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4 ways an unusual 2020 season could affect the Oakland A’s

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The situation stinks, but here are some golden linings for A’s fans.

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Vimael Machin, waiting patiently like the rest of us
Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

We’re two weeks past what had been scheduled as Opening Day, and it’s still unclear if there will be a 2020 MLB season at all amid the coronavirus pandemic. If there is, it will not be a normal 162-game campaign, with all kinds of reports and rumors about how the rules might be altered to make everything work logistically. Things could get weird.

The question for Athletics Nation, then, is how all of this might affect the Oakland A’s. Here are four potential consequences, all of which could end up helping the green-and-gold.

1. Expanded roster

One of the more likely changes for any shortened season will be the expansion of active rosters, at least to begin the year. Between an abbreviated spring training, and the possibility of removing some off-days and/or adding some doubleheaders, teams may be allowed to keep a few extra players around to help carry the load. This is in addition to the already scheduled increase from 25 to a 26-man squad.

In terms of what that might look like, Bob Nightengale of USA Today suggests rosters would expand from 26 up to 29 for the first month of the season. Using my advanced sabermetric formula, I’ve calculated that this would mean three extra spots.

Every team can use more roster space. Good teams can add depth, bad teams can try out more lotto tickets, and everyone has at least one interesting player who’s on the bubble and out of minor league options. But the A’s might benefit as much as anyone, due to their extreme logjam at second base.

Entering the spring, Oakland’s one big roster battle was at the keystone. With 13 spots for position players, and 11 of those used elsewhere on the diamond, there was room for two infielders to fill this 2B void. One of those spots was presumably earmarked for veteran role player Tony Kemp, leaving one more up for grabs with three prime candidates competing.

The problem with this particular battle was that none of the other three candidates could be sent back to the minors. Franklin Barreto and Jorge Mateo are out of options and would certainly be claimed if they hit waivers, and Vimael Machin is a Rule 5 pick who must either stay in the majors or be offered back to his old team. Whichever two didn’t make the cut would not just be stashed in Triple-A, but rather lost from the organization entirely.

Again, every club has these use-or-lose decisions to make at the end of spring, but not always with these high of stakes. Barreto and Mateo both have pedigrees as former Top 100 prospects, and Barreto was often Top 50. Adding an emotional angle on top of that, they were each acquired as key pieces in painful blockbuster trades for beloved All-Stars. Both have seen their stock drop a bit due to recent struggles against top-level pitching, but not to the extent that you’re ready to just give up on them completely and lose them for nothing.

With a 29-man roster, though, the problem goes away. Oakland could easily keep both Barreto and Mateo instead of choosing between them, and maybe keep Machin too, with one more spot open for either a spare reliever or a third catcher. The big decision would still need to be made eventually, perhaps one month later if Nightengale is correct, but that would be a full month of regular season games with which to keep auditioning the trio to see which one earns his keep. That gives time for someone to hit their stride and pan out into a legit big leaguer, or to completely flop and make the decision easy to let him go.

Granted, it may be that this logjam was going to mostly take care of itself anyway. Outfielder Stephen Piscotty appeared to be headed toward opening the season on the injured list, so the team could have replaced him using the depth it already had on hand, like Mark Canha and Chad Pinder (or even utilityman Kemp taking some time in the outfield). Rather than call up an outfielder to take Piscotty’s spot, they could have used it on the other half of Barreto/Mateo and kept them both until Piscotty’s return, giving them the same kind of limited (one month?) opportunity to prove themselves in real games.

But even that alternate reality could have gone differently, as there was no guarantee that Piscotty’s spot would be used in that way. And even if it was, there would still have been no room for Machin. But with a 29-man roster, it’s easy to keep everyone, even if Piscotty is back to health by then. And in the meantime, the bench will have a couple of elite pinch-runners to work with.

2. Fewer innings to fill

The next big question facing the A’s had to do with their starting rotation. It’s packed with talent but short on experience, especially in terms of pitching a full season with a starter’s workload.

