The 2018, 2019 and 2020 Oakland Athletics were good enough to win the World Series. On paper, those teams didn’t stack up talent-wise with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros and other contenders, but on the field, they could compete with the best teams on a nightly basis.
Of course, despite winning 97 games twice and winning the AL West last season, none of those A’s teams won the World Series, and neither will the 2021 version of the A’s after they were eliminated from playoff contention by the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday.
The difference between this year's team and the previous three is that this club never was good enough to win the World Series. That’s a hard truth for the team and the fan base, but it is reality.
Before and during the season, there simply was too much talent stripped from the roster.
At the end of spring training, Matt Chapman said this was the most talented A’s roster he had been a part of. That couldn’t possibly have been true after the team let Marcus Semien, Liam Hendriks and Robbie Grossman leave in free agency. Chapman believed this team could win 100 games, but they won’t even get to 90 wins.
The A’s replaced Semien and Hendriks with Elvis Andrus and Trevor Rosenthal, respectively.
Semien has 39 doubles, 44 homers and 101 RBI in Toronto, and is an MVP candidate, while Andrus, who suffered a fractured fibula while scoring the winning run on an A's walk-off, finished with three homers and fewer total extra base hits (30) than Semien has homers (44).
Letting Hendriks leave, as dominant as he was as the A’s closer, is defensible because the consistency of relievers fluctuates. Letting the hometown kid in Semien walk away cannot be justified, and the A’s are paying the price for letting their heart and soul go.
Semien signed a one-year, $18 million contract with Toronto, and soon after, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the A’s made a strange contract offer to the infielder. The A’s reported proposal was a one-year, $12.5 million deal with $10 million of that deferred in 10 one-year, $1 million installments.
When Semien and the Blue Jays came to Oakland in May for a four-game series, the converted second baseman had seven hits in 17 at-bats, showing the A’s exactly what they were missing. In seven total games this season against his former team, Semien finished 10-for-30 with two doubles, three homers and six RBI.
The final blow delivered by Semien came on Sept. 3 when he crushed a walk-off three-run homer against the A’s at Rogers Centre to cap off a game in which the Blue Jays rallied from an 8-2 deficit to stun Oakland.
During the season, just when it looked like the A’s might take off at the beginning of August, Ramón Laureano was suspended 80 games for PEDs, dealing another gut punch to the franchise.
Stephen Piscotty, who hit 27 homers in 2018, his first with the A’s, dealt with left wrist discomfort for most of the 2021 season and underwent season-ending surgery in August. He hit just five homers in 72 games this season. Chad Pinder missed significant time with a hamstring injury. Sean Murphy still is developing into the impact bat most talent evaluators expect him to be.
Less than two weeks after Laureano’s suspension, Chris Bassitt took a line drive off his face and was forced to miss a month with a fractured cheekbone. Without the first-time All-Star, the A’s lacked an ace. Frankie Montas stepped up, but he got little help from the rest of the rotation.
Sean Manaea and James Kaprielian showed flashes of brilliance, but weren’t able to sustain it. Bassitt miraculously returned to the mound on Sept. 23, but by then, it was too late to save the A’s season. They were already too far behind in the AL West and Wild Card races.
Even with Bassitt, the A’s rotation just wasn’t strong enough to compete with the top teams in the AL. Bassitt is a very good pitcher, but most would agree that he is not a Tier 1 ace. He’s not Max Scherzer or Walker Buehler or Gerrit Cole. The A’s have lacked a true ace the last few years, and it caught up to them this year.
Scherzer was on the trade market this summer, and he wanted to come to the West Coast, but the A’s don't have the prospects in the farm system to acquire a player of Scherzer’s caliber. The Dodgers did, they brought him to Los Angeles, and he has been dominant ever since arriving after the July 30 MLB trade deadline.
The A’s minor league system is so devoid of coveted prospects that they had to give up talented-but-struggling lefty Jesus Luzardo to get outfielder Starling Marte for two months.
A’s president Billy Beane and general manager David Forst have proven to be very good at their jobs, but their hands have been tied by a payroll just under $90 million, 21st in MLB, to maintain a contending team.
In addition to Marte, the A’s added Josh Harrison, Yan Gomes and Andrew Chafin at the trade deadline. While all three are good players and filled needs for manager Bob Melvin, they aren’t difference-makers in a pennant race.
Matt Olson has had an MVP-caliber season, setting a career high with 38 (and counting) homers, and it wasn’t enough. Chapman has had an impressive second half of the season and it didn’t move the needle enough. Marte was a shockwave through the lineup, going 23 for his first 23 on stolen base attempts with the team, and even that wasn’t enough.
And things could get even worse this winter. Marte is a free agent and the A’s likely won’t be able to retain him. Olson and Chapman might start to get expensive for the A’s, so do they start exploring trade options for the two cornerstone corner infielders?
The 2021 season might have been the last chance for the A’s to win for a while. There are no reinforcements coming from the minor leagues anytime soon and they are not a franchise that spends on big-time free agents.
When Baseball America updated their 2021 Organizational Talent rankings on Aug. 16, the A’s were 27th out of 30 MLB teams.
“[2020 first-round draft pick catcher Tyler] Soderstrom has earned rave reviews in his first full season,” Baseball America wrote. “After him, there is little in the A's system the club can confidently count on.”
Aside from Soderstrom, who turns 20 in November, the A’s don’t have much to look forward to from the minor league system. They already traded one 2017 first-round pick, Kevin Merrell, to Kansas City, and the other, Austin Beck, hit .198 this season between High-A and a brief stint with Triple-A Las Vegas.
Their top pick in 2018, Kyler Murray, is an MVP candidate … for the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL. Logan Davidson, their top pick in 2019, has a .620 OPS in 119 games at Double-A this season. Max Muncy, their top pick this year, is just getting his professional career started at the Arizona Complex League and is years away from contributing.
Beane and Forst have a lot of work to do this winter if they intend to turn the A’s back into a playoff team in 2022. The Astros are a machine that will continue to roll with or without Carlos Correa. The Tampa Bay Rays are the model for the A’s, doing more with less, and they don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. The Chicago White Sox look like a juggernaut in the making with a dominant rotation and several young stars.
The Seattle Mariners are building something in the Pacific Northwest and they have a few stud prospects on the way. The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Blue Jays are willing to spend in hefty sums and will be tough to deal with next season.
The A’s cannot bring the same roster back next year and hope for better results. At some point, they have to add talent to the roster, not subtract it. If they can do that this offseason, they have a chance to contend next season. If not, 2022 could end just like 2021: Watching the postseason from home.