The Winter of Confusion is over for A’s fans, but the Spring of Mystery is about to begin.
After an offseason that saw Oakland make nine total trades, the A’s will begin spring training Thursday with 16 new players on their 40-man roster.
They traded away four All-Stars in November and December, then got aggressive in upgrading the roster with deals to acquire second baseman Ben Zobrist and reliever Tyler Clippard.
The public dialogue involving the A’s has ranged from “What on earth is this team doing?” to “These guys might be contenders.”
Pitchers and catchers will report Thursday to the team’s new spring headquarters in Mesa, Ariz., and during six weeks spent in the desert, the A’s brain trust will have lots of evaluating to do with so much roster competition involving the new faces.
But there’s one constant from recent years – manager Bob Melvin believes his team has the potential to challenge for the American League West title.
“I like our team,” Melvin said. “Our expectations won’t change. We’ll go into the spring and learn how our guys do things and try to put them in the proper spots. It’s a little similar to ’12. But I think there might be more talent here.”
In 2012, the A’s showed up to camp having traded away several marquee players but defied expectations and charged to the AL West title. Oakland repeated as division champs in 2013 and made the postseason again last year before losing in the AL Wild Card game.
Melvin’s confidence stems from the overall depth and versatility he thinks the A’s possess. But to punch a fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs, the A’s must find a way to fill the offensive void created by the trades of players such as Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss. They formed the nucleus of a lineup that finished fourth in the majors in runs in 2014 despite a team-wide drop-off after the All-Star break.
Two areas to watch are those corner infield spots vacated by Donaldson and Moss. New third baseman Brett Lawrie, acquired from Toronto in the Donaldson deal, is viewed as a player capable of being an offensive force if he can stay healthy.
At first base, the A’s are banking that Ike Davis will pick up his share of the slack. The left-handed hitting Davis, acquired from the Pirates in a deal that only cost the A’s international bonus pool money, had 32 homers and 90 RBI in 2012 for the Mets. But he hasn’t approached that production over the past two seasons. Davis’ numbers are drastically better against righties than lefties over his five-year career, and the A’s feel that used as part of a platoon at first, Davis can maximize his production much as Moss did for them.
Billy Butler, another new addition who will be the main designated hitter, and Rule 5 draft pick Mark Canha figure to see time at first against lefties. And the offensive load needs to be shared by Zobrist, right fielder Josh Reddick and shortstop Marcus Semien among others. A healthy return to form by leadoff hitter Coco Crisp is essential.
“I don’t think we’re gonna be hitting the ball out of the yard like we did last year,” catcher Stephen Vogt said. “But I think this team, top to bottom, is going to have tough at-bats and we’re gonna wear pitchers down. We’re all pretty similar in that we like to work the count.”
However, one major league scout quizzed about the A’s said the area he’s watching most closely is the starting rotation.
The A’s have a solid 1-2 punch in Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir. But Oakland must identify its 3-5 starters during camp. Returners Jesse Chavez and Drew Pomeranz are two strong candidates. Beyond them, there’s a pool of largely unproven newcomers such as Chris Bassitt, Kendall Graveman, Jesse Hahn and Sean Nolin looking to impress.
“I think that’s the biggest question mark on the club,” said the scout, talking on condition of anonymity. “You’ve got Gray and Kazmir, and after that, you’re piecing it together with back-end guys or swing guys.”
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Another storyline is how the A’s compensate for the early-season absence of closer Sean Doolittle, who’s recovering from a slight rotator cuff tear in his throwing shoulder.
But even without Doolittle, the bullpen has depth. And history shows the A’s usually find a way to get it done pitching-wise even when they’ve entered a season with questions. Oakland has finished in the top three in American League team ERA each of the last six seasons.
Rather, the A’s primary challenge involves the big picture. Can a team that parted with so many top players find a way to weave in the new additions and mold into a group that can compete in a tough A.L. West division?
Melvin said such a challenge comes with the territory.
“You’re gonna have some turnover here. We’ve done it in the past and been successful. It keeps you on your toes as a staff. Anytime you have an infusion of younger guys, talented younger guys, there’s a lot of energy that goes with that.”