About an hour before the start of the Oakland A’s home game against the Baltimore Orioles on Monday night, Mike Aldrete, the team’s quality coach, was on the home bench.
Having traded four of their best players in recent years since mid-March, this doesn’t look like it’s going to be any sort of competitive A season. But somehow Oakland won five of its first ten games this year on Monday. And Aldrete, who is in his eighth year as A coach and played for the team from 1993 to 1995, another build-up phase, was cautiously optimistic ahead of first place.
“One week doesn’t make a season,” said Aldrete. “This is a good start. Boys will go through ups and downs. We need to see how guys deal with such adversity. But…with the experienced leadership, with our coaching staff and their willingness to learn, I think those are all really good ingredients to give us a chance.”
The A’s shouldn’t have much of a chance. After finishing 86-76 last season, the team traded every relatively expensive veteran and let other high-profile players go through free agencies.
This is just the last time the A’s remodeled. They follow a well-worn strategy honed by Billy Beane, vice president of baseball operations, and other organization leaders. They trade up-and-coming players before accumulating six years of major league service and qualifying for free agency.
But even with a roster currently full of unknowns and some questions about the future of the Oakland franchise, there are glimmers of hope for this team.
Young A rises
To call the current A-Team untested would be an understatement. A review of Baseball-Reference.com data showed that Monday morning’s 40-man members of A averaged 1.92 years of service and 2.1 lifetime wins over the backup.
This is neither last year’s team nor the club of 2020 to win the team’s first postseason series in 14 years. But manager Mark Kotsay, who succeeded longtime A-skipper Bob Melvin in his freshman season, balked at the idea that his team was full of young unknowns.
“We have some young players but I think we have a good mix,” Kotsay told The Bee during his media availability Monday after the game. “We have some veterans on this team. Elvis Andrus, Jed Lowrie, Chad Pinder. I consider Tony Kemp a veteran. He’s been here for a while and keeps us going.”
Only five players in the A’s 40-man squad have at least six years of service: Lowrie, Andrus, Stephen Vogt, Stephen Piscotty and Justin Grimm. Andrus, Vogt, Lowrie are also the team’s only former All-Stars, with the team boasting one of the lowest payrolls in the majors.
A handful of other well-known players are still there, such as: Closer Lou Trivino; midfielder Ramón Laureano, suspended for the first 27 games of this season after testing positive for a banned substance last year; Personal ace Frankie Montas, who conceded just one run against the Orioles on Monday and picked up the win.
“It’s great energy,” Montas replied to a Bee question about his teammates after their 5-1 win. “Boys are hungry, they are hungry, man. And when you have a hungry team out there, it’s dangerous.”
Gone from Oakland are standout players Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Sean Manaea and Chris Bassitt, all of whom have been doled out for young player packages in recent weeks. Pinder, Lowrie and four others also went on the COVID-19 list on Monday, joining Piscotty.
Promising early returns
Early predictions for Oakland’s patchwork of veterans and young talent this season weren’t overly encouraging, with FanGraphs predicting a 71-91 score while Monday’s Baseball Prospectus PECOTA score had a 66-96 score for the A’s .
Looking at the list, there are definitely a lot of new names. That includes utility man Drew Jackson, a Stanford product who signed with Oakland as a minor league free agent during the offseason after spending last year in the New York Mets’ farm system. He joined A’s Big League club last Friday.
“I could see right away how much the team is growing together,” Jackson said ahead of Monday’s game. “It’s like a next-man-up mentality. Everyone is fighting every shot and everyone is making the most of the opportunity, whether they have 10, 12 years in the big leagues or a few days. It’s just cool to see the fight in these guys.”
What’s fun about the A’s, which dates back at least to Sandy Alderson’s tenure as general manager in the 1980s and is carried through to the Moneyball teams of the late ’90s and beyond, is that obscure players and aging stars started their careers in Oakland can revive while having talented prospects come out of what seems like nowhere.
There’s often a potential young star or two waiting in the wings for Oakland, which the organization has long had a reliable farm system. But it is not yet known who could emerge from the current team.
“In general, these are all unproven and not all of them are high, high-level prospects,” Aldrete said. “But you know what, our job as a coaching staff is to get the best out of them. It’s a lot easier to work with guys when they’re ready and hungry and want to learn.”
Billy McKinney, an outfielder and former A first-round draft pick who returned to the organization this season, failed to pick a new player that caught his eye in response to a Bee question after Monday’s game.
“It’s not a one-man show or anything,” McKinney said. “Everyone is just trying to do their part to make sure the team wins and just do their job.”
Young Athletics Players
Still, there are certainly some promising youngsters in the A squad, including:
▪ Catcher Sean Murphy, a 2016 third-round draft draft for the A’s who finished fourth in the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year poll, won a Gold Glove last season and finished third Monday.
▪ Infielder Kevin Smith, one of four players acquired by the Blue Jays for Chapman, who was ranked 91st among prospects by Baseball America prior to 2019, started at third base and finished eighth on Monday and “looks great promising,” as Aldrete said.
▪ Dominican outfielder Cristian Pache, one of four players acquired by the Braves for Olson, came into this season as No. 84 from Baseball America and No. 71 from Baseball Prospectus and started at center Monday night.
“Before he came to us, he was a highly acclaimed defensive outfielder,” Aldrete said of Pache. “In the week, the 10 days we saw him, he is as advertised. And he’s young, 23 years old, but the potential with the racquet is there. He has all the ingredients of a longtime star in this league.”
The A’s unknowns helped open the game in Monday’s sixth inning, with a throwing error by Orioles third baseman Ramón Urías resulting in four unearned runs. In the following inning, right fielder Seth Brown caught a fly and knocked Trey Mancini out for a home doubles, to a thunderous cheer from the crowd.
Even before the game, Orioles bench coach Fredi González was taking nothing for granted regarding that night’s game for his team, a young clubmate who has struggled in recent years, winning 52-110 in 2021.
“These are the big leagues,” Gonzalez said. “Billy Beane seems to put together a good roster every year.”
Not surprisingly for a home opener that took place on a Monday night, the response from fans was underwhelming with an announced attendance of 17,503. The team struggled to attract crowds during its time in Oakland, while remaining uncertain if the A’s can build a new ballpark at Howard Terminal and the team has flirted with cities like Las Vegas in recent years.
Regardless, players like Brown expect this team to be competitive.
“It never occurred to any of us that we wouldn’t be,” Brown said in response to a Bee question after Monday’s game. “We have a team full of talent here. Yes, you know, we have a few youngsters, but there is something special about the commitment, the energy and the courage that each of these guys have. So it’s going to be a fun season for us.”