OAKLAND — The A’s trip to Japan did not end up the way they hoped it would.
The Seattle Mariners made sure Ichiro Suzuki ended his career on top against the A’s by coming away with the victory in both of their regular season games played at the Tokyo Dome. To make things worse, the A’s flew back to the Bay Area concerned about Matt Olson after the Gold Glove first baseman injured his hand and is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season.
The A’s are back to playing exhibitions for thee more games against the San Francisco Giants before Thursday’s home opener against the Los Angeles Angels, which will kick off a brutal stretch of 18 consecutive days in which they will play a game.
Before the A’s resume play, here are five things we learned about the A’s from their first two games of the regular season.
The leadoff spot is a fluid situation
New A’s outfielder Robbie Grossman found himself leading off against right-handed pitchers for most of the Cactus League. Not only did Grossman not lead off against the Mariners, but he was also benched in favor of right-handed hitting Chad Pinder with the A’s going up against left-handed starters in both games.
Ramón Laureano found himself in the leadoff spot for the opener and Marcus Semien led off the second game. One of those three could eventually take the role and run with it after putting together a stretch of strong performances. But until then, expect A’s manager Bob Melvin to do some tinkering at leadoff.
Both catchers will get time
Nick Hundley and Josh Phegley each got a start in the two games against the Mariners. Both went hitless, and like the leadoff spot, it’s going to take sustained success for either guy to pull away with the lion’s share of at-bats.
The more likely scenario in terms of stability at catcher for the A’s could come in matching Hundley and Phegley to specific starting pitchers. Phegley has a stronger arm than Hundley, which could lead to him working more with pitchers who are slower to the plate with their delivery in order to control the running game on the bases.
“I think it will be a little bit of trial and error and who works well together,” Melvin said. “We’re still at the beginning of that. It could be as simple as a hot hand offensively.”
Starting pitching weakness is real
Opening Day in Japan pretty much saw the A’s biggest fear for the entire season realized in one game. They showed off plenty of offensive firepower with seven home runs, including three home runs from the stars in Matt Chapman, Khris Davis and Stephen Piscotty, but it was wasted away with a bad start from Mike Fiers.
Fiers lasted just three innings in the 9-7 loss, roughed up for a five-run third inning which took nearly 40 pitches for him to get out of.
Marco Estrada pitched better in the second game with three runs allowed over five innings, but a playoff team needs more from their top two starters, regardless of how good its offense and bullpen is considered to be.
Perhaps getting out of a hitters’ paradise at the Tokyo Dome for the more pitcher-friendly Oakland Coliseum will get these two back on track.
A’s may have more competition than expected
The Mariners had an offseason that led many to believe they would take a step back from contention for a playoff spot in 2019. They added sluggers in Edwin Encarnacion and Jay Bruce, but lost stars in second baseman Robinson Canó, closer Edwin Diaz and No. 1 starter James Paxton.
It’s unclear how Mariners pitching will hold up over a season, but their offensive display against the A’s showed they probably should not be counted out of things so easily. Domingo Santana, another trade acquisition for the Mariners this offseason, crushed a grand slam off Fiers and seemed to crush the ball in each at-bat.
The A’s might have a problem dealing with Seattle as the season goes along.
Matt Chapman MVP talks are real
Sometimes you just have to use the old eye test to evaluate a player.
Chapman only went 2 for 9 in the series, with a three-run homer late in Wednesday’s opener to make the game close again, but it’s his overall game that brought excitement. His ability to make going from first to third so effortless. His unreal plays on defense that continue to look routine for him. His ability to draw walks on a more consistent basis – he had two in the second game.
There’s a reason Chapman is considered a darkhorse candidate for AL MVP in 2019, and he is already showing why.