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Storylines to follow for the rest of the Oakland Athletics’ 2017 season

With the Oakland Athletics record at 52-66, it would be easy to turn your attention from the remainder of the regular season, but there is still plenty to keep an eye out for.

1B Matt Olson / Photo by Chris Lockard
Will Matt Olson secure a regular spot in the A's line-up? / Photo by Chris Lockard

The Oakland Athletics are out of playoff contention, they traded away their last major fan favorite in Sonny Gray a couple of weeks ago and the Oakland Raiders just kicked off their preseason slate of games on Saturday. It’s understandable to want to tune out the rest of the A’s season and get ready for whatever it is that happens in between baseball seasons.

But with a team in transition like the A’s are in their rebuild, there is still plenty to keep an eye out for. On Thursday, the A’s sent out a survey for their fans’ input in what they would prefer a future ballpark to look like and where they may like it to be located. If you haven’t had your voice heard yet, follow the link and do so! It’s time consuming (30-45 minutes), but everyone’s input helps in the process to getting us the ballpark we’ve been waiting for.

That announcement is still expected before the end of 2017.

On the field, there are players battling for playing time not only this season, but beyond. A hot month and a half from a few guys would likely move them up the depth chart at the beginning of spring training in 2018. One player definitely fits into this category, and that’s Matt Olson, who after the trade of Yonder Alonso has a clear path to playing time at first base.

Olson and Ryon Healy will be splitting time at first, with Healy predominantly taking on left-handers and Olson handling righties. Both players have power, but Olson’s experience in the outfield indicates that he has a bit more range than Healy, which would come in handy while handling a corner position at the spacious Coliseum. It’s also worth noting that in yesterday’s series finale against the Orioles, Olson took one of the better left-handed relievers in baseball Zach Britton deep. It’s the first homer that Britton had given up to a lefty since April of 2013 and the first home run, righty or lefty, hit off Britton since Mookie Betts in April of 2016 per Susan Slusser. Olson has homered in each of the last three games and has driven in five, which is the good news. The bad news is that those three homers are his only hits from the weekend series in 15 at-bats.

For Healy, Olson’s emergence at first base would leave him as the A’s primary DH moving forward, although he could potentially spell Matt Chapman at third now and again. Healy has a role with the club in that capacity, and is one of the A’s two big proven sluggers along with Khris Davis. The two have combined to mash 53 homers this season, or roughly 33 percent of the team’s total thus far.

Healy should have a spot carved out for himself in the immediate term, but if Olson and Chapman provide enough offense and if Olson’s defense at first continues to be more than Healy provides, having a full time DH in another year or two may not be something that interests the team with the direction they’re headed. That direction consisting of a more well-rounded defensive club that can also mash.

The other aspect to watch here is an improvement in Healy’s defense at first, which could land him more playing time at the position and move Olson to the outfield or as more of a bat off the bench. For the remainder of the season, the idea is likely to see what Olson has at the big league level without the threat of being sent down in a week or two. So far he’s proving he can hit the long ball, which is a step in the right direction.

Heading into next spring, there will be a lot of talk surrounding how newly acquired Dustin Fowler looks compared to how he was moving before his left knee injury. The prevailing thought is that Fowler could potentially be the A’s starting centerfielder as soon as opening day 2018, but if his trademark athleticism isn’t what it was before the injury, then he could need to be relocated to a corner spot. If that’s the case, does he move to left or right?

Khris Davis has the athleticism to stick in left field, but as he wrote in the Player’s Tribune earlier this week, he has a mental block that he is constantly dealing with when it comes to making the throws. Sticking with the theme of improved defense all around, Davis could also be looking at a new role in the near future if Fowler does indeed need to move to a corner.

If not next season, then Davis’ time in left could again be challenged when Jorge Mateo (presumably) joins Franklin Barreto to form the double play combo of the future, thus displacing shortstop Marcus Semien. Where would Semien fit in? Left field would be the easy answer. Keeping an eye out for an early indication to this situation may prove fruitless this season, but it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for.

