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Oakland A’s 2017 season preview: Bridge to a brighter tomorrow

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Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The 2016 season was not kind to the Oakland A’s. For the second straight year they lost over 90 games and finished in last place, and once again they traded away some star players in July. The starting rotation was a no-show, the lineup mostly disappointed, and the defense was by far the worst in the sport. In a cruel irony, the bullpen was the only strength on the otherwise awful team.

There won’t be a quick fix to these dark times, but things are already looking up. The organization is now under the leadership of new team president Dave Kaval, and all signs point to a new ballpark coming to Oakland after years of exhausting uncertainty. The club has recommitted to the city and fanbase, and on the field they appear to be returning to their old identity by building a winner from within.

That success won’t arrive fully in 2017, absent an unexpectedly magical run like in 2012, but the seeds have been planted. Here’s what the landscape looks like entering the season.

Hello, Goodbye

The A’s had an uncharacteristically quiet offseason. They traded a few fringe players who were being squeezed out anyway, but not any of their remaining All-Stars. Their only additions were a handful of cheap, short-term veteran free agents to temporarily patch some holes.

There was method to the inaction, though. There’s nearly an entire lineup worth of interesting prospects in Triple-A, so they struck a balance between filling out a 2017 roster but leaving room for the future to arrive when ready.

Hello Goodbye
Free Agency
RHP Santiago Casilla (2/$11M)
OF Matt Joyce (2/$11M)
OF Rajai Davis (1/$6M)
3B Trevor Plouffe (1/$5M)
IF Adam Rosales (1/$1M)
RHP Norge Ruiz (minors)

Trades
RHP Paul Blackburn (from SEA)
Free Agency
OF Sam Fuld
RHP Fernando Rodriguez (to CHC)
2B Eric Sogard (to MIL)
UT Tyler Ladendorf (to CHW)

Trades
1B/OF Danny Valencia (to SEA)
OF Brett Eibner (to LAD)
LHP Dillon Overton (to SEA)

More minor departures: UTIL Arismendy Alcantara claimed off waivers by CIN; RHP Dylan Covey picked by CHW in Rule 5 draft.

The main departure was Valencia. He had proved himself as a quality hitter but gave most of it back with his porous defense, and on top of that he’d become a distraction off the field. As for the new arrivals, many of them aren’t new at all — Rajai, Casilla, and Rosales have all played for the A’s before. A quick word on the free agents:

  • Santiago Casilla, RHP: He won three rings with the Giants, and was their closer as recently as last year.
  • Matt Joyce, OF: A lefty bat who posted a huge OBP last year, though not a good defender.
  • Rajai Davis, OF: Led the league in stolen bases last year, and will start every day in CF.
  • Trevor Plouffe, 3B: Looking for a bounce-back after a poor year, but when he’s right he’s got power and solid defense.
  • Adam Rosales, UTIL: Can play just about any position, and last year he changed his approach to focus on hitting for more power.

Most likely, though, the A’s most significant newcomer will be a top prospect graduating from Triple-A. And in that sense, we don’t yet know who the biggest new arrival will be — there are so many potential rookies to choose from! (More on them below, in the Prospects section.)

The A’s also picked up a whole bunch of minor league veteran free agents, as all teams do to build up their depth. Here’s more on this year’s group:

Of that list, Decker is currently the most likely to contribute. He was the last man cut off the 25-man roster at the end of spring training, and he could still be in the mix to help out in CF.

Click here for a rundown of all the offseason moves in the AL West. (Last updated March 1.)

Roster: Finally rebuilding

Click here for a complete look at the Opening Day roster. Here’s the full list:

Pitchers Hitters
Starters

Kendall Graveman (R)
Sean Manaea (L)
Jharel Cotton (R)
Andrew Triggs (R)
Raul Alcantara (R)

Relievers

Ryan Madson (R)
Santiago Casilla (R)
Sean Doolittle (L)
Ryan Dull (R)
Liam Hendriks (R)
John Axford (R)
Daniel Coulombe (L)
Frankie Montas (R)
Catchers

Stephen Vogt (L)
Josh Phegley (R)

Infielders

Yonder Alonso (L)
Ryon Healy (R)
Jed Lowrie (S)
Marcus Semien (R)
Trevor Plouffe (R)
Adam Rosales (R)

Outfielders

Khris Davis (R)
Rajai Davis (R)
Matt Joyce (L)
Mark Canha (R)

10-day Disabled List: RHP Sonny Gray, RHP Daniel Mengden, RHP Chris Bassitt, 2B Joey Wendle, OF Jake Smolinski

The rotation is highly experimental, but with lots of upside and some depth to spare (both in the minors, and on the short-term DL; Sonny hopefully returns in April). The bullpen might even be stronger than last year, with plenty of options to close games. The lineup doesn’t look like much, but it also should undergo quite a bit of change as the year goes on. The defense is still a major concern, but it can’t be as bad as last year.

