Consider July a month of transition for the A’s, when they began adjusting their focus with an eye toward next season.
Ryon Healy was called up from Triple-A and replaced Danny Valencia as the everyday third baseman. Billy Burns was sent to the minors (and eventually traded), with Jake Smolinski becoming the primary center fielder over Coco Crisp. And this all happened before the A’s pulled the trigger on a trade-deadline deal that sent two of their best players, lefty Rich Hill and right fielder Josh Reddick, to the Los Angeles Dodgers for three minor league pitching prospects.
Through it all, the A’s put together one of their best stretches of baseball all season, winning nine of 13 as they came out of the All-Star break. They couldn’t sustain that momentum and finished July with a 12-14 record. But the personnel decisions that were made reveal the A’s emphasis for the rest of the season – go young, continue to evaluate and identify the pieces they can move forward with looking ahead to 2017.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Khris Davis becomes a two-time winner of this award after he also claimed top honors for May. How could you go with anyone else? The left fielder led Oakland in homers (7), RBI (15), runs (13), slugging percentage (.510, and we’re counting only regular starters here) and tied Reddick for most hits (24). All the while, teammates and coaches continue to marvel at his power, which is still somewhat deceptive coming from his 5-foot-10, 195-pound frame. Davis connects on what looks to be a medium-deep fly ball to right-center, and it carries over the wall. With 27 homers and 51 games remaining entering Monday, he stands an outside chance of becoming the A’s first 40-homer man since Jason Giambi’s MVP season of 2000.
MOST VALUABLE PITCHER: Kendall Graveman sliced through opposing lineups with ease throughout July, and the improvement he’s shown this season has been a bright spot for the A’s revolving-door rotation. The second-year right-hander went 4-1 with a 2.68 ERA in five starts for the month. That included his first nine-inning complete game, in which he got rewarded with a victory as the A’s rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the ninth to beat the Rays. He locked in with his sinker, throwing it to both sides of the plate and showing terrific velocity with it. Graveman’s key is keeping the ball in the yard. When he does that, it’s usually a strong start.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Gotta go with the July 30 trade that sent Burns to Kansas City in exchange for outfielder Brett Eibner, though we place an asterisk next to this one. It wasn’t such a shocker to see Burns dealt given that he was sent to the minors to begin the second half and fell out of the outfield picture. But in the context of Burns’ status entering the season, it does qualify as a surprise. He enjoyed a terrific 2015 campaign, batting .294 and leading American League rookies in hits. That seemed to position him as a key man in Oakland’s lineup this year. But he lost playing time to a healthy Coco Crisp, and pitchers made adjustments to his aggressive mindset at the plate.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: For the second year in a row, the A’s got off to a poor start in the first half which all but assured they would be sellers at the trade deadline. They came out of the All-Star break playing spirited ball with a 9-4 start, but that still left them 11 games under .500, and the front office sent Rich Hill and Josh Reddick to the Dodgers on the morning of the deadline.
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT: The A’s were on their way to a humdrum 3-1 defeat to the Rays on July 23. Then an electrifying bottom of the ninth unfolded. Smolinski tied it with a two-run homer off Alex Colome. Two batters later, Healy connected for a walk-off homer. It all happened in rapid fashion, and a fireworks night crowd was treated to the A’s most thrilling finish of the season.
BIGGEST REASON FOR OPTIMISM:
Given the A’s current situation, more young position players could get a look. Their two most highly touted non-pitching prospects are shortstop Franklin Barreto and third baseman Matt Chapman, both with Double-A Midland. Chapman, who had a six-RBI game Saturday, leads the Texas League in both homers (26) and RBI (75) and has persevered through some struggles at the plate. Barreto heated up after a slow start, lifting his average to .270. Both impressed in major league spring training, and though the A’s would prefer they get their feet wet at Triple-A, that’s not a requirement before a potential call-up. If Jed Lowrie winds up having season-ending toe surgery, might Barreto get a look at second base, where he’s played a bit this year? If Chapman were to come up, Healy could platoon with Alonso at first base and get some DH at-bats too. Perhaps the A’s will choose to reward more experienced prospects at Triple-A first, if their performance warrants it, but they also won’t hold Barreto and Chapman back if they’re busting down the door.
BIGGEST REASON FOR CONCERN:
Manager Bob Melvin is faced with a similar challenge as last year around this time. How does he keep the A’s motivated as they carry things to the finish line? Hopes of contention are gone, and the trade of Hill and Reddick send a clear signal that the front office’s focus has shifted to 2017. But the players and coaches still need to focus on the present. There are eight weeks left to go. That leaves opportunities for young players to make an impression. And that puts older veterans on alert that they shouldn’t feel too secure in their positions. But still, these are the dog days for a non-contending team, and there’s potential for the collective focus to drift.
QUOTE TO NOTE:
“He’s one of the great, great athletes in Bay Area history. I was lucky enough to know him. My godfather was a trainer for the Warriors. I used to sit at his locker and read mail to him. He’d have me read his mail to him. What a great man, what a great player.” – Melvin, after the death of legendary Warriors center Nate Thurmond.
“It was one of those feelings where you don’t feel anything off the bat. You know it’s a big yard. When you look up you’re like, ‘That’s gone. … I think it’s gone. I hope it’s gone.’” – Healy, describing his walk-off homer July 23 to beat Tampa Bay.