- Riding a nine-game winning streak, the Athletics have emerged as contenders in the AL thanks to Matt Chapman, Matt Olson and a dominant bullpen. Here's what they need to do to keep it going and earn their second straight playoff berth.
Something happened this past week. As usual when it comes to the A's, it seems hardly anyone was paying attention.
Most were shouting fire when the Mets were swept by the lowly Marlins, when Robinson Canó wasn’t—and then, unfortunately was—hustling out grounders and Yoenis Céspedes was violently falling on his Florida ranch. Some were fawning over the Yankees and Twins, again, bashing their ways through the American League with another strong week. We were laughing at the worst play in MLB history, via who else but the Orioles.
Once again, when nobody was looking, the Oakland Athletics got hot and emerged as a legitimate contender in the AL playoff race. Yes, it’s only May and they’re always going to be afterthoughts with the Astros as the current model for baseball excellence in the AL West. However, the A’s are winners of nine straight after sweeping Detroit, Cleveland and Seattle. They’ve improved to 28-25, good enough to hold the league’s second wild-card spot with the Red Sox. Oakland's run differential is +33, and they’re one of three AL teams with a winning record against teams with winning records, the Astros and Rays being the other two.
For those who have watched the Athletics this year, their recent torrid stretch shouldn’t be too surprising. They’ve returned many of the key members from their 2018 squad that won 97 games and had the best second-half record in baseball.
Third baseman Matt Chapman looks like a superstar in the making. He bashed his 13th home run in Sunday’s 7-1 win over the Mariners, nearly halfway to his homer total from last season (one in which he finished seventh in the MVP race).
Marcus Semien is the most underrated shortstop playing today. His 2.3 bWAR is fourth best among MLB shortstops—behind Jorge Polanco, Paul DeJong and Javier Báez—and second in the AL. He’s hitting .269 with a .361 on-base percentage, he leads AL shortstops with six defensive runs saved and he has started each of Oakland’s 54 games this season.
First baseman Matt Olson broke his right hand in the second game of the season and missed the next six weeks after undergoing surgery. Now that he’s back, Olson has more than made up for lost time. The 25-year-old has posted a 0.8 bWAR in just 20 games and is slashing .250/.349/.500 with five homers.
Without delving too far into the rest of their roster, outfielders Stephen Piscotty and Mark Canha and catcher Josh Phegley round out the Athletics' lineup as one of the deepest in baseball. And that’s not even including slugger Khris Davis, who was placed on the 10-day injured list on Friday with a left-hip/oblique contusion. There is no timetable for his return. While in the lineup, though, Davis was mashing like always—batting .248 (surprise, surprise) with 12 home runs and 29 RBI.
Their pitching staff, too, has been much better than expected. Righthanders Frankie Montas and Chris Bassitt both have ERAs under 2.50. Closer Blake Treinen and relievers Liam Hendriks, Yusmeiro Petit and Lou Trivino have formed one of the more reliable bullpens in the league.
Of course, there’s no guarantee a nine-game winning streak in the second half of May is going to catapult any team into the playoffs. The Astros remain the Astros, with an abundance of thump in their lineup and an analytically-advanced front office. Their bullpen is the best it’s been over the last few seasons, and their rotation is still anchored by Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.
The Athletics will have to be buyers as the trade deadline approaches, with starting pitching as their main focus. Their rotation’s better-than-average 4.09 ERA is a bit deceiving, considering their starters have MLB’s third-worst strikeout rate and a BABIP well below league average—a combination that suggests luck has played at least a partial role in their rotation’s success.
Plus, it’s uncertain how much work Oakland can get from Montas, Bassitt and Brett Anderson this year. Montas and Bassitt have never accumulated more than 100 innings in a single season and Anderson hasn’t reached the century mark since he tossed 180 1/3 frames with the Dodgers in 2015. It’s a tall ask for Mike Fiers—a solid-at-best pitcher who turns 34 in June—to be a No. 1 down the stretch. The A’s are expecting to get Jharel Cotton and Marco Estrada back at some point this season, but neither should be considered sure bets. Cotton is recovering from Tommy John and Estrada has been wildly inconsistent since his All-Star 2016 campaign.
With still two months to go before the deadline, the A’s still have plenty of time to weigh their options and work out potential deals for starters. Some of their trade targets may not become available until after the All-Star break. It is interesting to ponder the impact starters Trevor Bauer, Madison Bumgarner or perhaps even Sonny Gray would have if added to the Oakland rotation. The Athletics probably won’t be the highest bidder for Dallas Keuchel if his market heats up after the amateur draft—when teams can sign him without forfeiting a compensation-round pick. But, if nobody else makes much of a push for the 31-year-old lefty, it sure would be fun to see him duke it out against his former team in August and September.
For now, all of this is just speculation; so much can change between now and then. One thing’s certain, though: The Athletics have won nine straight games, tied with Minnesota for the longest active streak in baseball.
Except they did it while none of us were watching.