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Oakland Athletics first-half trends lead to second-half storylines

With the All-Star game in the past and the trade deadline in the near future, the Oakland Athletics are starting a period that could determine the future of the franchise over the next several years.

Franklin Barreto / Photo by Chris Lockard
Watching Franklin Barreto develop at the big league level will be a big part of the second half. / Photo by Chris Lockard

The All-Star game is in the rearview window, as is the first half of the 2017 regular season. Renato Nunez just hit a three-run bomb in the Triple-A All Star game, which is a perfect segue into what the short-term focus should be for the Oakland Athletics.

At 39-50 and 21 games back of the Houston Astros in the AL West, and with an entire league between them and a wildcard spot, the Oakland A’s will be selling at the non-waiver deadline. While this isn’t the spot that we ever want our favorite team to be in, this trade deadline has a different feel. This season has a different feel. Not the emotions that the 2012 season produced, but instead the feeling that this is just the beginning and that the next couple of weeks could determine the next few years, or potentially the next run of success for the A’s.

There have been three big factors contributing to the A’s first-half struggles: injuries, the youth movement and the emergence of the next wave of A’s players. Let’s talk about a little about each.

Injuries

Marcus Semien

Semien has played in all of 15 games this season after suffering a wrist injury on April 15. He returned in time for the final series of the first half and picked up right where he left off–batting .176. That’s obviously not fair to Semien, who is returning from injury, so we should expect him to get fully into a groove sometime in August. There is a lot at stake for Semien, as he is thought to be the shortstop of the future in Oakland, but with some time off he may have been Wally Pipp-ed with some of the team’s other infield options getting a chance to show what they can do.

Sonny Gray 

Gray missed all of April with a strained lat and has slowly been working his way back to the Cy Young contender he was just two years ago. At the break, Gray has a 4.00 ERA with a 3.58 FIP and his strikeout rate has taking a leap from 7.2 per nine innings last year to 8.5 per nine this year. That 7.2 rate was very much in line with what he had put up every year since his rookie campaign, the one season he went above a batter an inning. It’s likely that Gray gets moved at the deadline this year, unless the front office believes they can get an even bigger haul in the offseason.

Ryan Dull, Kendall Graveman, Jharel Cotton, Andrew Triggs, Sean Manaea

Of the players mentioned above, only Manaea is currently available to pitch, which means that the A’s have been reaching deep into their farm system to find replacements for an entire starting rotation and one of their best relief arms from a year ago.

Graveman was starting to show the makings of a solid middle-of-the-rotation piece before a shoulder injury put him on the disabled list in the middle of May. Cotton is currently on the disabled list when his blister returned after his latest outing against the Chicago White Sox. I don’t know about you, but Cotton only seems to have blister issues when facing the South Siders, so now that they’re in the rearview, maybe his blister issues will be, too?

Triggs is one of those players I was oddly optimistic about at the start of the season, and he repaid that optimism by being the last starter in the big leagues to allow an earned run this season. He had backed off of that pace before landing on the DL with a hip strain, going 5-6 with a 4.27 ERA, but he could be a valuable piece when healthy. When we will see Triggs again remains to be seen. He was recently played on the 60-day DL and may be facing surgery on his bum hip.

Dull, the man that had stranded 36 inherited runners to start last season, has been on the shelf since the middle of May with a knee strain. Dull hadn’t been the same pitcher this season, compiling a 6.32 ERA in just over 15 innings, so hopefully upon his return we’ll get a better idea of which pitcher Ryan Dull is moving forward.

The Youth Movement

The A’s roster may have a very different look after August 1 than it has for much of the season to date. If the A’s are able to trade a few veterans, Oakland should bring up a number of the younger players to get a legitimate taste of the big leagues for the duration of 2017. Franklin Barreto should be in the big leagues to stay when he comes back, and with both Matt Olson and Renato Nunez working on their versatility between the infield and outfield, they could carve out spots of their own, as well. Whether or not Matt Joyce gets moved at the deadline could play a big part in the immediate future of the latter two.

Jed Lowrie and Yonder Alonso are prime trade candidates, and dealing both veterans would open up regular playing time for Ryon Healy or Olson at first, Matt Chapman at third and some conglomeration of Chad Pinder and Barreto at second for the time being. Down-the-line, the A’s could also take a look at Joey WendleMax Schrock or Yairo Munoz, so nobody’s job appears to be safe in the long-term.

The A’s said goodbye to Stephen Vogt, one of the most beloved A’s in recent memory, to make room for Bruce Maxwell behind the dish. Maxwell entered the season as the team’s number 15 prospect, and in his 63 at-bats this season he is batting .302 with a .405 OBP. His strikeout rate is already a little bit above his minor league average, currently sitting at 24.3% with the A’s, but his walk rate should hold in the double-digits (currently at 14.9%), and that should mean plenty of production from the 26-year-old moving forward.

