If you’re an A’s fan it’s hard not to be optimistic right now (unless you slip up and look at the Opening Day roster). 122 flagpoles are going up around the city of Oakland, along with an 80 foot mural at 19th & Broadway. Food trucks and other enhancements are finally coming to Rickey Henderson Field, as it will known beginning a week from tomorrow. At least until the A’s move into their new stadium, a site and plan for which is promised sometime during this calendar year.
Meanwhile the A’s have some significant talent in the pipeline and if spring training is any indication some of it is knocking hard at the door. Franklin Barreto is but a check swing away from the big leagues with Matt Chapman not far behind. Jharel Cotton is already here and Frankie Montas is making it seem absurd to keep him off the April 3rd roster.
None of which changes the fact that the A’s will open the season with pitching, hitting, and defense that stacks up a bit shakily against the likes of Texas, Houston, Seattle. Playing mostly within the division throughout the month, a .500 April might be the most one should hope for. Just stay afloat.
The good news? A .500 April could potentially be a harbinger of a surprisingly competitive 2017 season in which each month is better than the one before. If the A’s can get through April treading water — and by hanging some losses on its division rivals along the way they can help ensure no one gets off to an overly robust start — then May brings the addition of erstwhile ace Sonny Gray. Adding a front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher to the mix is always significant and should give the team a boost.
June might belong to Franklin Barreto, whose live bat, youth and athleticism, speed and power, represents a noticeable upgrade from the "representative product" that is Jed Lowrie. Now you have a team whose rotation is deeper and whose lineup has gained a shot of youth and athleticism.
It’s hard to project out all the way to July, but as the calendar turns to fireworks you might see Chris Bassitt, possibly even Matt Chapman, further replacing weaker placeholders with legitimate talent. In other words, if the A’s can hang in there at the outset — and it’s a big if — the pieces are there to make each month superior to the one it follows.
The same is true if you zoom out and look at each upcoming season. The A’s have hit rock bottom, setting the bar for improvement low when the lost 94 games in 2015 only to "improve" to "only 93 losses" in 2016. Assuming the team has 70+ wins in it, the 2017 have a good chance to improve upon last year, with 2018 poised to be yet better with a far more talented roster that could compete strongly for a postseason berth. But 2018 is not the year the A’s most talented young players will hit their peak. One would expect Barreto, Chapman, perhaps Olson, Nuñez, Pinder, Maxwell, Montas, Gossett to be at their best around 2019-20.
I am setting forth a scenario where the team improves each of the first months of this season on its way to getting only better with each coming season. That makes April, 2017 a nadir of sorts and if your nadir, over a 3-4 year period, is a .500 record you’re doing great.
The A’s play 26 games in April, 2017, 23 of them within the division, and let’s be honest: Looking at the projected Opening Day roster it’s not hard to envision a scenario where the team stumbles out of the gate to go 10-16, or worse. But keep a keen eye on the number 13. If the team can squeak out just 13 wins in April, and finishes the month with a .500 record? .500 never looked so good, because it could be "as bad as it gets".
Remember that the magical 2012 team needed until July 6th before it hit the .500 mark (42-42) and took off from there. That team endured Luke Hughes and Kila Ka’aihue on its way to adding Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss, waited until June and August, respectively, to add key rotation contributors A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily.
Is Sonny Gray still the shot in the arm he was when he emerged mid-season in 2013? Are Barreto and Chapman anything like Moss and Donaldson? Will a Gossett or Bassitt summer contribution be meaningful by the time they are ready to contribute? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know this: if the A’s can just win half their games in April...