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Oakland A’s 2021 ZiPS projections offer reminder of strong core, but also areas of need

There are holes to address, but a lot of value remaining around the field

Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
You know who’s still pretty good? The A’s.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Every winter, Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs posts his annual ZiPS projections for the following season. The Oakland A’s edition was released this week.

Before we jump into the numbers, a few caveats. First, these are projections, not predictions. That means they are based on nothing but raw data, like past performance and aging curves and injury histories. You might well have a real-life reason why you think a player will outperform (or underperform) these numbers, like a pitcher whom you know added a new pitch over the offseason that hasn’t shown up in games yet, or an aging hitter who looks completely finished no matter what his past stats say about maybe bouncing back, etc. Young players with little to no track records are also difficult to project with precision. (Click here for more details.)

ZiPS is essentially a computer offering the most likely path forward based on detailed historical comps. But in that way, it’s also effective at cutting through the emotion and subjectivity of fandom, to tell you the cold hard facts about how these things usually go. The new pitch, or last summer’s dreadful off-year, doesn’t always actually make a difference moving forward.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the numbers tend to be fairly conservative. That’s true in both directions — no one gets rated too highly, and recently slumping players will come out looking like bounce-back candidates. Someone in the majors could ball out and exceed 10 WAR next year, but ZiPS isn’t going to try to guess who. Therefore, most fans would probably take the over on the projections for their biggest stars, who at least have the talent and ceiling to beat this middle-of-the-road estimate.

With all that in mind, here’s what the A’s look like for 2021.

Note that the WAR numbers differ slightly between this graphic and the actual ZiPS results, due to adjustments in how playing time was projected. I’m sticking with the numbers in the graphics in this post.

Of course, this isn’t a final draft, just where the A’s stand at the beginning of the offseason. They could yet add a middle infielder or two, or there could be some kind of shakeup in the outfield via trade, and certainly there will be some new pitchers. There are always new pitchers.

But even with a few holes to address, these numbers are a welcome reminder of how strong the core of this roster is. There are still three star-level players, in Chapman, Olson, and Laureano, with two more good positions at catcher (Murphy) and left field (or wherever Canha plays). There’s not an established ace in the rotation, but there are four quality arms, with a couple top prospects competing for a chance.

Furthermore, the rotation is one area where you can insert some of your own analysis into the numbers. Luzardo is the kind of dynamic youngster who could suddenly break out beyond the scope of what ZiPS suggests, and Bassitt is someone whose huge step forward in 2020 only gets him partial credit in the projections (which factor in 3-4 years of past stats). Montas is a wild card who has looked great and terrible at various times, and ZiPS takes the middle path, but his range of possible outcomes is enormous.

The other 29 teams’ numbers aren’t out yet, so we can’t compare the A’s to the rest of the league. But we can look back to last winter for some quick context.

Note that most of the numbers cited after this point are pre-2020, from last winter.

First up is Chapman, who gets the highest 2021 rating on the A’s at 5.3 fWAR. In both of his real-life full seasons (2018-19) he topped 6 fWAR, though last year an injury caused him to relatively slump and then miss a chunk of playing time. A’s fans will certainly bet the over on Chapman, but that doesn’t make his ZiPS projection an insult. Here are where some other stars weighed in last winter (these are pre-2020 projections, and it is not a complete list of all the leaders, just a few cherry-picked names):

  • Mike Trout, 8.5 WAR
  • Juan Soto, 6.0
  • Alex Bregman, 5.8
  • Aaron Judge, 5.8
  • Matt Chapman, 5.8 (this was last winter)
  • Mookie Betts, 5.7
  • Anthony Rendon, 4.9
  • Freddie Freeman, 4.8
  • Ronald Acuna, 4.2
  • George Springer, 4.1

As you can see, even the biggest stars get modest estimates. The 2020 season was truncated so we’ll never know who would have beaten their projections, but the likely answer is that some would have, and a few wouldn’t have, even before factoring in a couple of them getting hurt.

Other than Trout, whose track record of annually consistent nonstop MVP-level greatness is unparalleled among his present-day peers, nobody was significantly above Chapman’s tier entering 2020. A couple players beat him out in the tenths place (Cody Bellinger also got 6.2, but split between two positions), but projecting Chapman at 5.8 (or even at the 5.3 he scored this winter) is still a way of saying he’s among the best handful of non-Trout position players in the majors.

Move down the A’s list and you can see the power of having two more stars projected at 4+ WAR (though in the official ZiPS table, Olson is at 4.0 and Laureano at 3.5). That’s still Springer and Acuna territory, or Xander Bogaerts (4.4).

While the rest of the 2021 projections aren’t out yet, one other team did get released Friday — the Yankees. Nobody in their lineup is rated higher than Chapman’s 5.3, with Judge leading at 4.7 after also missing time to injury this past summer. D.J. LeMahieu, after a late-blooming breakout that earned him two straight Top 4 finishes in MVP voting, got a 4.2 from ZiPS for next summer. That’s likely due to the relative novelty of his recent ascension, as he’s only been great for 195 games and the system is also counting his merely solid 2017-18 numbers. It’s also because of his advancing age, as he turns 32 next July and prepares for a battle against the inevitable decline curve.

As for pitchers, the same kind of conservative context applies. Here are a few stars from last winter (again, these are pre-2020 projections):

  • Justin Verlander, 5.7 WAR
  • Gerrit Cole, 5.6
  • Chris Sale, 5.0
  • Max Scherzer, 4.8
  • Stephen Strasburg, 4.6
  • Clayton Kershaw, 4.6

Obviously, nobody in Oakland approached that level this winter, with Luzardo leading at 3.1, but this helps gives us an idea of the range of possible values and thus where the A’s truly stand. And remember, somebody in Oakland’s rotation could outperform their estimate, like Bassitt did with his 1.4 last winter; in real life he posted 1.3 fWAR in just 11 starts.

So what are the takeaways from all this? The A’s have a strong core remaining, but they do have some work to do this winter if they want to continue contending for rings. They absolutely need to improve the middle infield, where they’ve lost their 2B and SS to free agency (for now), and even the current modest projections for their interim in-house replacements feel optimistic. They could use upgrades at DH and RF, whether by the incumbents improving, or by trying out someone new like an external addition and/or one of the many intriguing Triple-A prospects knocking on the door.

On the pitching staff, the bullpen absolutely must be addressed. That 2.2 rating is extremely low, less than half what they registered last winter (4.8) with Hendriks, Soria, and Petit on board. Currently, Diekman, Trivino, and Wendelken are the top three names. The rotation could also use one more reliable arm, with the top prospects then serving as the next men up instead of the first resort.

What do you think of these projections, Athletics Nation? Which ones would you bet the over or the under? If the A’s could only make a serious addition at one of their areas of need, which would you prioritize first? To the comments!