The Oakland Athletics improved their record by 22 games and made it to the American League Wild Card Game this season; it was a significant one-year turnaround. But their Wild Card Game loss to the New York Yankees is deflating given that repeating their 2018 success in the coming years is a daunting challenge.
A’s manager Bob Melvin had a roster that became the most captivating storyline of the 2018 season; they defied the odds. Going from last to second place in the American League West and leapfrogging the Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers, and Seattle Mariners, they were one of the most dangerous teams in Major League Baseball.
The A’s had a scrappy lineup this season. They were fourth in runs (813), seventh in hits (1407), third in home runs (227), 13th in batting average (.252), 10th in on-base percentage (.325), fourth in slugging (.439), and fifth in OPS (.764). They did so with veterans such as Khris Davis, Jed Lowrie, Stephen Piscotty, and Marcus Semien leading the charge, as well as youngsters like Matt Olson and Matt Chapman growing on the scene.
Meanwhile, the A’s never had a bonafide ace. Before going down with a shoulder injury, which may keep him off the hill through next season, lefty Sean Manaea was pitching well and veteran righties Trevor Cahill, Edwin Jackson, and Mike Fiers (who was acquired before the MLB trade deadline) were giving the A’s competent outings. But none of them overpowered opposing hitters. With that said, the A’s had one of the best bullpens in the sport this season.The @Athletics were a pleasant surprise this season, winning 97 games and making a postseason charge. But as @RPStratakos writes, their future as a contending team is anything but certain.Click To Tweet
Whether it be Blake Treinen, Lou Trivino, Yusmeiro Petit, Jeurys Familia, or Shawn Kelley, Melvin had several arms who he could turn to in the late innings. Their pen finished the year third in ERA (3.37), sixth in strikeouts (627), and second in opponent batting average (.220). Given their bullpen’s depth, Melvin opted to go with the trendy bullpen day strategy in the Wild Card Game, but his team gave up seven runs.
The reality of the situation is that no matter who started, or what strategy the A’s embraced, scoring two runs in a one-game playoff wasn’t going to get the job done. There were multiple times throughout Wednesday night’s game where the A’s had multiple runners on base against Luis Severino, and they couldn’t get a single run to cross the plate. Their two runs were generated by a two-run home run from Davis in the eighth inning. But surrendering seven runs in a bullpen day is not a good look. And it’s a sour way for the A’s to go into the winter when you take into account the competition they will have going forward.
Look within their own division. While Charlie Morton, Dallas Keuchel, and Marwin Gonzalez are set to be free agents after this season, the Houston Astros are still viewed as the best team in the AL West. Even though they faded in the second half of the season, the Mariners won 89 games and have a deep roster full of proven bats and relievers.
The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are powerhouse ballclubs who project to be playoff teams for the foreseeable future. Plus, the Tampa Bay Rays came out of nowhere to win 90 games after trading away essentially every veteran player on their roster. They have a young core in place and many of their youngsters have come nowhere near their ceiling.
Sure, the A’s have the makings of an intriguing young core with Olson, Chapman, and perhaps Dustin Fowler to go along with big bats like Davis and Piscotty, a deep bullpen, and some proven vets. But the offseason could strip the A’s of several players who were pivotal elements to their 2018 success.
Infielder Jed Lowrie was a steady force at the top of the A’s order. Hitting a career-high 23 home runs and totaling 99 RBIs, he was a power plug at the top of the A’s order despite being known for his contact bat. Another team may view Lowrie as the missing piece, or a great player to add to their infield. Will the A’s be willing to offer the 34-year-old a contract worth potentially eight figures per season?
While he wasn’t a force to be reckoned with at the plate like he’s been in the past, catcher Jonathan Lucroy is still one of the best defensive catchers in the game. Another team may view the A’s catcher as a great addition to their ballclub. Will the A’s prioritize matching any offer the veteran catcher receives in free agency?
Cahill and Jackson are each free agents and pitched well for the A’s this season in the outings they made. Do the A’s value the two righties as prominent rotation pieces, or will they let them walk? Will the A’s let Familia and Kelley walk given their bullpen’s depth?
Now, the fact that several of the A’s players will be free agents this winter does not mean that they will lose all of them; they should be able to keep a few select players. But, the A’s went into the 2018 season with the lowest payroll in the sport. President Billy Beane is famously known for making the best of what he and the A’s have at their disposal and spending as little money as possible in the process; it’s a model that won them 97 games, so clearly it can work. Why would they, all of a sudden, change their “Moneyball” demeanor by re-signing all of their impending free agents when it’ll add a significant amount of money to their payroll?
The Yankees were the better team going into Wednesday night. They had the better lineup and starting rotation and could go toe-to-toe with the A’s pen — which was their biggest asset. With that said, all the work and grind that went into this season for the A’s was deflated in one game, and it will be an uphill climb for them to get back to this position next season.
Look at the Minnesota Twins for an example of how things can go south quickly, despite optimism surrounding your franchise. After losing to the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game last season, many felt the Twins were a team on the rise because they won 85 games (which was a 26-game jump from the year prior) and had an intriguing young core. Then, they went 78-84 in 2018, fired manager Paul Molitor after the regular season, and are now a team whose future is murky.
The A’s are a talented ballclub; they finished with the fourth best record in the sport. But their competition in the AL is going to stiffen, and they may not have some players who were vital pieces to their 2018 success back for next season. The future is anything but a given for the A’s.