The 2017 Cactus League has been a mostly positive experience for the A’s.
They’ve won more than they’ve lost, and they’ve scored runs in bunches, occasionally at a ferocious rate, and as the calendar turns toward the Bay Bridge Series against the Giants starting Thursday at AT&T Park, there are glimmers of optimism to be had.
And that wasn’t a given at the start of the spring, not with the A’s are coming off back-to-back last-place finishes in the American League West and with most pundits ready to make it a trifecta without thinking much about it.
That’s not to say there aren’t issues. No. 1 starter Sonny Gray, who spent two terms on the DL last year, will start the season disabled thanks to an injury that could cost him a couple of weeks, if not more. Jesse Hahn, who had an all-but-free pass into the starting rotation, pitched himself into Triple-A.
More than that, while Oakland’s 16 wins has the club tied for third in wins in the Cactus League, two of the A’s contenders in the AL West, the Mariners (19) and Angels (18) have more wins, and both of those, like the A’s, are coming off seasons they’d just as soon forget. Houston and Texas have hung around the .500 level, but both are expected to be prime challengers for the AL West title.
The spring started with us asking five questions the A’s would need to address during the spring. Here’s a look at how they’ve done:
1. Will 2017 see a return to form for Sonny Gray?
Perhaps the low point of the spring was the news that the A’s ace would start the season on the disabled list.
It’s a lat strain on his right side and theoretically he could be back in the rotation mid-April, and that’s good.
What’s bad is this is the third trip to the DL for Gray since the beginning of the 2016 season, and the A’s have to face the fact that he may not be as durable as they once believed he was. Gray himself has every confidence that he’ll be fine once he’s back in the rotation, but three DL trips in 11 months is disquieting in the extreme.
Without Gray, the A’s starting rotation will be stretched thin. Raul Alcantara and Andrew Triggs landed the last two starting berths, and it’s likely the one who pitches best in the first two or three weeks of April will remain in the lineup when Gray returns.
2. Do the A’s have enough left-handed pop for the necessary offensive balance?
To start the season, the answer is probably not. The A’s have a long history of adding a surprise name during the spring – Triggs and Khris (2016), Barry Zito (2015), Jed Lowrie and Hideki Okajima (2013) and Yoenis Cespedes and Manny Ramirez (2012) all were added in February or March.
This year, there was no such addition, and the A’s could have used a left-handed bat to balance out the offense, which lost lefty Josh Reddick and switch-hitters Billy Burns and Coco Crisp from last year’s squad.
There are some reasons for optimism based on the springs some of the lefties and switch-hitters have turned in. First baseman Yonder Alonso had a big spring (.348/.474/.652) while switch hitting second baseman Lowrie (.293/.348/.341) and lefty catcher Stephen Vogt (.293/.354/.439) both came on late to put up some decent numbers.
The problem is right fielder Matt Joyce, the first lefty the A’s went after in the off-season. He hit just .206 this spring, but he’s an on-base machine and hit two homers, too, so his on-base percentage of .429 and slugging percentage of .382 show some promise.
3. Will this current roster be any better than last year’s at getting on base and scoring runs?
Spring training stats are notoriously unreliable – just look at the A’s winning 22 games in the spring of 2015, three more than any other club in either league, then go on to finish with the worst record in the American League.
The A’s have already passed the 181 runs scored last spring with three games against the Giants still to play and rank in the top third of baseball teams in runs scored and homers hit.
Still, with the exception of Joyce, who had a .403 on-base percentage last season, it’s difficult to see the club’s on-base percentage going up short of having players turn in career years that would drive both batting averages and on-base percentages up.
Oakland made on-base percentage the stat par excellence two decades back, but there’s no hiding a stat that leads to wins, so it’s no longer a stat that low-payroll teams can use to get a jump on the competition. So the A’s are stuck watching other teams build their rosters the Moneyball way while Oakland is trying to get back into the game by drafting and signing players that fit the mold.
So it will take the arrival of minor leaguers Matt Chapman, Matt Olson and Franklin Barreto and others in Oakland to really fire up the on-base percentage. Until then, the A’s will hope for the best.
4. How far can the A’s ride their bullpen?
The one area where the A’s are loaded is the bullpen, with four former or current big league closers in the pen – Ryan Madson, Santiago Casilla, John Axford and Sean Doolittle.
Add to that seeing Ryan Dull and Liam Hendriks come off big years in setup role last year, and manager Bob Melvin will have the ability to go to the bullpen early with the ability to keep the game in reach or shut down the other side, depending on the situation.
But for the bullpen to be effective the offense is going to have to score runs to keep the game close for the first five or six innings or the starting pitching is going to have to limit runs over that same span. It could be a tough call, but the spring showed occasional signs of promise.
5. Will 2017 be the year the A’s commit to their youth?
History tells us that the A’s brain trust will begin shipping out veterans in June or July if the club isn’t competitive in the West.
That could make this season a short one in Oakland for Alonso, Vogt, Lowrie and Gray, and if so, those deals could be the trigger that gets Barreto, Olson, and Chapman by the middle of the season.
If the trades aren’t made, look for Barreto to make the jump at the very least, with Olson and Chapman not that far behind.
Barreto, Chapman and No. 3 starter Jharel Cotton are three of the four A’s ranked in BaseballAmerica’s list of top 100 prospects in the game, the other being last year’s first-round draft pick A.J. Puk, a lefty starter out of Florida. The A’s have more than two men on BaseballAmerica’s elite list for the first time since 2012.