The one established workhorse in the group is Mike Fiers, who has averaged around 180 innings the last couple years. He’s never reached 200, but at least there’s no question about his ability to stay strong and healthy for a full season. Chris Bassitt also earned some confidence, grinding his way back from Tommy John surgery to throw 144 innings last year (155 including minors). However, the same can’t be said for the rest of the group:

  • Frankie Montas only threw 96 innings last year due to his PED suspension. He kept pitching on the side to stay warm, but nothing can fully replace real game action. He did reach nearly 140 frames in 2018 between the minors and majors, and with his big strong stature he may have turned out just fine for a full season, but we’re already setting a low bar for the third-most reliable arm in the rotation.
  • Sean Manaea missed almost off of 2019 due to shoulder surgery, returning for five starts in September and one more in the playoffs. Add in his minors rehab and he approached 70 innings, and he’d shown signs of durability in the past before the surgery, but clearly he still has something to prove in terms of his long-term health.
  • Jesus Luzardo is one of the best prospects in the sport, but he only managed 55 innings last year due to multiple injury setbacks. And he was already being brought along slowly after undergoing TJS in high school. He’s never exceeded 110 frames in a season.
  • A.J. Puk, also an elite prospect, missed 2018 to TJS and only returned for around three dozen innings last year. On top of that, he already hit a snag in spring training with some shoulder soreness, though that’s since cleared up and he’s back to health (via Susan Slusser podcast). His career-high is 125 frames, three years ago.
  • Also: In terms of backups, Daniel Mengden was already opening the season on the 60-day IL; Daniel Gossett missed all of 2019 to TJS; and Paul Blackburn currently seems to be best cast as an emergency option.

None of this was a dealbreaker, but it was far from ideal. At the very least, it was going to take some creativity (and maybe some Blackburn) to cover 162 games with this group.

But what if there are only 100 games? Maybe a “full season” will only mean 120 innings this year. If doubleheaders become part of the plan, then maybe six-man rotations will become a thing, reducing each individual starter’s workload even further.

Whatever the specifics end up being, the principle is clear. Oakland has a highly talented rotation whose biggest weakness figures to be durability, and shortening the season mitigates that weakness. It would help every team’s rotation in similar fashion, but the A’s are uniquely positioned to take maximum advantage due to the high ceilings and fragility of their hurlers. Every club has someone who would look better in a shorter season, but they aren’t all Luzardos and Manaeas with this severe of boom/bust profiles.

3. Bullpens in 7-inning games

On top of playing fewer games, there’s the chance that some of the games themselves could be shorter. If doubleheaders end up being part of the plan, then they could come in the form of two seven-inning contests.

Before you scoff at the audacity of such a major change to the sport’s fundamental rules, remember that there’s precedent for this. It’s already the norm throughout the minor leagues, where the balance is shifted slightly further toward player health than the competition of the game itself. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, just that it’s already a thing in 80% of pro baseball.

As for the A’s, it could have another positive effect on the pitching staff, though not in the same way we discussed in the previous section. Whereas fewer games means fewer starts for the rotation, those starters already weren’t going past 5-7 innings at a time anyway. The spare frames being saved here mean less work for the bullpen, which just happens to be the weakest area of Oakland’s roster.

The same caveat applies, as usual — all teams will theoretically get the same benefit. But the weaker a team’s pen, the more it would help to remove them from the equation.

Depending on how you measure it, the A’s pen last year was somewhere between merely average and atrocious. They led the majors in blown saves, which isn’t the be-all end-all of metrics but is still tough to ignore. Some of their peripheral stats painted a more promising picture, but the fact remains that every game in 2019 felt precarious until the final out. It went starting pitcher, then hold your breath for an hour, and then Liam Hendriks in the 9th. And you have to expect Hendriks to regress from his completely unexpected All-Star greatness, at least slightly.

