Craig Calcaterra

Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sonny Gray throws in the first inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Associated Press

2016 Preview: Oakland Athletics

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2016 season. Next up: The Oakland Athletics. 

The A’s were poised to win the 2014 Wild Card game before they got all Kansas City Royal’d. We’ve all since learned how #Relentless the Royals are, but the Athletics were their first high-profile victim. It’s all gone downhill for Oakland since then.

OK, that’s overstating things. But 2015 was a disaster for Oakland. They were particularly bad in one-run games last year, suggesting that they were, perhaps, better than their 94 losses suggested (and, indeed, their Pythagorean record was a significantly better 77-85). In order to fix that Billy Beane and new GM David Forst completely remade the bullpen, getting rid of everyone of note apart from Sean Doolittle and bringing in Ryan Madson, Liam Hendriks, John Axford and Mark Rzepczynski. Bullpens being what they are (i.e. unpredictable) this could either be a significant improvement or, well, not, but it’s definitely an attempt to fix a problem area. Given the talent acquired, the pen should be better.

The lineup was pretty lackluster last year and they may have actually been worse than their rank in runs scored — ninth in the AL — suggests given some decent luck with runners in scoring position. There have been changes here as well, with the addition of Khris Davis, who slugged 27 homers last year for Milwaukee. Davis does not a walk a ton and his overall value is dependent on how many of his non-homers find holes in the infield, but the pop is a welcome addition. Beyond him: no great shakes but no real problem areas either. There is some nice upside potential from Billy Burns and Marcus Semien. It could be a good, consistent offense, even if it’s not a particularly scary one.

Sonny Gray leads the rotation and he’s a Cy Young candidate. After him it’s a lot like the offense: nothing spectacular, nothing terrible, though a bit more potential for downside than the lineup has. Rich Hill caught lightning in a bottle for four starts in Boston. Spring is a time for optimism so I suppose we can forgive A’s fans from thinking that’s indicative of something for a 36-year-old, but he’s been pretty bad this spring. The A’s rotation may be a work in progress all year, in fact. Jesse Hahn is probably starting the season in Nashville. Henderson Alvarez and Sean Manaea may be back/up at some point. Felix Doubront — thought to be in the ready reserves early in the offseason — could break camp in the rotation. Lots of arms but beyond Gray not much certainty.

It’s hard to get excited about the Athletics’ upside. They should be a better team than last year simply by improving their luck, improving their bullpen, bringing in Davis and seeing some young(ish) players mature a bit, but there do not appear to be any impact players here. It doesn’t feel like a team that has much if any chance to put a scare into Houston or Texas. Or, for that matter, Anaheim.

Prediction: Fourth place, AL West.

Um. What is Joey Votto doing?

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Joe Votto is one of the more cerebral ballplayers in the big leagues. He tends to give thoughtful, instead of cliched, answers to questions. He’s taken a lot of criticism for his patient approach at the plate but he has not given in and changed his approach (or merely talked about changing his approach) simply to stop the criticism. He’s his own guy and, in the conformity-heavy world of Major League Baseball, that makes him unique.

Speaking of unique, check out the between pitches routine he has adopted this spring:

 

The way I see it, as long as a guy is getting on base at a .450 clip and slugging over .500, he can do whatever the hell he wants.

Rob Manfred talks about bat flips, social media and baseball’s demographic challenges

Rob Manfred
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Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke with AdWeek about the promotion and marketing of baseball, particularly to younger demographics. There’s nothing groundbreaking there but it’s interesting to hear Manfred talk about it if, for no other reason, than it’s impossible to imagine Bud Selig ever talking about this stuff in great detail.

All in all Manfred comes off pretty sensible about such things. Asked about the “play the game the right way” debate over bat flips and whatnot, Manfred correctly notes that the players are the ones who decide how the game is to be played, not the league and, specifically, not retired players. Take this as the most polite “thanks for your comments Goose Gossage and Mike Schmidt, but who cares?” opinion you’ll ever see.

More substantively Manfred talks about platforms for rights deals and things and acknowledges that, yes, cord cutting is an issue. It’s one he thinks MLB is well-positioned to survive, however, given MLB Advanced Media and its streaming infrastructure. He was not asked how anyone who actually cuts the cord is ever supposed to be able to stream their local team, however, given that such streaming is still limited to those with cable subscriptions. That remains the single biggest question facing baseball broadcasting today (see below for more on that). Oh, and by the way, Manfred also says that it’s not impossible to imagine companies like Facebook, Amazon or Google as rights partners one day. How that would work is anyone’s guess but he used the term “aggregators” which opens up a number of interesting questions about how one could consume baseball on those platforms.

The one somewhat unsatisfying thing Manfred said came in response to a question about the demographic challenges baseball faces. Specifically: how can baseball get younger fans?

Manfred mentions SnapChat and Twitter and stuff. That’s not really an answer. Those are mediums to deliver certain very small parts of the baseball experience, not means of large scale fan-building. As we’ve noted here in the past, making games themselves more accessible — not players goofing off or MLB engaging in subtle brand-partner messaging — is what will bring in younger fans. Force them to sign up for a $150 cable bundle and you’re not going to get as many young people as you used to.

Which means: maybe acknowledge the link between your streaming and your demographic challenges and you’ll get someplace.