With the A’s, who had every expectation that they’d be playing in the American League Championship Series that starts Sunday in San Diego, having begun to scatter after their 2020 ended under the wheels of a Houston bulldozer, the club’s brass has begun to focus, however reluctantly, on what’s next.
Toward that end, here are 10 questions facing the A’s going forward. Some of them are universally shared by each of the 30 big league organizations. Some are Oakland specific.
All will have an impact on the team that assembles in February in Mesa, Ariz.
1. Will 2021, in fact, begin with a February spring training? The U.S. is nowhere close to having come to terms with the COVID-19 coronavirus. The assumption is that things will be better come next spring, but medical specialists warn that a second wave could come the fall and winter as people head indoors. Major League Baseball found its way through a pandemic to come up with a 60-game schedule and this weird even-a-team-with-a-losing-record-can-make-it playoff system. Will MLB have to make similar accommodations in 2021? Stay tuned.
2. Where do the fans fit in? The last thing MLB wants is another season with no fan access. But if there is no vaccine, what happens? It’s a possibility that only a percentage of seats at any given ballpark, including the Coliseum, would be available. That might both keep fan interest and baseball revenues down.
3. Assuming February is a go, how many players will be in the A’s still have in their organization? The pandemic shut down the minor league season this year, limiting both clubs to a pool of 60 players with which to work. But MLB was in the process dismantling the minor league system as we’ve known it before the mid-March-to-early July shutdown. That issue is still being negotiated, but the A’s, who have deals with franchise in Las Vegas (Triple-A), Midland, Texas (Double-A), Stockton (High Class-A), Beloit, Wisc. (low Class-A), Vermont (short-season Class-A), Arizona (two rookie league, the Green and the Gold), are on the outside looking in as the negotiations go on.
“Well, first of all, we’re still trying to figure out if there’s going to be a minor league season,” executive vice president Billy Beane said Friday. “There’s nothing that’s been solved to this point. I think we’re all optimistic that we’ll have either a minor league season like we’ve had in the past, or there’ll be some sort of player development program, maybe at a reduced level.”
More than the negotiations of the state of the minor leagues as a whole, you’d expect to hear that some franchises, having been unable to put a team forward this season, might not have the financial wherewithal to go forward in 2021.
4. How much money will the A’s have available to spend? The 2019 payroll was a little north of $105 million, but players all took cuts to get the 60-game season in this time around. At the same time, with no ticket sales, no parking income, no food and drink revenue at the Coliseum because of fans being banned from the all baseball parks thanks to the pandemic, revenue was way down. Is there $105 million or more (or less) for the A’s to work with this time around? Club owner John Fisher is a billionaire, but having the money and being willing to spend the money aren’t synonymous.
A’s local television ratings went up during the pandemic, but Fisher and Co. have no real way to know at what level A’s fans will break down the Coliseum doors to see their team in 2021. And, of course, hearkening back to Nos. 1 and 2, there is not necessarily any way to count on the income streams that baseball in general and the A’s specifically are used to generating.
5. Is there any way to bring shortstop Marcus Semien, about to become a free agent for the first time, back for 2021 and beyond? We went into this is some detail on Friday here, but suffice it to say that it’s difficult to see a financial path forward to give Semien, third in the MVP voting last year before having a poor regular season and a terrific postseason this time around, as much as he’s going to be able to command. Again, that goes back to expectations of income and revenue.
6. What happens to the A’s bullpen. As it stands now, the top three of the top four players in the Oakland bullpen, closer Liam Hendriks and setup men Yusmeiro Petit and Joakim Soria, are free agents. How many, if any, can the A’s bring back? Hendriks is the crown jewel, but he’s in a Siemen-like position where paying him would eat up a sizable chunk of the total payroll. Still, Hendriks is the face of the bullpen and his level of dominance over the last 1½ seasons has covered up many ills.
The relievers the club that knows it has under contract – lefty Jake Diekman and right-hander J.B. Wendelken, Lou Trivino and Jordan Weems – are a good base, and there is some promise in the minor leagues in Daulton Jefferies, James Kaprielian and Grant Holmes, all of whom made cameos during the 2020 season. There are particularly high hopes for right-hander Burch Smith, whose season was cut short by a forearm injury but whom the A’s believe will be good to go when baseball comes around again.
