As a panel of A’s players fielded questions from the public at the team’s FanFest event Sunday, a young fan took the microphone and, referencing a popular chant among A’s supporters, asked: “Should I still believe in Stephen Vogt?” The A’s catcher, feigning a look of shock, responded: “One hundred percent.”
Vogt actually was one of the few bright spots last year for an A’s team that finished with the American League’s worst record. But as the A’s reconvened at the Coliseum on Sunday, not drastically different roster-wise from where they ended last season, the mood was largely optimistic about 2016.
“I like where we are,” Vogt said. “Obviously, everybody has excitement going into every season. But I feel like we really did address some of the issues that we had last year.”
Chief among those for a team that lost an Oakland-era record 35 one-run games was the bullpen, which posted the A.L.’s highest ERA. The A’s dedicated much of their winter activity to bolstering that unit, acquiring veteran relievers John Axford, Liam Hendriks, Ryan Madson and Marc Rzepczynski to bridge the gap to closer Sean Doolittle.
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All four newcomers have postseason experience, while Doolittle himself could be viewed as an acquisition after missing most of last season with shoulder problems.
“You look at the one-run games and how we did in the bullpen late in the games, and you look at what we acquired this year – you win a good share of those games instead of losing them, and now we’re in a completely different position,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “And I think the offense got better as we went along. ... I think with all those parts combined, we’re looking forward to having a good year.”
35 Number of one-run games the A’s lost last season
With players standing around and chatting before their FanFest duties, Sunday felt more like a reunion than last year’s event, when the A’s offseason roster overhaul meant many players were meeting each other at FanFest for the first time. That makeover produced little, either in wins or clubhouse chemistry.
“I think (the clubhouse) was a big issue for us,” right fielder Josh Reddick said. “There were days that, myself included, it was tough to come to the ballpark. You just couldn’t wait for the first inning to come around because you could get in your game mode and not have to talk to anybody.
“Hopefully, this clubhouse feel will be a lot better than it was last year, and we win a lot more ballgames. Winning’s going to bring you together, and when you don’t win, it’s going to tear you apart, so hopefully that’s something we can control and fix this year.”
Despite their 2015 finish, several players cited roster carryover as a reason for optimism. The A’s return their two All-Stars from last season in starter Sonny Gray and Vogt, who, along with Reddick and third baseman Danny Valencia, should anchor a lineup that stays mostly intact.
Center fielder Billy Burns, shortstop Marcus Semien and utility player Mark Canha, all newcomers last spring, are back for a second season. The A’s parted ways with infielders Ike Davis and Brett Lawrie and replaced them with Yonder Alonso and Jed Lowrie, the latter already a familiar face after playing in Oakland in 2013 and 2014.
44Number of games Coco Crisp played last season
Designated hitter Billy Butler, coming off a disappointing first season with the A’s, and told reporters Sunday he expects a better spring training than last year, when he went in with a sore left wrist. The A’s hope to regain a healthy Coco Crisp but admittedly are uncertain what to expect from the 36-year-old outfielder, who played in just 44 games in 2015 due to injuries.
“We have a lot of young guys that got a lot of experience last year,” Doolittle said. “And seeing the guys we picked up, these are veteran guys but also veteran guys that have been on winning teams. I think having that kind of experience is really important when you have a young team overall that’s trying to have a bounce-back year.”
One area that still requires some resolution this spring is the starting rotation. After Gray, the A’s have a group of candidates to start but few with significant major-league experience.
Melvin said the hope is Rich Hill, whom the A’s signed to a one-year, $6 million contract in November, will emerge as the No. 2 starter behind Gray. Kendall Graveman, Chris Bassitt and Jesse Hahn started at times for the A’s last season, but Hahn did not pitch after July 1 because of elbow problems, and Graveman missed the last six weeks with an abdominal strain.
Jarrod Parker appears a long shot to crack the rotation, returning from an elbow fracture sustained while he rehabbed from his second Tommy John surgery. But Melvin did not rule out either Parker or Sean Manaea, the A’s prize acquisition in last summer’s trade of Ben Zobrist to Kansas City who finished last season at Double A. Melvin called Manaea “a little bit of a wild card.”
“I think we like where we are,” Melvin said, “and the depth that we have.”