Three keys to A’s success in ’16
Looking at last season, in which the Oakland Athletics finished the season 68-94, you wouldn’t be too hopeful that the A’s could improve all that much in a year. You might think that some of their offseason signings were risky or be mad that they didn’t go out and get a power bat. It makes sense to feel that way, but if just a few players can turn it around, a few can keep improving and some of the A’s additions fit in with the group – the A’s do have a chance to find success in 2016.
It’s easy to see the problems that the A’s had last season with their constantly changing merry-go-round of a bullpen, to all the injuries, to a lack of offense, however, some things did go right for the A’s in 2015 although they were hidden by all the one-run losses. You can point to a number of reasons that the A’s almost lost 100 games but with improvement by some players whose performances in ‘15 were underwhelming, the continuing development in the younger players and a revamped, healthy bullpen the A’s can succeed in 2016, even in the highly competitive American League West.
Continued development of 2015’s younger players
Last season, although you may not know it, the A’s had quite a few rookies who showed promise for the future. Shortstop Marcus Semien got quite a bit of flack for making errors at the position. In fact he did finish with the most errors in the majors (35) but he greatly improved over the course of the season under the instruction of third base coach Ron Washington. Semien went from making a season-high 12 errors in the month of May to just two in the month of September.
It’s also important to remember that prior to joining the A’s Semien had played just 83 total major league games over the course of two seasons with the White Sox, not many of which were at the shortstop position. Now that he has learned his position, his number of errors should drop dramatically. He also showed promise with his bat. Semien hit 15 home runs in 2015, that is second most among ALL AL shortstops. If he continues to improve he’ll be a huge asset to the Athletics.
Rule 5 draft pick Mark Canha hit 16 homers over the course of the season and has the potential to hit more. He played first base and left field in the absence of Coco Crisp. Canha will get more playing time in left field due to Crisps’ chronic neck injury and because the A’s have brought in Yonder Alonso to be the team’s primary first baseman. Even if he puts up similar numbers to last season’s, he will be a key part of the A’s success in 2016.
Rookie Billy Burns got the starting nod in center field because of Crisps’ injury and got the privilege that most rookies are not afforded and he batted in the lead-off position. Burns should continue to improve. While NOT a power hitter Burns hit more home runs in 2015 than he did over the course of three years in minors. With his speed he can beat out infield singles, steal bases and cover a lot of ground in the outfield. If Burns, who finished fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting continues to improve there is no limit to what he may be able to accomplish.
Starting pitcher and rookie Kendall Graveman struggled a bit, especially early on in the season, however, he showed signs of brilliance during some starts that were inevitably lost by the bullpen. He went 6-9 with a 4.05 ERA and 1.42 WHIP in 21 starts for Oakland last season. There is certainly room for improvement there but if he can replicate, for example, his six starts from the month of June for more of the season he could help put the A’s in a position to win in 2016.
In June of last season Graveman made six starts he won three, lost two and got a no-decision in one. However, he didn’t allow more than three runs in any start and pitched a full six or more innings, including throwing a complete game in which he ended up taking the loss. His ERA over that period was 1.93. He should feel more comfortable on the mound in 2016 and have a better bullpen behind him.
Production from the DH spot
Designated hitter Billy Butler’s batting average was way down in 2016, his first season to play baseball with a team other than the Kansas City Royals. Between 2007 and 2014 Butler batted .295 and averaged 16 home runs a season. His batting average in 2015? .251. Butler went from his average of 159 hits (almost 1 every game) to hitting the ball just 135 times in 2015. He finished the season with an underwhelming 15 home runs, although that is only one fewer than his career average, Butler has proven that he can hit almost 30 home runs a season. For the A’s to succeed in 2016 they will need more production from Bulter or whoever ends up playing in the DH role.
A successful, revamped, new-look bullpen
The 2015 bullpen’s downfall began long before the season started. In January, All-Star closer Sean Doolittle was diagnosed with a partially torn left rotator cuff. He returned in May to make one appearance and immediately went back on the disabled list with an unrelated shoulder issue. He ended up making 11 appearances in September, thankfully, looking much more like himself with his strikeout rate and velocity back up to his normal standards.
As it turned out it appears that Doolittle was the linchpin of the bullpen and everything fell apart in his absence. Usually a set-up man, Tyler Clippard, had trouble in the closer role really struggling to find the strike zone before being traded to the New York Mets mid-season and behind him the bullpen was like a merry-go-round of names with pitchers coming and going from Triple-A Nashville, sometimes after just a single game.
The A’s revamped their bullpen for 2016 and that could make huge difference in the win-loss column for the team. They took a risk when they signed new set-up man in Ryan Madson. He is already 35 years old with an injury history, however, he pitched brilliantly for the World Champion Royals in 2015 and showed no unusual signs of fatigue or injury.
They’ll have Liam Hendriks, who struggled as a starter in Toronto but pitched spectacularly when used as a reliever, left-hander Marc Rzepczynski and veteran reliever John Axford to cover the sixth, seventh innings before Madson and Doolittle close the game out. Other final reliever in the bullpen will likely be either rookie Ryan Dull, who impressed during his September call-up, Felix Dubrouant or R.J. Alvarez. Either way the bullpen, especially with a healthy Doolittle, is vastly improved from last season. If all the pieces fall into place the bullpen will be an asset to the team instead of a nuisance this season.
Those three pieces all need to greatly improve for the A’s to succeed in 2016. Of course, like any other team the A’s need to stay healthy too. Last season the A’s suffered a number of injuries to different important players from super-utility man Ben Zobrist to starter Jesse Hahn to Doolittle and quite a few more.
However, to say that health was the A’s problem last season would be false, injuries definitely played a big role in their downfall but every team has to deal with injuries, so it is not an excuse nor is it something that can be predicted or necessarily fixed. For the A’s to achieve success in the highly competitive AL West in 2016, the three outlined pieces need to continue to improve.