The 2018 Oakland A’s were fun, engaging, endearing, and scrappy.
They were a team that demanded your attention and earned your admiration. They could go toe-to-toe with anyone in baseball and they were never out of a game until all 27 outs were made.
The A’s didn’t exemplify those truths that in their one-game playoff showdown with the Yankees on Wednesday — a game they lost 7-2 in the Bronx to end their season — but one game doesn’t nullify the results of the 162.
And here’s another truth for you: The 2018 Oakland A’s were a year ahead of schedule.
Nothing in baseball is ever certain, and any longtime fan can attest to the fact that expecting anything positive from the A’s organization is likely to only bring about disappointment, but this team should be in the thick of things in the years to come.
It was a minor baseball miracle that the 2018 A’s won 97 games — more than any team in the National League this season. Their success was incredible when you when you consider how young this team is. It’s incredible when you take into account how they started the season. It’s downright preposterous when you see how their starting rotation was decimated at a near-biblical level.
If the 2018 season was the baseline — and there’s plenty of reason to believe that it was — then the future is radiant in Oakland.
Now, there was some magic that helped the A’s get to 97 wins and the Wild Card Game this year. There were also a handful of downright awful teams in the American League that helped the playoff squads pad their win totals.
So don’t mark down the A’s for 97 wins or better going forward — use a pencil.
But playoff contention, perhaps even a division title? That’s absolutely possible — if not probable — for the A’s in 2019 and beyond.
And think about what the A’s had to overcome this year: this September, Oakland had to “bullpen” nine games because of the endless string of injuries to Major League caliber starting pitchers.
And while injuries seem to be an inevitability for pitchers these days — no one gets through an entire season with one five-man rotation anymore — the A’s might get more than a full rotation returning from injury next year: Jharel Cotton, Daniel Gossett, and Kendall Gravemen all had Tommy John surgery this year, Paul Blackburn and Andrew Triggs missed significant time with elbow and nerve issues, and ace Sean Manaea has shoulder surgery in September.
Add in another year of Mike Fiers, the possible re-signings of Edwin Jackson, Brett Anderson, and Trevor Cahill, further progression from Daniel Mengden and Frankie Montas, and two top-of-the-rotation prospects who are ready for the Big Leagues in Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk, and the A’s shouldn’t have to bullpen a game in 2019.
In fact, the A’s could have one of the rotations in baseball in 2019. And if luck evens out year-over-year, this team will have the deepest starting pitcher stable in baseball.
This, of course, leading into a strong bullpen, led by two of the best relievers in baseball, Lou Trivino and Blake Treinen.
Things look even better out in the field.
Contrary to late-season narratives around the excellent Khris Davis, third baseman Matt Chapman was the A’s MVP this year. Not only is he the best defensive third baseman since Adrian Beltre in his prime, but he was also one of the best hitters in baseball in the second half of the season.
Chapman starting spraying the ball to all fields over the final 64 games of the 2018 season, posting a gaudy slash line of .309/.371/.591 and a wRC+ of 162 (league average is 100).
Those are numbers that, extended over the course of a season — something Chapman said he believes he can do — would make Chapman a top contender for American League MVP, regardless of his defense. (For reference, MVP candidates Alex Bregman and Jose Ramirez posted a slash line of .286/.394/.532 and .272/.388/.555 respectively for the Astros and Indians this year.)
Of course, the defense is the start of the conversation with Chapman. The third baseman saved 29 runs on defense this season — far and away the top mark in baseball. If Chapman, alone, was a team, he would have finished ninth in all baseball in defensive runs saved — the best metric for defensive prowess.
Chapman is a superstar — the kind of player that can singlehandedly turn around a franchise. I think we saw that this season, but he can get so much better in the years to come.
But the burden of a team’s campaign isn’t entirely on Chapman’s shoulders moving forward. No, no no — far from it. If Davis leads the American League in home runs again next year — and what reason is there to believe that he won’t?— the A’s will have two MVP candidates, three Gold Glove candidates (Chapman, first baseman Matt Olson, and outfielder Ramon Laureano), and one of the strongest lineups in baseball.
And as exciting as the A’s young pitchers are, their position prospects are even more tantalizing — Franklin Barreto, Jorge Mateo, Dustin Fowler, and Sean Murphy are all poised to make an impact in Oakland in 2019.
Murphy should be of particular interest — the A’s haven’t gotten much production from the catcher position the past few years, but the soon-to-be 24-year-old, who ranks No. 47 on MLB.com’s league-wide Top 100 prospects list, posted a .856 OPS in Double-A last year and should push for a job at the big league level in 2019. Even if the bat isn’t there at the start of his major league tenure, his defense — he has a plus arm that keeps baserunners at bay — should immediately translate. This might be the guy the A’s have been waiting for since Terry Steinbach. (No offense to Kurt Suzuki.)
Ultimately, the A’s problem in 2019 might legitimately be that they have too much talent for their 25-man roster — there are going to be some tough decisions to make in free agency and Spring Training — and better yet, almost all of it is cost-effective and under team control.
Looking around the league, it’s hard to see a better on-the-diamond situation going forward. The A’s are good now and poised to get better in the years to come.
Of course, that’s only the half of it.
So my sincere hope is this: the 2018 season created enough inspiration for the A’s organization and enough political goodwill for the city of Oakland that the organization breaks ground on a new ballpark in the next year.
Because without a new ballpark, all of this talent could go to waste — or, more accurately, to other teams because of financial restraints. It’s unfortunate, but that’s Oakland A’s baseball.
But hopefully, this season started a new era — because these A’s are just getting started, and it’d be great to see this team get a long, sustained shot at doing something special.