Oakland “Moneyballers” Athletics.
Dwelling in the basement of the AL West, the Athletics departed the 2016 season surrounded by loved ones and in good company—we’ll get to you later, Angels.
The 2016 season opened with hope and tempered expectations. Hope that 2015 was completely in the rear view. That the team could finally overcome the spectre of trading away a future MVP.
Tempered expectations though, on the backs of high-risk, high-reward free agent acquisitions. Hesitance at the fact that many position players actually lacked significant upside; something the Athletics were typically good at acquiring. And general anguish that the Astros and Rangers appeared to be better—at least on paper.
When was it over:
Out of the gate, the Athletics looked pretty good. 17 games into the season, the team was 10-7 while riding a six-game win streak that included a three-game sweep of the Yankees in the Bronx. Even better, the promising Astros were distantly in the rear view at 5-12 and the A’s were sharing first-place with the Rangers.
Fast forward to May 22—one month to the day. The Athletics were now 19-26, and Sonny Gray was on the disabled list with a strained trapezius. From April 23 until May 22, Gray made five starts. In 21.2 innings over those starts, Gray allowed 25 earned runs.
Fast forward a bit further to June 1. Half a game separates last place from third-place, and seven games separate the entire division. They A’s are still in the thick of it and there’s plenty of time for the team to turn the season around. Sean Manaea—the top prospect from the Ben Zobrist package at the 2015 trade deadline—has joined the roster and he’s set to face the Twins in the finale of a three-game set. The A’s completed the sweep of the Twins, and Manaea gave up just one run over six innings while striking out eight. The A’s improved to 6.5 games back of first-place that night.
After an off-day, the very next game was the beginning of what would end up being a seven-game losing streak, and the Athletics would slip to fifth-place at 12.5 games back. Their game back number would never get back to a single digit for the remainder of the season.
What went well:
Despite being largely out of it for the last four months of the season, the Athletics actually had quite a bit go their way.
Starting with Manaea, the 24-year old left-hander had an impressive rookie season and was asked to pitch more innings than any season prior while in the minors. Over 125.2 innings, Manaea struck out 109 batters and managed a WHIP of 1.24. The strikeout rate went down from his seasons in the minors and the walk rate went a little bit up, but the youngster still showed plenty of promise in his debut.
The Athletics’ biggest victory though was signing Rich Hill to a one-year,
$8 $6 million deal. Hill made 14 starts for the Athletics striking out 90 batters over 76 innings. The 36-year old lefty has been nothing short of spectacular while having a late-career Renaissance. In fact, among starters with at least 120 innings pitched over the past two seasons, Hill has the second-best FIP in the majors behind only Clayton Kershaw. Durability has been Hill’s only issue.
As for position players, Danny Valencia proved to be a valuable every day player after many other teams would only hand him platoon roles. Khris Davis—who came over in a trade from the Brewers this past offseason—is the only outfielder so far this season to hit 40 home runs.
A second opinion:
“It feels like the end of the 2011. A much maligned member of the organization is gone and a new era of young players is showing promise. In 2011, that was Bob Geren getting fired. In 2016, it’s Billy Butler getting released. I’m optimistic for next year.”
What’s in the future:
The Athletics will likely continue doing business the way they are most familiar. With David Forst newly in the GM chair and Billy Beane taking on a more executive role, the front office is likely going to stay looking this way for the foreseeable future. But should it? Can the Athletics 2016 season be read as a cautionary tale? Perhaps, but the only team that ever tries this seems to be the A’s anyways.
The team continues to do many things right: investing in high-risk, high-reward talent in short-term deals while being open to trading those assets away if the team isn’t winning. The Athletics not only found buyers for pending free agents Josh Reddick and Hill, but also for Billy Burns as well. In fact, Jharel Cotton—the lowest-ranked prospect acquired in the Reddick/Hill deal—has already made his major league debut for the Athletics and has looked great over three starts.
Since trading Josh Donaldson away, the Athletics have mustered a 134-178 record. And, while the AL West boasts two 2015 postseason teams, the division wasn’t especially difficult this year; the A’s could have been in the thick of things.
Trading away Donaldson is largely an arbitrary setpoint however. The team just came off of a heartbreaking Wild Card loss to the Royals after pushing quite a few chips in. Acquiring Jon Lester, the A’s did something uncharacteristic by sending a competitive balance pick to the Red Sox. By acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, the A’s gave up Addison Russell among others. These two deals—while they increased the team’s postseason odds—most assuredly hurt their chances in ensuing seasons.
Throughout the lives of franchises, there are going to be ebbs and flows; highs and lows. The low being felt right now is likely a direct result of the high of 2014. A high that ended up being one of the most exciting one-game playoff games in recent memory that unfortunately didn’t break the Athletics’ way.
With plenty of prospects in the pipeline and plenty of scrap heap free agents to add this offseason, the health of the A’s franchise shows some promise.