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…

The Pain of 2014 is on Full Display This Postseason

2014 is going to sting for a long time. Life goes on, sure, but all over this postseason, there are reminders of those trades we don’t want to talk about and that game we don’t want to talk about. And I’m not even talking about Josh Donaldson – that was after the 2014 season. I’m talking solely about the two July blockbusters that created that team that would skate into the second Wild Card spot on the final day of the season and crash and burn in epic fashion on September 30, 2014 to once again be collateral damage on someone else’s road to glory.

russellAddison Russell was a great prospect and we all dreamed of him becoming the next Miguel Tejada. The A’s shortstop in 2014 was Jed Lowrie, for goodness sake, so Russell was a clear successor. He was untouchable, we thought. He was the future building block, we thought. But then came July 5.

July 5, 2014: Traded by the Oakland Athletics with Billy McKinney (minors), Dan Straily and cash to the Chicago Cubs for Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija.

Now look, I’m an A’s optimist, probably to a fault. I wasn’t mad about this trade at the time, as the A’s had the best record in baseball when it happened, and the plan to load up on pitching for a deep October run seemed clear to me. Here’s what I said:

It’s likely this trade will be talked about for more than just the next two years, however, if Russell pans out like everyone expects him to. Whether they’re saying good things or bad things about the A’s depends on if Billy Beane finally wins the last game of the season. World Series or bust, here we go.

Yep, World Series or bust. With less than half of the season to go and MLB’s best record, the A’s really seemed to be in the position to make that kind of trade. The A’s also had the best run oaklandathleticsvseattlemarinersx86sxhoc79kldifferential in baseball by a pretty wide margin as well, though on the pitching side of things, they were getting career years from Jesse Chavez and Scott Kazmir, and Sonny Gray was still just a second year starter. This trade made complete sense at the time. It’s hard for us to remember that now, but it really honestly did.

Samardzija was a very good pitcher – not quite an ace, but an All Star who was in the midst of what would be a 3.7 WAR, 3.20 FIP season. He was that type of workhorse arm that could be a solid #2 in a playoff series. The acquisition of him and Hammel certainly made the 2014 A’s better, despite sacrificing part of 2015 and beyond. But then came the even more controversial move on deadline day, July 31. Billy went out and got that #1 in Boston’s Jon Lester.

July 31, 2014: Traded by the Boston Red Sox with Jonny Gomes and cash to the Oakland Athletics for Yoenis Cespedes and 2015 competitive balance round B pick.

<record scratch>

There have been “#$%*ing A” trades, but this one was more than that. It was a compete and utter WTF. But I, being the shameless A’s optimist I am, spun this into being a good trade that sort of made sense.

Oakland Athletics v Tampa Bay RaysHe’s been an exciting player to have on the A’s and get to watch play every day but this season is about winning the World Series, and to do that you need top notch pitching that can shut the opposition down. In 2012, the ALDS games were started by Parker, Milone, Anderson, Griffin, Parker versus Verlander, Fister, Sanchez, Scherzer, Verlander. In 2013, it was Colon, Gray, Parker, Straily, Gray versus Scherzer, Verlander, Sanchez, Fister, Verlander. This year, baseball gods willing, we’ll have Lester, Samardzija, Gray, Kazmir. That’s a quartet of number ones like nothing we’ve had in recent years. I’ll miss Cespedes but as always I trust Billy Beane knows what he’s doing.

Doubling down on the strategy of stacking the deck with top notch pitching to win a short series seemed like it made a ton of sense. I mean, on July 31, the A’s had already begun to scuffle a little but they still had the best record in baseball at 66-41 that day. The Angels had begun surging and were only 2 1/2 games out of first, but the A’s were still very much in control of their playoff fate, and they had – as I described back then – “a quartet of number ones” to trot out there day after day.

cvqvq7cvuaexfieBut we couldn’t see then what would come in the final two months. The A’s ended up going 12-17 in August, fell out of first place by August 25, and then went 10-16 in September. It was only the recent existence of the second Wild Card spot that saved the A’s from completely missing the playoffs, but considering what happened on September 30, 2014, I’m not sure which I would have preferred. We had that do-or-die game sooner than we hoped, but we had that true ace in Lester ready to go for it.

Don’t worry, I’m not going rehash that game right now. But watching Lester pitch in the postseason for the Cubs two years later and taking co-MVP honors in the NLCS by winning Games 1 and 5 in dominating fashion is nauseating, as we had him on the mound for a huge game and he couldn’t get it done. Sure, it wasn’t all his fault but still – the A’s lost that playoff game that he started. Lester has pitched in seven posteasons and is 8-6 with a 2.50 ERA in 19 games, and that 2014 performance was the worst postseason he’s had. Single game-wise, only his 2008 ALCS Game 3 performance was slightly worse (a 40 game score vs. a 41 game score).

And then there’s Russell. We’ll never know what he would’ve been as an A, but he remains in the consciousness of “what if” if only by way of the national stage he’s playing on right now. Not only is he coming through with clutch hits in the NLCS, but he’s doing it as a member of the Cubs, who have just won their first pennant in 71 years. Everybody notices and everybody loves Addison and he used to be ours. The A’s look dumb for letting him go. Regardless of the numbers and the transactions that have occurred since, that’s what people notice.

2014 was the most all-in the A’s have ever gone, and its end result was the most epic fail the A’s have ever had. And it’s all on display for the national baseball audience to see every night. It makes me wonder if the A’s can someday overcome this and finally write a chapter of postseason success again. I hope that I live to see it.