It’s widely presumed that right-hander Gerrit Cole will be leaving the Houston Astros in free agency this offseason. If the prevailing notion holds true, it could open the door for the Oakland Athletics in the American League West.
If the Astros come back with the same team they had in 2019 minus Cole and reliever Will Harris, another free agent, they’re still one of the best teams in Major League Baseball and likely still going to be in the World Series mix. They won the AL pennant this year with a young, well-versed lineup and dominant starting pitching. That’s pretty good, right?
At the same time, while they’re a phenomenal ballclub from top to bottom, losing one of the five best starting pitchers in baseball is an enormous blow — even if they bring in some reinforcements — because their divisional foe is a pennant contender.
The A’s are a great team. They just so happen to be in the same division as the Astros and the same league as the Astros, New York Yankees, and Minnesota Twins, who all won 100-plus games in the regular season. Meanwhile, the A’s won 97 games and did so with a potent and underappreciated ballclub.
At the plate, manager Bob Melvin has a healthy mix of youthful and veteran sluggers.
Corner infielders Matt Chapman and Matt Olson are two of the best players at their respective positions in the sport. Chapman is a vacuum at the hot corner, has a great glove, and is a power hitter. Meanwhile, Olson scoops bad throws with ease at first base, is an intimidating left-handed bat, and raked in just 127 games this season. Chapman and Olson each totaled 36 home runs and 91 RBIs in the regular season.
Marcus Semien is coming off the best season of his big-league career. Hitting .285 while recording an .892 OPS and recording 33 home runs and 92 RBIs (all four of which are career highs), he was an irreplaceable figure in Oakland’s offense; he’s also a proven commodity at shortstop. Outfielder Mark Canha recorded a .913 OPS and was a consistent source of power near the top of the order, blasting 26 home runs.
Meanwhile, fellow outfielder Ramon Laureano was a pleasant surprise in 2019. Hitting .288 while recording an .860 OPS and totaling 24 home runs and 67 RBIs, he was a savvy source of offense. Laureano also boosted an already proven defensive ballclub with his outfield intangibles. While they struggled to hit for average this season, veterans Khris Davis, Stephen Piscotty, and Jurickson Profar have pop in their bats.
On the rubber, it’s a combination of budding, high-octane arms.
Left-hander Sean Manaea returned from a 2018 shoulder injury late in the season and was exceptional. He surrendered just four runs across 29.2 innings, induced a lot of groundballs, and looked like the budding southpaw the A’s were accustomed to prior to his injury — even though he struggled in the AL Wild Card Game, surrendering four runs in two innings.
Before serving an 80-game suspension for the use of a performance-enhancing drug beginning in June, right-hander Frankie Montas was Oakland’s ace. He finished with a 2.63 ERA, pitched through the sixth inning in 12 of his 16 starts, and pitched to his strengths while debuting a nasty split-fingered fastball.
Veteran right-hander Mike Fiers had an encouraging first full season in Oakland. He tossed a no-hitter, jammed hitters, and recorded a 3.90 ERA across 33 starts. Chris Bassitt, a bit of a late bloomer at 30, had a plausible season, highlighted by a 3.81 ERA.
Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk, two of Oakland’s top pitching prospects, dazzled in their brief time with the big-league club. Coming out of the bullpen, they provided length, fresh arms, and they deceived hitters with an array of offerings (Luzardo) and speed (Puck). Moving forward, the expectation is that the two hurlers take on rotation and/or heavy usage roles.
Concerning set-in-stone relievers, Melvin has a multitude of proven veterans, albeit some of them had discouraging 2019 campaigns. Whether it be Liam Hendriks, Yusmeiro Petit, Ryan Buchter, Blake Treinen, or Lou Trivino, there are a handful of proven commodities who can get big outs late in games in this bullpen.
A powerful offense, blossoming rotation, and deep pitching staff, as a whole. Also the bulk, if not the entirety of the aforementioned players on their 25-man roster are under contract for 2020. Who wouldn’t sign up for that mix?
Yes, it’s back-to-back 97-win seasons capped off by losing in the AL Wild Card Game. And this year the A’s lost the one-game playoff to the Tampa Bay Rays in the Oakland Coliseum, 5-1. But the present and future of this ballclub is strikingly bright.
They have eight starting-caliber pitchers, and some of them haven’t reached their ceiling or even pitched a full season in the big leagues. This team has no glaring weakness, and if some of their veteran bats and/or relievers can right the ship next season, it makes an already deep roster relentless.
Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Michael Brantley, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke still reside in Houston; the Astros aren’t going anywhere. But losing Cole is a big deal. It removes the flawless tag from the featured part of their roster, that being their starting rotation. Plus, the two teams faced off in four-game series in back-to-back weeks late in the season while riding successful highs and making some deadline trades; the A’s took three out of four games in both series.
Cole’s potential departure doesn’t ensure any outcome in the AL West. With that said, it gives a sturdy and improving A’s team a chance to move up the AL standings. The division won’t be a shoo-in by any means.