Hopeful

I’m feeling hopeful today on Opening Day, but it’s a different kind of hopeful than I feel most Opening Days. My hopefulness has nothing to do with how the A’s might do on the field. I don’t expect them to contend this year and I figure they’ll probably finish in the cellar in the division with a record much like last year’s. What has me hopeful this year is that it seems the end is in sight in the long awaited quest for a new ballpark, and the ownership finally seems to be caring about the fan experience and is embracing Oakland as it the current and future home of the A’s.

As an A’s fan in Wisconsin, I’m viewing this from a distance. I haven’t been to an A’s game in Oakland since 2013 and haven’t lived in northern California for nearly 15 years. But even being over 2,000 miles away, I still feel connected to the feeling of being an A’s fan in a market that is completely dominated by another team, both financially and by on-the-field success. Even in the mid-90s, I felt like the only A’s fan in my circle of friends and acquaintances. They were either Giants fans or fans of some random non-A’s team. The A’s, post-Haas, were second fiddle. And it’s only gotten about a hundred times worse, thanks to Even Year Bull****.

But this isn’t just about the Giants. The post-Haas ownership has been either penny-pinching or Oakland-hating or both. Lewis Wolff was the most recent face of ownership and a constant reminder of attempt to leave Oakland, much to the ire of many A’s fans. But Wolff and team president Mike Crowley stepped down from day-to-day operations of the club in November and the A’s instilled a new leader as the face of the higher-ups, team president Dave Kaval, and it’s been a complete 180. He’s met with fans, he’s promised progress on the search for a new ballpark before the end of this season, and he’s helped usher in a new marketing campaign, “Rooted in Oakland,” and a better fan experience at the Coliseum. (They’ve even embraced some anti-Giants ribbing with the hat trade-in events over the last week.) It’s been fascinating to watch people start to actually care about the A’s again, but in a different way than usual. It’s about the overall experience rather than success on the field this season.

Of course, we all want to see the A’s win again, and the long term hope is that improved fan experience and a new stadium will  help keep the the team successful over a longer period of time. But you’ve got to start somewhere and this is an excellent start. Go A’s…

Happy PPR Day 2017

Everyone talks about how great Pitchers and Catchers Day is. I certainly did on Tuesday. But there’s another day that doesn’t get nearly the attention and that’s Position Players Report Day. We love our other position players as much as we love our pitchers and catchers, so let’s celebrate, as today is PPR Day!

The A’s added a handful of new position players this offseason, two of which are former A’s that are returning to the team. Rajai Davis was signed to a one-year deal for $6 million, and considering center field was mostly manned last season by some combination of Billy Burns, Jake Smolinski and Brett Eibner, I like the move to bring back a guy who has more of a track record as an everyday player. Everyone remembers Rajai’s big home run in Game 7 of the World Series, but he also led the A.L. in stolen bases (43) in his only full season with the Indians. The other former A coming back is Adam Rosales, who somehow managed to OPS .814 for the Padres last season, in the most games he’s played in a big league season (115). I would imagine he’s a utility backup for the A’s, as the starting infield positions are pretty set.

As for those starting infield positions, Marcus Semien, Jed Lowrie, Yonder Alonso and Ryon Healy are all back to get the bulk of the playing time on the infield this year, though Healy will probably get some time at first base as the A’s signed veteran free agent Trevor Plouffe to a one-year deal. Hopefully Healy will end up with the most at-bats among the two though as it would be nice if he gets the opportunity to build on that .305/.337/.524 line he put up last season at the big league level. And let’s not forget about Nashville when talking about third base this season – defensive stud Matt Chapman will be beginning the year in AAA and will hopefully be pushing to make the big league roster sometime this season.

We’ve got another new guy in the outfield besides Rajai. One of the first moves the A’s made this offseason was to sign Matt Joyce to a two-year deal. They really needed a veteran lefty bat out there with the departure of Josh Reddick, and Joyce will give them some stability in the lineup versus right-handed pitching, with a career OPS of .803 versus righties in his career. And of course the guy returning to the A’s outfield this season was the most valuable position player the team had last year – Khris Davis. We enjoyed a summer of watching Khris launch baseballs out of the Coliseum last year and hopefully there will be more of the same this year, as he enters his age 29 season.

