Matt Olson

How A's can benefit from rare season without major roster turnover

How A's can benefit from rare season without major roster turnover

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.”

[RELATED: How Sean Manaea is taking on leadership role with A's, in rotation]

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.”

Why Bob Melvin has sky-high expectations for A's before 2020 season

Why Bob Melvin has sky-high expectations for A's before 2020 season

MESA, Ariz. -- The A's reported to spring training on time Monday morning for the preseason’s first full-squad engagement. This group, as assembled, is stacked.

It doesn’t take advanced stats experts to see the 2020 crew is loaded with talent, depth and the superstars required to improve upon back-to-back 97-win seasons. That’s even true in an improved AL West and at a point on the calendar where hope springs eternal.

Manager Bob Melvin was quick to point to another reason for extreme optimism this season.

It starts with the A's superstars setting a proper tone throughout the organization. Their work ethic, Melvin said, proves contagious.

“We have a bunch of guys like that, whether it’s Matt Olson or Matt Chapman or Marcus Semien, those guys set the tone for how we do things around here,” Melvin said Monday morning. “When you have younger players coming up or new players coming in and they see how our top guys work, they have no choice to work the same way.

"It’s great when your best players are the hardest workers.”

Those players can absolutely mash. That was clear during the first full-squad workout. Several have been around taking swings in recent days but seeing so many established veterans alternating through the cages around Lew Wolff Training Complex certainly creates belief the A's can score with anybody in 2020. Pair that with a legit frontline starting rotation and All-Star closer Liam Hendricks and even Melvin can see a clear path to great things this season.

Melvin has been around a long time and managed a lot of good baseball teams. His expectations for this group are sky high. He made that clear in his opening speech to the full squad here in major league camp.

“We always discuss in our first meeting what our goals and expectations are,” Melvin said. “We try to keep those to ourselves but, when you have two seasons with 97 wins and 97 wins and you feel like we have a better team this year, yeah I think our expectations are pretty high.”

[RELATED: Why Canha rightfully was named to MLB.com's All-Underrated Team]

Vegas oddsmakers set the over-under line at 89.5 wins for these A's, a significant sum that would put them back in serious contention for a third straight postseason berth. They’ll be gunning for a division title after two straight wild-card berths where the season died out in a one-game playoff.

This largely established group is focused on staying healthy and intact for when the games actually count. That doesn’t mean they’re content to sit back this spring and wait for good times to roll. The grind continues for the entire team as it works to become more versatile.

The A's are placing emphasis on situational hitting this spring, possible going against the grain for a team that as historically liked walks and big blasts.

That will be important in working through offensive slumps like the A’s experienced near last season’s end.

“You can bludgeon teams at times, but there will be times where we go through offensive droughts as a team,” Melvin said. “The defense is always going to be there, but if we can win some games situationally by getting guys over and getting guys in by putting some focus on that, the team will be better because of it.

"We’ll continue to emphasize that.”

How Matt Chapman, Matt Olson's defensive chemistry comes so naturally

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USATSI

How Matt Chapman, Matt Olson's defensive chemistry comes so naturally

Glance toward the dugout at any A's game, and there's Matt Chapman giving high-fives and hugs. He'll throw in a Bash Brothers arm shake here, and there as well.

Beyond bringing the energy to the team, he brings a sensational glove as one of the top third basemen in the majors. When he's making stunning defensive plays, he's boosted by the utmost confidence in his first baseman Matt Olson.

The two Matts have built a relationship across the diamond that sprouted in the minors. An undeniable chemistry the two can't describe. 

"It's funny, it just seems so natural -- something that we've never really had to work for," Chapman told NBC Sports California last month. "[Olson]'s obviously super talented defensively, -- I mean, all around, with his ability to work on the bag, off the bag, deep, in -- he can do it all."

"To have somebody like that, that's also not afraid to hang in there on tough throws, dig out throws, take balls up the line, not scared of contact, and on top of it, he's seven-feet-tall," Chapman laughed. "I feel like I can throw the ball anywhere -- it gives me the confidence to just try and chuck balls over there because he can make so many good plays."

Chappy, a recipient of two Platinum and Gold Glove Awards himself, gets to throw across the diamond each and every game to Oly, who matched the number of Gold Gloves in his career. The two always have confidence in knowing the play will get made.

Chapman gets an extra boost from Olson's height (all 6-foot-5 of him) stretched from each part of the bag, and Olson induces some beautiful double plays that don't involve the third baseman on occasion. 

"There will be plays where I know a guy is going to try and go to third base, and [Olson]'s throwing guys out at third and I've been there, you know," Chapman said, "so we are always kind of on the same page when it comes to just being in tune with what's going on with the game and the situation so it's nice to have someone across the diamond you can trust."

Olson can't explain what makes the duo work so perfectly, either.

"Yeah -- I dunno, we've just been on the same page pretty much since we've met," Olson said. "We get along with each other off the field and hang out, and we're card partners and all that, and on the field, we have the same mentality."

[RELATED: Sean Manaea slams Astros over sign-stealing apology]

The fun is obvious, but the moment the pitcher throws ... 

"We like to joke around and not take anything too seriously," Olson said. "But when we're in between the lines, it's game time."