Athletics

Melvin: Strong finish should help A's 'hit the ground running' next season

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USATSI

Melvin: Strong finish should help A's 'hit the ground running' next season

ARLINGTON, Texas — Morale understandably could be rock-bottom for a last-place club by the time game 162 rolls around.

Contrast that with the energy and vibe in the A’s clubhouse following a 5-2 victory over the Rangers that closed out the 2017 season. Though the A’s finished last in the American League West for the third consecutive season, there’s a feeling that better times might finally be on the horizon for 2018.

Oakland (75-87) finished the season with a flourish, going 17-7 over the final 24 games. Over the final 79 games starting July 4, or roughly the entire second half of the regular season, the A’s played better than .500 ball at 40-39.

Will it mean anything by the time Opening Day 2018 rolls around? Manager Bob Melvin thinks it should.

“I think we’ve accomplished enough to have a good feeling going into next year,” he said. “I want guys, when they come to spring training next year, to be in a different mindset than we’ve been. We want to hit the ground running next spring. The timeliness of getting some of those younger guys here, the success they’ve had, would lend to a different atmosphere for us next spring and certainly some different expectations as a group.”

One of those young guys, starter Daniel Mengden, was late to the party. Having been hampered by a fractured foot, and later a strained oblique, Mengden was recalled from the minors Sept. 5 and proceeded to go 3-1 with a 1.54 ERA over five starts to close the season.

That included a sterling seven-inning effort Sunday, when he held Texas to four hits and no runs, striking out eight. For a rotation that saw Sonny Gray depart via trade, Kendall Graveman suffer shoulder issues and Jharel Cotton and other young starters endure struggles, Mengden’s performance was a late-season revelation.

“That’s the best work we’ve seen from him,” Melvin said. “And to come out of the pack, so to speak, like he did and perform as well as he did, at a time we were struggling a little bit in our rotation … He put himself right back up there in the pecking order going into next season. I don’t have enough good things to say about him.”

Mengden got ahead of hitters with his fastball, and that helped make his changeup and slider more effective.

“It’s a huge amount of confidence for me, for our team. The last month we played really well,” he said. “It boosts the confidence a lot, coming in here doing what I did. I’m looking forward to next year.”

Khris Davis hit his 43rd homer to establish a new career high. But it’s another veteran who constitutes the first order of business for Oakland this offseason.

The A’s hold a $6 million option on second baseman Jed Lowrie with a $1 million buyout. They're thinking strongly about bringing Lowrie back after a productive — and healthy — season that included an Oakland-record 49 doubles and solid defense.

“This is a young team that has a lot of talent,” Lowrie said. “The option is completely out of my control, but I like playing with these guys.”

Expect the A’s to look to bolster the pitching staff, both the rotation and bullpen, over the winter, to complement a promising core of position players that Melvin hopes will continue to develop and provide the foundation for a rise up the standings.

“I think it brings a little hope for next year,” Davis said of the A’s strong finish. “Hopefully we can remember this in the winter and have some dog piles next year.”

A's trade former 2B prospect Joey Wendle, who never got a chance to blossom

A's trade former 2B prospect Joey Wendle, who never got a chance to blossom

The A’s swung a trade on the first day of the Winter Meetings, but it wasn’t the type of swap that’s been anticipated.

Oakland dealt second baseman Joey Wendle to the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday for a player to be named later or cash considerations. The storyline for the rest of the week is whether the A’s complete a deal for their biggest target— a right-handed hitting corner outfielder.

They weren’t involved in heavy dialogue Monday as the four-day Winter Meetings opened at the Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando, Fla. But they’re on the lookout for an outfielder that will allow them to shift Khris Davis from left field to designated hitter.

Billy Beane, the A’s head of baseball operations, reiterated to reporters that the team ideally wants to acquire an outfielder who’s under team control for multiple years. The Cardinals’ Stephen Piscotty fits that bill and is known to be a primary target, but the A’s have been linked to others too, including Miami’s Marcell Ozuna.

If a trade doesn’t pan out, Beane didn’t rule out the possibility of signing a free agent outfielder, but the focus is trading for one who’s signed to an affordable contract. Beyond that, the A’s seek a left-handed reliever to continue fortifying a bullpen they’ve already added to this offseason.

“We were pretty specific with who and what we want, whether it be a free agent or a trade,” Beane said of the team’s approach to the meetings. “There’s a few free agents we have interest in, a trade here and there. And if we don’t get them, we’ll just wait for the offseason” to continue.

Wendle, who saw slices of big league time in 2016 and 2017, was originally acquired from Cleveland for Brandon Moss during the 2014 Winter Meetings. He drew some comparisons to Mark Ellis for both his style of play and work ethic but found himself blocked at second base despite an impressive big league debut in September 2016.

He hit .260 that month in 28 games, and though that average doesn’t stand out, he impressed defensively and proved to be a spark plug hitting leadoff, drawing praise from manager Bob Melvin. But a shoulder injury cost the 27-year-old Wendle valuable time in spring training last season and extended into the regular season. It didn’t help his cause that Chad Pinder emerged as a second base option and valuable utility man, and that Franklin Barreto — the A’s top-rated prospect — also arrived on the big league scene for stretches.

In addition, the A’s think highly of another up-and-coming second base prospect, Max Schrock. Acquired from Washington for reliever Marc Rzepczynski in August 2016, the 23-year-old Schrock opened the eyes of Melvin’s staff last spring and hit .321 for Double-A Midland in 2017.

Jed Lowrie, of course, is the A’s veteran incumbent at second base but is a logical trade candidate at any point given Barreto’s inevitable full-time arrival in the majors.

Despite stadium uncertainty, Beane stands by long-term plan for A's youngsters

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USATSI

Despite stadium uncertainty, Beane stands by long-term plan for A's youngsters

The deterioration of ballpark talks at the Peralta site won’t affect the A’s grand plan on the baseball side of things.

At least that’s what vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane told reporters Monday as the Winter Meetings opened in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

The A’s promoted a number of highly regarded minor leaguers last season who showed promise that they could be future foundation pieces. Along those lines, Beane and his staff planned to target some of those youngsters for long-term contract extensions, with an eye toward generating momentum as a new ballpark was built near downtown Oakland.

The A’s will still look to lock up some of those players, Beane said, even after last week’s news that the Peralta Community College District board halted negotiations for the team to build a new ballpark on land that sits near Laney College.

“I think it’s still a strategy we try to embark on,” Beane said of signing young players.

Consider third baseman Matt Chapman and first baseman Matt Olson, who both entrenched themselves last season as rookies, as two obvious candidates for long-term deals at some point. But they aren’t the only two.

When could the first deals come?

“Realistically, the sooner the better,” Beane said. “Certainly we’ve got between now and spring training to introduce the idea. But probably more sooner than later.”

It’s an uncertain time for this franchise. Will the A’s look elsewhere to build in Oakland? They don’t seem thrilled with the idea of revisiting the current Coliseum site or Howard Terminal as possible locations. Could majority owner John Fisher consider selling? And if so, does that open the door to the franchise leaving the Bay Area? It doesn’t seem any scenario should be counted out right now.

No one representing the club, including team president Dave Kaval, has spoken publicly about ballpark plans since the Peralta talks abruptly ended Wednesday.

As far as baseball operations go, it only makes sense to continue down the path that they recently committed to. The only bad course of action for the A’s is not to take any action at all.

Beane and general manager David Forst need to stay the course and continue their commitment to young players, crossing their fingers that the business side of the operation can pivot and find a new direction for building a ballpark.