Before the A’s played their final home series of 2016 two weekends ago, catcher Stephen Vogt did his best to encapsulate a disappointing season that ended with 93 losses and a second consecutive last-place finish in the American League West.
“We had a lot of underachieving, I think, for this team,” said Vogt, one of the few holdovers from the A’s last postseason appearance in 2014. “We could’ve played a lot better at times than we did. But we were banged up all year, too.”
In one sense, the tone for the A’s season was set before they threw a regular-season pitch. In their final preseason game, Felix Doubront, their fifth starter, suffered a season-ending injury. Then Sonny Gray, their top starter, was scratched from his Opening Day start because of illness. The A’s went on to use the disabled list 27 times, an Oakland record.
“I think we were behind the curve right out of the chute with all the injuries,” Billy Beane, the A’s vice president of baseball operations, said Monday. “It seemed it was sort of constant crisis mode in terms of fielding players.”
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The players the A’s did field, including 19 rookies, combined to score the fewest runs in the American League while allowing the second-most. Their 69-93 record was one game better than last season and left them 26 games out of first place. So early were they out of contention that for the second straight year they traded several veterans, including Rich Hill, their best pitcher this season, and outfielders Josh Reddick and Coco Crisp.
“If I were to sum up, I don’t think we were really able to see what we anticipated seeing,” Beane said. “But the flip side was it provided some opportunities, maybe sooner than we had expected, for some younger players, some of these pitchers, and I think we saw some good things.”
The A’s used 12 rookie pitchers, tying another Oakland record, including Sean Manaea (7-9, 3.86 ERA), Daniel Mengden (2-9, 6.50 ERA), Jharel Cotton (five starts, 2.15 ERA) and Raul Alcantara (five starts, 7.25 ERA). They form part of a group of starters that appears to be the A’s main area of strength entering next season.
Kendall Graveman was the A’s best starter in the second half, and they still have high expectations for Gray despite his down season. If Chris Bassitt and Doubront return healthy, they could compete for rotation spots along with Jesse Hahn, Zach Neal and a surprising bright spot from this season, Andrew Triggs.
Outside of Graveman, a healthy Gray and likely Manaea, manager Bob Melvin said he did not want to name front-runners for next spring’s rotation competition but that “I’m excited about where our rotation is going.”
The A’s bullpen remains mostly intact this offseason. That group combined for a 4.01 ERA, sixth-highest in the league, though Beane attributed that partly to overwork that stemmed from struggles in the rotation. Ryan Madson became a viable closer partway through the year, and Ryan Dull had a strong first full season with a 2.42 ERA.
A bigger question for next year is where the scoring will come from. Aside from Khris Davis, who hit 42 home runs in his first season in Oakland, the A’s have no established outfielders entering next year, and Beane acknowledged Monday that area is “probably a weakness in the system.”
Mark Canha, who missed most of this season to injury, could be an option in right field. But Beane said there is “no question center field, short and long-term, is a concern. It’s an area we don’t necessarily have an answer for.” He said the A’s might try to fill center field through free agency but will have to be “strategic” given budget constraints.
The A’s are better situated at catcher with Vogt, Josh Phegley – also recovering from injury – and Bruce Maxwell, who impressed coaches during a September call-up. The left side of their infield also appears set entering next spring. Marcus Semien showed notable defensive improvement at shortstop while hitting 27 home runs, and Ryon Healy took over the everyday third-base job after being called up at midseason.
Healy capped his year by being named the A.L. Rookie of the Month for September and October on Monday. Melvin said “you would have to consider Healy the incumbent” at third base entering next spring and that Healy’s emergence means the A’s don’t have to rush top prospect Matt Chapman to the majors to play third.
On the right side, the A’s can bring back Yonder Alonso to play first base, and veteran Jed Lowrie probably will be the top option at second base as he returns from surgery on his foot, though Melvin also was impressed by rookie Joey Wendle at second during his brief call-up.
Among the roster decisions the A’s must make this offseason are on arbitration-eligible players such as Henderson Alvarez, who did not throw a pitch for the A’s this season because of shoulder issues, and Danny Valencia, who was one of their top hitters but also displaced from third base because of defense and later was involved in a clubhouse fight with teammate Billy Butler, who later was released.
Beane said Valencia’s situation is “the same as every other guy on the team right now. … There’s certainly going to be a lot of conversation on guys who are currently on our roster going forward. But that wouldn’t be unique to him.”
▪ Melvin said he wants his coaching staff back next season, though he might need to make an exception. Third-base coach Ron Washington already has been called upon to interview for one open managerial job with the Braves and could field other offers given his standing in the game and managerial experience for the Rangers, whom he took to consecutive World Series in 2010 and 2011.
“It’d be great for Wash,” Beane said. “If he got the job, nobody would be happier than we are. It would be a big loss to us, but it would be for a good reason.”
Washington re-joined the A’s coaching staff last season and has been instrumental in the defensive improvement of Semien and other Oakland infielders. Melvin said he has also grown close to Washington in the season-plus having him on staff.
“I’d hate to lose him; I hope he gets it,” Melvin said. “That’s how highly I think of Ron Washington.”
▪ One key for the A’s in 2017 likely for be how Gray returns from his worst season in the majors. A year after finishing third in A.L. Cy Young voting, the right-hander went 5-11 with a 5.69 ERA and missed most of the second half with elbow inflammation.
Beane said it was difficult to pinpoint the reason for Gray’s drop-off, pointing out that the 26-year-old’s velocity remained fairly constant.
“Maybe at times, the command was probably not where it’s been in the past,” Beane said. “But the good thing, he’s healthy, the velocity’s still there, and he’s young and has a lot of motivation going into next year.”
Gray did return to pitch one inning in the A’s final series of the season, something that Melvin said was important for Gray to take some peace of mind into the offseason. Melvin said he and Gray had several conversations in the second half about turning this season into a learning experience.
“He’s very driven,” Melvin said. “It was tough, him having to go through it. But I think he’s going to be better for it.”
▪ Beane voiced his support of Melvin, who signed a two-year contract extension near the end of last season, saying that despite the A’s record, the manager “did a great job” during a difficult season.
“We had one game not too long ago where he had to use his starter for the next day to get through a game,” Beane said. “We literally were going sort of day to day, so again I don’t think you can judge the job he did, because under the circumstances, like all of us, he kept everything together, and that’s very important.”
Melvin said he is constantly analyzing his own performance and decisions and is “not happy with what happened the last couple years – not just this year, the last couple.
“But I’m happy to get this year over. I always look to how I can be better, whether it’s decisions, whether it’s communicating with players. I’m not happy with how the last couple years have gone by any stretch.”