BY JIMMY DeROGATIS
The Oakland Athletics have longed for the opportunity to create some spring training buzz going into the season. 2019 might very well be that year for the A’s faithful.
Headlining this years opener’s will be the A’s playing host to the Seattle Mariners at the Tokyo Dome in Japan for a pair of games beginning March 20th to kick off what looks to be the makings of a memorable season. Last year was one for the books for the Athletics. The team did not have any expectation of competing in 2018 yet won 97 games and found themselves at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx in a one game playoff against the relentless Yankees. How they got to the playoffs can only be attributed to their electric bullpen, which held their opponents to a .220 batting average, second in the American League behind only the Houston Astros.
The injury bug told the story for the A’s starting rotation in 2018 with Graveman, Manaea, Gossett, and Triggs all getting scratched at some point. A much-needed level of consistency for their starters is key in 2019. The bullpen is where much of this team’s hype originates. Their 3.37 team ERA, 641 innings pitched and a WHIP of 1.18 were all second best in the AL last season.
Obviously the Oakland bullpen can’t be mentioned without Blake Treinen, who was essentially untouchable for most of the year and will be asked to do another Mariano Rivera impersonation in 2019 by closing games out as effortlessly as he did last season to propel this team into the playoffs again. Right-handed reliever Lou Trivino was a great fit coming out of the bullpen, getting many important outs to strand runners in scoring position. Trivino is joined by veteran Fernando Rodney, acquired via trade, who has a 95-97 MPH fastball with a devastating 82 MPH changeup that drops right before the plate.
The rest of the bullpen will begin to shape out as spring training rolls along. Notables include lefties Jerry Blevins and Ryan Buchter along with right-handers Ryan Dull, Liam Hendriks, Yusmeiro Petit, and Joakim Soria, newly acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers.
Returning Star Players
Although overshadowed by the stellar bullpen performances last season, designated hitter Khris Davis and corner-infielders Matt Chapman and Matt Olson are all primed for another breakout season.
Davis has quietly become one of the biggest power threats in the game and is quickly becoming a fan favorite after stating that he wants to stay in Oakland. Davis led the Majors last year with 48 homers while driving in 123 runs. He remains a primary factor if Oakland has any hope of returning to meaningful late September and October playoff baseball. However, Davis probably won’t be seen roaming the ever-expansive Coliseum outfield much this year as he’ll primarily be featured as the DH in most of Bob Melvin’s lineups in 2019, giving some much needed rest to his lower-body.
Something else to keep an eye out for in the upcoming season is Davis’ at bats against the Texas Rangers. Davis punished the Rangers pitching staff in 2018 both at Globe Life Park in Arlington and at the Oakland Coliseum. In 19 games he hit .297 with 4 doubles, 26 RBIs, and 10 home runs. It almost seemed as if every time he stepped into the box he would spray the ball to both fields with ease or hit a rocket line-drive into the gap.
Chapman is one of the best all-around third baseman in the league. A defensive wizard at the hot corner, Chapman has drawn comparisons to Brooks Robinson, one of the greatest defensive third baseman to have ever stepped foot on the field. Aside from his fantastic defense, he can also deliver big hits in clutch situations. Much like the great Mike Trout of the Angels he’s a tremendous low-ball hitter and can really drive the ball if the pitcher gets the ball down in the zone against him. Matt Olson on the other hand is a great high-ball hitter with some of the best power in the American League. Olson doesn’t get cheated on many of his swings either and can be counted on to hit some tape-measure shots.
Shortstop Marcus Semien needs to pick up where he left off by getting on and stealing bases. He’s developed some of the best hands at the position making diving plays and ranging into the outfield, from backhanded Derek Jeter jump throws to diving over the left field tarp and making throws from one knee. He’s come a long way from being an E-6 waiting to happen. He’s also a great contact hitter. Look for him to make a big splash in 2019.
Players to look out for this upcoming season are left-handed pitching prospects Jesus Luzardo, a master of deception, and A.J. Puk, a big 6’7’’ lefty who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and looks much like Randy Johnson on the mound, a real intimidating figure who can sling it. Also, CF Ramon Laureano, who batted .288 with 5 HR and 19 RBI in just 48 games, is likely to get more playing time in the outfield.
A lesser known infielder who might emerge as a sleeper is Jorge Mateo. Mateo and Gleybar Torres of the Yankees were the middle-infield duo for the AA Trenton Thunder, and the pair were supposed to be the next great young phenoms to come up to the Yanks. While Torres had a solid MLB debut in 2018, Mateo couldn’t find a spot on the team and came to Oakland in the Sonny Gray trade. Hopefully he’ll be able to get called up at some point in the season as his hitting speaks for itself (Minors career .727 OPS). Also, catching prospect Sean Murphy is a solid defensive catcher with some pop, and he can drive in runs and get on base with a strong arm behind the plate. Look for him to be in an A’s uniform this season.
Lost Draft Pick
Unfortunately for Oakland fans, you can’t mention the A’s without two-sport phenom and Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray. Officially listed at 5 ‘10 ¾’’ and weighing in at 205, Murray has decided to forgo his contract with the A’s (9th overall MLB selection last year) and enter the NFL draft. It’s a huge blow to the gut for Oakland and their loyal fans as Murray was already being compared to the likes of players such as Andrew McCutchen and Rickey Henderson, arguably the greatest athlete to ever wear the yellow and green.
While the starting rotation is a big question mark at the outset of the season, look for the A’s to build on their unexpected success in 2018 and be a serious contender throughout the year. While still not likely on a par with the Houston Astros, advancing beyond the Wild Card round appears to be a realistic possibility.