Oakland Athletics 2017 Season Preview

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SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 01: Starting pitcher Jharel Cotton #45 of the Oakland Athletics reacts after striking out Ketel Marte of the Seattle Mariners to end the fourth inning at Safeco Field on October 1, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

After an abysmal season that hit an all-time low with the late season trade of fan-favorite Josh Reddick, Oakland A’s fans were happy to see 2016 go. The 2016 A’s finished in the cellar of the AL West, with an embarrassing 69-93 record. Unfortunately, the 2017 A’s aren’t projected to do much better. However, with the dawn of each season comes renewed hope and anticipation. This is especially true for A’s fans that have been following Spring Training action; the A’s currently sit atop the Cactus League standings. Though it is unlikely that Oakland will sustain this level of play throughout the season, it is encouraging to see that the A’s have a plethora of talent waiting in the minors.

Young talent both on the Opening Day roster (Ryon Healy, Jharel Cotton) and on-deck in Triple-A (Matt Chapman, Franklin Barreto) will detemine whether 2017 will be an exciting, entertaining season. Other important factors will be the starting rotation, the make-up of the outfield, and run production.

Oakland Athletics 2017 Season Preview

The Starting Rotation

When the A’s arrived in Mesa, most of the spots in the rotation were up for grabs, and the five spot was the most uncertain. It didn’t take many games for the one through four slots to firm up with Sonny Gray as the ace, followed by Kendall Graveman, Sean Manaea, and Jharel Cotton. Candidates for the fifth spot included Jesse Hahn (returning from injury), Raul Alcantara (out of options), Andrew Triggs, Daniel Gossett, Frankie Montas, Paul Blackburn, and A.J. Puk. This past week, Gray was diagnosed with a lat-sprain. Just like that, both the four and five slots are up for grabs, at least for the first few weeks of the season.

By most accounts, Hahn has emerged as the number four starter to begin the season. When it comes to the fifth spot, there are still differing opinions. In an interview on 95.7 the game, MLB scout and TV analyst Shooty Babbitt predicted that the five spot could be filled by Alcantara, particularly because he is out of options and thus highly motivated to make the Opening Day roster. However, both A’s beat reporter Susan Slusser of the SF Chronicle and MLB.com writer Jane Lee have named Triggs as the most likely number five starter.

Regardless, the Sonny-less starting rotation will have very little experience under its collective belt. Graveman, the opening night starter, has pitched in 20 or more games for only the past two seasons. Essentially, this will be just his third season. The experience level drops off sharply after the slightly-experienced Graveman. Manaea has pitched in just 25 games in his Major League career. Cotton, seen by most A’s fans as an exciting choice for the starting rotation, has thrown just five games in the majors, albeit with an impressive 2.15 ERA. Hahn seems experienced compared to Manaea and Cotton, but has actually pitched in just 39 big league games over the course of three years.

If the A’s go with Alcantara as the number five, the two through five starters for the beginning of the season will have collectively pitched in just 74 games. Substituting Triggs isn’t much better; the total games pitched for two through five in the rotation rises to 93, still fewer than Gray alone has pitched in his four-year career.

Clearly, the starting rotation will be a huge wild card this season. Will Gray recover as quickly from the lat-strain as he says he will? Will he return to his 2015 form, or have a repeat of his disappointing 2016 season? Can Cotton and Manaea sustain their success from last year? If these wild cards turn into aces, can the A’s reach the Wild Card game?

Outfield

Right now, the starters in the outfield look to be slugger Kris Davis in left, the speedy Rajai Davis in center, and newcomer Matt Joyce in right. It is unclear, however, if the A’s will opt to carry four outfielders on the roster, or if they will choose to keep five. As reported by Susan Slusser of the SF Chronicle, the A’s are currently giving Mark Canha some starts in center field to see if he is versatile enough to make a fifth outfielder unnecessary (though he has no experience in center).

With Jaycob Brugman and Andrew Lambo both recently sent to Triple-A and Jake Smolinski out with a shoulder injury, Alejandro De Aza may make the roster as the fifth outfielder, should the A’s choose to carry five. Regardless, the outfield’s defensive prowess is lackluster. However, offensively, Canha hit a respectable 16 home runs in his rookie season, and Khris Davis should be frequently hitting balls out of the park (42 last year).

Run Production

In 2016, the A’s averaged 4.03 runs per game, below the league average of 4.48 per game. While this may not sound like a huge difference, it left them tied for second-to-last place in the league for average runs per game. Everyone knows that Khris Davis is capable of home runs, but where will the rest of runs come from? Hopefully, some of them will come in the form of home runs from Marcus Semien (27 last year) and Ryon Healy (.524 SLG, 13 homers in just 72 games). Healy more than proved himself in his rookie season, with a .305 batting average, and has continued to impress in Spring Training; he is currently third in the Cactus League in RBI, with 10. Rajai Davis may also increase run production by stealing bases and putting himself in scoring position. The A’s have had no shortage of runs as of late, scoring 61 over the course of five Spring Training games.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the starting rotation, the outfield, and run production, it’s no surprise that some experts have predicted that the A’s will win just 70 games. With so many young players, there are a multitude of things that could go very, very badly. On the other hand, that means there are many things that could go surprisingly well. While the outlook for 2017 is not much better than last year, the uncertainty that the up-and-coming players, particularly pitchers, will bring should make 2017 at least more entertaining than 2016.

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