The worst case
The A’s get off to an okay start out of the gate. Nothing spectacular, but they hang around .500 for a few weeks. In spite of that reasonable success, the A’s already paltry starting pitching depth becomes even more a cause for concern when Trevor Cahill’s shoulder starts barking shortly after he finally makes his debut. Up comes Brett Anderson and down goes Brett Anderson causing the A’s to do the one thing they really shouldn’t do: rush A.J. Puk.
Puk is okay in his time here, but he’s just hasn’t been allowed to develop in full. I hate to bring up the service time thing, but burning a year of a guy who’s not ready is just bad management. It’s a cardinal sin last committed ironically with the pitchers Puk is replacing. The A’s ace in waiting is a question mark, clouding an already murky starting staff going into 2019. That turns into disaster when Puk’s bicep pain turns into a full blown injury making Puk a question mark for 2019 and beyond. Baseball is a sport of 25 players and no one guy dictates a team’s future. But c’mon. The A’s need Puk.
On the other side of the ball, the pesky sophomore slump affects the Matts. Olson struggles to make contact, putting up a Joey Gallo like season in which his success is sandwiched by whiffs. Even with those issues, Olson is an okay player, roughly league average because of that immense power and solid glove. Yet he leaves the A’s with yet another question mark in a time when they’re desperate for answers.
Chapman’s defense makes him an asset, but he struggles with nagging injuries and an inconsistent bat. So long as he doesn’t suffer a major injury, the upside will always be there above that high floor supported by his glove. He’s clearly the future at third, but his inconsistent sophomore campaign conjures up memories of another third baseman who had all of the tools but none of the luck to stay on the field.
In the outfield, Dustin Fowler’s injury takes a half step from his game making him a Ryan Sweeney like tweener in center. Without a particularly powerful bat, Fowler finds himself in no man’s land. He sticks as a fourth outfielder and the A’s find themselves yet again on the market for a centerfielder. The corners are fine, with Piscotty, Joyce, and Davis putting up average seasons. None of those guys look like factors for the A’s next playoff window, which is pushed out yet again by injury and struggles.
The bullpen is fine! Which means little in terms of predicting its collective 2019 success.
At the end of the season, the A’s find themselves with a similar win total to 2017 with a lot less rosy of an outlook. They’re not quite bad enough to secure a high pick but the upside that got us through this offseason looks less sure than ever, making the A’s next contention window a mystery.
Bridge years are the most informative years. The A’s think they have the engine in place for a playoff run and will spend 2018 figuring out what they need to fill their roster around that core. If that engine doesn’t run, it doesn’t really matter how well the A’s do next offseason. They need their core to produce and drive the team. While their early success suggests they will in fact succeed, 2018 truly comes down to the A’s youngsters living up to their ability. No pressure, Matts.
If that doesn’t come together, boy. We’re in year four of non-contention and the A’s are close! But if those pieces don’t hit? How long is it until the A’s next compete. Another two years of bad baseball? Three? Baseball is too unpredictable to say with any certainty, but if the A’s key players don’t develop according to plan in 2018, the next contention window could be a ways away.
The best case
The A’s get off to a hot start, getting surprisingly deep outings early from their rotation who keeps strong through April and May. It buys the A’s time to groom A.J. Puk and let him get comfortable and ready at his own pace and also allows the A’s time to figure out what rotation fix they may need come buying time.
That early success is largely propped up by an offense that scores run at a league leading rate. Matt Chapman and Matt Olson pick up right where they left their bats in 2017: freshly flipped after crushing a dinger.
Of course, they’re not alone in that success. Khris Davis makes the move to full time DH with no issue, putting up the same great numbers he has both years in Oakland. The rest of the lineup is solid, doing their job of getting on base ahead of those mashers.
The defense is remarkably good. It starts in a semi unexpected place: behind the dish. Jonathan Lucroy is a perfect compliment for a questionable rotation, helping to calm a young staff, earn extra strikes, and keep the ball in the yard. In the field, Chapman leads a great infield to turn every opportunity into an out, something the staff needs. His range helps Marcus Semien who helps Jed Lowrie who’s helped by Matt Olson. It’s an infield bolstered by its edges, which turns an average staff into a good staff.
The pen is phenomenal, a deep and dynamic crutch for the young rotation to lean on. Games where Daniel Gossett doesn’t have it remain competitive with the A’s having a number of long inning options able to save the day. The bullpens strength isn’t just its depth, as for the first time in recent memory the A’s are able to close out tight games with confidence.
All that measures up to a second place finish in a strong division. While the Astros are still the best both now and into the near future, they feel a young team nipping at their heels. With a few savvy moves, a continued stream of high quality prospects, and a little luck, that team could turn into one of the super teams we see today.
89-73 and a Wild Card berth
In hindsight, the A’s really had no business going for it it 2015, 2016, or 2017. They weren’t all that close to contending even though trying to sneak in the regular playoffs is an admirable goal.
Thing is, if the A’s had somehow snagged that second Wild Card, their future would still be murky. Success in 2016 would in no way mean success in 2017 because the A’s intended core consisted of aging veterans and short term deals.
That’s not the case now, which is the best part of the best case. If the A’s succeed in 2018, there’s a good chance they’ll succeed in 2019 and 2020 and even beyond. Their present and future are almost directly intertwined for the first time in a while making this year one of the more entertaining and important in recent memory.