2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The Oakland Athletics.

The A’s have finished last in the AL West for three straight years. If you believe the folks at Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus and anyone else who makes projections, they’ll either finish in last again or come within a game or two of it. There’s not a lot of suspense to my prediction here — I’ll end up picking them to finish fifth — but the prediction is not really what a preview is about. It’s about the shape of the team and what we can expect in broad brushes.

While I can’t foretell greatness for the 2018 Oakland Athletics, I can’t say the broad brushes are bad. At least if you grade on a curve. It won’t be a good team, but they’ll be worth watching because they have a lot of good, fun and interesting players who are likely to be on that next good Oakland A’s team in the way Stephen Vogt and Brett Lawrie were not.

Their lineup is pretty spiffy for a second division team. Khris Davis, Matt Joyce and new acquisition Jonathan Lucroy are known commodities both inside and outside A’s fandom, but people who don’t pay much attention to the goings on in Oakland may not be fully aware of just how good and promising Matt Olson and Matt Chapman are. Olson hit 24 homers in 59 games last year. That’s not a sustainable pace — the league will figure him out — but even regression from that will be fantastic. Chapman hit 14 in half a season and played superior defense at third base. He also struck out 92 times in half a season but who’s counting? [editor: everyone counts everything in baseball]. Hey, look, dingers! Yonder Alonso and Ryon Healey are gone from last year’s crew and Stephen Piscotty is new in town. Marcus Semien is a decent bat for a shortstop. All-in-all that’s a lineup that will play, and play very, very well if Chapman and Olson are what they’ve shown themselves to be thus far.

At the risk of criminal understatement, allow me to observe that the starting pitching is not as promising. Sean Manaea and Kendall Graveman are at the top of the rotation. On good teams they’d be in the middle or the back. The rest of their rotation options — Daniel Mengden, Andrew Triggs, Paul Blackburn, who will miss the start of the regular season with a sore forearm — are less-than-impressive. They just signed Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson from the scrap heap hoping, I guess, to recreate some of that, uh, 2010 magic? 2010 was a long time ago!

Jharel Cotton would’ve been in the mix but he’s now out for the year for Tommy John surgery. A.J. Puk, the A’s top prospect would be a nice midseason upgrade, but he’s hurt. Not seriously, but the A’s will probably be more careful with him now than they would’ve been, which still would’ve been careful. All-in-all, there was a lack of quality arms to begin with, but with the injuries mounting, starting pitching could be a trash fire for the A’s.

The bullpen has a new look with newcomers Ryan Buchter, Yusmeiro Petit and Emilio Pagan joining 2017 in-season additions Blake Treinen and Chris Hatcher. That’s a pretty good and pretty interesting group which was going to see a lot of innings as it was in our new bullpenning era, but now that the rotation looks shaky as hell, they’ll see even more. If you’re curious about the limits of leaning on a bullpen, postseason-style are, Oakland will be running a pretty fun experiment to that end in 2018.

I look at this club’s bats — especially the young guys upon whom its so very easy to project so much promise and optimism, because I’m a sucker for hitting prospects — and think that they can outperform those statsy projections and be better than the Rangers and Mariners. Then I think about how the upside — UPSIDE! — for the rotation is 380 innings from Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson and I sorta wanna cry.

If the A’s get some breaks and some unexpectedly good (or average) pitching performances, they could certainly finish above the cellar. Perhaps well above the cellar. For now, though, I’m guessing that they’ll be in 80-win territory at best and finish last in a division that does not have any teams totally punting, making for a competitive and, subsequently, tough year.

Prediction: Fifth place, AL West

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.