The AL West is one of the more interesting divisions in baseball. The Angels have Mike Trout, the Houston Astros are both young and talented, and the Texas Rangers posted one of the best records in baseball last season, and the Mariners wheeling and dealing has positioned them in a competitive place as well. The Astros look like the favorites to win the division this season, but nearly every other team is interesting for one reason or another. That is, except for Oakland.
After losing 93 games in 2016, and 94 in 2015, the A’s are easily one of the worst teams in baseball and have no easy way to get better. This team is in the unenviable position of being bad with no immediate help on the way — the farm system has little to offer at the moment. There may be brighter days ahead for Oakland, but not in the short-term future.
The most recent FanGraphs projection has Oakland finishing with 77 wins in 2017, a marked improvement over their last two seasons. However, they ultimately project to finish fifth place in the AL West. In a division that looks to be competitive on all other fronts — all four of the other teams are projected to be over .500 — the A’s don’t have enough firepower to keep up with the rest of their divisional foes.
A dive into the roster shows why Oakland projects so poorly. The team’s ZiPS projection only forecasts two batters (Stephen Vogt and Marcus Semien) to finish with a zWAR over 2.0. The numbers are slightly better for pitching, but there is still a conspicuous lack of upper-level talent. While there is always a chance that Sonny Gray could recapture his excellent 2015 numbers, it seems more likely that he will simply be a ‘good rather than great’ pitcher this season (projected for 2.3 zWAR).
In the absence of any elite pitching or hitting, Oakland looks likely to be over-matched in its own division. To make matters worse, the farm system brings little encouragement. Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list contains four A’s players, but the highest ranking one comes in at number 40. The other three players fall in the 80s-90s range, leaving little hope for the next few years in the minor leagues.
For the Athletics, the most important part of 2017 might be Gray’s pitching performance. Gray is an incredibly valuable pitcher at his best, and could easily net an impressive haul of prospects near the trade deadline if the team chooses to deal him. This scenario requires him to recover at least some of his 2015 form though, which at the moment seems simply unknowable. After a down season in 2016, how Oakland’s best pitcher performs could define much of the franchise’s short-term future.
None of this news is particularly groundbreaking, and simply stating that Oakland projects to finish under .500 this season is hardly a bold claim. However, the fact that the A’s have struggled over the past season, and see no end in sight, is significant. With a team likely to struggle against its division opponents for the foreseeable future, and no immediate help on the way from the farm system, the A’s could be in for several more frustrating years after this one. Throw in the fact that the team has stadium issues only compounds the frustration. It’s a tough time to be a baseball fan in Oakland.