Lineup: For now

The A’s will begin the season with a lot of veterans in the lineup, but that could change as the summer goes on and the next wave of rookies emerges. For now, though, this is how it looks on Opening Day:

  1. Rajai Davis, CF
  2. Matt Joyce, RF
  3. Ryon Healy, DH
  4. Khris Davis, LF
  5. Stephen Vogt, C
  6. Jed Lowrie, 2B
  7. Trevor Plouffe, 3B
  8. Yonder Alonso, 1B
  9. Marcus Semien, SS

On the bench: Josh Phegley platoons with Vogt at catcher, Mark Canha platoons with Joyce in RF, and Adam Rosales is the utilityman.

On the bright side, there is some power in that group, with four or five guys who could realistically hit 20 homers. But they still lack on-base ability, and the whole group is short on left-handed bats.

Prospects: Any day now

Over the course of the offseaon, the members of Athletics Nation voted on a Community Prospect List to rank the best youngsters in the farm system. Here's the final list (click here to learn more about each player):

Oakland A's 2017 Community Prospect List
# Name Pos Age Level Acquired
1 Franklin Barreto SS 21 AAA Trade (Donaldson)
2 Matt Chapman 3B 24 AAA Draft (1R, 2014)
3 A.J. Puk LHP 22 A/A+ Draft (1R, 2016)
4 Jharel Cotton RHP 25 MLB Trade (Reddick/Hill)
5 Frankie Montas RHP 24 AAA Trade (Reddick/Hill)
6 Grant Holmes RHP 21 AA Trade (Reddick/Hill)
7 Matt Olson 1B 23 AAA Draft (1R, 2012)
8 Bruce Maxwell C 26 AAA Draft (2R, 2012)
9 Daniel Gossett RHP 24 AAA Draft (2R, 2014)
10 Max Schrock 2B 22 AA Trade (Rzepczynski)
11 Richie Martin SS 22 AA Draft (1R, 2015)
12 Daulton Jefferies RHP 21 A/A+ Draft (1R, 2016)
13 Renato Nunez 3B 23 AAA International
14 Norge Ruiz RHP 23 AA International
15 Lazaro Armenteros OF 18 RK/A- International
16 Dakota Chalmers RHP 20 A Draft (3R, 2015)
17 Chad Pinder SS 25 AAA Draft (2R, 2013)
18 Jaycob Brugman OF 25 AAA Draft (17R, 2013)
19 Joey Wendle 2B 27 AAA Trade (Moss)
20 Yairo Munoz SS 22 AA International
21 Logan Shore RHP 22 A+ Draft (2R, 2016)
22 Heath Fillmyer RHP 23 AA Draft (5R, 2014)
23 Raul Alcantara RHP 24 MLB Trade (Bailey)
24 Bobby Wahl RHP 25 AAA Draft (5R, 2013)
25 Sean Murphy C 22 A/A+ Draft (3R, 2016)
26 Paul Blackburn RHP 23 AAA Trade (Valencia)
27 Chris Iriart 1B 22 A+ Draft (12R, 2015)
28 Casey Meisner RHP 22 A+/AA Trade (Clippard)
29 Skye Bolt OF 23 A+ Draft (4R, 2015)
30 Tucker Healy RHP 27 AAA Draft (23R, 2012)

(The "Level" column features my own guesses at where each player will open 2017. The "Age" column refers to the age at which the player will play in 2017, even if he hasn't quite had his birthday yet.)

The farm is light on elite talent, but it’s deep on B-grade and C-grade guys, especially ones who could reach MLB in 2017. Among those many names, here are some who could show up in Oakland this season.

On the Opening Day 25-man roster: Jharel Cotton and Raul Alcantara are in the starting rotation after debuting last season, and Frankie Montas brings his 100+ mph heat to the bullpen.

On the 40-man roster: 1B Matt Olson, C Bruce Maxwell, DH Renato Nunez, IF Chad Pinder, and 2B Joey Wendle all debuted in Oakland last summer, and they make up a big part of the hopeful new core. OF Jaycob Brugman, reliever Bobby Wahl, and starter Paul Blackburn could all knock on the door too. SS Franklin Barreto is the team’s top prospect and could make his way up sometime this year, though at age 21 it’s OK if he isn’t quite ready yet. SS Yairo Munoz is also on the 40-man, but isn’t likely to debut this year.

Others: Matt Chapman has the potential to hit dingers and win Gold Gloves, and he could graduate this year. Starting pitcher Daniel Gossett had a breakout year in the minors in 2016 and could force his way into Oakland’s rotation this year. And reliever Tucker Healy (no relation to Ryon) is in the larger bullpen mix, though not necessarily near the front of the line.

Outlook: Focus on more than wins and losses

Look, it’s entirely possible this will be another last-place season. The Angels are pretty bad, but the Rangers, Astros, and Mariners all look primed for another run at contention. Don’t put your hopes too high.

But that doesn’t mean this has to be another stinker of a year. This time around there’s something to look forward to, as a struggling rookie today might be gaining the experience he needs to win tomorrow. And hey, sometimes those youngsters surprise you, like in 2012. Just don’t count on it, and savor the smaller and/or abstract victories along the way.