After a long, unfortunately dry Bay Area winter, the A’s head down to the actual desert in just a few days. Pitchers and catchers report on February 13th, as the winter of MLB discontent is almost over. This is a time of year that hope springs eternal, even as the MLB deals with more questions than usual surrounding its competitive and economic structure.
For the Oakland Athletics, this time of year, and this phase in the rebuild cycle, brings both significant optimism, and major question marks.
As the A’s try to claw back to competitive relevancy, and hopefully a future taste of championship success, all while trying to set the stage for the Great Baseball Park Spirits to finally shine their positive light on the quest for a new park, the 2018 season stands as a crossroads in a parallel journey.
As we stand on the precipice of a new spring, how do the position players on the A’s 40 man roster look?
The projected strength of the team is on the infield dirt. Barely touched is the unit that finished the 2017 season in such a promising fashion.
At 3B, wet behind the ears but wise beyond his years, stands Matt Chapman AKA Captain America AKA The Chaptain AKA The Chap Stick. This youngster is a ray of hope at the Hot Corner for the A’s. With a long line of elite 3B who have graced the north bag of the Coliseum, Chapman looks poised to add his name as a cornerstone. The development of Chapman as a player and a leader will be one of the lasting storylines to watch in 2018 and beyond.
Up the middle return young veteran Marcus Semien at SS and elder INF statesman Jed Lowrie at 2B. Providing above average offense for the position with average-ish defense, the duo project to be a likely strength for the 2018 squad. Semien, entering his 4th year as the every day SS and his first year on an arbitration salary, stands at a critical juncture in his career. Entering his age 27 season, and with a nice kit of tools, Marcus certainly has the potential to elevate his game, but will be doing so with talented youngsters in Nashville looking to get to the bigs. Marcus has the ability to extend his tenure at SS, but he will need to stay healthy, and pull together his tools into consistent play, to do so.
Jed, meanwhile, is coming off a bang up year and entering the last year of a multi-year contract. After looking clearly refreshed in 2017, Lowrie aims to double up on his recent success and be a rock for manager Bob Melvin at the keystone. Depending on the A’s success, Lowrie could either help the team emerge as a surprise contender, or find himself on the move to one by the deadline. So odds are, the guy will be playing meaningful baseball and playing for likely a final decent-sized contract.
Over at 1B stands the “Other Matt” Mr. Olson. Also extremely young, but poised beyond his years, Olson burst onto the MLB scene hitting homers at a Ruthian rate as a rookie. There is no way he will sustain that production through 162 MLB games, but his batting line has room for plenty of regression while still making Olson an exciting cornerstone player. If he can do 80% of what he did in his otherworldly stretch in late-2017, he will be an All Star caliber player early on.
Depth/Farm: Two exciting prospects should be manning the middle in Nashville in Franklin Barreto and Jorge Mateo. Already on the 40 man roster, these players provide immense upside, quality short term depth, and great long term potential. They also offer some amount of versatility, to go along with their packed tool kits. Chad Pinder, who himself had a power-packed rookie year, will provide MLB depth at multiple positions. Guys like Renato Nuñez (who is out of options), Brandon Moss and Mark Canha will look to crack the 25 man roster as semi-versatile backup bats. Also keep an eye on prospect Sheldon Neuse who came over in the Doolittle-Madson trade and possibly may join Mateo and Barreto in Nashville.
Infield Situation: Strength of the team and an area of positive continuity from last year. MLB level players are good to potentially great, there is some solid depth, and exciting players are also coming soon on the farm. The only potential need is a backup MIF, but the A’s may be able to cover that in-house. If the A’s make a surprise run in 2018, their strong infield will likely play a major role in the success.
Since the trade deadline of 2017, the A’s outfield has been infused with talent via trade. First, Dustin Fowler came over in the Sonny Gray trade in July, then Boog Powell in the Yonder Alonso deal in early-August, followed by an offseason deal of prospects for hometown player Stephen Piscotty. These three additions bolstered an area of the organization that was previously a major long term question mark. While these players may not provide all the answers right away, they certainly have bolstered a critical position group, potentially for years.
In RF, Piscotty projects to be the near full time guy. The former St. Louis Cardinal returned home (he grew up in Pleasanton, and attended Stanford University) - and gets the opportunity to be closer to his mom who was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) last year - while hoping to get his career back to the levels he showed in 2015-2016 when he strongly broke into the Bigs. Piscotty profiles as a player who is average to a tick above average in just about every element of play.
LF projects to be manned by a platoon of LHH Matt Joyce, who had a strong first year in the Green and Gold in 2017, along with former LF stalwart (and now primary DH) Khris Davis, as well as Chad Pinder. This combination should bring well above average offense with improved defense compared to 2017. Joyce is in his last year of a two year deal and, like Lowrie, will be playing for both a final contract and the chance at a run either with the A’s or via trade.
While the corners look set and fairly deep, CF represents the biggest question mark of the OF. The above-mentioned Fowler and Powell, two young players with interesting-to-exciting tool kits, represent the most likely players to see significant CF time. They both have question marks, however. Fowler is returning from surgery for a nasty rupture of his patella tendon, while Powell has seen two lengthy suspension in his minor league career. That said, they both present potentially above average players, with Fowler being a potential CF version of Piscotty in RF (possibly a tick above average in everything) and Powell presenting more of a defensive calling card with OBP ability. Both players bat left handed, which throws a wrench in platoon plans.
