2018 Record: 97-65
Second place, AL West
Team ERA: 3.81 (11th in MLB)
Team OPS: .764 (5th in MLB)
What Went Right
The Athletics weren't viewed as contenders going into 2018, but they turned out to be the most surprising team in the sport. While Oakland ended up losing the AL Wild Card game to the Yankees, they saw a 22-win improvement from 2017 en route to their highest win total since 2002. Their powerful lineup played a major part, as they ranked third in the majors with 227 home runs. Eight players reached at least double-digit home runs, including Khris Davis, who led all MLB hitters with 49 homers. With his excellent defense and progression at the plate, Matt Chapman was one of the most valuable players in the league. The bullpen was fantastic, ranking third-best in MLB with a 3.37 ERA. Closer Blake Treinen had a historically great season while Lou Trivino emerged as a dominant set-up man. Yusmeiro Petit was valuable in a middle relief role while Jeurys Familia was an effective midseason addition. The rotation was mostly a patchwork group, but Edwin Jackson (3.33 ERA in 17 starts) and Trevor Cahill (3.76 ERA in 20 starts and one relief appearance) were big surprises and Mike Fiers (3.74 ERA in nine starts, one relief appearance) was a solid late-season acquisition. Sean Manaea threw a no-hitter against the Red Sox in April and posted a career-best 3.59 ERA over 27 starts before requiring season-ending shoulder surgery in September. That wasn’t so good.
What Went Wrong
We could nitpick here or there, but the Athletics overcame some major injury issues with their rotation. News came down late in spring training that both Jharel Cotton and top prospect A.J. Puk needed Tommy John surgery. Opening Day starter Kendall Graveman would eventually join them. As noted above, Sean Manaea was the staff ace before undergoing surgery in September to correct an impingement and repair a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder. It’s a major bummer, as he’s likely to miss a big chunk of the 2019 season. Paul Blackburn, Daniel Gossett, Andrew Triggs, and Jesse Hahn also missed time due to injury. That is a ton of arms. It’s amazing what this team was able to do under the circumstances.
**It’s nice to know you can still count on some things in this world. In a bit of a statistical oddity, Khris Davis has now hit .247 in four straight seasons. More importantly, you can also bank on his power. He reached new career-highs with 48 homers (leading all of MLB) and 123 RBI while also posting a career-best .874 (136 OPS+). He’s now reached 40 homers in three straight seasons. No player has hit more homers (133) in that time. Giancarlo Stanton (124), Nelson Cruz (119), and Nolan Arenado (116) are behind him. Davis hit the ball in the air more than ever this season and continues to rate favorably in regard to hard-hit rate and average exit velocity, so there should be plenty of confidence in his ability to keep it going in 2019. He doesn’t get as much respect as he deserves in fantasy leagues.
**Blake Treinen had an average draft position of 179.7 in Yahoo leagues this spring — behind Mark Melancon and just ahead of Brad Brach — but he ended up being the top fantasy closer in the game. It was a historic season for the 30-year-old, who posted a ridiculous 0.78 ERA in 68 appearances with 38 saves and a 100/21 K/BB ratio in 80 1/3 innings. He’s the first pitcher in MLB history to reach at least 30 saves, 100 strikeouts, and an ERA under 1.00 in the same season. Treinen gave up just seven earned runs all season, including one in his final 27 appearances. It’s unfair to expect a repeat, but Treinen made major strides with his swinging strike percentage this year and still boasts a ground ball rate north of 50 percent. He’s going to be included in the upper echelon of fantasy closers next year, a group which will also include Edwin Diaz, Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, and Aroldis Chapman.
**After hitting 14 homers with a .785 OPS in 84 games as a rookie in 2017, Matt Chapman took a nice step forward this year with a .278/.356/.508 batting line to go along with 24 homers, 68 RBI, and 100 runs scored in 145 games. The 25-year-old made a huge jump in his contact rate (73.2 percent to 78.7 percent) while ranking among the league’s best in both hard-hit percentage and average exit velocity. The downer here is that he was much better on the road than he was at home, but the power plays and you can’t help but be encouraged by the progress with his approach. It’s possible things could get even better as he gains more experience. With his excellent defense, Chapman is more valuable in real life than he is in fantasy leagues, but he still might be good enough to be a top-12 option at third base in drafts next year.