What if instead, in a doubleheader contest, Oakland only needed six innings from Montas and then one from Hendriks? Or five from Luzardo, and then one each from Yusmeiro Petit and Hendriks? That removes a lot of the spots where the 2019 A’s lost games.

Reducing the need for middle relief work helps every team, but the biggest benefit should be felt by those who have a strong rotation and a light-out closer but shaky plans in the setup/middle frames. It allows teams to literally shorten games, without needing two more lockdown arms to cover the 7th and 8th. Or, put another way, a higher percentage of Oakland’s innings would go to starters/Hendriks, at the expense of Jake Diekman, Joakim Soria, and the rest.

Note that clubs with poor rotations could instead choose to pull starters early and use their pens as normal, if they think their relievers are better than their starters (or that their starters would especially benefit from shorter stints). The A’s could also do this if they wanted to reduce their own starters’ workloads even further than proposed in the previous section of this post, though I don’t think that would be the optimal use of their specific personnel. And anyway, the more arms you call on in a game, the higher the odds of one of them not having it that day and failing, making it a less attractive option than streamlining to just a starter/closer model.

4. Realignment

The newest rumor, courtesy of Nightengale this morning, has to do with temporary realignment. One possible path is for the league to cluster all the teams within just Arizona and Florida, where they could use their spring facilities and vastly minimize their necessary travel. In such an instance, the AL and NL could give way to the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues.

That would be a blessing for the A’s. All of the other 2019 AL postseason teams would move to Florida, as the Astros, Yankees, Twins, and Rays are all part of the Grapefruit League. Of the NL’s latest playoff contingent, only the Dodgers and Brewers would come over to replace them. The Cactus-based Cubs and D’Backs also had winning records last year, but in exchange the Red Sox would be gone, though it remains to be seen if they’re actually good anymore after heavy offseason losses.

As an extra bonus, the A’s would end up in the same league (maybe even the same division?) as the Giants. That’s fun for emotional reasons, before considering that the Giants are probably going to be terrible this season. The icing on the cake of a contending A’s team would be to see them fatten up with a bunch of wins against a doormat Giants squad.

Possible downsides

On the other hand, there are also some possible outcomes that could hurt the A’s.

A completely cancelled season would be a nightmare for Oakland, because players would still accrue service time. That means they’d lose the likes of Marcus Semien, Hendriks, Fiers, and Petit to free agency, and that’s a big chunk of the core that’s supposed to makes this roster work. They’d also forfeit a prime and cost-controlled year from guys like Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and Ramon Laureano. Skipping 2020 would mean losing one premium season from their current championship window.

And even if a partial season does get played, shortening the campaign isn’t necessarily helpful on its own. The A’s are supposed to be good, so reducing the sample size from 162 games down to 120 or 100 or 80 means increasing the chance of small-sample flukes. That means a slumpy month can sink you, or someone else’s plucky-but-unsustainable hot streak has a better chance of lasting long enough to carry them to an upset playoff spot. Last year the A’s started characteristically slow at 19-25 before breaking out, but would they have enough time to dig out of that kind of hole in a shorter summer?

The same goes for any expanded playoff system. The A’s are already a favorite to reach the postseason under the normal rules, so adding extra Wild Card spots wouldn’t be that big of a benefit. Sure, it would provide extra insurance to protect against the small-sample gremlins in the previous paragraph, but more importantly it could complicate the already treacherous path to the World Series. If you already think you’ll make the tournament, then you shouldn’t want to add more spots into the proceedings.

For now, all of this is theoretical. We don’t know what the season will look like, nor if it will happen at all. From the A’s perspective, though, the ideal situation might be a 120ish-game campaign with expanded rosters for at least the first month and plenty of seven-inning doubleheaders, all of it taking place in a Cactus/Grapefruit league setup with a normal 10-team postseason. And obviously, everyone staying healthy and happy and alive amid the pandemic that brought us to this point in the first place.