Wait 'Til Next Year: Athletics' loss of talent cripples them in 2015
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait ‘Til Next Year series. Next up: the Oakland Athletics.
Current Record: 64–87 (.424, fifth in the AL West)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 19
What went right in 2015: In his second full season in the majors, 25-year-old righty Sonny Gray spent most of the year as a Cy Young contender, confirming his standing as the team’s ace. Meanwhile, Stephen Vogt and Josh Phegley combined to give the A’s the second-most productive catching corps in the majors, behind only that of the cross-bay Giants. Despite a confusing off-season in which they traded away several key contributors to their 2014 wild-card team, including MVP candidate Josh Donaldson, and let several others leave as free agents, the A’s reached the All-Star break having outscored their opponents by 44 runs on the season and boasting the second-best third-order record in the American League.
Taking a wider view, the December trade that sent Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox continues to look like a good one. While Samardzija endured a disappointing walk year in Chicago, backup catcher Phegley and 26-year-old righthander Chris Bassitt enjoyed some small-sample success, and the centerpiece of the deal, 25-year-old shortstop Marcus Semien, remains an intriguing middle infielder even if his first full season in the majors was a mixed bag.
The A’s also did well at the trade deadline, flipping impending free agents Ben Zobrist, Scott Kazmir and Tyler Clippard for a group of prospects, including two compelling starters in lefty Sean Manaea (from the Royals) and righty Casey Meisner (from the Mets), as well as catching prospect Jacob Nottingham from the Astros. Manaea was the biggest prize, but all three could contribute to the next contending Oakland team.
What went wrong in 2015: The A’s were never able to make their projected wins translate to reality and wound up selling off still more parts at the trading deadline. The primary source of their failure seems to have been the awful performance of their bullpen, which suffered a near-total collapse. After losing primary setup man Luke Gregerson to free agency, the A’s lost closer Sean Doolittle for most of the season to a torn rotator cuff in his pitching shoulder and righty Ryan Cook to a poor spring showing that found him banished to Triple A and ultimately traded. Oakland also endured a brutal season from 2014 breakout righty Dan Otero and saw lefties Eric O’Flaherty and Fernando Abad regress significantly. In 2014, those six relievers combined for a 2.37 ERA over 349 innings (an average of 2.2 innings per game) for Oakland; in '15, they combined for a 5.69 ERA over just 123 1/3 innings for the A’s, and no one stepped up to replace their strong '14 performances.
With the bullpen in shambles, Oakland has posted a 17–32 record in one-run games on the season, and no team in baseball has converted fewer save opportunities than the A’s, who have finished a major league worst 52.2% of their save chances on the season.
The bullpen wasn’t the only thing wrong with the 2015 A’s, of course. In the first year of his extension, Coco Crisp managed to play just 13 games through the first four months due to elbow surgery and chronic neck problems and has been a complete dud at the plate since his return. Zobrist went down with a knee injury in late April, missed a month following surgery and didn’t get his bat re-started until mid-June. Designated hitter Billy Butler, the team’s inexplicable (and only major) free-agent signing, was a predictable bust, posting a -0.9 WAR. Corner infielders Ike Davis and Brett Lawrie also failed to improve over their disappointing recent performances, though Lawrie did manage to stay healthy and set a career high in games played.
Meanwhile, Jarrod Parker suffered a medial epicondyle fracture in his right elbow during his rehabilitation from March 2014 Tommy John surgery, and fellow Tommy John recipient A.J. Griffin was shut down in June due to shoulder issues, resulting in a second lost season for both pitchers. After Kazmir was traded, there was very little encouraging in the rotation behind Gray, who has suffered through a rough September himself, putting his 2015 numbers very much in line with his '14 performance. The end result is that the A’s were the first AL team to be eliminated from playoff contention this year.
Overall Outlook: Since last July, the A’s have traded or lost to free agency Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Zobrist, Addison Russell, Jed Lowrie, Derek Norris, Brandon Moss, Jon Lester, Samardzija, Kazmir, Jason Hammel, Clippard and Gregerson. That’s the bulk of a contending team right there—only Norris and Samardzija won’t appear in this year’s playoffs. The collection of middling major leaguers and far-away prospects that the A’s have to show for all of that talent, however expensive it may have become, does little to engender optimism in the team’s immediate future.
The A’s have some capable young players, and they did acquire some notable prospects over the last year. But the chances of any of them emerging as an impact player on the level of some of those they just discarded, or of that hodgepodge coalescing into a contending team in the next couple of years, seem slim. The next few years could represent a cross roads for Billy Beane, the second-longest tenured GM in baseball.