Well, the dog days of March are over, folks.
Clay Wood and the Oakland Coliseum grounds crew are hard at work prepping the immaculate playing surface for Thursday’s Opening Night tilt with the Houston Astros. The drummers will be in the bleachers with a socially-distanced crowd of about 12,000 fans ready to welcome the A’s and boo the Astros.
Baseball is back.
Forget everything you saw in Arizona. Hot players are bound to slump and slumping players are bound to get hot. Every team is 0-0 with 162 to play.
The A’s got a big monkey off the franchise’s back by advancing out of the American League Wild Card round last year before getting bounced by the Astros in the AL Division Series.
Here’s what needs to go right in Oakland for the A's to continue their upward trajectory and win their first World Series since 1989.
Pair of aces
Chris Bassitt emerged from the back end of the A’s rotation last year to become one of the American League’s best pitchers. His 2.29 ERA ranked third and his 2.0 WAR ranked seventh. Now he’s set to make his first Opening Day start at the age of 32.
Bassitt entered the spring with newfound job security and used the Cactus League to develop a slider after getting some tips from veteran reliever Sergio Romo, whose frisbee slider has kept him in the game for 14 seasons. If Bassitt successfully can add another pitch to his arsenal along with his big curveball -- which pitching coach Scott Emerson calls “Mr. Bloopy” -- the American League better watch out.
Speaking of weird curveball nicknames, Jesus Luzardo busted out a 65 mph curveball he called a “Turkey Sub” this spring to keep hitters guessing. Coupled with a heater that can reach 98 mph and a plus changeup, that can be a tough at-bat for hitters.
But Luzardo, 23, only has 18 big league appearances, nine starts and 71 innings in his career with Oakland. He got knocked around a few times last year and it’s likely the same thing will happen this year. Luzardo may as well be a rookie all over again, but it will be interesting to see how he responds to any stretch of adversity this season.
If Bassitt can maintain his production and Luzardo pitches like the frontline starter the organization expects him to become, the A’s will have a mean 1-2 punch.
Bullpen lives up to the hype
The A’s bullpen led the team to the playoffs last season before imploding in the postseason. For the majority of the offseason, the ‘pen looked like it would be a major question mark following the departure of Liam Hendriks and unsigned veterans like Yusmeiro Petit and Joakim Soria.
But within the span of a few days, the A’s fortified their relief corps by acquiring lefty Adam Kolarek from the Los Angeles Dodgers, bringing back Petit and signing veterans Trevor Rosenthal and Romo.
Oakland feels just as good about its bullpen this season, if not better, than it did in 2020.
Rosenthal, who has dealt with a strained groin this spring, is an elite closer who should pick up where Hendriks left off, while southpaw Jake Diekman will be the primary option for the eighth. Add in J.B. Wendelken -- who might have the best raw stuff of any A’s reliever -- with Lou Trivino and Burch Smith, and that’s a solid group that can mix, match and shorten games.
The Matts become MVP candidates
The A's franchise cornerstones also happen to play on the corners of the infield. First baseman Matt Olson had a scorching Cactus League while third baseman Matt Chapman looked good as new following his September hip surgery.
Both players are approaching this season with a bit of a chip on their shoulder: Olson wants to prove his 2020 struggles were a fluke and Chapman wants everyone to know he’s still a platinum glove defender.
You have to wonder if the two Matts have a friendly wager for who will hit the most home runs and/or drive in the most runs this season, as they both notched 36 dingers and 91 RBI during the last 162-game season in 2019.
If they can get back to that level of offensive production, play Gold Glove defense and keep the A’s atop the AL West, there’s reason to think the two Matts could be in the MVP conversation at year’s end.
Ramon Laureano has all the tools to make his first career All-Star Game this season.
He’s one of the best defensive center fielders in the game, both with the glove and his arm. But his offense took a major dip in 2020 after a promising 2019 campaign when he slashed .288/.340/.521 with 29 doubles, 24 homers and 67 RBI in 123 games. Last year, he played in 54 games with a .213/.338/.366 slash line, eight doubles, six homers and 25 RBI.
When Laureano is locked in in the batter’s box, he’s capable of toting one of the highest batting averages on the team. He also has great power potential that makes him a candidate to be arguably the team’s most well-rounded hitter.
The A’s are hoping that 2019 Laureano shows up again in 2021.
Middle infield finds fountain of youth
The A’s have one of baseball’s oldest middle-infield combinations in second baseman Jed Lowrie and shortstop Elvis Andrus. Lowrie is about to turn 37 on April 17 and is coming off of offseason knee surgery, while the 32-year-old Andrus dealt with back problems last year that limited him to just 29 games. Lowrie only has eight pinch-hit plate appearances since his career year with the A’s in 2018.
But both players made it through the Cactus League without any setbacks and are primed to be the starting duo up the middle. Don’t expect either guy to play all 162 games, but if Andrus can play, say, 130 games and Lowrie can play 100 in the field and 20 or 30 more at designated hitter, the A’s probably would be happy.
Uber-valuable utility man Chad Pinder figures to get some decent playing time at both positions, while Tony Kemp could also see some games at second base while the team rests Lowrie.
Regardless of how they perform on the field, the mere presence of Andrus and Lowrie is a massive boon for the A’s.
Melvin said he has enjoyed Andrus’ loud, direct form of leadership, noting it’s something lacking from the team’s makeup. Lowrie, meanwhile, brings a sense of continuity returning to a group of core guys like Chapman, Olson, Pinder and Sean Manaea who were around for his last stint in the green and gold.
Puk contributes big innings
The A’s have been awaiting A.J. Puk’s true arrival in the big leagues seemingly for years. He made 10 relief appearances in 2019 but missed last season due to shoulder issues that ultimately led to surgery.
Puk finished up his Cactus League with four scoreless innings while ramping up his fastball velocity to 94 mph and -- more importantly -- making it through his outing with no walks. Puk remains the A’s top pitching prospect but will turn 26 later this season.
The A’s say they don’t expect Puk to throw 98 mph every outing and the southpaw also said he’s focused on becoming a pitcher this season instead of a “thrower.” He has never pitched more than 125 innings in a season (2017) but has the stuff and potential to be a top-of-the-rotation starter if he can put it all together.
Murphy keeps mashing
Sean Murphy appeared to turn a corner last September, batting .277/.424/.638 in 16 games during the final month of the regular season. His plate discipline was extraordinary for a rookie in that span, as he had 12 walks against 13 strikeouts. He also mashed five homers and drove in nine runs while bringing a power element to the bottom of the lineup.
Murphy is capable of hitting some absolutely towering home runs, as he often torques and uncorks his big 6-foot-3, 228-pound frame and launches balls to left field.
His workload could be a bit slimmer to start the season as he works back from a collapsed lung that required surgery this offseason. Backup Aramis Garcia had a fine spring with the bat and drew rave reviews from the pitching staff for his game-calling.
Murphy has the potential to be a 20-homer catcher, which any team in today’s game would love to have.
RELATED: Why Olson is A's heartbeat
Piscotty finds old power
Right fielder Stephen Piscotty’s name often gets lost in the mix. His production has dropped off since his first season with the A’s in 2018, when he slashed .267/.331/.491 and set career highs with 27 homers and 88 RBI.
Piscotty has been banged-up with knee and ankle issues since, playing in just 138 contests over the past two seasons. He has posted a .242/.297/.395 slash line with 18 home runs and 73 RBI since the start of 2019.
Get Piscotty’s bat going again, though? He could be a major x-factor in a lineup that could put up big runs this season.