Baseball took a break this week for its All-Star festivities, marking roughly the halfway point in the 2017 season. The Oakland A’s were hardly a factor in the proceedings, with just one player coming off the American League’s bench in Yonder Alonso. The next-closest connection they had to the event was their head athletic trainer, Nick Paparesta, who was part of the AL’s coaching staff. (Update: Entire AL pitching staff goes on DL with shoulder soreness.)
It’s a bummer seeing your team more or less absent from the Midsummer Classic, but that’s the way it goes when you’re in last place. Fortunately, the A’s have the best thing that a losing team can hope for: an actual plan to stop losing, finally. The youth movement is here, and it’s wonderful.
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In late May, I began writing an article that was going to be called “The Oakland A’s have forgotten how to rebuild and it’s sad to watch.” The premise was that red-hot rookie Chad Pinder was sitting on the bench behind veteran stopgaps like Adam Rosales and Trevor Plouffe, all while the A’s sat in the cellar anyway for the third straight season. They had half-assed their post-2014 fire sale, and now they were half-assing the deployment of their MLB-ready top prospects. The takes were going to be sizzling.
But then they won a game in Yankee Stadium, and I decided to wait until their next loss to finish my post. Pinder started the next day’s game, and within a week he did in fact earn an everyday job. The problem had at least been initially addressed, just a few days after I’d been set to complain about it. Sometimes procrastination really does pay off.
And that was only the beginning. With the seal broken, the next couple weeks saw the promotions of more prospects like OF Jaycob Brugman, RHP Daniel Gossett, and 3B Matt Chapman — and in the case of Chapman the A’s doubled-down by trading away the veteran Plouffe to fully clear a spot for him. Then came 1B/OF Matt Olson, C Bruce Maxwell, IF Franklin Barreto, and RHP Paul Blackburn, and suddenly the rookies were here in full force while oldies like Rosales and Rajai Davis slid back into the bench roles where they are best suited.
We’re now at a point where the lineup can easily contain four young players on any given day — Maxwell behind the plate, Chapman at third, Brugman in center, and Ryon Healy wherever his bat can be squeezed in. If the resurgent veterans Alonso and/or Jed Lowrie are traded before this month’s deadline, then the likes of Olson or Barreto (or Pinder, currently on the short-term DL) could get back into the mix as well. On top of all that, the starting rotation features sophomore Sean Manaea and rookies Gossett and Blackburn. And there’s still more help on the way in the upper minors.
As for the results? They are as inconsistent as you might expect in the early going, but there have already been plenty of good times to build on. The hitters made some dinger history, Barreto already notched a walkoff shot, Olson came through in the clutch to break up a 9th-inning no-hitter, Pinder hit one of the longest jacks in the sport this year, and Healy looks like a lock to surpass 30 homers. Maxwell is getting on base, Brugman and Chapman are playing some defense, and Blackburn dominated in his first two outings. You could make an equally long list of their struggles, highlighted by Gossett’s ERA and Chapman’s bat, but that’s the way it goes with rookies as they adjust to their new competition. The group has done enough for now to keep us optimistic.
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This is the reset we’ve been waiting three years for. After the 2014 collapse, Oakland tried to Rebuild In One Offseason Using This One Weird Trick and it failed miserably in 2015. After that, many of us hoped the prospects would arrive in 2016, but they all stalled in Triple-A for a year. Then last winter we watched as the A’s locked boring veterans into every open spot on their roster, leaving no room for youth. Some of these delays were mistakes by the team, and some were prudent judgments not to rush the future, but either way our patience is starting to pay off. There is now something on the field that we can dream on — a group of rookies who has done nothing but win in the minors.
Of course, the patience isn’t over yet. The A’s aren’t suddenly in the playoffs, and there is still everything to prove before they get there. There will be many more losses, and they’ll surely still finish in fourth or fifth place this season. Maybe next season too. But this is a major checkpoint in any rebuilding process, as illustrated here:
- Phase 1: Collect prospects
- Phase 2: Let them play
- Phase 3: ???
- Phase 4: Win
Phase 3 is in there to remind us that this doesn’t always work. You still need to find the right role players, like those who augmented the Moneyball core. It helps to find a couple more bargains on the open market, which the 2012-14 squad dug up on the scrap heap (Colon) and international market (Cespedes). The 2009-11 group never got that kind of support, as reinforcements such as Giambi, Kouz, Sheets, Matsui, DeJesus, and Fuentes fell flat, all while many of the youngsters themselves topped out at merely mediocre. But at least we’re finally approaching the enigmatic Phase 3, and can start to vaguely imagine what some of the proper supplemental moves might look like.
Point being, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today we celebrate taking the first steps on the right path, not reaching the summit. The important thing in the present moment is that the rookies have arrived on the scene, and they are getting their chances to sink or swim. The journey back to Oaktober is only just beginning, but at least it’s finally off the ground.