By Ali Sperling | @Ali_Sperling
I promised that I’d do my best to look to the bright side for this piece. So let’s get the bad news out of the way first, shall we? I’ll try to make it quick.
In February, Baseball Prospectus released their PECOTA projections for the 2016 MLB season. The A’s landed last place in the American League West in those standings, projected to go 75-87 this year. That’s seven games more than they won last season, when they took home 68 wins, the team’s worst record since 1997. Nearly all of the projection standings have the A’s in last place in the division come October – USA Today has them winning just 66 games. No one is talking about the A’s as contenders. No one is really talking about the A’s at all.
And why should they? The A’s were picked by many analysts to win the World Series just two years ago, with a team that boasted one of the meanest starting pitching staffs I’ve ever seen, coupled with rising stars of the game Josh Donaldson and fan-favorite Yoenis Cespedes. But after some highly controversial trades at the height of their dominance, the team went from the best in the Majors to having one of the worst records in August and September, barely making it into the one-game playoff match where they lost their spot in the playoffs in an absolutely gut-wrenching loss to Kansas City after 12 innings.
It’s true, I’m just another fan who can’t let that season go. But many, like myself, also recognize that moment as the final straw, indicative of the A’s ownership’s continued inability to commit to their club, their attachment to a moneyball philosophy that no longer fits the style of the game. Here we are in 2016, “rebuilding” yet again, from what feels like our own self-destructive propensity for losing, for making the wrong move at the wrong time, for not forking out the cash to keep even the most beloved Oakland players in Oakland. The trouble with rebuilding this year is that we simply don’t have the young talent this time around. Our farm system was decimated in the last two years, and while the guys we’ve got now are solid players, it’s unlikely that they will ever be standout stars.
But that’s the thing about Oakland. There’s magic here. Anyone who has followed this team for a long time, anyone who has paid attention at the Oakland Coliseum, we can attest to this. In 2012 the A’s were projected to win 77 games but they won the division in a decisive final game of the season over the Texas Rangers, finishing with 94. That was one of my favorite seasons, when I had virtually no expectations going in. I know we don’t have the likes of that group this time around, but I do know we still have that something special somewhere, if we can conjure it up, exhume it from the remains of the last disastrous year and a half. If nearly everything goes absolutely as well as it possibly could, there are still some things to be excited about. I’m going to fulfill my promise of optimism. I’m going to imagine a different future than the one that’s been projected.
What we’ll need is a really, really Sonny day every five games. We need him to shine in every start, we need his young energy, that infectious excitement that developing superstars bring to the field and to the team. We need our pitching staff to stay healthy, especially Henderson Alvarez, Félix Doubront, and Sean Doolittle. Marcus Semien needs to show that he can play shortstop without committing 35 errors (only 20% of those came in the second half of the season last year, at least). We need Khris Davis to hit 30 home runs, and it would be even better if Billy Butler could improve from his .251/15 HR/65 RBI’s from 2015 (BP writes that the concussion Billy Butler gave to Josh Phegley at the end of last season was “arguably the most damage [he] did with his bat all year”).
A brighter future for the A’s might include an over .400 OBP from Billy Burns and an improvement with pitch counts at the plate. Danny Valencia would prove that last season’s debut as an Athletic was no aberration, maintaining a slugging percentage over .500 and possibly becoming one of our most productive offensive threats. Mark Canha would bounce back from a rough spring, and return to his form from the second half of last season. This season would give Stephen Vogt a rest a little more often if Phegley could become a more consistently good hitter. This future that I’m imagining relies on Josh Reddick’s acrobatics in right field and his continued development as a .275/20 HR hitter behind the plate. And of course, in my mind the team would be nothing without continued late inning intensity, celebrated with every A’s fan’s favorite dessert -- walk-off pie.
There are plenty of sports analysts out there far more qualified than I am who can tell you the full account of the projected numbers for the A’s players. I’ve read them, none especially promising. And mostly, I believe them -- it’s unlikely we’ll be above a .500 team. The real future looks a bit bleak, I have to admit, but the one I can imagine looks kind of exciting.
I know it’s probably just those opening day jitters again, the ones you feel in your belly, the ones that make you smile when you’re all alone and thinking about the start of the season. They are thrilling for any baseball fan who has waited four long months for the season to commence. Sure, they can also make you delusional. Baseball is right around the corner, and you can’t help but think, “But what is if everything just goes right?” Isn’t it wonderful, opening day? When you allow yourself to entertain every possibility for this 25-man roster, when you play out every what-if scenario that could land your boys back in the playoffs? Opening day draws this out of you, the need to think about every player’s absolute potential, and to imagine for yourself all of that magic that statistics and projections can never really capture. There’s been a lot of that magic in Oakland. I’ve felt it.
This season I’m deciding to focus on this, the beauty of another opening day. Most likely, the rest of the A’s season won’t be so beautiful. But with the first day of the season upon us, the possibilities, at least for a little while longer, are still infinite.