The Oakland Athletics have spent the last month making their team very, very bad. By trading Sean Manaea to the Padres on Sunday, the A’s have sold off all their quality players who had only one year of control. In doing so, they retain just four players projected to be roughly league average or better: Sean Murphy, Tony Kemp, Ramon Laureano, and Frankie Montas. While the A’s have been trading away key contributors, they have been filling out the holes in the roster with players far past their prime, namely Jed Lowrie and Stephen Vogt. The A’s are now expected to be among the worst teams in the league and risk being – by far – the worst A’s team in many A’s fan’s memories.
That isn’t to say the A’s haven’t been bad in the recent past. They not so long ago put up back-to-back 93 and 94 loss seasons. However, one thing does set this season apart from all the others: An absence of hope.
For the first time in my adult life, I am unable to even remotely tell myself, “If things break right, the A’s could compete for the playoffs.” Nope, this year is going to require a different mindset. You can root for the individual players to get better, some exciting individual games or plays, and maybe some progress toward a new stadium, but don’t bother expecting to win very often.
To convince you of the uniqueness of this hopelessness, I’m going to take a trip down memory lane, dig up all those seasons that went sideways and try to remember just what we thought could have been before reality squashed our dreams.
Record: 77-87, 5th in AL West
The 2017 Opening Day roster wasn’t a blow-away cast of characters, but the pieces of a good team were starting to take shape. The rotation had a chance to be solid, if not good, with Manaea and Kendall Graveman leading the way and youngsters in Jharel Cotton and Montas threatening to break out. Plus, Sonny Gray was starting the year hurt, but there was hope he could bounce back to his 2015-self when he returned – he finished third in Cy Young voting in 2015. The lineup consisted of many names we are still familiar with: Khris Davis, Marcus Semien, Lowrie, Vogt, and Matt Joyce. Plus, another couple Matts had been climbing the minor league ranks and where nearing MLB-readiness: Matt Olson and Matt Chapman. The bullpen had many good arms as well, with Ryan Madson, Santiago Casilla, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Dull and Liam Hendriks. In the end, it took one more season for it all to come together, but in some other alternate reality, maybe 2017 turns out better than it did.
Record: 69-93, 5th in AL West
The 2016 team was expected to be better than the 2017 team, though not by much, 79.3 wins to 77.9 wins as projected by FanGraphs. The Opening Day roster included many of the same names as the 2017 team, but it was before Sonny mysteriously stopped getting batter’s out. Rich Hill had just joined the team, Chris Bassitt wasn’t hurt, Vogt wasn’t old, Josh Reddick hadn’t been traded away and still seemed good. Danny Valencia seemed like an average player, and Billy Burns was going to take over for Coco Crisp after finally showing he could hit a little in 2015. As is typical for the A’s, it wasn’t a star-studded cast, but everyone was at least OK and had some upside that, if it hit right, could drive the A’s back to the playoffs.
Record: 68-94, 5th in AL West
Ah, the 2015 season, otherwise known as The Zero Days Trade Aftermath Season and the infamous retool, don’t call it a rebuild, offseason. Fangraphs projections had the A’s around 83 wins entering the season and A’s fans were divided on the ‘retool’ approach. The Opening Day roster featured a squad with some serious upside, at least at the time, but boy did this team fall on its face. Sonny, Graveman, Bassitt, Jesse Hahn, Scott Kazmir, and Drew Pomeranz gave the A’s a good group of starters. Doolittle and Tyler Clippard anchored a deep bullpen. Reddick, Ben Zobrist (who they acquired via trade that offseason), Vogt, Burns, Mark Canha, and Brett Lawrie all provided some combination of a ‘high floor’ and some upside that wasn’t to be ignored.
Unfortunately, it just didn’t work and by the end of May they were 20-33 and effectively out of contention. Billy Butler was terrible, Lawrie wasn’t good, Semien’s defense was ... well it just wasn’t, Eric Sogard hit like he was using a rolling pin as a bat, and 15 of the 33 loses by May 31 where of the one-run variety. Sometimes things just don’t work out like you planned.
Record: 74-88, 3rd in AL West (when it was four teams)
This was the last of the Geren Years. Bob Melvin took over for Bob Geren halfway through this season, spawning endless new-Bob versus old-Bob jokes. The A’s where in the midst of their longest playoff-less streak since the mid-to-late 90’s after missing out for the fourth straight time the season prior. The Opening Day roster is full of now cringe-inducing names that never ended up putting it all together: Cliff Pennington, Ryan Sweeney, Daric Barton, Landon Powell. Previous year’s All-Star Trevor Cahill took a step back, and Rich Harden was hurt. Oh, what could have been, especially with Gio Gonzalez rising to All-Star status and an exciting rookie half-season from Jemile Weeks?
But make no mistake, the A’s were trying this year. They signed Hideki Matsui to be their DH. Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes were signed not-cheaply to improve the back of the pen. Brandon McCarthy was brought in to add depth to the starting rotation. They traded for veteran outfielders Josh Willingham (who just had three above average seasons by bWAR) and David DeJesus (coming off six straight 2-4 bWAR seasons). Clearly, the A’s were sick of losing, but most of the moves just didn’t work. The following year in 2012, the moves did work and spawned one of the most exciting years in Oakland A’s baseball history.
