We’ll continue here with our “Three Needs” series, in which we break down a few high-level needs of teams that fell out of contention early. (Soon, we’ll take full looks at every team’s offseason outlook.)
For the Athletics, a last-place finish in the AL West for the second straight year probably won’t spur a full-blown rebuild — it’s just not how the team has operated — but will likely lead to a fair bit of roster turnover this winter.
1. Improve the speed and defense.
If Oakland’s combined position-player fWAR from 2016 was doubled, it would still be nearly a win shy of the next-to-worst team in baseball. Though the team’s hitting was below-average (91 wRC+), it was the bottom-of-the-barrel baserunning and defense that did most of the damage.
The A’s had company in their troubles on the bases, with the Cardinals, Angels, and Tigers also in the conversation for worst in the game. But on defense, the A’s were far and away the least gloveable team in the league, by measure of both UZR and DRS. And that’s before accounting fully for the work behind the dish, where primary catcher Steven Vogt is one of the lowest-rated receivers in baseball (see here and here).
There may not be a lot of opportunity to change things in the infield beyond hoping for internal improvement. Moving Danny Valencia off of third base helps, but Ryon Healy isn’t an inspiring defensive choice either. Marcus Semien had a whole lot less errors, at least, so perhaps he can drive some further improvement next year at short. If he can return to health, Jed Lowrie will be looking to improve on his metrics in limited action this season at second, but age and injury pose questions. At first, Yonder Alonso has typically graded well, but had his worst season by the metrics in 2016. (Of course, his bat was a bigger problem.)
While consideration should be given to tweaking that alignment, the outfield is the key area that Oakland can target to add some speed and glovework. Read on for more on that area of need:
2. Take some risks in the outfield.
Rolling the dice a bit on Khris Davis last year paid huge dividends for the A’s, but he’s now the only clear outfield starter on the roster as 2017 beckons. In filling out the rest of the group, the club is in a pretty solid position to look for value and dangle some cash to find the right players on which to take chances.
While Oakland will presumably still look to open with a payroll that doesn’t top $90MM — a figure that the organization has only topped once — there ought to be room to add salary in a bid to improve in the outfield. The club has about $34MM on the books already, with some big first-time arbitration salaries on tap but not much in the way of arb raises that the club will need to account for.
What helps the A’s here is the relative outfield depth in the coming free agent market. There are any number of ways the team can go in the corner spot, possibly taking a risk on a short-term asset with some internal players also factoring in. That includes Mark Canha, if he is healthy, and Danny Valencia, if he is tendered, though both of those are bat-first options.
The open job in center is perhaps most interesting, though. On the open market, the best available options are Ian Desmond, Dexter Fowler, and Carlos Gomez, with Jon Jay also coming off of a strong season. Ben Revere (who’ll likely be non-tendered) and Austin Jackson will represent fairly youthful, bargain-bin bounceback candidates. And that’s all before considering the creative possibilities that may be available on the trade market, where the A’s could consider dangling some of their relatively promising group of young pitching.
Speaking of the rotation — which may well also be a place that Oakland again seeks some upside in free agency — let’s turn to the team’s next need …
3. Fix Sonny Gray.
Sounds simple, right?
Gray, who’ll turn 27 in a month, remains a key asset for the Oakland organization — whether he’s pitching there or flipped in a trade. For either outcome to be a good one, he’ll need to return to being the sturdy, top-of-the-rotation arm that he was in his first three major league seasons.
There are signs of both hope and concern in Gray’s rough 2016 campaign. On the whole, his peripherals weren’t grossly out of line with his prior campaigns. He still averaged over seven strikeouts per nine innings, as he did previously, his walk rate wasn’t all that elevated, and he still generated a healthy 53.9% groundball rate. The velocity was right at his typical 93 mph. And his 5.69 ERA is explained in part by a low 63.9% strand rate and a .319 BABIP that was much higher than his career average coming into the year.
On the other hand, Gray showed a troubling downturn in his ability to manage contact after previously outperforming ERA estimators. Hard contact against him spiked to 33.6% after he had allowed just 25% an change in the prior two seasons, which helps explain the BABIP spike. And with that also came a lot of dingers, as hitters facing Gray in 2016 hit homers on flyballs about twice as frequently (17.5%) as they had previously.
All told, there’s plenty of reason to hope that 2016 can be put in the rearview mirror. Even if Gray doesn’t profile as quite as dominant a starter as his early-career, bottom-line results would suggest, he has every chance of getting back to being a high-quality starter who spins over 200 frames a year … if, that is, he can return to full health. The biggest question may not be one that’s fully within his and the team’s control: will Gray’s elbow hold up in 2017?