As it currently stands, the Oakland Athletics are projected for a record of 80-82 (for the sake of reference, I’m using Fangraphs’ projections). This is actually higher than I assumed, as they’re actually tied with the Mariners and Rockies, and also tied with the Rays for 32 projected team WAR. It’s not going to be an exercise in futility to put the A’s into the playoffs, but to say they aren’t facing an upward battle would just be plain wrong.
First off, they’re not going to win the division. That’s one path already blocked off. Second, we can almost assume the first Wild Card goes to either one of the Red Sox or Yankees, leaving Oakland with really one path. Ideally the second wild card is about an eighty-six win team, which the Blue Jays are currently projected at with an 8.2 difference in WAR.
If you’re following along so far, we basically need to conjure 8.2 WAR out of thin air, or one whole 2017 Aaron Judge. Or 2017 Buster Posey and 2017 Didi Gregorious. So let’s jump into some of these projections and see what we can find.
The first thing that immediately sticks out is Jonathan Lucroy’s projected WAR. Right now he’s at a pretty admirable 2.9 WAR and looks like the fourth best catcher in baseball at that figure. But the fourth best catcher in baseball likely doesn’t sign for a one year, $6.5 million deal in March. Last year he put up 1.1 WAR after putting up 4.6 the year before, and it’s unclear whether he was injured or if there was something else going on. Regardless, across the board the declined pretty substantially and I’d liken him closer to a 1.8 WAR guy. If we apply that difference to the original 8.2, it brings us to 9.1 WAR, or 2004 Ichiro Suzuki (via Baseball Reference).
So now we have even more wins to make up, but let’s look at where we can add now.
The next position we’ll look it is, arguably, the most critical piece to the success of the 2018 Oakland A’s. That piece is Matt Olson. For those who don’t know, in fifty-nine games last year, Olson slugged twenty-four home runs to go along with a 162 wRC+ led by a .259/.352/.651 slash line. The hype could very well be warranted, and if Olson can maintain a wRC+ of 135-140, he could be an absolutely monstrous force in that lineup. Let’s give him another 1.1 WAR, bringing him to a projected 3.5. Optimistic, but realistic, and brings us to an even 8 WAR to continue to find.
Over at second base things also continue to look interesting, with Jed Lowrie manning the position. Don’t look now, but Lowrie was quietly one of the better players in baseball last season with an excellent 3.5 win season, led by a .277/.360/.448 line with a 119 wRC+. The question is, will these offensive gains hold? And I believe the answer is actually “mostly”. With a .314 BABIP last year, nothing in the average department looks ridiculous. But here’s the thing. Lowrie is hitting the ball with much more authority.
Last year he had a hard hit rate of 34.5%, which is much higher than his career mark of 31.1%. He also put the ball in the air 43.5% of the time, but that’s pretty close to his career mark of 44.7%. The biggest difference was the almost complete elimination of ground balls; he had a 29.4% ground ball rate compared to 32.5% for his career. So does this mean more home runs? Well, maybe not. He’s still put the ball in the air a decent amount for his career, but last year did lead to forty-nine doubles, a very impressive figure. While never consistently healthy for his career, I’ll give Jed a slight bump in the WAR projection to acknowledge the skill change, but also with some hesitation for health. We’ll move him to 2.2, up from 1.6. 7.4 WAR left to go.
I think the projections for Marcus Semien (2.2) and Khris Davis (2.1) are fair, so we’ll likely skip over them.
The next very critical position lies on the other side of the diamond from Matt Olson, and that is of course Matt Chapman. Chapman, who has already firmly established himself as a top-three defensive third baseman in the league, carries an extremely high floor. Chapman posted an incredible 19 DRS in 727 innings last year at the hot corner, all while being a 108 wRC+ player.
Most projections have him at about a league average hitter next year or slightly below, which is probably reasonable. But for this exercise we have to be a little bit unreasonable. At a projected 3.2 WAR, we’re gonna tack on another 0.8 WAR, putting him at an even 4 WAR, and bringing our figure needed down to 6.6. I think Chapman actually makes decent contact (73.2%) and hits the ball hard enough (#39 highest exit velocity last year with at least 130 batted ball events) and consistent enough (#29 in average exit velocity last year with at least 130 batted ball events) that it’s easy to see the upside here.
