It felt like the writing was on the wall for the Oakland A’s entering the 2021 season. I had a bet on Under 87.5 wins, which did come through, but it took losses in five of the last six games to get there.
The A’s started the season 1-7 before a crazy 13-game winning streak vaulted them to the top of the AL West, where they pretty much stayed until mid-June. The A’s were 19 games over .500 at 68-49 on Aug. 14 but proceeded to go 18-27 the rest of the way to finish nine games behind the Astros and miss the playoffs. Little did we know it would be Oakland’s last hurrah with that core.
Matt Olson and Matt Chapman are gone, leaving gaping holes at the corner infield positions. Starling Marte and Mark Canha signed with the Mets. The bullpen took heavy losses with Andrew Chafin, Sergio Romo and Jake Diekman all signing elsewhere. And the A’s have made it apparent to other teams that Frankie Montas (author's note: Previous version mentioned Sean Manaea, who has already been traded) is there for the taking. The A’s haven’t had a payroll in the top 20 since 2007 and that streak isn’t ending anytime soon. How they’ve contended with limited financial flexibility is impressive. Now, however, they don’t have a single guaranteed contract for 2023 and a full-fledged rebuild is underway.
As of now, the A’s highest-paid player for 2023 is Stephen Piscotty, who has a $1 million buyout on his club option. Given that he had a bum shoulder during spring training and hasn’t been worth more than 0.6 fWAR over any of the last three seasons, it seems the A’s will spend that million and cut bait. Also, he’s projected to hit in the middle of the order with a .313 wOBA in 2019, .293 in 2020 and 289 in 2021.
The biggest problem for Oakland is they don’t have many exciting prospects. They acquired Cristian Pache from the Braves in the Olson trade, and he hasn’t shown much at Triple-A in parts of two seasons. Pache’s bat comes and goes, but he is an elite center fielder and that won’t hurt at the spacious Coliseum. He was once a top-20 prospect and he’s still young at 22, but scouts have soured on his offensive profile.
Shea Langeliers was also acquired from the Braves in that trade, and he immediately became the A’s second-best prospect behind fellow C/1B Tyler Soderstrom. Teams looking for a catcher are likely to get one in Sean Murphy, who is nearing arbitration and will be traded at some point this year. Murphy walks at a good clip, hits for some power and is elite from the crouch. Murphy’s defense was so good that he was third on the team in fWAR despite posting a 99 wRC + .
With Olson and Chapman, the A’s lost an elite defensive third baseman and two of their best hitters with 66 combined home runs and two of the highest walk rates on the team. Based on Oakland’s roster construction, they’ll be replaced by below-average players such as Kevin Smith, Billy McKinney, Sheldon Neuse and Chad Pinder. If you asked 10 people if those guys were baseball players or rock-band drummers, you might get more musician answers.
Tony Kemp is a solid leadoff man and one of the few guys left that projects to walk a lot. For a team that was built on platoons and on-base percentage, the A’s look like a shell of themselves. They have a lot of guys that strike out a lot and don’t get on base. Kemp walked more than he struck out last season, but unless he plans on stealing a bunch of bases, he may not advance all that often. His 127 wRC + was second behind Olson, due in large part to a .382 OBP. He doesn’t hit for much power.
Murphy will walk a lot and hit in a prominent spot in the order. Otherwise, the A’s don’t have many guys that create offense. Eric Thames is back in the big leagues after a season in Japan where he hit four home runs in just 10 games. Ramon Laureano is a nice player and he’ll be back after serving the rest of his 80-game suspension for a banned substance. Elvis Andrus is a name people know but he’s a bad offensive player.
This might be the worst offense in baseball, especially when you consider the park factor in Oakland, where there is a ton of foul territory and the ball doesn’t carry well most of the season. Plus, any player that starts off hot and makes money — or is in line to make money — will likely be traded.
Any assessment of Oakland’s pitching staff can change very quickly. For now, Montas and Manaea are still wearing green and yellow. With Manaea, an impending free agent, making $9.75 million this season, and Montas making $5.025 million with one more year of control, one or both will be on the move before the season ends.
For as long as they are in Oakland, the A’s will have two of their top three starters from last season. Montas posted a 3.37 ERA and FIP over 187 innings and Manaea had a 3.91 ERA and a 3.66 FIP in 179.1 frames. Both had more than a strikeout per inning with solid walk rates.
Both guys did give up a fair amount of hard contact, though, and were bailed out a bit by the defense. Montas’ Hard Hit% of 42.2% ranked in the 23rd percentile and Manaea’s 41.1% ranked in the 29th percentile. With some defensive downgrades, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both pitchers have some regression. (author's note: Manaea was indeed traded to San Diego for prospects)
I’m also pretty convinced that regression is coming for Cole Irvin. The southpaw that couldn’t hold down a job with the Phillies, a team that’s always in search of pitching, made 32 starts over 178.1 innings with a 4.24 ERA and a 4.30 FIP. Regression did find him in August and September, as he allowed a .370 wOBA in 25.2 innings in August and a .397 wOBA in 29.1 innings in September. His ERA jumped from 3.65 in the first half to 5.10 in the second half. I’d expect Irvin to be closer to those second-half numbers.
The rest of the rotation will have red flags and injury risks. Daulton Jefferies threw 15 innings at the major league level with a 3.60 ERA and a 3.97 FIP as he only struck out eight batters. Brent Honeywell Jr. was a highly touted arm for the Rays but just turned 27. He’s worked only 4.1 innings at the MLB level after missing all of the previous three seasons. He’ll miss ample time again this year with a stress reaction in his pitching elbow. James Kaprielian is already battling AC joint pain and will be brought along slowly. Paul Blackburn has a 5.74 ERA in 138 career innings. A.J. Puk has been hurt a lot and has made eight starts since 2017.
Oakland has few arms to fall back on, which is why when Montas and/or Manaea are traded, the picture will be even bleaker. The likely reason they haven’t been moved yet is because the A’s want some MLB-ready pitching in return. This is a rotation that could fall off the face of the earth, even with a friendly park factor. Replacing Chris Bassitt is going to be impossible.
The bullpen isn’t much better. In the mid-2010s, the A’s started a trend by using their free-agent budget on relievers. They realized the importance placed on relief pitching in a highly specialized baseball environment where starters aren’t going deep into games. They spent a lot of time, money and effort to maintain a good bullpen. From 2015-19, the A’s had three of the top-30 bullpens in fWAR.
Lou Trivino and Deolis Guerra are the top bullpen holdovers. Trivino had 22 saves with a 3.18 ERA and a 3.78 FIP. Guerra had a 4.11 ERA with a 3.96 FIP over 65.2 innings. Otherwise, the next-highest total of appearances for a full-time reliever was from Puk with 12.
The A’s bullpen was 29th in K%. They were reliant on balls in play finding fielders, which happened a lot with a .277 BABIP against. I don’t think they’ll get that lucky this year.
Player to Watch
SP Cole Irvin: I struggled to find a player to talk about here because the A’s don’t have many exciting guys. Honeywell was originally slotted for this space, but he’s out indefinitely. Instead, I’ll throw in Irvin, who had some positive spring training reports about his velocity and a newly developed cutter. Maybe those things will help, but he graded poorly in virtually every Statcast metric besides BB% and Barrel%. He has low spin rates on his pitches and ranked in the bottom 6% in K%. As the season went along, hitters made better contact and Oakland will be a lesser defensive team on the infield this season. I have serious concerns about Irvin and will look to bet against him during the season.
If the A’s were in the AL East, there would be a fight to the death with the Orioles for the worst record in the American League. But Oakland is in a division with one great team, two potentially good teams and another subpar team, so they should be able to figure out a way to avoid 100 losses. That, of course, would mean keeping guys that can actually play at a high level. This team doesn’t even have the talent of the 2015 (94 losses) or 2016 (93 losses) teams that had Sonny Gray, Marcus Semien, Khris Davis, Josh Reddick and a decent bullpen. I generally don’t like playing win totals that are very high or very low, but the A’s are only going to get worse as the season goes along. The only way to look at their season win total is with an Under, and that looks like a good investment.
Win Total Pick: Under 68.5