SEATTLE — The quotes coming out of a major league clubhouse at the end of a long season can be a lot like those in spring training.
Players are sometimes overly optimistic about what the future holds for their team. And among non-playoff teams, such as the A’s (69-93), there’s always the thought that next year will bring much better fortune than the season that just finished did.
But in the aftermath of Sunday’s 3-2 victory over the Mariners, all of the A’s talk about better times ahead seemed to carry a fair amount of legitimacy. Oakland can feel good about a young group of players that made a solid first impression in the majors, including left-hander Sean Manaea, third baseman Ryon Healy, catcher Bruce Maxwell and, over the final month of the season, second baseman Joey Wendle.
They saw some young veterans take major steps forward, such as starter Kendall Graveman and shortstop Marcus Semien. They also got a 42-homer season from left fielder/DH Khris Davis in his first season with the club.
“I think the biggest thing we’ll take away from this year is the potential that this team has,” veteran reliever Sean Doolittle said. “We had some injuries again this year that created some opportunities for some of these young guys to come up here late in the season, and they really showed us a lot. … We have to play more consistent, more mistake-free baseball, but the potential is there.”
Indeed, there’s no masking the huge strides the A’s must make if they’re to climb the American League West standings in 2017. They’ve finished in the division cellar in back-to-back years now, and that’s happened only one other time since the team moved to Oakland in 1968.
Better health alone should make a difference. The A’s used the disabled list a team-record 27 times, and the injuries wreaked the most havoc on the starting rotation. The 872 innings that the A’s received from their starters were the fewest in the league, and the second-fewest in Oakland history for a non-strike season.
That helped contribute to an overall staff ERA of 4.51 that ranked second-to-last in the AL. It’s the first time the team has posted an ERA above 4.28 since 2000 (4.58).
A bounce-back season from ace Sonny Gray would do wonders for next year’s rotation. So would the continued upward progression of Manaea, a rookie who delivered six solid innings to claim Sunday’s win and posted a sparkling 1.13 ERA in four September starts. Manaea hit some rough patches initially after being called up in late April, particularly pitching on the road, but by season’s end he’d rounded into a very good starter, mixing his fastball, slider and changeup effectively and finishing with a 3.86 ERA in 25 games (24 starts).
“My goodness,” catcher Stephen Vogt said. “Like I just told him, I’ve never seen somebody make adjustments like that in their first year. He’s very mature, willing to make adjustments. He did such a great job of going off his first couple starts and then getting better and never being satisfied with how it was the time before.”
Vogt made the most of his short time in Sunday’s game. Starting at DH, he swung at the first pitch he saw from Mariners starter Felix Hernandez and swatted it for an opposite-field homer. That lifted his average over the .250 mark (.249 to .251), and manager Bob Melvin took that opportunity to lift Vogt from the game after one plate appearance.
Aside from pitchers’ health, another issue the A’s must tackle is how to improve an offense that finished last in the league in runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and next-to-last in batting average. Melvin said during the Seattle series that the outfield is an area of need as the A’s begin forming their offseason shopping list. They also don’t have a natural leadoff hitter on the current roster.
The A’s plan will materialize as the winter months unfold, but they do have what looks to be a solid nucleus of young talent from which to build around.
“This season wasn’t how we wanted it to be,” Manaea said. “But the good young guys coming up, I feel in the next couple years are gonna be really, really good. We had flashes of that throughout the season. But the more experience we get as a group, the more time we have together, it’s really gonna take off.”