BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
The 2020 Oakland A’s roster is geared towards making another run at postseason glory after being defeated in the Wild Card game last season by the Tampa Bay Rays. The core of the talented group that has gone 97-65 in two consecutive seasons remains intact. It’s the hope of the Oakland’s front office, led by Executive VP of Baseball Operations Billy Beane and GM David Forst that their offseason efforts will result in another chance for an elusive World Series berth that has eluded the franchise since 1990. The A’s have made the playoffs 11 times from 1991-2019, but have not advanced beyond the American League Championship Series during any of those runs. Manager Bob Melvin, who has won 94 or more games in four of his eight seasons, has reason to believe that his 2020 club could finally break through that glass ceiling and reach the Fall Classic.
The 2019 A’s were led by a core of young position players who all saw their levels of performance improve from the year before. 1B Matt Olson, 25, and 3B Matt Chapman, 26, brought offensive productivity at the infield corners while also providing Gold Glove defense. Both Olson and Chapman ranked among the top ten players in the AL by the Defensive Runs Saved metric. SS Marcus Semien, 29, had a breakout season at the plate and in the field, and CF Ramon Laureano, 25, used his howitzer of an arm to tie for the 3rd most outfield assists with ten. Those players will be expected to lead the 2020 A’s at the plate and in the field.
Major League Baseball has expanded the daily Active Roster limit to 26 players for 2020. Here is how the 26-man Opening Day roster might look for the Oakland A’s:
Catcher: Top prospect Sean Murphy, 25, grabbed this position late in 2019 and enters spring training as the likely starter. After missing the early part of the season with an injury, he destroyed AAA pitching .308/.386/.625, and acquitted himself favorably with the big club, hitting .245/.333/.566 over 60 plate appearances. He underwent offseason left knee surgery, but is expected to be ready for the start of spring training, and could provide the A’s with much needed offensive production at a position at which they’ve struggled to find a long term solution. Lefty swinging Austin Allen, a prospect acquired from San Diego in the Jurickson Profar trade, figures to back up Murphy behind the dish.
1B: Matt Olson will bring his Gold Glove defense every day, and could continue to develop power as he matures. He set career highs with 36 home runs and 91 RBI’s last season. He should be a fixture at first base for years to come, as he isn’t eligible for free agency until 2024.
2B: Jurickson Profar was dealt to the Padres in December, leaving this position somewhat uncertain as the A’s head to Arizona. As of this writing, a likely platoon of lefty Tony Kemp, 28 (acquired from the Cubs in January 2020), and righty Chad Pinder, 27, figures to get the bulk of the time at the keystone. It would surprise nobody if the A’s were active in the free agent or trade market during spring training to attempt to upgrade at this position.
SS: At the start of his career, SS Marcus Semien was considered a very long shot to remain at the position because of significant defensive shortcomings. In 2019, Semien rated among the best defensive shortstops in the game, and he augmented his value by being durable, appearing in all 162 games. He also set career bests in every offensive category, hitting .285/.369/.522, with 33 HR and 92 RBI. Semien’s 2019 season earned him a third place finish in AL MVP voting behind only winner Mike Trout and Astros 3B Alex Bregman. Franklin Baretto, 24, figures to back up Semien, and will have a chance to finally fulfill some of his minor league promise at the big league level. Baretto is out of options, and the A’s will give him every chance to establish himself as a major league asset.
3B: This position has belonged to Matt Chapman since his debut in 2017, and the best fielder at the hot corner in the AL will be back in 2020. Chapman finished sixth in the AL MVP voting, and may well show gains at the plate as he enters his prime. Some combination of Pinder and Barreto figure to spell Chapman when he requires a day off, which isn’t often. Like Semien, Chapman prides himself on being available to play every day, and he appeared in a career best 156 games in 2019.
LF: Mark Canha, 30, had the best season of his career in 2019, hitting .273/.396/.517 with 26 HR’s while appearing at all three outfield positions. His .396 on base percentage easily led the team, and Melvin will want his bat in the lineup most days.
CF: Laureano made several highlight reel plays in 2019, and he was blistering hot in the second half. Despite missing all of August with a stress reaction in his right lower leg, Laureano hit .358/.411/679 in nearly 150 plate appearances after the All-Star break. He’ll be counted on to provide stellar defense in center while continuing his development as a potent offensive threat.
