Top 5 questions facing A's entering spring training
The A’s spring camp officially gets underway Saturday when pitchers and catchers report to Mesa, Ariz. So begins the process of the A’s trying to turn around last season’s 68-94 last-place finish. There will be plenty of questions to answer before Opening Day...
1) How does the rotation take shape around Sonny?
Oakland’s front office talks about the desire to always have seven or eight capable starters ready. Entering camp, the A’s first need to identify five of them. Ace Sonny Gray is an excellent foundation piece. But Jesse Hahn and Kendall Graveman are coming off injuries and are relatively unproven. Newcomer Rich Hill lends veteran savvy but hasn’t been a regular starter in six years. Henderson Alvarez could provide some reinforcement by May if he recovers from shoulder surgery, but that’s no guarantee. And Jarrod Parker is even less of a sure thing because of elbow issues. This rotation bears watching.
2) Does Butler deliver in Year 2?
The offense won’t revolve around one person, but if there’s one hitter who needs to step it up over 2015, it’s Billy Butler. Last year, “Country Breakfast” hit just .251 with 15 homers and 65 RBI, and the A’s need more production than that from their $30 million man. Manager Bob Melvin will spend the spring sorting out the middle of his batting order. But however he draws it up, Butler needs to be a substantial contributor to it.
3) Can Doolittle reclaim the ninth inning?
It’s easy to assume that a healthy Sean Doolittle will slide back into the closer’s role and dominate now after an injury-riddled 2015 season. But A’s officials will breathe easier once they actually see the lefty on the mound in exhibitions, pumping his mid-90s fastball and resembling his All-Star form of 2014. The A’s did well to add four key relievers this offseason and give the bullpen a much-needed facelift. The last component is watching Doolittle re-establish himself as a ninth-inning force.
4) Will the defense be less offensive?
Shaky ‘D’ has been a problem now for two seasons running. In 2014, the A’s committed the second-most errors in the majors. Last year, despite roster moves meant to improve the defense, they led the majors with 126 errors. That trend has to stop for the A’s to sniff the upper levels of the AL West standings. Marcus Semien’s continued improvement at shortstop will be a key, as is whether he can mesh with new second baseman Jed Lowrie. The A’s think highly of the glove work of new first baseman Yonder Alonso. But bottom line, Oakland needs a better defensive effort all around the diamond.
5) Can the A’s pass chemistry class?
This question probably isn’t one that will be answered by the end of spring training. However, Oakland once again remade a good portion of its roster, and the six weeks in Arizona needs to be a time where the seeds of a healthy clubhouse environment are planted. It’s no secret that the 2015 clubhouse mix wasn’t the healthiest, and regardless of whether the A’s losing record was the main culprit, the A’s need their entire collection of personalities to mesh better. This winter’s roster additions, including the hiring of bench coach Mark Kotsay, were made with an eye toward importing quality character into the clubhouse.