Athletics

Why A's are focused more on keeping young stars than MLB free agency

Why A's are focused more on keeping young stars than MLB free agency

The AL West is moving and shaking early this MLB offseason, with players coming in and out of the division. 

Star third baseman Anthony Rendon reportedly agreed to a seven-year, $245 million contract to join the Angels. The Halos also traded for former top prospect Dylan Bundy to add to their rotation, and reportedly are pursuing longtime Giants ace Madison Bumgarner. The Astros, who have been the cream of the crop out west, lost pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Yankees, and Mariners general manager Jerry DiPoto is bound to make 47 trades by spring training. 

A's GM David Forst says he's more focused on his own squad than what his division foes are up to, but he certainly isn't mad about the Cole news. 

"I'm not sad to see Gerrit Cole leave our division is the best way to put it," Forst said to NBC Sports California in a 1-on-1 interview Wednesday. "We try not to get too wrapped up into what other teams are doing."

The A's came to the Winter Meetings in San Diego looking to upgrade their roster like every other team, however, they're much more focused on who they have in-house as opposed to the free-agent market this year. 

Oakland should receive a big boost to its starting rotation with the additions of Jesus Luzardo (22) and A.J. Puk (24) next season. The A's infield also is full of young talent, including budding stars Marcus Semien (29), Matt Chapman (26) and Matt Olson (25). Franklin Barreto (23), Jorge Mateo (24) and Sheldon Neuse (25) will compete for second base. 

"We've got a really good foundation and we're not heavily invested in free agency right now because we have those guys," Forst said. "We have young pitching, we have the position player group. So our focus has been on filling holes -- looking for a left-handed bat, something in the bullpen. We're fortunate enough to not have to be out there in free agency." 

Semien, who finished third in AL MVP voting last season after hitting 33 homers with an .892 OPS, is expected to earn nearly $14 million in arbitration this offseason and becomes a free agent after next season. The Bay Area native also has reiterated his hope to stay with the A's long term. 

Chapman and Olson both are arbitration-eligible after next season and are set to hit free agency once the 2023 season ends. 

"Certainly our hope is to keep all these guys together," Forst said. "You mentioned Marcus, who's going to be a free agent potentially after this year. That's something we'll address as the season goes along, and the rest of those guys, we're looking for ways to keep them in Oakland as long as possible."

The A's real goal when it comes to 2020 is avoiding the AL Wild Card Game after falling two years in a row in the winner-take-all contest. Forst and the rest of the front office is focused on giving Oakland its best chance at winning the division to get a better shot at the World Series. 

[RELATED: Beane opens up on A's-Semien negotiations, Astros scandal]

"You want to give your guys a chance to play in a series with a better chance to advance," Forst said. "To do that, you have to win the division. We've obviously stayed close to Houston the last couple of years, but as we put this team together, we're definitely looking towards a way to win the division, to get out of the wild card game and give our guys a better chance at a division series."

The A's will need another big season from the Semien, Chapman, Olson trio for that to happen, and they hope to keep them together well into the next decade. 

A's fans confident in team, Mike Fiers heading into 2020 MLB season

A's fans confident in team, Mike Fiers heading into 2020 MLB season

OAKLAND -- It didn’t take long for the Q&A sessions at the A’s annual Fan Fest on Saturday to be swarmed with questions about “cheating” and “the Astros situation.” 

Yet a sense of excitement was in the air among the 32,000 green and gold faithful at Jack London Square. Typically, I would say “hope,” but A’s manager Bob Melvin said it was a season he looks forward to and there isn’t much of a message he wanted to send to his team.

They're ready.

And so are the fans. 

A young fan clutched her A’s teddy bear tightly to herself after A’s shortstop Marcus Semien took a sharpie to it. It was officially a collector’s item. 

She immediately gleamed with pride and appeared to barely catch her breath.

The long line was worth the wait.

When the topic of Mike Fiers came up, fans expressed support for the veteran pitcher, who was the main source in MLB's investigation into the Astros.