In terms of the outfield, Stephen Piscotty at 1.9 WAR isn’t so ridiculous; in his only full season, he put up 2.8 WAR, but I’m not gonna dispute his WAR figure. One that I could, and will dispute, is Dustin Fowler’s.
Fowler was obviously acquired by Oakland in the Sonny Gray trade, and consistently found himself well regarded as a prospect, despite the underwhelming star potential. An injury last year sopped what looked to be an exciting debut, but as of right now it looks like the A’s will let him loose in center field. He’s a pretty good runner and will likely be at least average with the glove in center.
That is to say, he’s already very, very valuable if the glove plays, which it should. He’s also got decent 20/20 potential, and is actually projected for 15/16 as it stands with a paltry 0.6 WAR. This likely comes from a projected 88 wRC+, which probably stems from the fact that Fowler can’t really take a walk. But he can hit, and if we become, again, realistically bullish, let’s put him at a 110 wRC+. Chip in some homers and steals, value on the bases, and a good glove in center, and I’m going to put him at 2.2 WAR. For those keeping track, we now only have 5 WAR to make up.
But 5 WAR is still a lot. The A’s still have a lot of talent, so let’s keep trudging forward.
Trevor Cahill hasn’t reached 1 WAR since 2013 so I’m going to take the under on his projection (1.0 WAR). I also like Frankie Montas a decent bit better than his projection (0.6 WAR), so we’ll move him to 1.1. These will cancel out, leaving us with 5 WAR still.
I think the most critical part of this rotation is Sean Manaea. Last year Manaea put up 2.3 WAR in a bit of a strange season. Through the first month of the season he struggled quite a bit, but for the next three months he dominated, putting up a 3.45 ERA with good peripherals to match. Then August and September hit, and Manaea was bogged down by a sore shoulder, but most importantly an illness in which he twenty pounds and struggled to regain any of his previous season form.
Health withstanding, Manaea should be an anchor at the top of Oakland’s rotation. While he may never be a clear ace, developing into a solid #2 would be huge for Oakland. A 3.65 ERA with 8.5 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 would be enormous. I’m going to be extremely bullish on Manaea here and improve on his 2.2 WAR projection, bringing him to 3.7 WAR, and bringing our total to 3.5 WAR left to go.
At this point, there aren’t too many roster spots left to fill. I’m scared to look at the bullpen, but we have to.
Last year everyone remembers how hideously bad Blake Treinen was for the Nationals, but what many don’t remember is the quiet renaissance he had in Oakland. In thirty-eight innings, Treinen put up an excellent 2.13 ERA with 9.9 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9. That’s pretty good. Projections liken him to a mid-3’s ERA with 1.1 WAR, but with a sinker that hits the upper 90’s consistently and a decent sample of him being successful, I’ll put him at 1.7 WAR, bringing us to 3 WAR left.
The only other viable piece in this bullpen really is Yusmeiro Petit, who was fine last year. Except, he was really, really good after moving to the bullpen with all his peripherals moving in the right direction. He put up 2.2 WAR out of the Angels’ bullpen, tied for eighth in all of baseball. At a paltry projected 0.5 WAR, I’m comfortable enough to bump him to 1.3 WAR, shaving another 0.8 WAR off, and leaving us with 2.2 WAR.
With nobody else particularly interesting on the active roster, we now are 2.2 WAR short. We didn’t quite get the A’s to the playoffs. But. Wait. They have some guy named A.J. Puk who’s pretty good and should be up around June or July, enough time in the season for him to put up more than the 0.6 WAR he’s projected at. We’ll tack on a win bringing him to 1.6 WAR, and us to 1.2 WAR left to find.
They also have some fella shored up in the minors named Franklin Barreto, projected for an entirely insignificant 0.1 WAR. He’s got gobs of talent, and I’m still optimistic about the bat despite a poor major league debut and some decent sized red flags in the minors. I’ll say he comes up and puts up about 0.8 WAR, not totally impactful, but every little bit helps.
Yes, I could go in depth even more about the A’s roster and minors, but these are the players I think will be the most crucial to Oakland’s success next year. We came up 0.5 WAR short, but I think there’s real talent here. With a paltry payroll, the A’s could afford to add midseason to get them over the hump, and you may think I’m optimistic about a lot of these guys (Manaea), but nothing here is unrealistic. We may be very close to Oakland being a relevant team again, and baseball’s better when that happens.