This is part of an occasional series of slightly belated MLB season previews.
The two standout moments from each of the past two years of Oakland A’s baseball have both involved talent downgrades. They traded Josh Donaldson eastward to Toronto in 2014, where he immediately had the best hitting season in Blue Jays history (8.8 WAR) and won the American League MVP award. A year later, they swapped their big return from that trade (Brett Lawrie) to the White Sox for two long-term prospects. I expect Billy Beane to trade them for three college players soon, and then swap them for a little league team, and so on and so forth until the big return for an MVP is a sack of magic beans.
Oakland made three straight playoff appearances earlier this decade, groomed Yoenis Cespedes into a star, didn’t get much to show for it, and turned out a clunker of a season last year. 2016 was always going to be a rebuilding year and pretty much all of the baseball intelligentsia had them finishing at the bottom of the AL West. They play in a hulking wind trap of a ballpark, they don’t have a top-line prospect to work into the big league club this year, and, hell, hometown hero E-40 is now an ambassador for the Giants, so the A’s looked and felt a lot like a team not worth watching in March.
One-fifth of the way through the season and that projection has come mostly true. The A’s aren’t, say, good by any meaningful metric. They started out the season hot and swept the Yankees and Mariners before deflating and going 6-15 over their last 21 games. Weirdly, they are 5-11 in Oakland and 11-11 away from home, which was a much stranger split before the Red Sox pummeled them in Boston.
They haven’t played a particularly hard schedule or strayed too far away from their expected production. Last year, they had a below-average offense and a below-average pitching corps. This year, the offense has leveled out at a similar tier, while the pitching has been worse than expected, especially after Boston nuked them. Their record and run differential agrees that they’re, say, Brewers bad but not Braves bad or anything like that. If the starters level out (which, really, they should) and they manage to generate some more offense, sure, okay, they could recapture that early-season form.
It’s a long shot though, they’re probably just a bad team. I dunno, it’s baseball, a random number generator played out by hundreds of pajama-clad dudes. Given the recent history in play here, and the underachieving-yet-tough division they’re playing in, it feels like the A’s are who they are. Which, honestly, is fine. It’s fine! Someone has to be bad.
I’m really enjoying watching Marcus Semien sock a bunch of dingers, turn more double plays than any other shortstop in baseball, and yet barely clear the Mendoza line. He strikes out constantly and looks to clear the bases every time he approaches the plate. That’s not how shortstops are supposed to play, but the local product is the Athletics’ best power hitter and, by one specific metric, their best offensive player.
Semien stands out for his wonky productivity, but the rest of the middle of the field is an area of strength for Oakland. Steven Vogt can do some stuff, Billy Burns can run and hit for average like you expect your center fielder to, and Jed Lowrie looks more comfortable as an A’s player than anything else (he’s on the 15-day DL now, sadly). Danny Valencia is heating up and has hit a million dingers in his past few games.
The A’s have hit more homers than their record would suggest, but still, there’s not a whole lot of hitting talent on this team. Now that their pitching is, uh, slipping, they’ve regressed and have the fourth-worst run differential in baseball.
The dude who served up that tasty dinger to Hanley Ramirez, Sean Manaea, is the most exciting prospect who will take the field for the A’s this year. The Samoan-American came to baseball late and came from relative obscurity in 2013 to the Cape Cod League, where he wrecked hitters and wound up as a first-round pick. Manaea struggled with a variety of injuries early in his minor league career, but finally got on track this season and got added to the rotation at the end of April.
His second career start, a loss to the Mariners on May 4, is a succinct encapsulation of his promise and struggles. He was magnificent for the first 4 2/3 innings, getting the first six batters out in 15 pitches and retiring the first 14 on 59 pitches. He struck out six guys and looked like he was coasting to his second consecutive win, until it all went to shit and he gave up four runs in dizzying succession, including this shot:
Manaea is the type of pitcher who can, at best, handle getting through the order one or two times, but doesn’t have the guile or range to stay in past the sixth inning. His talent is obvious, but so are his flaws. He may need a few stints in AAA to work out the kinks, but if the A’s stay bad, hell, maybe Manaea can learn on the job over the back half of summer.
These partyin’ ponytail-having motherfuckers rule.
(Billy Butler has been so bad and he’s on the verge of getting bounced for a prospect, which I’m all for, elite chin or not).
Too late already. They lose their average game by 1.3 runs, which is a meaningful metric which makes them fourth-worst in baseball. This is, I hope, the lowest point for them (they aren’t the Braves), but they won’t make the playoffs unless the rotation becomes good again.
Because Oakland is cool and good and there’s a very real scenario where the A’s are the only professional sports team left in the East Bay in a few years, and even they’re not cemented in place. The Warriors are leaving town for the gilded nonsense of San Francisco and the Raiders will probably be playing on the moon in a year. Oakland is a basketball town a first, a football town second, and only kinda sorta a baseball town. They have the third-lowest attendance per game in baseball and they bring in less than half the total of their rich cousins who play just four BART stops away.
Oakland is growing and changing like San Francisco was 10 years ago, but it’s not ever going to transform from the circuits down like The City did. It’s too spread-out, too stubborn. They deserve professional sports without having to give in to billionaires, and the A’s, bad as they are right now, might be Oakland’s last team standing.