“The bullpen was the strength of our team; the easy answer is that we’d like to have all of them back,” Beane said. “Is that possible? We’re going to find out. This is a situation we’ve faced many times in the past. Sometimes it can be a challenge because these guys we’re talking about are good players, and there is a cost associated with good players. It’s too early to say what the market is.”
7. What to do with A.J. Puk? The A’s 2016 No. 1 draft pick was due to be in the starting rotation both coming out of the regular spring training in March and heading into the shortened season in July. A mild shoulder strain shut him down in March. On July 20, more shoulder discomfort put him on the injured list. He came back and was one good bullpen session from being activated in early September when his shoulder barked again, leading to surgery. Things reportedly went well, but Puk has been repeatedly injured, including Tommy John surgery in 2018. Can he be seen as part of the pitching puzzle come 2021, and if so, should he be moved into the bullpen or be left on course for the rotation?
“We haven’t talked about anything other than about him starting,” general manager David Forst said. “It’s still pretty early in his post-surgery rehab, but by all accounts, the surgery was minimal, as we had hoped. The timeline is hopefully that he can be ready for spring training.”
8. Are their extensions in the future for either Matt Chapman or Matt Olson? The third baseman and the first baseman are the pillars both of the offense and defense and both are eligible for salary arbitration this year for the first time with free agency three more seasons away. History says that the A’s are no fans of salary extensions for players 2-3-4 years into their careers. And there are nine players on the roster who are arbitration eligible, including starters Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas, outfielder Mark Canha and utility man Chad Pinder.
“It’s a hefty arbitration load,” Forst admitted. “These guys, they’re all great players. They’re all certainly worthy of wherever they end up in arbitration.”
9. Where did all the offense go, and can Oakland count on it coming back? Virtually every batter on the A’s roster had a drop-off from 2019 to 2020. A bit of that was injury related, including for Chapman, who missed most of the second half of the season having season-ending right hip surgery. The A’s went from averaging 5.22 runs per game in 2019 to 4.81 in 2020. It’s not just that the team batting average of .225 was the worst in Oakland history by a whopping 11 points (.236 in 1982). The power was down, too, with the OPS dropping from 2019’s .776 to 2020’s .718, the worst in the last half decade for Oakland.
For DH Khris Davis, he had to hit .296 in September to get his season average up to .200, but he had a big postseason, including three homers, one more than he had in the entire regular season.
“It was a little perplexing to us too,” Beane said of the team’s offensive woes, “because you’re talking about a lot of guys who are really good hitters and have proven track records. We have some young players who are a couple of years in. But this was such a different year. You can go through a two-week period, a three-week period where you don’t hit in 162-game season.
“But when it’s 60 games, it’s hard to get out of a hole, and I’m sure that had some impact. These guys, they’ve proven themselves not just for one year but in some cases for two or three years.”
10. Were Tommy La Stella, Jake Lamb and Mike Minor stopgaps or do they have a future in Oakland? The A’s went out and got La Stella to play second base and provide a left-handed bat, Lamb to play third when Chapman went down and Minor to help Oakland deal with having a spate of four doubleheaders in less than three weeks. Both La Stella and Lamb played well and Minor, who had one seven-inning doubleheader shutout, gave the A’s valuable relief in the postseason.
All three are free agents. Heading into the offseason, the A’s have made it clear they’ll make a run at La Stella, but with Chapman due back, it seems less likely there’s a spot for Lamb. And the A’s have a solid returning corps of starting pitchers in Manaea, Jesús Luzardo, Bassitt and Montas – Mike Fiers is a free agent – and if the A’s had to pick between Minor and Fiers, it seems likely that Fiers would win out.
“All of our pickups really ended up producing for us, but probably no one more than Tommy,” manager Bob Melvin said. “Tommy just fit right in and was a different type of hitter that we needed, a bat-control guy who got on base at the top of the lineup against righties and lefties.”
Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3
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