Among the factors contributing to the A’s last-place finish in 2015 was a lineup that, cobbled together as part of an offseason roster rebuild, never really jelled.
The reasons were plentiful. The projected leadoff hitter played just 44 games because of injuries. The primary left- and right-handed hitters acquired to provide power each under-performed. The utilityman whose versatility was supposed to tie the lineup together was traded at midseason.
By September, perhaps the two best offensive players were rookies whose numbers took even team officials by surprise.
Skip ahead one year, and, as the A’s prepare for spring training, their lineup is again something of a shape-changing mass whose form largely will be up to manager Bob Melvin to mold. This time at least, Melvin has the benefit of more familiarity with the pieces, many of which return from last year’s team with an eye on improving in 2016.
“I think offensively we’re going to have some great parts,” Melvin said at last month’s FanFest. “You look up and down our lineup, I think we’ll have a good offensive lineup.”
The offense last year was unremarkable, ninth in the American League in runs (4.28 per game), ninth in batting average (.251) and 12th in OPS (.707). Bright spots were individual and mostly surprising, such as Stephen Vogt’s breakout first half, which earned the catcher his first All-Star nod at age 30, and the emergence of rookies Billy Burns and Mark Canha as everyday players.
The A’s strategy in recent years has been to rely on many players for offense to support the team’s typically strong pitching staff, and the hope this spring is that they have assembled another effective mix.
An offensive boost could start with designated hitter Billy Butler. The A’s signed Butler before last season to a three-year, $30 million contract, hoping he would anchor the middle of their lineup. Instead, the career .290 hitter batted just .251 with 15 homers and 65 RBIs – though he finished the season strongly, hitting .300 with six home runs and 17 RBIs in September and October.
It “wasn’t the year I wanted,” Butler acknowledged at FanFest, and he said he worked hard over the offseason to ensure he reports to spring training in good shape. Vogt said he kept in contact with Butler over the winter and Butler’s motivation was obvious.
“He’s a competitor and he’s a great hitter, one of the best hitters in baseball,” Vogt said. “I know he wasn’t satisfied with what he did last year and he’s going to get better. I’m looking forward to seeing it.”
Butler isn’t the only player whose late-season success the A’s hope carries over. Third baseman Danny Valencia was a surprise after being claimed off waivers in August, hitting .284 with 11 homers in 47 games with Oakland, and he will be counted on to replicate that production.
“We’re expecting him to be a middle-of-the-order threat like we saw last year,” Melvin said. “And I know he’s excited about the opportunity to settle in and be the guy for us. He’s not afraid of that spot right now.”
Canha, who had 16 homers and 70 RBIs in his first major-league season, is expected to platoon at first base with offseason acquisition Yonder Alonso, and the A’s see shortstop Marcus Semien building on a 15-homer season in which he seemed to iron out his defensive issues during the second half. If not, the A’s could hand the shortstop role to Jed Lowrie, part of their 2013 and 2014 playoff teams whom they reacquired after he spent a year in Houston.
Lowrie, who was supplanted as the Astros’ shortstop by phenom Carlos Correa, projects to start at second base for the A’s. The switch hitter batted a career-high .290 with the A’s in 2013, and right fielder Josh Reddick said he hopes “coming back here and knowing he’s got an everyday job … will bring (Lowrie) back to what we had two years ago.”
The A’s made one more move to upgrade the offense last week, trading for Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Khris Davis. Davis, who will share the outfield with center fielder Billy Burns and Reddick, hit 27 home runs for Milwaukee last season and gives the A’s an everyday option in left field as they begin the spring unsure of what to expect from ailing erstwhile leadoff hitter Coco Crisp.
General manager David Forst told the San Francisco Chronicle that by adding Davis, the A’s “have the makings of a really good middle of the lineup.”
“This is an important piece,” Forst said, “and we’re happy with the team we’ve got right now.”
A’s at spring training
- Location: Hohokam Stadium, Mesa, Ariz.
- Reporting dates: First practice, pitchers and catchers, Sunday, position players, Feb. 26
- First game: March 3, at Angels (Tempe, Ariz.), 12:10 p.m.
- Opening Day: April 4, vs. Chicago White Sox, 7:05 p.m.