The A’s are used to significant roster turnover. It’s normal on a team trying to compete with a lower payroll, solid player development and a penchant for trading stars over extending them.
The front office generally has managed to field quality teams under those circumstances, but even successful execution of the A’s strategy has its drawbacks.
Team chemistry starts from darn close to scratch this time every year.
The spring training, however, was not your typical meet and greet.
It was a reunion.
“This is one of the first years where you show up in the spring and you basically know everyone,” right-handed pitcher Chris Bassitt said. “That in itself has been so great. We obviously added some pieces, but everyone on the pitching staff knows each other well. The hitters do, too.
“We usually have a significant amount of turnover here. We didn’t have to revamp the starting rotation or the bullpen or the infield. It has been awesome because there’s so much talent and we know exactly what to expect from each guy. We show up as good friends confident in what each other can do.”
The Athletics feel they’re starting this spring a step ahead due to rare continuity in the clubhouse even over recent seasons. Only 10 members of 2018’s Opening Day roster remain from a club that won 97 games. There were 13 returners – we’ve included a few who started the year hurt – who opened 2019 with the club.
This year? The A’s could bring 18 back, using NBC Sports California A's reporter Jessica Kleinschmidt’s recent 26-man roster projection as a guide. There’s an extra roster spot available over previous years, but 18 of the 26 is a strong total. Fortifying it even further, only four of Jess’ projected group are brand new to the organization. The other four spent time with the A’s down the stretch.
“Pretty much since I’ve been here, it has been a new team every year,” first baseman Matt Olson said. “This year we have the same dudes coming back. There are some new faces here and there and that’s part of the business, but it’s awesome knowing the guys you’re playing next to. You don’t have to meet a ton of new guys and build chemistry from scratch. Hopefully, it translates to us hitting the ground running.”
A pair of 97-win clubs weren’t able to do that. The 2018 team was 14-14 in March and April. The 2019 team was 14-18 in that same span. Those are the only two monthlong stretches -- “monthlong,” in this instance, adds the few March games to April totals -- where the A’s finished at or below .500 in the last two years.
“We’re way ahead of where we are in the past,” Bassitt said. “People may look at our struggles to start the year, but it’s hard when you’re trying to learn about the guys you’re playing with. That’s just the reality of it. I don’t think we’ll stumble out of the gates. It’s an exciting time from that standpoint.”
Continuity isn’t the only reason why the A’s expect to improve on 97-win seasons. Returners are established, feature MVP-caliber players in Marcus Semien, Matt Olson and Matt Chapman, and six projected starters with more than 20 home runs last year.
The rotation’s full of frontline starters, including Sean Manaea, Mike Fiers and Frankie Montas. Phenom pitchers A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo and catcher Sean Murphy are seen as significant upgrades.
All that’s why optimism is so high. The clubhouse culture is well established, and this spring’s focus is on refining quality performance and, above all else, staying healthy.
That’s clear to Tony Kemp, a veteran newcomer who has played with the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs.
“You can see how the positive mentality just flows throughout the clubhouse,” he said. "I feel right at home with these guys. Everyone is working toward the same goal. Everyone is focused on getting better each day. You can see that.
“Building bonds and quality relationships is so important over a long season. It’s cool to see the transformation of this organization over the past couple years. Now being here, so can see exactly why this team is on the right track.”
A tight clubhouse has its benefits. So does continuity between players and the coaching staff.
“I’ve had some of these guys for a while now and, when you get to this point, you can take things to the next level,” hitting coach Darren Bush said. “Every year you’re trying to grow as a hitter and expand what you’re learning. Each guy is working on something individually, and with all the continuity on the team, I feel like I know where everybody is and what their goals are. There’s a level of trust here that takes time to build, and it puts us in a great position to make progress.”
Whether the A’s can maintain continuity over a longer haul is a story for another day. Meeting sky-high market values for Semien, Chapman and others soon owed new deals will be tough on a franchise historically unwilling to break the bank. Those problems come down the road.
The A’s enjoying this moment right now, as they try to best previous seasons with a stacked and familiar roster.
“I think we handled [expectations] well last year, and now we’re looking to do more,” manager Bob Melvin said. “We welcome the expectations placed upon us. That just means that we’re in a really good place right now.”