While Semien has been mentioned as an extension candidate, that was before Mateo came into the fold in the  Gray deal, and could lead to a decision being made between himself and Davis in a couple of years. What we’ll need to see from Semien is some development at the dish while providing a little more defensively. Davis definitely has the inside track here given his powerful bat, but Marcus has shown the ability to be a legit major leaguer–in spurts. His .245 career average and .305 on-base percentage aren’t going to be enough to keep him in the lineup when the rest of the big-name prospects begin to arrive, so incremental improvements will have to be made.

Chad Pinder is already carving out a role for himself as a super-utility player for the A’s, having already manned second, short, right and left this season. With so much congestion already in the works at pretty much every position, Pinder will almost certainly continue to move around. For him, we can just watch and enjoy.

Bruce Maxwell is going to be the starting catcher more often than not, and while his average sits at .222 currently, one hot stretch could up that mark. His OBP is relatively in line with where it was in Triple-A Nashville, currently at .333 compared to .344, but his OPS (on-base plus slugging) is a paltry 627. Of all qualified hitters this season (which Maxwell is not), only four batters have worse than a 627 OPS. Those four are Jose Peraza (625), Dansby Swanson (584 and currently in the minors), Alex Gordon (581 and riding the pine) and Alcides Escobar (564). Again, small sample sizes play a big role here and Maxwell held an OPS of 808 with Nashville before his call-up, so the potential for an increase is certainly there. Maxwell got off to a slow start after he was called up last season and still finished his 2016 big league stint with a respectable 739 OPS.

On the rubber, all eyes are focused on Sean Manaea following the departure of Gray. After the deadline I included Manaea as one of the main targets for a potential contract extension this winter, and stand by that assessment. However, since the deadline Manaea has made three starts and totaled 6 2/3 innings to the tune of a 17.55 ERA. Whether that has something to do with the added eyeballs or it being late in the season is anyone’s guess. How he responds the rest of the way will be one of the main focal points the remainder of the season, and will play a crucial role in the future of the franchise since he is the presumed future ace of the club.

Kendall Graveman has missed a bunch of time this season, but in six of his 11 starts he has allowed two or fewer runs. A couple of rough outings have left his ERA at 4.70 for the year, but Graveman has shown that he could be a solid potential number three starter in the rotation moving forward. We’re looking for continued health and the same solid production from the 26-year-old the rest of the way.

Outside of those two starters, there’s a slew of question marks. Will Jharel Cotton find what made him successful in 2016, i.e., keeping hitters off of his changeup and locating his fastball a little better? Is Paul Blackburn a potential back-of-the-rotation guy for this club in the rebuilding process? And can Chris Smith please get a win?! All of these questions should have some sort of an answer over the course of the next month and a half.

The other name that I am personally most intrigued by is Frankie Montas. He has the potential to be lethal out of the bullpen but his propensity for the long ball has hindered any momentum he gathers. He’s started in eight of his nine appearances with Nashville, which is likely more of a way to get more work in for him in an effort to make him big-league ready than to actually transition him to the rotation. He’s presumably going to be back in September when rosters expand if his oblique injury is healed in time, and seeing some progress from him would lead to some optimism for the bullpen next year.

Outside of Barreto and Montas, there are some other names that we should get a look at in the final month of the season when rosters expand. Yairo Munoz, 22, has spent time in both Midland and Nashville this season and is batting .276 with a .303 OBP with the Sounds. The only thing that could keep him from Oakland would be not having enough playing time to go around.

The usual suspects should also be headed to California in Jaycob Brugman, Chris Bassitt (currently rehabbing from TJ), Jesse Hahn, Zach Neal and Daniel Gossett, but in all of the talk of a rebuild, Renato Nunez has fallen by the wayside. Nunez is certain to be called up as a member of the 40-man roster. He is out of options next season, so the A’s are likely to get a decent look at what they have in Nunez.

The only player with a 40-man spot down in Midland (though I’d love to see Max Schrock get a brief glance) is the newly acquired Jorge Mateo. It’s unlikely that he’d go from Hi-A to a cup of coffee in the bigs in one season, especially since he’s currently batting .222 with a .333 OBP since the trade, but showing off his speed to the A’s faithful would be a nice treat.

Sure, football season is on its way and with it the cleat-torn outfield grass at the Coliseum. But for the next month and a half it’s still baseball season and there is plenty to continue to be excited about.

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