Oakland A's 2023 Season Preview
It is going to be a long season in Oakland. The grind of a Major League Baseball season affects everybody differently, but going to the ballpark in the midst of a 100-loss season cannot be fun, especially with the cloud of a move to Las Vegas hanging over the Athletics. They are the only AL team projected for at least 100 losses based on the season win total odds and may be every bit as bad as the forecasts indicate.
Manager Mark Kotsay played for seven different teams across 17 seasons in the big leagues. He played in all of 26 postseason games, including seven with the 2006 A’s. He knows life on some bad teams, but the A’s were actually quite good while he was there. In fact, they were quite good with three straight playoff appearances from 2018-20 and from 2012-14. In between, those teams were 68-94, 69-93 and 75-87.
Oakland won 86 games in 2021, but fell short of the playoffs and then got into complete rebuild mode. They bottomed out at 60-102 last season, finishing with over 100 losses for the first time since 1979. If the recent pattern holds and three years is the requisite time to retool on the fly, the midpoint will come some time this season. Add the A’s to the list of teams where wins and losses don’t matter this season. It’s all about individual development.
Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.
2023 Oakland A's Odds
(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 10, click for updates)
World Series: +50000
AL Pennant: +25000
AL West: +20000
Win Total: 60.5 (100/-120)
Make Playoffs: Yes +2500 / No -10000
Oakland Athletics Offense
Perhaps things change when the A’s get to the glitz and glam of Las Vegas, but it’s still about milking production from players making peanuts in a relative sense. The A’s are projected for a $54.5 million Opening Day payroll and the high-dollar players are guys they’re hoping to spin for prospects on short-term free agent deals. There is not a cent of guaranteed money on the books for 2025 and beyond and only $13 million of guaranteed money for next year.
Offensively, this season is about young players and finding out whether or not they can be cornerstone pieces at cost-controlled salaries for the next several seasons. Shea Langeliers is the one in the brightest spotlight because the A’s traded Sean Murphy to the Braves to give Langeliers the full-time spot behind the plate. The 25-year-old former top-10 pick swung a good stick in the minors and got 153 plate appearances worth of experience at the MLB level last year.
He batted .218/.261/.430 with a little pop and profiles as a quality defensive catcher. The A’s have to try and steal surplus value from lower-cost positions like this, so they look for some pop, some patience and some good defense behind the dish. Murphy provided all of those things and netted a decent return that included starting pitchers Freddy Tarnok and Kyle Muller, as well as catcher Manny Pina, who will back up Langeliers.
The player I’m most interested in seeing is JJ Bleday. He was the fourth overall pick in the 2019 draft (Langeliers was ninth) and was thought to be a polished college bat, but the results have not followed as a pro. He walks a lot, strikes out a lot and has some power, so the A’s took a chance on him as a lottery ticket in exchange for reliever A.J. Puk.
Similarly, the A’s took a chance on Cristian Pache in the Matt Olson deal in March 2022. Pache was another highly-touted prospect that just never lived up to the hype. He batted just .166/.218/.241 with a 35 wRC+ in 260 plate appearances last season, meaning he was 65% below league average offensively.
Then you look at 24-year-old Esteury Ruiz, who was one of the big pieces in the Murphy deal. At least he has a much stronger record in the minor leagues, but this is also his fourth organization and he’s played 17 games at the MLB level. Oakland is banking on guys that had prospect status that either haven’t lived up to it, don’t have a position or haven’t found a fit. That seems like an ill-advised strategy and it’s why this is a team projected to lose 100 games.
This was a bottom-five offense last season. The only players to be league average or better offensively were Conner Capel (194 wRC+, 40 PA), Murphy (122 wRC+, traded to Atlanta), Seth Brown (117 wRC+) and Christian Bethancourt (182 PA, traded to Tampa Bay). Ramon Laureano and Tony Kemp are solid Major Leaguers, but mediocre hitters. Laureano is one of the game’s stronger defensive players and is a clear candidate to be traded in July or earlier.
Oakland did sign Jesus Aguilar and Jace Peterson as guys with track records. Aguilar is coming off of a bad offensive season and Peterson provides most of his value defensively. Aledmys Diaz is a nice player and the second-most expensive player on the roster behind projected closer Trevor May.
The hope here is that Bleday, Ruiz and Langeliers are able to show reasons for optimism and that top prospect Tyler Soderstrom stays healthy all season. Prospect infielder Jordan Diaz has been about 20% above league average in the minors offensively and could be a contributor. Ultimately, if the A’s have more than three or four players that post a 100 wRC+ or higher, I’d consider that a good outcome.
Oakland Athletics Pitching
As bleak as the projection looks for the offense, there are a bevy of interesting arms here. I guess I’ll start with the players recently acquired from the Yankees that stand out. Ken Waldichuk looks like a lock to make the Opening Day rotation after being part of the Frankie Montas trade. The 25-year-old southpaw worked 34.2 innings with the A’s and had a 4.93 ERA with a 4.30 FIP. Control has been an issue in the minors, but he’s also racked up a ton of strikeouts. He’s struck out 349 and walked 94 in 234.1 minor league innings.
Waldichuk allowed 14 runs in a three-start stretch and allowed just five runs in his other four starts, so I’d expect some inconsistency this season, but also flashes of potential. The same is true of another former Yankees lefty in JP Sears. I really like the minor league profile for Sears, who doesn’t have the same raw stuff as Waldichuk, but had stronger walk and home run rates. He’s already 27 and durability has been a concern, but he threw 117.2 innings last season between Triple-A and MLB.
Muller and Tarnok also intrigue me a lot. Muller is more accomplished with 49 innings at the MLB level, but he’s had major control issues at the upper levels of the minors and in MLB. He has a 5.14 ERA with a 4.05 FIP, but has only made 11 starts and one relief appearance, with the bulk of that coming in 2021. Tarnok appeared in one game for the Braves last season with a strikeout and a hit allowed in three batters faced.
Tarnok, like Muller, has flashed strikeout upside in the minors, but seems to have a better feel for control. He also has a bigger home run problem, so going to a big ballpark in Oakland should really help whenever he gets on the roster. The A’s have tried to get MLB-ready arms in trades, as they’ve acquired these four, but also Luis Medina and Adrian Martinez. They’re loading up on depth and seeing who pops.
With that strategy, though, you need to find guys that can eat innings. Drew Rucinski and Shintaro Fujinami are two of those guys this season. Rucinski recently starred for the NC Dinos in the KBO for four years. He last pitched in MLB for the Marlins as a reliever in 2018, but he’s made 121 starts in Korea over the last four seasons with terrific numbers. I’m not sure his numbers will translate back in the U.S., but he was very durable overseas.
Fujinami had over a strikeout per inning in Japan, but also had a bit of a walk issue. He debuted at 19 for the Hanshin Tigers and spent 10 seasons with them before deciding it was time to move to MLB. Like a lot of Japanese pitchers, the splitter is a big weapon for him and he has an arsenal that runs six pitches deep. Projection systems are all over the place about him, but a poor K/BB ratio is likely to hold him back. The hope for Oakland is that he overperforms, but also that he stays healthy and the team can really spread innings around.
Paul Blackburn and oft-injured James Kaprielian are the holdovers that spent the whole season with the A’s. Blackburn was actually an All-Star thanks to some dominant work in April and May, but the wheels fell off in June and then he got hurt in August to finish his season. Over his first 54.1 innings, Blackburn had a 2.15 ERA with a 3.15 FIP over 10 starts. Over his last 11 starts, he had a 6.32 ERA with a 5.22 FIP in 57 innings.
Kaprielian worked 134 innings over 26 starts with a poor K/BB ratio and a 4.23 ERA with a 4.63 FIP. The A’s are always a team that has big home/road splits on the pitching side because of the friendly park factor, but Kaprielian was the opposite with a 5.09 ERA and a 5.38 FIP at home compared to a 3.67 ERA and a 4.15 FIP on the road.
The bullpen for the A’s does not excite me at all. They won’t have many leads to protect anyway, but many of last season’s arms are still around. May and Chad Smith are the two new additions. This will continue to be a group with a low strikeout rate, a concerning walk rate and command woes. Puk was one of the better relievers and he’s gone.
Usually the A’s have a little bit of a home-field advantage. It isn’t a fun park for road teams to visit and the atmospheric conditions tend to tighten up games, which is why the A’s have been at the forefront of reliever spending and have put tremendous importance on fielding over the years. They were only 29-51 at home and got outscored by 145 runs last season.
To give you an idea of how bad this offense actually was, the A’s were 11-11 in games when they allowed two runs and 13-11 in games when they allowed three runs. The rest of the league had a .746 win percentage when allowing two runs and a .631 when allowing three runs.
Player to Watch
SP Ken Waldichuk: With a lot of solid work from Cole Irvin to replace, the A’s are going to look to Waldichuk to do some of the heavy lifting. I like lefties with plus changeups because they have something to neutralize the platoon advantage that righties typically have in those plate appearances. He also projects as a durable guy at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. I think his additional swing-and-miss upside will make him one of the more trustworthy guys in this rotation.
Oakland Athletics Season Win Total Pick
This isn’t the worst team I’ve ever seen, but it’s probably in the running. There are some intriguing pitchers, but very little about the offense intrigues me. Given how all of the league’s rule changes are with the intent of creating more offense, the A’s are probably behind the eight-ball in that regard as well. I’m just not interested in trying to isolate just how awful the A’s are going to be. They’re already projected to lose 100, which is actually really hard to do.
The strength of the four division opponents makes it very plausible this season. I always felt like the A’s overperformed at home because it was a tough road trip, usually grouped with going to Seattle or Anaheim, which were popular road cities for players. It’s also just not an enjoyable ballpark for visiting teams. That “edge” dried up last season.
The A’s always find a way to overachieve. Last season was really the first time in a while that they hadn’t. I’m not going to be shocked if they win 61 or more games. I’m also not going to be shocked if they lose 110 games. I think this team is lined accurately and I don’t see a good bet one way or the other.
Lean: Under 60.5