Depth/Farm: The high minors are pretty devoid of prospects in the OF unless the A’s love Semien’s play and decide to move Mateo or Barreto to CF. Ramon Laureano, who also came in trade via the Astros, represents a prospect who had a huge 2016 but stalled in AA last year. He offers a nice combo of tools and looks to rebound. Jake Smolinski has seen time in all 3 OF positions and has a minor league option, while Renato Nuñez , Brandon Moss and Mark Canha represent guys who can play 1B/COF/DH and may be looking to earn a spot as the final man on the roster out of spring training. Canha also has options, while Moss and Nuñez do not, and will have to make the big league club or risk being lost via DFA/Waivers.
Outfield Situation: There is a chance for this unit to be above average offensively and average defensively, which, paired with the INF would make the position group exciting. The unit should be upgraded vs. 2017 on both sides, and the long term additions noted make the future of the position much brighter than this time last year. The question is, how will Piscotty rebound from his off year, how will Fowler rebound from surgery, and will Powell avoid a third off-field strike? These answers, plus Laureano’s season, will go a long way in determining the present and the future for the A’s position players. CF especially will be a position to evaluate.
While CF is the biggest position question mark thus far, catcher easily tops it as the biggest position question mark on the big league club.
Last year, the A’s let veteran Stephen Vogt go, as they went to the youth and gave Bruce Maxwell a chance as the heavy-side platoon catcher. Bruce had an up and down year, while taking an uncommon number of tipped balls to the mask. His defense and hitting were both a bit below average, but showed promise. However, the biggest issue with Bruce was an offseason arrest on aggravated assault charges for an incident with a firearm at his Scottsdale home. The A’s brass appears confident Maxwell will have the situation cleared up by the opener, but the overall situation certainly is not ideal. And regardless of the incident and its conclusion, Maxwell still needs to prove he can play at the big league level.
Right handed semi-veteran catchers Josh Phegley and Dustin Garneau present uninspiring options as combinations with Maxwell, and even less inspiring if Maxwell does not handle his challenges effectively. Each of these two had wRC+ marks more than 40% below league average last year and are not defensive aces. While they each know the staff fairly well and are generally competent, they hardly present upside options or much interest aside from being optionable depth. Phegley showed a flash in his first season with the A’s in 2015, but since then has failed to stay healthy and has regressed on both sides. Both of these two will be in their 30s this season, so upside is limited.
Depth/Farm: Sean Murphy will likely open in AA, but may see a move to AAA Nashville after a half season in AA last year. His defense is already MLB ready and potentially elite, while the bat is where he needs work. He is more likely slotted for a 2019 debut and is hopefully the future at the position. Beau Taylor is LHH non-roster catcher depth in case Maxwell flames out. Taylor himself has off field concerns, as he had a long drug suspension in 2017.
Catcher Situation: It is hard to see this unit as currently constructed being above average. There also exists potential downside risk and overall uncertainty. With the A’s having a very young pitching staff, it would seem that bolstering the catcher position, even incrementally, would be a nice place to invest in stability and an overall upgrade in the 2018 A’s roster. With the current player payroll being under $60 million, the cost of players is certainly not holding up an addition. The question is, are the A’s brass content with a likely area of weakness. It says here, upgrading the RHH veteran catcher, to either share time with Maxwell, or be a rock in his absence, makes too much sense not to pursue.
The A’s brought back star slugger Khris Davis in his 2nd arb year for a $10.5 million figure. Thank goodness it is not the cursed even $10 million. Davis is coming off back-to-back 40+ homer seasons and represents a rock in the middle of the order. While he may see time in his usual LF position, he takes the spot of the departed Ryon Healy as the most-days DH. Davis’ bat certainly plays in the DH role and he looks to again take his overall batting line up a notch and provide fireworks for fans with his laser shots.
The A’s position player contingent is exciting heading into the 2018 season. They bring an established power DH, a potentially well above average infield with good talent and more to come, and an intriguing and overall upgraded OF. The CF position and, especially, catcher represent the biggest question marks. It would be good to see the A’s make a late move at catcher to bolster the position, ideally bringing in a veteran RHH catcher upgrade with a 1-2 year contract commitment. Overall, the position group is good enough to make some noise. Defense should be upgraded significantly over the horrible showing of the prior 2-3 years, while offense has the upside to be a top quartile unit in the bigs, with power being an especially notable strength of the position group.
The emergence of young stars who can carry the team, and the minimization of holes in key up the middle positions, will be the keys to whether the young position group can help push the A’s to wild card contention sooner rather than later. Having a sprinkle of solid veterans should be helpful in the young players’ development and overall consistency, but make no mistake, the young players are the key to the franchise.
How do you feel about the A’s position player contingent in 2018? Do you think the A’s should stand pat or try for one last upgrade? What predictions do you have? Please share your thoughts in the comments. Let’s go Oak-land, CLAP, CLAP, CLAP-CLAP-CLAP!!
These players have something to prove, which one do you believe will exceed expectations this year?
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