OAKLAND — At the start of spring training, Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin told the club’s executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane that this year’s team had a chance to be special.
Then came the Tommy John surgeries. Then came even more pitching injuries. Then came June. The A’s went 5-8 to start the month. Then, as they won 12 of their next 14 games, Beane texted Melvin. “This smells a lot like 2012,” he said, referring to when Oakland won the AL West on the final day of the regular season.
“It was a pretty risky text,” Beane said. “Bob fired back with the same thing. We did it in June, because we had the same sort of feeling about the guys … I give credit to Bob. He said from Day One that this group, he really, really liked this group. I’ve had a lot of faith in him. He gets a lot of credit for seeing this before all of us did.”
Oakland would finish 2018 on a 63-29 run. The A’s made the playoffs with the lowest Opening Day payroll in the major leagues, but the run ended on Wednesday, when they fell in a 7-2 Wild Card game loss to the New York Yankees. Beane, discussing the season on Friday at the Oakland Coliseum, along with David Forst and Melvin, said an extension is in the works for his manager, whose contract ends after 2019.
“Bob is one of the best in the game, and he’s perfect for us,” Beane said. “The idea is that he’s her for a long time, and for the rest of his career.”
Before the season began, Melvin was robbed of top pitching prospects A.J. Puk and Jharel Cotton — the first of four Tommy John surgeries the team would endure. Then came more injuries to starter Paul Blackburn and reliever Ryan Dull. Andrew Triggs went down in May due to what would come to be diagnosed as thoracic outlet syndrome. Left fielder Matt Joyce battled a back injury all year. Starter Daniel Mengden sprained his foot. Sean Manaea pitched all season with shoulder problems, and will likely miss most of 2019 after finally going down in late August.
Still, the A’s won 97 games, had the third-best bullpen ERA in baseball, scored the fourth-most runs in the majors and hit the third-most home runs (227).
Melvin was sour-faced for the start of Friday’s confab, with the sting of the loss to the Yankees still lingering. While Beane and Forst declared the season a success, Melvin wasn’t as enthusiastic.
“It’s still pretty fresh,” Melvin said. “When you’re there and you’re in the moment and you expect to win, and you don’t, especially with that dramatic of a game — any playoff game — it lingers for a little while. Not yet. Getting there.”
The Cal alumnus is 634-599 in his career with Oakland, and has won over 1,000 games as a major league manager. Sixty-three other managers in big league history have 1,000 wins, and 53 are ahead of Melvin. Of those 53, 30 are in the Hall of Fame. Three — Joe Maddon, Bruce Bochy and Mike Scioscia — likely could be.
Though awards aren’t announced until after the World Series, Melvin is considered a frontrunner for American League Manager of the Year. This year was arguably Melvin’s most impressive balancing act.
Melvin juggled 15 different starting pitchers, 80 different lineups, two different rookie center fielders, in Dustin Fowler and Ramon Laureano, a pair of second-year corner men and a 34-year old second baseman in Jed Lowrie, who just happened to have the best season of his career. He also shepherded the development of Franklin Barreto, rookie set-up man Lou Trivino and a resurgent Frankie Montas.
While Melvin had the benefit of 32-year old veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy — who threw out a big league-best 31 runners — he had to manage a paucity of starting pitching and experimenting with the trend of using openers — a strategy Beane championed. Two relievers started a total of nine games down the stretch, not including the Wild Card game, which was also started by opener Liam Hendriks.
A year after losing 87 games and finishing fifth in the American League West, it could be argued that this year’s A’s were ahead of schedule.
“We love the group we have here,” Melvin said. “As impressive as some of these younger players were, we feel like they can even get better. I’m excited about where we’re going from here. I expect us to have results again, next year. We’re going to have to add some pieces and make some decisions on some free agents and so forth, but I’m really excited about where this team’s going, and I know the group is, as well.”
Much of that was due to Melvin. He seems to be the most uniquely qualified manager to deal with the organization’s unique struggles. He’s guided the team to the playoffs four times in his eight seasons.
Beane called Melvin”one of the best in the game.” Melvin jokingly said, “leave out 2015, 2016 and 2017.”