Five of the A’s top ten prospects entering this season have at least gotten a taste of the big leagues this season. The A’s are skewing young, and will only get younger as the season goes on and players like Adam Rosales and Rajai Davis see their playing time further diminished.

The Next Wave

We’ve seen moments from a number of the A’s baby-faced roster members this season, but the tricky part for fans, and the front office, will be to distinguish which of those players will be key components for the club moving forward.

To start the season I liked the starting rotation quite a bit. Injuries have certainly made that feeling seem quite foolish, but the A’s are still in the middle of the pack in terms of ERA, ranking 16th out of 30 teams with a 4.66 cumulative starter’s ERA. That’s better than the Giants rotation (4.95), and their rotation was supposed to be the best part of their whole team! That said, a 4.66 mark, even with a slightly lower 4.34 FIP, isn’t going to be good enough to help the A’s compete any time soon.

Cotton should be better than his 5.17 ERA in the future. His focus will have to be controlling his pitches. In his brief stint with Oakland last season, he issued a total of four walks in 29.1 innings for a walks per nine of 1.23. That rate has tripled this season and currently sits at 3.76. Eno Saris of FanGraphs wrote about “baseball’s best changeup (Scott Kazmir) hanging out with baseball’s second-best changeup.” That’s high praise, and should mean better results in the future, with better command.

Pinder opened up a lot of eyes when he was hitting Aaron Judge-esque homers earlier in the year and leading baseball in Barrels for a short period of time. He’s also arguably the A’s best option (when healthy) in right field at the moment. He has the arm and range of a shortstop, which is much better mix than most of the team’s current outfield options. He’ll find a way to fit onto this club moving forward.

Chapman hasn’t shown much with his bat just yet, with a wRC+ of 11 and a strikeout percentage sitting at 47.6, but he is the team’s third baseman of the future and his glove has already made an impact on what was a woeful infield defensive unit.

Jesse Hahn returned from the oblivion that was his 2016 season with a solid April, posting a 2.53 ERA across five starts. After April, Hahn allowed 32 earned runs in 37.2 innings, ballooning his ERA up to 5.30. He was recently returned to Nashville to figure some things out. If he is able to provide consistent performances similar to his April stat line, he’ll be a welcome addition to the rotation.

Chris Bassitt is nearing a return from Tommy John surgery. In his start last night with the Stockton Ports, the 28-year-old righty went 1.1 innings and gave up four earned on six hits, all singles. His command was good, tossing 22 of his 31 pitches for strikes, the results just weren’t there. The reason he’s here on this list is because of what he showed us in 2015 in his time with the A’s. In 75.1 innings as a starter, Bassitt held a 3.58 ERA and a decent 1.25 WHIP. That ERA shot up in 2016 right before he needed surgery, so those results are a bit discounted. It will be interesting to see what kind of pitcher he is when he comes back, and in what capacity the A’s use him past this season. For the rest of this year, he is likely to come out of the bullpen, and that could be where Bassitt’s ultimate future lies with the A’s.

Frankie Montas turned some heads in his stint with the A’s earlier this season. The unfortunate thing is that it was the heads of his own outfielders as ball after ball flew over the fence. His 2.8 home runs per nine was about triple what a pitcher is aiming for, and he is currently in Nashville with the Sounds where he has yet to allow a homer in 17.1 innings pitched. Montas has the stuff to be a big part of the Oakland bullpen moving forward, but his command will have to get better than it has been. He’s still just 24 and can already strike-out big league hitters. What he does in between those strikeouts will be what elevates him into the next wave of A’s stars.

The biggest piece of the A’s rebuild on the fly is Manaea. If he continues on his path towards ace territory, the A’s will be in good shape. The fact that he has a record above .500 (7-5) on this club with the defense that he has to work with says a little bit about just how well he has pitched. While his season ERA of 3.76 isn’t anywhere near contention for the top spot in the American League, his 3.26 ERA since April is a lot closer to the top of the leaderboard. He’s giving the team innings on a consistent basis, and solid innings at that. Manaea will take over the team “ace” mantle from Gray when he gets moved, and with A.J. Puk (Double-A) and Grant Holmes (Double-A) making their way through the A’s system, the A’s will have some options for the rotation when it comes time to compete.

Improving defensively should be a big focus for the A’s for the rest of the season. The wins likely won’t come in bunches with some of the trades that are sure to be coming which will at the very least hurt an already weak bullpen and could take away the team’s current ace. The rest of this season will be about watching the young guys develop, and giving them space to do so. They’re an extremely young bunch and will definitely have some growing pains, but if they hold true to Oakland A’s baseball, they’ll still be a ton of fun to watch no matter the outcome of individual games.

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