The Oakland A’s were a popular pick to regress this season after winning the AL West with a .600 win percentage during the truncated 2020 season. The presumption of the A’s decline was fueled by the departures of impact players in free agency: namely, Marcus Semien to Toronto, Tommy La Stella to San Francisco, Liam Hendriks to Chicago, and Robbie Grossman to Detroit.
Those were notable losses, but lackluster replacements spoke more to the overall skepticism surrounding the team: Elvis Andrus and an aged Jed Lowrie in the infield, Mitch Moreland taking many of the at-bats in the designated hitter spot that went to Grossman (with holders Chad Pinder, Tony Kemp, or Stephen Piscotty taking his spot in the field), and Trevor Rosenthal signed to assume the closer’s role.
Of course, the details of the “Moneyball” model that made the A’s front office famous has changed over the years, but one thing that hasn’t is their non-linear approach to roster creation. Replacing Semien, La Stella, Hendriks, and Grossman wasn’t a casting problem. If it were, the collective 0.6 rWAR accrued by their replacements would be enough to tank this roster.
Instead, the A’s are outperforming their projections with a 62-48 record, which carries a 57.4% chance of making the playoffs. They’re just three games behind the Astros for the division lead, 1.5 games ahead of the Yankees for the second wild card spot.
It seems like every year now that the A’s simply find a way. They were left for dead mid-way through last season, too, when star Matt Chapman was lost for the year. When they chose to replace him with scrapheap pickup Jake Lamb and platoon-players like Chad Pinder and Vimael Machin, it seemed that the A’s were doomed for a second-half skid.
Not so. Despite posting nearly identical win percentages the two seasons prior (.599 in both 2018 and 2019, 97-win seasons), 2020 marked Oakland’s first division title since 2012 and 2013. With the Ramon Laureano suspension now in effect, can the A’s yet again survive the loss of a key two-way position player?
Obviously, the acquisition of Starling Marte at the deadline looks even better now than it did a week ago. He certainly stands as a more significant replacement than Lamb from a year ago. And yet, bringing in Marte seemed like such a boon because he shored up a real weak spot in the lineup. That spot is back to being a question mark for the final two months of the season.
Marte can ably fill the void defensively. Despite Laureano’s flashy tools, there’s an argument to be made that an outfield of Mark Canha, Marte, and Seth Brown could be better defensively. Laureano’s -1 OAA comes in last behind Marte at +6 and Canha and Brown both at +4. DRS and UZR give Laureano more credit, but Marte ought to nevertheless mostly replace his glove.
With the bat, Brown and Stephen Piscotty are likely to step back in as a relatively straightforward platoon in right. Piscotty’s been below-average this season, but he’s better against lefties with a 98 wRC+. The same can be said for Brown going the other way with his 97 wRC+ against right-handers. Together that doesn’t exactly add up to Laureano’s 114 wRC+, but it helps close the gap.
Of course, replacing a player for the A’s always involved a bit of sleight of hand. Utility man Josh Harrison might be the answer to replacing Laureano, either by slotting directly into the outfield, or by taking time at second while Kemp moves to the grass. Harrison played his way back into relevance with a .291/.363/.431 line over 450 plate appearances with the Nationals the past two seasons. The upgrade from Aramis Garcia (54 wRC+) to Yan Gomes (104 wRC+) may also help pick up some of the slack — as might the addition of Andrew Chafin in the pen.
So how worried should A’s fans be? Will they have enough to hold off the onrushing Yankees, Blue Jays, and Mariners for a playoff spot? Can they catch the Astros? What say you of Oakland’s chances the rest of the way?
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