"We're behind Mike 150 percent," Fleetwood, long-time A's fan, told NBC Sports California. "We told him that, as they were marching in, 'We're behind you.'" 

"Mike is the hero, we love him for it," he added.

The combination of a strong roster on paper and support for Fiers was the theme of the day. 

"We just want to see good baseball, we want to see a competitive team -- want to see players signed, we want to be spoiled with these players just as the other teams are," Fleetwood said.

And Fleetwood's future outlook for the team? It was a deadpan look into the camera during an additional interview saying that the A's would indeed be the World Series champions next season.

Fans are looking forward to the young pitching arms and there is always a mention of “that Matt Chapman guy.” 

Watching fans list the strong things the team possesses heading into the season left them in better spirits than previous seasons. 

"The over is 89 and a half," Michael Gilson of Lafayette, Calif. said. "I would bet the over -- there's no reason for them to be less than where they were last year."

[RELATED: Sportsbook predicts 89.5 wins for A's in 2020]

Time and time again, Las Vegas has come up short in what this team can do.

"I think they've got the luxury of plenty this year," Gilson said.

Looking around, it appeared a weight had been lifted off the shoulders of Oakland fans. They have confidence in the team that looks strong on paper. The confidence that you'll be able to hear in drum and cheer form.

Why A's players don't mind trade-offs with extended protective netting

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USATSI

Why A's players don't mind trade-offs with extended protective netting

OAKLAND -- Back in December, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred declared that all 30 ballparks will extend their existing protective netting in advance of the 2020 season.
 
The movement has its reservations among fans but seems universally supported among players. Even in Oakland, where ample foul ground already buys added insurance.
 
“It will be tougher to interact with the fans, maybe to throw a ball to them,” A's shortstop Marcus Semien said Friday at the team's media day. “I love throwing a baseball to a kid. But, at least they will be safe.”

An NBC News investigation last year found at least 808 reports of fan injuries from baseballs from 2012 through 2019. The total was "based on lawsuits, news reports, social media postings and information from the contractors that provide first aid stations at MLB stadiums."
 
On May 29 in Houston, Chicago Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. lined a foul ball that struck a two-year-old girl in the head. Earlier this month, an attorney representing her family told the Houston Chronicle that the girl suffered a permanent brain injury, remains subject to seizures and might need to stay on medication for the rest of her life.
 
“It sucks, and I don’t want to see it anymore,” third baseman Matt Chapman said. “I’ve seen fans looking at their phones, not paying attention. I’ve seen people holding babies and not paying attention.”
 
Chapman understands the inconvenience but predicts eventual workarounds to make sure fans get their access, yet remain protected in critical situations. 

“I don’t understand why fan safety would be a bad thing,” he said.
 
In an era where exit velocities are measured with extreme precision, it’s scary to know that a baseball traveling 100 miles per hour could be headed straight towards someone who might not be able to protect themselves.

Even if they are paying attention to every pitch.
 
“We hit the ball so hard,” Semien said. “And sometimes we’re a little early. Or late. And now that they are up by the dugouts, you just say, 'Thank you the nets are there because that could have been bad.' ”
 
Even pitchers realize the dangers of line drives in foul territory. Starter Mike Fiers spends a lot of time in road dugouts, where he and other players often remark about how close young kids are sitting to the action.
 
“They’re in a bad spot,” Fiers said. “I feel like a lot of people don’t know that. It’s tough when those foul balls go in because everyone always watches and hopes nobody gets hit.”

[RELATED: A's teammates 'respect' Fiers for outing Astros' scandal]
 
As if there weren’t already enough thoughts running through the typical MLB hitter's mind, the concept of additional netting should at least take risk out of the equation. 
 
“No one wants to be that guy who hits a ball in the stands and hits somebody,” A's manager Bob Melvin said. “Our fans are baseball’s lifeline. You have younger kids in there. It’s a nightmare to think about. I think all players are in favor of that.”