RF: Right field figures to be the primary responsibility of Stephen Piscotty, 29. He battled right knee and ankle injuries last year that limited him to 93 games, and was underwhelming at the plate when he was healthy. The A’s hope that an offseason of rest will allow him to approach his 2018 season: .267/.331/.491 with 27 HRs.
Robbie Grossman, 30, figures to be the primary back up for the OF positions. The switch hitter appeared in 138 games for the A’s in 2019, providing solid defense and contact oriented offensive skills.
DH: The A’s have to hope that Khris Davis, 32, still has something left in the tank. As the highest paid player on the club ($16.75 million in 2020 and 2021), Davis comprises nearly 20% of the entire team payroll (currently at $85.6 million, 24thamong MLB franchises). While playing in 133 games last year, Davis did hit 23 HRs, but struggled with a .220/.293/.387 batting line, a far cry from his 2018 season (a league leading 48 HRs and 123 RBI) when he finished 8th in the AL MVP voting. The A’s will look for a bounce back season from Davis, or will seek to upgrade that lineup slot with a bat from the minors or outside the organization.
Starting Pitching: The A’s rotation will likely be led by RH Mike Fiers, 34, coming off a season that saw him go 15-4 with a 3.90 ERA in 185 IP. LH Sean Manaea, 28, made a brilliant return in September from a left shoulder injury, going 4-0 with a 1.21 ERA in five starts down the stretch, and will be counted on to be the A’s #2 starter. 26-year-old RH Frankie Montas was off to a dazzling start last year, going 9-2 with a 2.63 ERA before being hit with an 80 game PED suspension in late June that cost him all but one game for the rest of the season. Armed with his new pitch, a split-fingered fastball, Montas emerged as a potential ace and will slot into the #3 position in the A’s rotation.
The top prospect in the Oakland system is LH Jesus Luzardo, 22, who will likely be the A’s #4 starter in late March. He is ranked as the ninth overall prospect in all of baseball entering 2020 by Baseball America. Luzardo threw just 43 minor league innings at three levels in 2019, and was sidelined by a pair of injuries during the season –a strained rotator cuff muscle in March, and a strained latissimus dorsi muscle in July. Both injuries limited his innings, but didn’t dim the promise he demonstrated when he was healthy, nor did it seem to be a factor during his September call up. Luzardo struck out 16 major leaguers in 12 innings during his debut, pitching to a 1.50 ERA. He also appeared in the Wild Card loss to Tampa Bay, stringing together three scoreless innings in his first postseason game. He’s a potential ace in the making, and if his injury woes are truly behind him, he will make the A’s rotation as formidable as any in the American League.
The fifth starter position figures to be filled by RH Chris Bassitt, 31. He went 10-5 with a 3.81 ERA in 144 innings last year, and will provide veteran stability to the back end of the pitching staff. Bassitt’s rotation job may well be challenged by LH A.J. Puk, 24, before the midpoint of the season-if not sooner. Puk is the A’s #2 organizational prospect, and is ranked as the 21st overall young talent in the league by Baseball America. He underwent UCL reconstructive surgery in April 2018, and spent much of the past two seasons rehabilitating that injury before making his long awaited debut late last season. In ten bullpen outings covering 11 innings, Puk struck out 13 while going 2-0 with a 3.18 ERA. The A’s may see Puk’s most valuable role on the team as a multi-inning relief pitcher, though Melvin stated that Puk will work as a starter during spring training.
Relief Pitching: The A’s bullpen was consistently effective in 2019, and will return most of the same pitchers for the 2020 campaign. Closer RH Liam Hendriks, who went 4-4 with a 1.80 ERA with 25 saves over 85 dominant innings, will once again be tasked with finishing games. He’ll be set up by veteran 35-year-old RH’s Yusmeiro Petit and Joakim Soria, who combined to throw 152 innings of solid relief last year. Lefties Jake Diekman, 33 and T.J. McFarland, 30, will provide balance, though Puk might emerge in a relief role to change that dynamic. RH’s Lou Trivino, 28, J.B. Wendelken, 26 and Paul Blackburn, 26, figure to round out the relief corps.