OAKLAND — A record number of injuries provide the A’s a very legitimate excuse for why things went so wrong this season.
To a degree, however, the A’s made their own bed when it came to a second consecutive finish in the American League West cellar. Too many breakdowns, in too many facets of the game, helped them dig a hole that by mid-summer was too big to climb out of.
Reflecting on a 69-93 season during his end-of-year media session, A’s manager Bob Melvin cited many positives that he thinks can lead to a turnaround in 2017. But the A’s fifth-year skipper also acknowledged what a bumpy road that 2016 was to endure.
“I’m not happy about what’s happened the past couple of years,” Melvin said. “Not just this year but the last couple years. And we look to improve. And we’re going to probably commit to some of our younger guys, and we’ll see how we go as a team going forward. But I’m happy to get this year over.”
The emergence of several young impact players during the second half is a big bright spot. The key for Oakland’s front office heading into the offseason is judging how many veteran pieces to add to complement that young talent.
Billy Beane, the A’s executive vice president of baseball operations, said he thinks the team has a key building block in place with young, quality starting pitching depth. Offensively, he cited considerable room for improvement after Oakland finished last in the AL in runs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
One area that the A’s definitely will look to upgrade is the outfield, which Beane described as a weakness throughout the organization.
“There’s no question center field, short and long-term, is a concern,” he said. “It’s an area that we don’t necessarily have an answer.”
Beane said the A’s may look to sign a center fielder in free agency. A big-ticket target like Ian Desmond figures to cost more than the A’s are willing to spend. A player such as Austin Jackson would be a more affordable target, though he’s coming off knee surgery and hasn’t played since June.
“Let’s be frank, we’ve got a lot of ground to make up,” Beane said. “If you’re just looking at simply where we are at the end of the season — again, it’s not necessarily a fair barometer because a lot of guys were out — but if you just look at run differential and look at what you need to quantitatively make up … we’ve got a lot of ground to catch up on.”
Beane and Melvin both mentioned Mark Canha, a player who spent most of this season recovering from hip surgery, as a candidate for right field if he’s healthy.
The A’s saw several rookies — including third baseman Ryon Healy, second baseman Joey Wendle and catcher Bruce Maxwell — make an impact. But interestingly, Beane and general manager David Forst said some of the team’s other highly touted prospects may not take the express route to the bigs, including third baseman Matt Chapman and middle infielder Franklin Barreto.
Both are “guys we like and who are coming, but we don’t know if they’re gonna be ready to start next year (in the majors),” Forst said. “Obviously both have gone to Triple-A, which is great, and performed well in their short time there. But here on Day 1 of the offseason, I don’t think anybody can say where players land on Opening Day next year.”
That points to Healy beginning next year as Oakland’s third baseman, though Melvin and Forst both mentioned his ability to play first. It would also suggest Yonder Alonso, eligible for arbitration this winter, is likely to stick at first base to begin next season.
The status of another arbitration-eligible position player, Danny Valencia, appears more in doubt after neither Beane, Forst nor Melvin spoke specifically about his potential role when asked about him.
What happens when a healthy Jed Lowrie returns from foot surgery in the spring? Melvin referred to the veteran switch hitter as “probably the prime option” at second base but he and Forst also talked up Lowrie’s ability to play multiple positions.
That speaks to the strong impression Wendle made, playing solid defense at second and providing an offensive spark despite overall numbers (.260, 1 HR, 11 RBI in 28 games) that didn’t jump off the page.