Memorial Day is a significant day around baseball, that unofficial 1⁄3 marker in the season where teams feel like they know what they have and can pick a direction to go. My feeling is that the A’s put together the 2017 team knowing it wouldn’t be very good, but hoping maybe the club could stick around .500 long enough for some of the exciting young talent to come up and give the team a boost that could, in a perfect world, mean taking at least a shot at the wild card.
Mostly, though, this season is about giving the young players the right amount of time to mature, develop, and come up only when ready, with a group of mediocre placeholders — such as Matt Joyce, Trevor Plouffe, Rajai Davis, and Adam Rosales — holding down the fort as best they can.
Here’s the thing: not every decision has to be as binary as "trying to contend" or "giving up on contention". There are myriad reasons to hold serve or make changes, including putting a squad on the big league field that isn’t embarrassing, holds fans’ interest, or even just puts as many wins on the board as possible. This last one may sound self-destructive, winning a few more games in a lost season just because it feels good, but in the "second wild card era" there is a value to hanging around as best you can because if you’re at .500 at the All-Star break and you get hot you are every bit a contender. Rarely should a season be given up at the end of May, even if often a team should look at what it has and be dissatisfied.
The problem I have with the current Oakland A’s is not that they are 5 games under .500, nor that they have limited talent. The issue I have is that this team makes an embarrassing number of mistakes — call them "unforced errors" — because they lack athletic talent or a grasp of the fundamentals. It’s bad baseball, and not all of it has to be accepted even in a rebuilding year in which contention is a long shot.
The A’s should be trying to put, if not the best possible team on the field, at least one that is vaguely competent, worthy of the "big league" moniker. If you didn’t know, with their 2 errors today Oakland has now committed 49 errors for the season (an average of exactly one per game) while no other team in either league has committed more than 37. The Minnesota Twins have committed 15 errors all season — A’s catchers alone have committed 10. And that doesn’t count the dozens upon dozens of mistakes not charged as errors, balls misjudged or just not gotten to, and so on.
But no, that doesn’t mean they should rush the athletic and talented Franklin Barreto or Matt Chapman before they are truly ready for the next level. In fact the A’s are hosed by the fact that an obvious move, bringing Bruce Maxwell up to handle the bulk of the catching, has been foiled by an oblique injury that will sideline Maxwell for several weeks. So what can, and should, the A’s do as the calendar turns to June?
I am truly puzzled as to why Jaycob Brugman is not on the big league roster, not because he is such a terrific prospect but rather because he is such an obvious fit. Brugman is widely considered to be a "4th outfielder type," which gives him far less pedigree than Barreto or Chapman. Thing is, Oakland is fielding a bunch of 4th outfielders right now.
Matt Joyce is a platoon player who thrived last season as a role/bench player. Rajai Davis is a good 4th outfielder who can’t hit RHPs, has terrible OBP skills, and lacks fundamentals in his outfield play. Mark Canha is stretched anywhere he plays in the field. And that’s 3⁄4 of your outfield crew right now.
Brugman brings precisely what the A’s lack. Though lacking in "tools," Brugman is known as a highly competent defender whose strength is that he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, and is perhaps even a plus defender in RF. He is also a LH batter who would not have to do much to exceed what Rajai can do against RHPs or what Joyce has produced so far. Also importantly, Brugman has patience and contact skills, which would be complementary in a lineup full of hitters who strike out a lot, don’t walk much, and hit for a lot of power -- that describes Ryon Healy, Trevor Plouffe, Mark Canha, Josh Phegley, and to some extent Khris Davis and Stephen Vogt.
A’s leadoff hitters have been so bad that they have tried the likes of Jaff Decker and today Mark Canha, along with Matt Joyce, because their usual leadoff batter, Rajai Davis, sports an OBP of .253. Regression to the mean? Career against RHPs, Rajai’s OBP is all of .298.
So in Brugman you have a patient, good contact hitter who enjoys the platoon advantage the majority of the time, a fundamentally accomplished outfielder on a team whose outfield defense has been atrocious, who is likely average defensively — without a bunch of mistakes — in CF and very good in RF. And you can’t find a spot on the roster or in the lineup for him? While you rotate three 4th outfielders in CF and RF, all of whom make a ton of defensive mistakes, two of whom bat RH?
Brugman is no panacea for a team with so many flaws at so many positions, but he would make the A’s defensively more competent, would give the A’s a leadoff batter who makes sense, would bring some OBP and contact skills to a team severely lacking both. He would, in essence, make the team more competent. And that would be an excellent first step.
Then I think we all just have to suck it up for at least a couple more weeks while Barreto and Chapman try to force their way up and offer some potential relief from the Plouffe (poor range, can’t really hit RHPs) and Rosales (doing a yeoman’s job but shouldn’t be playing every day) show. Marcus Semien is also eligible to return June 14th and still hopes to be ready on or close to that date.
Barreto and Chapman are very, very close but I agree with the A’s brass that their time is soon, not now. Can the A’s stay within shouting distance of .500 as they play Cleveland, Washington, and Toronto the next 10 days? Probably not, but if they do and we see Barreto and Chapman finally getting their "K issues" under control, then maybe you pull the trigger and pray for an infusion of athleticism to keep you afloat for a second half run at the wild card.
But again, it’s not just the wild card, contention, or speeding up the rebuild that is the core issue I write about today. It’s about being committed, as a franchise, to putting a group out there that is vaguely competent, that can at least play baseball the way it was meant to be played even by less talented individuals.
In my view, some changes are needed not in the name of contending in 2017 but rather in the name of playing competent baseball win or lose. Brugman to the big league roster now should happen because he isn’t being rushed, his strengths are the current teams’ weaknesses, and he would not take playing time away from players who deserve more of it.
Then target mid-June as when you hope to promote Barreto and/or Chapman, if they prove their mettle, and field a team the last 100 or so games that is at least athletic, talented, and overall far better defensively. Win or lose, the second half of the season is a chance for the young players to get settled in and hit the ground running in 2018.
What About Matt Olson?
As for Matt Olson, his best position is 1B and he is still only 23. His time may not be until 2018, assuming Yonder Alonso is not extended or re-signed. Olson is on a tear, which is exciting, but his skill set is not what the A’s need most right now: Like so many of the A’s current players, Olson hits a lot of HRs, strikes out a lot and gives you little in the way of batting average. Also Olson excels defensively at 1B, which happens to be one of the few positions where the A’s are currently strong.
So ultimately, I’m not describing a huge shakeup: Brugman now, hopefully two coming up mid-month, Maxwell when he’s healthy in a few weeks and Olson on hold due to circumstance.
What the front office needs to recognize, though, is that the status quo just is not ok, not if you want fans to maintain interest in the team, not if you want to present your club as a major league franchise. You can’t keep running a team out there that makes 25% more errors than any other team in all of baseball, a team that is mostly slow, unathletic, and highly prone to mistakes, a team not even gifted in the most basic fundamentals of the game.
It’s been 2 months. Now let’s get a real team of athletes on the field and fail with talent. And if the talent succeeds now, all the better. Either way, it’s baseball worth watching, not baseball for which one has to constantly apologize. That’s not good for anyone.