There are different stages to the A’s. While they always seem to be in the middle of the battle in the American League West, there comes a time when they seemingly take a step backwards in order to retool and remain competitive.
It doesn’t mean the A’s won’t win the division or compete for a wild-card playoff spot, it just means the expectations are tempered.
So as pitchers and catchers (Wednesday), then position players (Feb. 22) start reporting to spring training in Mesa, Ariz., there are a few key questions the A’s must address if they are to repeat as West champs.
Those questions come about because of the usual A’s reasons: The small-market franchise says it doesn’t have a lot of money to spend. That is why the A’s were unable to compete with the offers for shortstop Marcus Semien and closer Liam Hendriks, the two key pieces lost off the division-winning team. Semien received a one-year, $18 million contract from the Toronto Blue Jays, while Hendriks got a three-year, $54 million deal from the Chicago White Sox.
And how the A’s are addressing those vacancies is similar to the Billy Beane method that became popular with “Moneyball.” In the movie, Beane told team personnel the A’s didn’t have the ability to replace Jason Giambi. Instead, Beane said you could “re-create him in the aggregate.” As Beane goes on to say, adding up the on-base percentages of Giambi (.477), Johnny Damon (.324) and Olmedo Saenz (.291) to get 1.092 and finding three players who can each have an OBP of .364.
As this offseason has progressed, the A’s seem intent on filling the voids left by Semien and Hendriks with different methods. For Semien, the A’s traded designated hitter Khris Davis and two prospects to the Texas Rangers for shortstop Elvis Andrus and a backup catcher. For Hendriks, manager Bob Melvin will find a replacement internally.
Here are the key things to watch with the A’s this spring:
Closer-bullpen: Hendriks converted 39 of 47 saves opportunities over the past two seasons, with a 1.79 ERA — stellar numbers that are worthy of his new contract. Melvin has said left-hander Jake Diekman, who posted a 0.42 ERA in 20 appearances as a key setup reliever, is the front-runner for the closer’s role. Lou Trivino and Jordan Weems are other late-game options. But there are other pieces of the bullpen that need to be filled this spring. Joakim Soria signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, while T.J. McFarland and ex-Giant Yusmeiro Petit are still free agents. Before acquiring left-hander Adam Kolarek on Friday from the Los Angeles Dodgers, the A’s made two trades involving potential major-league relievers, acquiring Nik Turley from the Pittsburgh Pirates and left-hander Cole Irvin from the Philadelphia Phillies. One other bullpen candidate is Rule 5 pick Dany Jimenez.
Second base: Tommy La Stella, acquired during the 2020 season from the Los Angeles Angels, provided an offensive boost to the A’s. But La Stella signed with the Giants. That leaves second base to returnees Tony Kemp and Chad Pinder as well as Jed Lowrie, who this week signed a minor-league contract. Kemp and Pinder are veterans who can play multiple positions, with Kemp a left-handed bat and Pinder a switch-hitter. Neither one is expected to claim the position, with Melvin liking the versatility of the pair. Vimael Machin, who made his major-league debut in 2020, could also be in play here, but needs to hit to gain playing time. But Lowrie, a former Stanford star who is in his third stint with the A’s, could land the job at age 36.
Left field: If you pencil in Mark Canha at designated hitter, Seth Brown, a lefty bat, likely gets the first look in left after Robbie Grossman signed with the Minnesota Twins. Brown has the potential to add offense, which is what you want from the position, but only appeared in seven games in 2020. Brown hit 30 homers twice in the minors. Other candidates include Dustin Fowler, who hit 25 homers at Triple-A in 2019, Rule 5 pick Ka’ai Tom, Pinder and Kemp.
A great unknown entering spring training is the health status of A.J. Puk. The hard-throwing left-hander missed the entire 2018 season following Tommy John surgery and a shoulder injury that sidelined him for all of 2020. The 6-foot-7 Puk can reach 100 mph, which makes him an enticing possibility — when his health allows.
Puk had surgery in September and is throwing again. The A’s are sure to take it slow with Puk — the sixth overall pick in the 2016 draft — and his addition to the bullpen seems a more likely option than the starting rotation in order to limit his wear and tear.
Two other rookies who will get good looks this spring are the two Rule 5 picks, Tom and Jimenez. Tom is a lefty bat who can play all three outfield positions. He hit .270 over five seasons in the Cleveland Indians system and has 20-homer potential. Jimenez made his major-league debut with the Giants in 2020 and has a 3.43 ERA with 71 walks and 257 strikeouts over 197 innings across five seasons.
With the starting rotation essentially set — Chris Bassitt, Jesus Luzardo, Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea and Mike Fiers — Melvin’s big focus will be on the bullpen, which was the backbone of the 2020 team that won the West.
Finding out the health of Puk and two-time Gold Glove third baseman Matt Chapman, who should be ready following hip surgery during the 2020 season, will dictate roster decisions. The A’s need a positive spring training — including having players emerge — in order to create momentum for the regular season.