A long winter left too much time for the A’s to reflect on a 2015 season they’d rather forget.
Finally, the page turns.
And though all Major League teams routinely brim with optimism this time of year, the chance to wipe the slate clean has to bring genuine relief to anyone wearing green and gold.
Oakland’s pitchers and catchers report for spring training Saturday in Mesa, Ariz. Five days later, the rest of the squad will join them. With that, the memories of last year’s 68-94 campaign can officially be flushed.
“We all remember last year and the taste in our mouth all winter,” catcher Stephen Vogt said. “For me, personally, it’s been ugly. I’m excited to get going again.”
The A’s revamped their woeful bullpen by adding four new relievers. They acquired a power-hitting left fielder in Khris Davis and made two more trades that netted first baseman Yonder Alonso and second baseman Jed Lowrie.
Within the organization, hopes are high that the A’s can rebound from 2015, when they finished with the American League’s worst record for the first time since 1997. Outside prognosticators aren’t so convinced.
ESPN’s David Schoenfield rated the A’s 25th in his preseason power rankings of all 30 big league teams. That also put them dead last among the 15 American League clubs (caveat: Schoenfield’s rankings came out before the A’s noteworthy addition of Davis).
Though predictions in early February are fun to dissect, the more important indicator is how the A’s shape up as they come out of spring training.
Over the next six weeks in the desert, their No. 1 task is identifying their five-man rotation. Beyond All-Star ace Sonny Gray, there isn’t another starter who can be considered a “sure thing” in terms of production.
Free agent signee Rich Hill seems assured a rotation spot. But Hill, who turns 36 in March, hasn’t been a full-fledged starter in the bigs since 2009 with Baltimore. The journeyman is 26-23 with a 4.54 ERA over parts of 11 seasons, yet he projects as Oakland’s potential No. 2 starter.
That’s because right-hander Jesse Hahn has to show his forearm issues of last season are gone. Hahn went 6-6 with a 3.35 ERA over 16 starts, including his first career shutout, but he was sidelined in early July with a strained right forearm and didn’t return. Kendall Graveman, 6-9 with a 4.05 ERA in an up-and-down rookie season, says he’s fully recovered from a season-ending oblique injury. Those two, along with right-hander Chris Bassitt (1-8, 3.56), could round out the rotation, but that trio has combined for just 67 career starts.
“I think the biggest question will be their health, especially in the rotation,” said a Major League scout who requested anonymity. “After Gray, there’s a lot of question marks. Jesse Hahn showed middle-of-the-rotation stuff, but I think the other guys, (including) Rich Hill, are really more fourth, fifth starters.”
This isn’t foreign territory for the A’s.
They’ve often entered the spring with rotation question marks involving health and/or inexperience, but have consistently produced some of the American League’s best starting pitching. In each of the past six years, Oakland has finished among the AL’s top four in starters’ ERA.
“We have talent, and that’s the key,” pitching coach Curt Young said. “It’s about guys settling into spots. I think spring training will tell a lot.”
Whoever fills out the rotation will hand things over to a new-look bullpen, after the A’s blew 25 saves last year, second-most in the AL. Free agent additions Ryan Madson (3-year, $22 million deal) and John Axford (2 years, $10 million), and trade acquistions Liam Hendriks and Marc Rzepczynski, are part of the new core charged with handing leads over to closer Sean Doolittle. Returners Fernando Rodriguez and Ryan Dull are also solid bets to factor into the bullpen mix.
Offensively, can the A’s step things up after finishing ninth in the league in runs last season? Friday’s acquisition of Davis, who came over from Milwaukee for two minor leaguers, makes the lineup more formidable. But designated hitter Billy Butler, right fielder Josh Reddick, third baseman Danny Valencia and Vogt also must shoulder the load if the A’s are to author a happier script than what unfolded in 2015.
“Offensively we’re going to have some great parts,” manager Bob Melvin said in late January. “And really, the issue last year for the most part was we’d give up some runs late. The first thing the organization did was go out and sign some high-profile bullpen guys. I like our team as we sit here right now.”