Record: 81-81, 2nd in AL West
This year wasn’t even a bad year – they did finish right at .500, after all. Though it was ultimately unsuccessful for the same reasons as 2011, as the additions just didn’t provide enough help to a struggling group of home-grown players. The A’s signed Gabe Gross, Ben Sheets and Coco Crisp. They traded to bring in Kevin Kouzmanoff (remember him? I had forgotten) and Sogard. Again, it could have worked out, but the A’s young position player core at the time (Sweeney, Kurt Suzuki, Barton, Pennington) stopped getting better, or got worse, and the additions on the offensive side underperformed — except for Coco, who was great but missed half the year to injury. Sadly the lack of hitting wasted a great pitching year from the whole staff (Cahill, Dallas Braden, Gonzalez, Brett Anderson, Andrew Bailey, Brad Ziegler) who almost to a man built on their excellent 2009 campaigns.
Record: 75-87, 4th in AL West
The 2009 season might be the quintessential Geren season. All the failed prospects of his tenure play a role and almost all the aging veterans brought in to help fail as well, just like they always seemed to do during these years. But despite all that, it was clear the A’s were trying.
This was the year they brought in Matt Holliday via trade. They signed Jason Giambi for a reunion tour, and hey, he wasn’t that bad the year before, so why not? They signed Orlando Cabrera to hold down shortstop after giving up on Bobby Crosby (who still played in 97 games, only to prove he should never play again, but of course he did anyway) and while waiting for Pennington to get better. Nomar Garciaparra was signed as a stopgap utility infielder/DH? They traded to bring in Adam Kennedy because Eric Chavez was still collecting paychecks but couldn’t play baseball. The pitchers that did well in 2010 were mostly still there. Cahill and Anderson, both 21 years old that season, were hot prospects entering their rookie year. Gonzalez, at 23, was still working his way into a regular role at the MLB level but had huge upside.
There was a good amount of hope this season. Suzuki and Sweeney might put it together in their age 25 and 24 seasons, respectively, and break out. Holliday was supposed to be a stud, Giambi and Jack Cust could still mash, and the rookie pitchers were really, really promising. But, like most Geren years, despite the effort, it just didn’t work.
Record: 75-86, 3rd in AL West
The offseason entering the 2008 season felt a little bit like the offseason prior to the 2015 season. This was the year Dan Haren was traded for Anderson, Chris Carter, Aaron Cunningham, Dana Eveland, Carlos Gonzalez, and Greg Smith. Nick Swisher was traded for Fautino De Los Santos, (Gio) Gonzalez, and Sweeney. Mark Kotsay (Hey, Skip!) was also moved for Joey Devine. Those were impressive hauls of players that included both players that would make contributions in the upcoming season (Sweeney, both Gonzalez-es, Smith, Eveland, Devine, Cunningham) or in the not so distant future. This was very much a set of trades focusing on ‘retooling’, not rebuilding. To help supplement this retool, Mike Sweeney was signed as a DH. They also brought back Dan Johnson via wavers. Frank Thomas and Keith Foulke were also brought back, though neither were likely to be very good.
This whole team was unlikely to be ‘good,’ but it also was not the complete dumpster fire of an Opening Day lineup that the 2022 team is headed for. So, even though they weren’t necessarily trying to win that year, they were trying to win very soon, giving A’s fans a lot of interesting talents to watch.
Record: 76-86, 3rd in AL West
Are you sick of the Geren years yet? I am and was then too. Despite the poor win total, this was clearly a tried-but-failed year. They basically took a ‘run-it-back’ approach from the team that made the 2006 ALCS. There were of course some changes, as Thomas was swapped out for Mike Piazza and Cust. Travis Buck, Suzuki, and Braden arrived from the minors and played significant roles. The bullpen had some turnover, including Chad Gaudin moving to the rotation, but it was still headlined by Huston Street. The problem was just that most everyone, or their replacements, were just a bit worse in 2007 than they were in 2006 (notable exceptions were Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, and Mark Ellis). This team failing to meet expectations likely led to the selloff we saw prior to the next season.
Looking Further Back
From 1999 to 2006, the only teams that didn’t make the playoffs still won at least 87 games. Those were good baseball teams that just got out competed. For this 38-year-old, going much further back is difficult to remember. Though I was a mostly aware teenager in the mid-to-late 90’s, I just didn’t pay attention to fan sentiment or the ins and outs of every roster move like I obsess about as a bored adult.
I’d like to hear what others think about these seasons or ones in the more distant past when my memory fails me or had no chance of existing. When was the last time you felt this hopeless about the A’s chance of having a winning season and competing for a playoff spot?
The Tank Is On
I’m going to say it simply: This year is going to be bad. As we recently saw, projection systems have the A’s around 70 wins. However, these projections often mute the extremes born out in real life. They, by design, don’t try to capture feedback systems, such as when the team is bad, that team sells off its tradable assets. For the A’s, it is entirely possible Montas, Laureano, Lou Trivino, or even Murphy could be traded by July. Because of this, and inherent uncertainty in predicting human performance, the A’s could easily lose 100 games this year – something they haven’t done since 1979.
Unlike 2008, the A’s recent trades do not show evidence that they want to be competitive again in the very near future. Though the Matt Olson trade, which brought in Cristian Pache and Shea Langeliers, had me thinking they would go this direction, none of the other three trades focused on close to MLB-ready talent as the headliner prospect. So, instead of watching a handful of exciting new prospects either make the Opening Day roster or get mid-season callups, we have Pache, a few lower-tier prospects, and a collection of misfit players from years past.
This season is going to be hard to watch, but remember, the only thing worse than watching bad baseball is not having baseball to watch.