**Matt Olson mashed 24 homers in just 216 plate appearances with the Athletics in 2017, so expectations were sky high about what he could do during his first full season in the majors. He was certainly still useful in mixed leagues this year, with 29 homers and 84 RBI in 162 games, but he couldn’t maintain the ridiculous power pace. His OPS dipped from 1.003 to .788 along the way. In truth, there was no way we were going to see a repeat. He had a 41.4 HR/FB rate in 2017. That’s basically unheard of over a full season. It was at 16.1 percent this year. It would be nice if Olson had a more hitter-friendly home ballpark, but he still puts the ball in the air and his average exit velocity and hard-hit percentage were truly elite. Olson isn’t going to be as trendy in fantasy drafts next year, but that just means there’s more opportunity for profit.
**One of the unfortunate things about sports is that often these world class athletes aren’t looked at as real people with real families and real emotions. We’re digging into the numbers with this series because that’s what we do here, but please don’t lose sight of this. Stephen Piscotty lost his mom this year following a battle with ALS. It’s impossible to quantify how this might have impacted him on the field in 2017, so we aren’t going to try. All I can say is that it was great to see him produce at a high level once again in his first season with the Athletics. He posted career-highs with 27 home runs, 88 RBI, and an .821 (123 OPS+) over 151 games. This includes 24 home runs and a .907 OPS after the start of June. Piscotty was noticeably more aggressive this season, but he still made plenty of contact and posted his highest hard-hit percentage since 2015. He’s back on the map as a middle round selection in mixed league drafts.
**Franklin Barreto and Ramon Laureano both saw limited time in the majors this season, but the latter made the bigger impression, both with his play in the field and his production at the plate. Acquired from the Astros for right-hander Brandon Bailey last offseason, the 23-year-old slashed .288/.358/.474 with five homers and seven steals in 48 games with the A’s. This was after he batted .297/.380/.524 with 14 homers and 11 steals over 64 games with Triple-A Nashville. The A’s might have a hidden gem here. As for Barreto, he batted .233/.253/.493 with five homers and a 29/1 K/BB ratio over 75 plate appearances. He offers some interesting pop and speed, but the approach needs work. Still, he could go into 2018 with a chance at regular playing time assuming Jed Lowrie (career-bests with 23 homers, 99 RBI) finds a lucrative multi-year deal in free agency.
**We’ll hopefully see A.J. Puk in the majors at some point in 2019, but also keep an eye on left-hander Jesus Luzardo, who is the A’s top prospect at this point. Acquired along with Blake Treinen in the Sean Doolittle/Ryan Madson trade with the Nationals, the 21-year-old posted an excellent 2.88 ERA and 129/30 K/BB ratio over 109 1/3 innings between three different levels in the minors this past season. He had a 7.31 ERA in four starts after his promotion to Triple-A, but we shouldn’t look too much into the small sample. Luzardo might see some more seasoning to begin 2019, but he’s going to make an impact in the majors in short order.
Team Needs: Multi-year extensions were announced for manager Bob Melvin, general manager David Forst, and executive vice president Billy Beane on Monday. During the press conference, Beane said that the team’s payroll will increase in 2019. That’s a given with notable players in arbitration (Khris Davis and Blake Treinen among them), but it remains to be seen how much they’ll spend in free agency. With the team’s injury issues, adding rotation depth should be a priority. The bullpen could also be addressed with Familia and Kelley hitting free agency. Josh Phegley and Beau Taylor are the only catchers on the 40-man roster and prospect Sean Murphy has only played three games in Triple-A, so expect the A’s to attempt to bring back Jonathan Lucroy, who provides most of his valuable behind the plate and with the pitching staff these days. Finally, it would be nice if there was some clarity on the team’s stadium situation.