The 2020 season did not end the way Oakland Athletics fans wanted yet again. And yet, it was still another good year overall. A veteran-laden roster carried Oakland to a division title in the American League West Division, but they ultimately fell to the rival Houston Astros.
Oakland Athletics 2020 Season Recap
So much went right for Oakland in 2020. They started out a little slowly at 3-3 through the first couple of series but broke out against the Seattle Mariners to end up at 6-4. It was fairly smooth sailing as they would end August at 22-12. Oakland never lost more than two consecutive games at any point after July 31st. A 14-12 September chipped away at what might have been an even better record, but the A’s still finished the regular season at 36-24, which was behind only the Tampa Bay Rays for the best record in the American League.
There were no obvious struggles for the team in 2020. They absolutely dominated the competition at home with a 22-10 record in the Oakland Coliseum. A road record of 14-14 is obviously very average, but it certainly didn’t handicap the team in any significant way. No opponent was able to consistently beat Oakland either. A combination of a top 10 offense and pitching staff in terms of WAR was just simply good. The only thing that really hurt Oakland on a regular basis is the randomness that comes with the playoff’s inherent randomness.
Overall Grade: B+
Things to Celebrate
The team received production from much of its roster, but two hitters stand out. Sean Murphy finished in the top 10 among catchers in FanGraphs WAR with 1.5. He ended the year in the same neighborhood as known commodities J.T. Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal, and Willson Contreras. His slash line of .233/364/457 translated to a 131 wRC+, which is especially outstanding for the catcher position. It’s hard to know if this is sustainable considering Murphy has just 200 MLB plate appearances, but he looks like a potential rock at the position for now.
Robbie Grossman is the other player that broke out to an extent in 2020. He had one of the best seasons of his career hitting .241/344/482 with eight home runs in 192 plate appearances. Grossman has always been a disciplined swinger; his career on-base percentage of .350 reflects that, but the increased slugging numbers are what boosted the 31-year-old to a wRC+ of 126 and 1.3 WAR.
The team’s most impressive starting pitcher was easily Chris Bassitt. The former 16th-round selection from 2011 had a fantastic 2020 campaign that might have set a new production threshold had it been longer. Bassitt threw 63 innings with a 2.28 ERA, 55 strikeouts, and 17 walks. The most obvious improvement was how often he walked batters. His career walk percentage is roughly 8.2 percent, but that fell to 6.5 percent this season. Bassitt managed to excel despite an average fastball velocity of just 92.9 MPH, but a FIP of 3.59 shows some mild luck factoring into the otherwise awesome season.
What Could Change for 2021
Oakland could look very different next season with 10 players potentially leaving via free agency. Grossman is one, but seven players who accumulated positive WAR could join him. The most prominent of those include reliever Liam Hendriks, multi-positional infielder Tommy La Stella, and veteran Athletic, Marcus Semien. All three were key pieces of the team’s success in 2020 but the claim of financial shortfall across the league means that they each might make too much money to stay.
Letting each of them go would save money, but it’s not as though any of the former Athletics now on the market made crippling amounts of money. Semien had the largest contract at three-years, $51 million. Yes, Semien has typically floated around 95-99 in terms of OPS+, but his defensive prowess often rates quite well. The biggest problem is that he just turned 30-years-old and $15-20 million for a glove-first shortstop is a hefty asking price.
It’s also hard to imagine Hendriks returning if he wants a major raise. The 31-year-old had another fantastic season winning AL Reliever of the Year, but his contract paid him $12 million annually for three seasons. That would be fine if he were almost any other position that isn’t as volatile as relief pitcher. The random variation of bullpen pitchers is strong enough that an analytically-inclined team like Oakland will do one of two things. They will either move on from a reliever in his 30s or entice him to return on a cheaper deal. It’s not hard to imagine the A’s moving on from almost all of their productive players from 2020.
Prospects on the Horizon
A.J. Puk is at the top of everyone’s list to make an impact in the coming season. The former first-round pick from 2016 has battled injuries and has just 11 and a third innings to his name as a result. He doesn’t have a lot of recent game experience, but he has the talent to fight for a mid-rotation spot in 2021. His 6’7″ frame gives him fantastic leverage on his 70-grade fastball that can reach 100 MPH on the radar gun. That sort of velocity from a left-handed pitcher also gives his slider, changeup, and curveball room to play against hitters. The biggest question is if Puk has improved enough on a career minor league walk rate of 3.4 per nine innings.
The infield could see a boost from 25-year-old Sheldon Neuse. The Washington Nationals‘ second-round selection from 2016 debuted for Oakland in 2019, but had just a 63 wRC+ over 61 plate appearances. The more important thing is that Neuse is capable of playing most of the infield positions. He will be a cheap, partial replacement for Semien. His 2019 AAA stats demonstrate some solid hitting ability. The A’s can’t afford to ignore a .317/389/550 slash line, even if that was over a year in the past.
Fans should also expect James Kaprielian to be a factor at some point. The 6’4″ right-handed pitcher doesn’t have overpowering velocity, often sitting just 92-95. However, he does have above-average breaking pitches that will hopefully keep batters guessing. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017, but threw over 67 innings across three levels in 2019. Spring Training will go a long way towards determining his ultimate role in the coming year.
Oakland is in a challenging position. They have done a fantastic job for decades of finding talent and developing it without spending money. However, the division is improving around them and they might have to spend at least some money if they want to maintain their place in the division. The Athletics still have a few important players up for arbitration raises including Matt Olson and Matt Chapman. Depending on how the team approaches that process, Oakland could enter into 2021 with a payroll below $100 million. The alternative is trying to maintain as much roster stability as possible in the face of lower-than-expected revenues.
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