A year ago, the Oakland A’s were well into their offseason, having lost 87 games, and finishing in dead last, 26 games behind the juggernaut Astros. This season was entirely different, with Oakland challenging Houston for first place throughout most of the second-half of the year, and making the playoffs for the first time since 2014, the year they lost the wild card game to the eventual-World Champion Kansas City Royals.
Although the powerful Yankees lineup laid a drumming on the Oakland pitching, leading to a one-and-done postseason, it was the offense that really sputtered. As quickly as the A’s entered the playoffs is as quickly as they departed, but it should not take away from the fact that this team is young, cost-controlled, and unique.
Despite barely even being remembered as a 2018 playoff team, Oakland’s 180-degree turn, and an improvement of 22 games in only one season is a remarkable feat. With a group of lesser-known names, and a notoriously stingy budget, the Athletics came within one game of advancing to play the eventual World Champion Red Sox.
How did they do it? How did Oakland manage to become such a competitive force in the American League in only one season, and more importantly, is it sustainable?
First and foremost, let’s start with the team MVP, Matt Chapman. The 25-year-old Chapman broke into the league last year, and quietly posted nearly three wins in 84 games. This year, playing everyday, Chapman, amassed 6.5 wins, leading Oakland in the category. With a .278/.356/.508 slash line, and 24 home runs, Chapman regularly got on-base, and hit for both average and power. Adding to his offensive stats, he also earned strong defensive metrics. Chapman looked like the complete third bass player the A’s have craved since the days of early-2000s Eric Chavez. At this point, up-and-comer Chapman is on nearly everyone’s radar, and having him signed through 2024 locks up the hot corner for the foreseeable future.
At the other end of the diamond, is Matt Olson, who made his full-season debut last year, and expanded on a 2.1-win season to 3.1 wins this past year. His 29 home runs were second-best of all AL first basemen, behind only CJ Cron (whom Olson was better than all-around); Olson also played all 162 games, a rare feat in today’s game. With an earliest arbitration year is 2021, he represents another cost-controlled player for the next few years.
While the middle of the infield is long-tenured, the value Oakland received from shortstop and second base was essential to their success. 34-year-old journeyman Jed Lowrie has the best season of his career, posting a near 5-win season, and hitting 23 homers. In similar fashion, Marcus Semien similar had a career year, posting nearly as many wins as he had in 2016 and 2017 combined. Lowrie can walk as a free agent, but Semian is in year two of his arbitration years.
On the other side of the ball, the A’s had to get creative. With a number of their starters going down to injury late in the year, and jumping on the recent trend of bullpen-games, the A’s showed great success, especially late in the year. Over the course of the season, Oakland started 15 starting pitchers, with 13 of those starters starting five or more games.
Sean Manaea led Oakland this year in innings pitched, and is locked up as an affordable asset through 2022, his earlier free agency year. He will be one of the key pieces to a future rotation that is likely to lose veterans Trevor Cahill, Edwin Jackson, and Brett Anderson. The trio overperformed their career numbers and their aging curves and between the three of them and Mike Fiers, managed to put together a decent run.
Impact reliever Blake Treinen, who led all A’s pitchers in fWAR this season, doesn’t become a free agent until 2021, meaning another key piece will be returning for the next few years.
Overall, the A’s have a solid lineup signed for the foreseeable future, particularly in their infield. They will need to spend (or again, take a chance on being creative) with their rotation, but with the increasing fluidity between starters and relievers, a few key signings should position Oakland for another wild card spot, and perhaps with a little luck, an opportunity to break the Astros stranglehold on the American League West.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano