Triple-A Nashville Sounds

Record: 83-59
Place: 1st (in 16-team league)
Playoffs: Reached semifinals (stars promoted, didn’t get to go for title)

  • 1B Matt Olson (2nd in PAs, 102 wRC+)
  • 3B Renato Nunez (1st in PAs, 78 wRC+, 23 HR)
  • C Bruce Maxwell (148 wRC+, up to MLB in July)
  • 3B Ryon Healy (128 wRC+, up to MLB in July)
  • SS Chad Pinder (4th in PAs, 93 wRC+, up to MLB in Aug.)
  • OF Jaycob Brugman (5th in PAs, 109 wRC+)

See a trend forming? Yet again they were the core of the best team in the league, even though some of them didn’t put up great individual numbers in a particularly tough home ballpark. This time Maxwell and Healy were so good that they were promoted up to the big club midseason; all but Brugman made their MLB debuts by the end of 2016.

Of course, with all those promotions, there was no one left for the postseason. Some new stars were promoted for the playoff run, but it wasn’t enough -- Nashville went down in the full five games in the best-of-5 semifinals. Brugman went a solid 8-for-22.

* * *

What does all this mean? Let’s start with some objective facts.

Olson has played five professional seasons, and his team made the league’s playoffs in every one, with him as a key contributor. Nunez was also a leading part of those five playoff-bound squads, and he’s been a consistent top performer in the actual postseason.

The entire group of six (Olson, Nunez, Maxwell, Healy, Pinder, and Brugman) has been together for three years. In each of those years, they either posted the best record in their entire league or won the championship. They won 59 percent of their games, a 96-win pace over an MLB-length season.

They had a bit of help along the way — like Robertson (‘14), Colin Walsh (‘15), and Joey Wendle (‘16) — but overall they represented the bulk of the lineup and production during those three years. And although they often benefited from good pitching behind them, they weren’t just being carried on the coattails of some high-profile young arms. Statistically, they were central figures in their teams’ success.

And from there, the rest is up to interpretation. Does overall team success say anything about the prospects themselves, beyond their individual numbers and scouting reports? You might fairly dismiss all of this as nothing more than an interesting footnote; after all, a baseball team is more than six guys, and it’s not unusual to see A’s minor league teams make the playoffs.

I don’t claim to know the answer, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore this fun piece of information. This Nashville group has a wealth of experience in winning games, and virtually none in losing them. That is a fact that I can file away with everything else I know about them.

We don’t yet know how the 2017 roster will shake out, or how soon some of these guys will get their next shots. As much as I want them all to get going as soon as possible, I do also recognize the need to make sure young players are ready before tossing them into the fire. Hopefully they’ll each get a fair shake as time goes on, though, because I’d love to see if they can do in MLB the only thing they’ve ever done in their professional careers: win.