It's now been two years in row that Billy Beane and David Forst have had interesting offseasons. The first famously saw the trade of Josh Donaldson and acquisitions of Ben Zobrist, Jesse Hahn, Brett Lawrie and Billy Butler. The Athletics went into 2015 with a hodgepodge roster and struggled mightily to a 68-94 record and a last place finish in the AL West. Their bullpen had well-documented issues and their offense was middling at best. Zobrist was gone at the trade deadline, Lawrie has been punted away, and the A's are once again adrift.
They've added Jed Lowrie, Ryan Madson, Rich Hill, John Axford, Marc Rzepcyznski, Liam Hendricks and Yonder Alonso. For a team on a budget, that's a pretty decent haul, especially since closer Sean Doolittle will be healthy. However, it's only a pretty decent haul for a team on a budget if that club already has a strong core to build around. That core is barely there in Oakland.
Sonny Gray is unquestionably great. He's one of the top pitchers in all of baseball. He's easily the best player on the team. He's also the team's one truly valuable asset. While Doolittle (and probably Jesse Hahn) could fetch a nice return on the trade market, Gray is alone as the one star on this team. Josh Reddick is a fine player, as is Billy Burns, and Stephen Vogt had quite a coming out party in the first half of the 2015 season. However, the A's lack a genuine offensive force in their lineup. There's no true slugger here, no reliable run producer. It was a role that Vogt masqueraded in during the first half of 2015 (.287/.374/.498) before cratering hard in the second. The A's can pray for a resurgence in Vogt's bat, of course, but the fact remains that the A's are woefully equipped to make a serious run at the playoffs this year.
However, it's also unlikely that the A's will be particularly horrendous, either. In the event that Rich Hill wasn't just a flash in the pan for a few starts with the Red Sox last year, Oakland will actually have a pretty adequate front of a rotation. The back two slots will be filled by Chris Bassitt and whichever pitcher is currently in town courtesy of the DFA express, of course, but the Gray-Hahn-Hill trio could actually be quite fun. Then there's the chance that reclamation project Henderson Alvarez comes back healthy and rediscovers his formidable talent, and all of a sudden the A's have themselves a rotation.
That likely won't happen. Alvarez is recovering from shoulder surgery, which is often more of a kiss of death than Tommy John surgery is for pitchers. And Hill was last seen as a woefully ineffective LOOGY before he made a Duran Duran-esuqe comeback in Boston by striking out 34% of opposing batters in four starts. It's quite possible that Hill's luck runs out and everyone remembers that Duran Duran hasn't been all that fun in quite some time.
It's not as if the A's front office is treating the team as if it's decidedly not a contender. This isn't the Braves, who are being scrapped for parts. Rebuilding teams don't give a reliever like Ryan Madson a three-year, $22 million contract. They don't completely restructure their bad bullpen. The A's are clearly trying to win. But can they?
The Astros and Rangers are both clearly excellent teams. The Astros will have the benefit of a full season of Carlos Correa and their shiny new Ken Giles, while the Rangers will welcome Yu Darvish back to health. Meanwhile, the Mariners have overhauled their outfield and injected more innings into their starting rotation by adding Wade Miley and Nate Karns. If the A's even want a Wild Card, they'll at least have to go through Seattle. And while the Angels have a woefully incomplete roster, they still have Mike Trout. They'll be able to do something.
Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections for Oakland haven't been published just yet. However, the Steamer projection system, hosted at FanGraphs, doesn't project any of Oakland's regular position players to produce more than 3 WAR this season. If the rotation and new bullpen pitches well, the A's could be a halfway decent team. However, it feels as if the front office has once again left the team in neutral. While we've heard this song before, and we should all know better than to count Oakland out of anything before 162 games have been played, that magic just doesn't feel present here. There are very few teams in the American League that are decidedly out of the race at this point. Oakland may very well be one of them.