BY STEVEN LUKE
Expectations are low for the Oakland Athletics entering the 2018 season after back-to-back last place finishes, but a few key additions in the offseason and a young core could surprise the league.
The 2017 season was not one that will be remembered for many Athletics fans, but it did have its upsides. The first of those was the debut of Matt Chapman. He first appeared in the lineup June 15 and became a staple at third base, turning heads with his defense and quickly becoming a leader on a team filled with young players. Chapman’s dazzling plays and leadership covered up what was a light bat on the season, but where he failed offensively his counterpart on the other corner, fellow rookie, Matt Olson made up for it.
Another one of the few upsides, Olson made multiple trips between Oakland and Nashville in 2017 coming up to spell an injured Yonder Alonso before returning for good August 8th after Alonso was traded to the Seattle Mariners. Olson had already proven that he could hit for power at the major league level earlier in the season, hitting two home runs in one game against the White Sox, but in the final two months of the regular season he showed superior power. Olson put up 20 home runs for the Athletics in 138 at bats to close the season. His 24 total home runs in 2017 was good for fourth on the team, and it only took him 59 games to do it.
The corners aren’t the only place on the roster with youthful potential. The outfield will feature two young players as well. Dustin Fowler was acquired in the trade of Sonny Gray to the Yankees at the trade deadline and if healthy will start the season in center. Stephen Piscotty will man one of the corner outfield positions after coming over in an offseason trade with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Fowler has virtually no experience at the big league level after suffering a gruesome injury in the first inning of his debut with the Yankees. Piscotty has the big league experience, but he was made available because of a sophomore season slump and an excess of outfielders on the Cardinals roster. Piscotty will have to recover from last season to make a true impact. Both players have the ability to both improve the offense and upgrade the defense.
Youth isn’t the only key to the Athletics roster offensively. Khris Davis and Jed Lowrie both return as veteran pieces of the club. Davis is coming off his second consecutive 40+ home run season and Lowrie has been a doubles machine while donning the green and gold. They will not be alone as veterans on offense. Matt Joyce is currently slated to start in the corner outfield opposite Piscotty and will provide experience from the left side of the plate. Joyce is coming off his best season power wise posting career highs in doubles and home runs.
The final batter to be excited about was the one big off-season signing, catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Lucroy was available because he regressed offensively over the two previous seasons, but the two-time All-Star will bring something the team badly needed, experience behind the plate. His offense may not be what it once was, but his ability to lead a pitching staff remains and that alone will be a major upgrade for the team if he can reign in some of the young pitchers.
If the Athletics are going to climb out of the cellar in the AL West, it is going to take improvement from the pitching staff. The rotation is far from set at this point with only the top two spots set in stone. Kendall Graveman will take the mound opening day and Sean Manaea will follow him, but the three spots behind them are up in the air as Andrew Triggs, Daniel Gossett, Chris Bassit, Daniel Mengden, Paul Blackburn and A.J. Puk will all battle to make the roster.
The most likely rotation would be Graveman, Manaea, Triggs, and Blackburn with either Gossett or Mengden in the final spot, but if Bassit can prove he has fully recovered from his injury or Puk continues to dominate in spring training they could steal a spot, but what this rotation will lack to start the season is experience.
Graveman has the most experience of the eight potential starters and is only entering his third season at the major league level. The one wild card in the rotation is the recent signing of Trevor Cahill. Cahill was once the ace of the Athletics rotation, but has since bounced around the league and found more success as a reliever than as a starter, so he could fill in at either spot. If he is added to the rotation it would give one of the younger guys time to grow in the minors and add some needed veteran experience.
The bullpen portion of the pitching staff has the edge in experience by a long shot, but that experience does not bring as much consistency as one would like. The two pitchers in the pen with the most experience, Santiago Casilla and Liam Hendriks, have had up-and-down careers and their 2017 seasons were on the down side. Key acquisitions left hander Ryan Buchter (via trade with the Kansas City Royals) and right hander Yusmeiro Petit (via free agency) will bring some stability, Buchter as a quality left hander and Petit as a serviceable long man.
The main question mark will be closer Blake Treinen. Treinen was acquired in the trade that sent Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madsen to the Washington Nationals and was thrust into the closer’s role shortly after. While his numbers with the Athletics looked solid, his saves were a roller coaster ride that A’s fans didn’t want to be on.
The A’s are not going to catch the defending World Series Champion Houston Astros even if everything breaks their way this season. In all likelihood they will spend a third straight season at the bottom of the standings. But if this group of veterans and youngsters is the perfect mix on offense, if the pitching staff lives up to its potential, and if Treinen can lock down that closers role and everyone else fills their role then these Athletics could remind fans of the 2012 team that surprised everyone by winning the division on the last day of the season. But that’s a lot of “if’s”.