I can’t think of a British baseball fan better suited to previewing the A’s 2018 season than Matt Smith (@mattbaseballgb). The BaseballGB site is a benchmark in terms of coverage of both MLB and British Baseball, and his Weekly Hit Ground Ball series, in particular, has long been a favourite read of mine. If you haven’t visited the site you really should check it out. Feel free to comment below and do catch up on the rest of the series so far – Cubs, Brewers, Dodgers, Indians, White Sox, Mets, Rays, Phillies, Cardinals, Giants.
Considering the A’s ended up bottom of the AL West for the third consecutive season, there was actually plenty of reason to be optimistic about the 2017 campaign. Expectations were relatively low following the club’s stated desire to rebuild and most of the attention was as much on who might not be with the team – Sonny Gray being the main example – than who was on it. Sure enough players like Gray, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson were all traded, but the returns immediately looked positive and recent MLB Farm System rankings have showed that the A’s future is significantly brighter today than it was 12 months ago.
That is in part due to the positive impact made by Matt Olson and Matt Chapman in the second half of 2017: two guys who look set to be key players for the club for years to come. Khris Davis continued to be arguably the least-known 40 home run threat in the Majors and Jed Lowrie finally had a healthy season to put together a strong campaign.
Every fan has hope in Spring Training, but I’m honestly more excited for this season than I have been for a few years.
The A’s 75-87 2017 record shows they have a long way to go and that’s especially the case in the AL West with the formidable Houston Astros and a significantly improved LA Angels odds-on to take the top two slots. However, the A’s now have a really good group of young players coming through and – even if 2018 is another sub.500 season – as a fan you can still get great enjoyment from watching a team that has considerable potential starting its journey to competitiveness.
The aforementioned Matts – Chapman and Olson – are a great example of that and if all goes to plan they’ll be joined by Franklin Barreto (likely at second base) during this season with Jorge Mateo (one of the players acquired in the Sonny Gray trade with the Yankees) possibly filling the shortstop role at some point in the future to form an impressive young infield. Dustin Fowler, another of the Gray-trade haul, should make the Opening Day roster too, likely manning centre field alongside the headline recruit of the off-season Stephen Piscotty.
Last year’s player trading netted Blake Treinen and Chris Hatcher and they’ll be joined by Buchter, Pagan and Petit as part of a revamped bullpen that has the potential to be one of the better units in the Majors.
The big question mark comes from how much work that bullpen will need to do based on the performance of the starting rotation. The A’s came into Spring Training with only Kendall Graveman and Sean Manaea set in stone and, whilst both have shown good form at times in their MLB careers so far, even they have been inconsistent. There are a bunch of pitchers vying for the other three slots and, frankly, all have strengths and weaknesses to make you uncertain whether any will truly settle in at the Major League level.
Given the potential of the batting lineup, a significantly improved defense (which couldn’t have been much worse after leading MLB in errors in 2017) and a strong bullpen, it’s a little frustrating to consider what an extra starting pitcher or two might do for the A’s prospects in 2018 given how open the second AL Wild Card spot was last year; however, fans of every team could play that ‘if only’ game too. There wasn’t an obvious veteran starting pitcher match for the A’s this off-season – in the way they had benefitted from signing players such as Bartolo Colon, Scott Kazmir and Rich Hill in the past – and there’s a lot of logic to figuring out quite what they might have in Jharel Cotton, Daniel Mengden, Paul Blackburn, Andrew Triggs and Daniel Gossett over the course of the season.
I can see the A’s taking a step forward in 2018 and it will depend on how that rotation pans out as to how big a step it will be. If Graveman and Manaea come good and a couple of the others find some form – with top prospect A.J. Puk being a potential impact addition in the second half – then a run at the second Wild Card isn’t out of the question, even if there are plenty of ‘ifs’ involved in that to make it more than an outside chance.
80-82, although I don’t see that being good enough to finish second in the AL West as it did last year for the Angels.
Khris Davis, Matt Chapman and Matt Olson would be obvious picks, but I’m increasingly optimistic about what Stephen Piscotty could do. Only a year ago he was seen by many as one of the better young players in the National League before his stock took a big blow due to struggles last year. There’s real talent there and a couple of big reasons – personally with his mother’s illness and professionally with, to my mind, Mike Matheny’s questionable management of younger players in St Louis – to consider 2017 just a bump in the road.
He’s got a lot to prove, but I’m confident he can do it and be an inspired pick-up by the A’s.
One to watch
A.J. Puk. He’s probably not going to start the year with the Big League club, for service time reasons as much as anything, but he’s the A’s top prospect and his impressive Spring Training outings have only increased the excitement of seeing him in green and gold at some point this year. As with all pitching prospects, there are plenty of things that could trip him along the way, but he has genuine ace potential.