And then one week from today, there will be an actual baseball game featuring the A’s playing against another actual baseball team. We’re almost there. Go A’s…

Happy P&C Day 2017

Pitchers and Catchers Day is kind of like the Groundhog Day of baseball. We get excited about it but then it just reminds us that there’s six more weeks of winter – or in the case of P&C Day, six more weeks until actual real baseball that counts. But still – “pitchers and catchers” are still my three favorite words to hear in the month of February. Actual Oakland A’s are gathering to make preparations for playing actual baseball very soon. It’s a light at the end of the baseball-less tunnel. So on this blessed P&C Day, let’s remind ourselves who these pitchers and catchers are going into the new season.

AP_525535721272I can’t start thinking about Oakland A’s pitchers without my mind going directly to Sonny Gray first. Not only is he the team’s de-facto ace, but he’s the biggest question mark going into this season. What the heck happened to him last year, and will he ever be as good again as he was from 2013 to 2015? There was that forearm injury last year, so you have to wonder how much of his struggles had to do with him not being 100 percent. But his home run and his walk rate both went up, while his strikeout rate remained unchanged. Both changed factors would indicate a lot of missing of spots. Are we to expect him to be able to hit those spots again this year? I expect that this has a lot to do with his participation in the World Baseball Classic this spring, as a member of Team USA, as it should provide a better showcase for him then spring training games would. He’s still very much a trade candidate, and the better he does this season, the more likely it is that he goes, so that certainly leaves me conflicted here. But of course, I hope we haven’t seen the last of good Sonny.

It’s hard not to let myself get overly optimistic about Sean Manaea and Jharel Cotton. Manaea had a solid debut season in the bigs last year and showed significant improvement in the second half of the season, going 4-4 with a 2.67 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 69 strikeouts in 13 second half games (12 starts), after struggling with a 5.24 ERA through his first 12 starts. And Jharel Cotton had a brilliant September callup, with 2.15 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in five starts. However, Cotton had some BABIP assistance (.198), so that’s not sustainable. But these are still two young guys that will give us things to look forward to in 2017.

AP_16206066114333Kendall Graveman is not an exciting pitcher but he put together a really solid under-the-radar season last year, inducing a lot of ground balls and winning 10 starts, which included two complete games and his first career shutout. He cut the walk rate down and had a 4.11 ERA and 4.36 FIP. It was a nice step forward for Graveman, who doesn’t have much of a ceiling but could be a solid fourth starter if he doesn’t run into some bad BABIP luck. Rounding out the rotation should be Andrew Triggs, as Daniel Mengden will miss a good chunk of the first half of the season after having foot surgery. Triggs is that guy I always forget about, as he bounced between the majors and the minors and between the bullpen and the rotation. But he is an intriguing rotation option going into 2017, as in his final five starts of the season, he pitched 22 2/3 innings with a 2.78 ERA and 21 strikeouts. He did have a favorable BABIP (.240) as a starter, but as a fifth man, you could do a lot worse than taking a flier on a guy with breakout potential like Triggs.

In the bullpen, we’re going to see the same cast of characters, plus the return of a former A, as Santiago Casilla was the only pitcher added by the A’s this offseason as he signed a one-year free agent deal. The veteran righty will join a veteran bullpen, with Ryan Madson expected to hang onto the closer role. The addition of effectively Casilla gives the A’s four closer types, along with Sean Doolittle and John Axford. That idea had mixed results last year but bullpen performance can be so random that you just hope you have the right mix.

EP-308049758Now let’s not forget the catchers who are also reporting today. The A’s have three catchers on the 40-man roster right now and it’s not out of the question that all three could make the team. Stephen Vogt is coming off back-to-back All Star appearances but seemed to lose some time behind the dish to Bruce Maxwell in the second half of last season. That’s OK though, as Vogt can DH against right handed pitching, as he did in 22 games last season, or even play first base, as he has done for 71 games in his career (one in 2016). Maxwell earned himself nearly full time playing time by the end of last season, and he tore it up in September, hitting .361/.418/.508 in 67 September plate appearances, and he should get every opportunity to show what he can do over a full big league season, if the A’s are willing to break camp with three catchers. The lone righty hitting catcher on the A’s roster is Josh Phegley, returning from season-ending knee surgery. He has been a solid part time catcher over the past two seasons, slashing .264/.303/.447 versus lefties in his career.

And so today the pitchers and catchers gather in Meas and Hohoken Stadium to pitch and catch, and may they pitch and catch better than they pitched and caught last season. Go A’s…