Athletics offseason report: Promising faces but no stadium yet

Chad Pinder is a young A's prospect in the organization.

The Oakland Athletics’ third consecutive last-place finish provided some signs of hope, as youngsters such as Matt Olson, Matt Chapman and Chad Pinder showed they could form part of a brighter future. Now the A’s will try to build around them and their young pitchers while developing a new stadium plan after their choice of a site near downtown Oakland was rejected. USA TODAY’s Jorge L. Ortiz takes an inside look at the team.

Catcher

By waiving Stephen Vogt in June, the A’s committed to Bruce Maxwell as their No. 1 catcher, a move that looks questionable. Maxwell, who turns 27 on Dec. 20, batted .237 with a .663 OPS in 76 games, drawing more attention for being the only major leaguer to kneel in protest during the national anthem than for anything he did between the lines. He was also arrested and charged in a gun case in October. Backups Josh Phegley (.201) and Dustin Garneau (.159 with A’s) didn’t produce much at the plate either.

Depth chart: Maxwell, Phegley, Garneau.

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  • First base

    Olson, a strikeout-prone power hitter during his minor league career, changed his hitting stance and became much more consistent in 2017. The 23-year-old spent the first half of the season bouncing back and forth between Oakland and Class AAA Sacramento but went on a tear once he landed a regular spot. He belted 20 homers in his last 38 games, finishing with 24 in 216 plate appearances and a 1.003 OPS. In November, the A’s cleared first base for Olson by trading Ryon Healy (25 homers) to the Seattle Mariners.

    Depth chart: Olson, *Renato Nunez, Mark Canha.

    Second base

    Switch-hitting veteran Jed Lowrie quietly set the A’s record for doubles with 49 as part of a strong season in which he delivered 66 extra-base hits, a .808 OPS and solid defense. It wasn’t a hard decision for the A’s to pick up his $6 million option for 2018. Lowrie eventually figures to give way to Franklin Barreto, one of the A’s most prized prospects, but in the meantime he provides leadership and production.

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    Depth chart: Lowrie, Pinder, *Barreto, Pinder.

    Third base

    When Chapman was promoted to the majors in mid-June, the A’s warned that he was more advanced defensively than at the plate. That assessment proved accurate, as the 2014 first-round pick flashed Gold Glove potential despite committing 13 errors. And he wasn’t lost at the plate, although his rate of one strikeout every 3.5 plate appearances needs to improve. Chapman, 24, delivered 14 homers and a .785 OPS in 84 games and figures to only get better.

    Depth chart: Chapman, *Nunez.

    Shortstop

    Marcus Semien sat out most of the first three months of the season with a wrist injury that eventually required surgery. When he returned July 6, Semien provided stability to a shaky infield that contributed to the A’s leading the majors in errors but was not quite the same offensive factor as the year before, when he hit 27 home runs. Semien will return as the starting shortstop but might eventually face a challenge from prospects Barreto, Jorge Mateo and Yairo Munoz.

    Depth chart: Semien, Pinder, *Barreto, *Mateo, *Munoz.

    Left field

    With Khris Davis shifting to mostly a DH role, left field is up for grabs. The top candidates include Matt Joyce, Canha and Pinder, although the A’s will pursue another option in the offseason, preferably a right-handed hitter. Canha spent half the season in the minors, while Pinder might be better suited to right field with his strong arm. Nunez, a power-hitting prospect, is out of options and could force his way in as well.

    Depth chart: Davis, Canha, Pinder, *Nunez.

    Center field

    Rookie Dustin Fowler, acquired from the Yankees in the Sonny Gray trade, might have a leg up on the center-field competition if he’s fully recovered from a knee injury that knocked him out in his major league debut. The A’s liked his tools — speed, some pop and the ability to make contact — enough that they were willing to deal for him even while he recovered from a serious injury. Jake Smolinski and Boog Powell, a lefty swinger who batted .321 in 29 games, figures in the mix as well.

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    Depth chart: *Fowler, Smolinski, Powell.

    Right field

    After a brutal start, Joyce found a groove and tied for second on the club with 25 homers while putting up a solid .808 OPS. The lefty-swinging Joyce hit 24 of the home runs against right-handers and will likely split time with Pinder, who broke out with 15 homers in 309 plate appearances and showed he’s capable of playing multiple positions.

    Depth chart: Joyce, Pinder, Smolinski, Canha.

    Designated hitter

    The Healy trade also opens up the DH spot for Davis, whose throwing difficulties — he has a case of the yips — make him better suited for the DH spot. Davis is coming off back-to-back 40-plus-homer seasons and has driven in more than 100 runs both years. But it remains to be seen whether he’s ready to embrace a full-time DH role at 30.

    Depth chart: Davis, *Nunez, Joyce, Canha.

    Starting pitchers

    The A’s pinned much of their hopes last season on a promising rotation that was far from proven. As often happens with young starters, the results were inconsistent and in some cases awfully disappointing. Kendall Graveman has the makings of a No. 2 starter but struggled to stay healthy, as shoulder woes limited him to 19 starts. Sean Manaea made the biggest strides, fashioning a 12-10 record and 4.37 ERA in 29 starts while cutting down his walk rate to 3.1 per nine innings. Jharel Cotton took a big step back, going 9-10 with a 5.58 ERA, but still has major league stuff. Jesse Hahn battled injuries and ineffectiveness. Paul Blackburn and Daniel Gossett had their moments and will have a chance to earn a rotation spot in the spring. Ditto for Daniel Mengden. There’s potential but very little track record of success among this group, which would benefit from the addition of a veteran leader.

    Depth chart: Graveman, Manaea, Blackburn, Cotton, Gossett, Hahn, Andrew Triggs, Mengden, Chris Bassitt.

    Bullpen

    Much like last season, the A’s will attempt to give the youthful starters some cover with a deep bullpen. It didn’t work as planned in 2017, as closer Sean Doolittle again missed time with a shoulder injury, Santiago Casilla blew seven save chances and John Axford struggled badly (6.43 ERA). Ryan Madson thrived in a setup role but was traded to the Nationals along with Doolittle in mid-July. Blake Treinen, sent to Oakland as part of that swap, logged 13 saves and will return as the closer. His supporting cast will include setup man Emilio Pagan, acquired in the Healy trade, and free agent acquisition Yusmeiro Petit, who fashioned a 2.76 ERA in a swing role with the Angels. The A’s are on the market for a lefty reliever to round out the bullpen.

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    Depth chart: Treinen, Pagan, Casilla, Petit, Frankie Montas, Liam Hendricks, Chris Hatcher, Ryan Dull, Bassitt.

    Top 5 prospects

    Excerpted from BaseballHQ.Com’s 2018 Minor League Baseball Analyst. To order: http://www.Baseballhq.Com/minor-league-baseball-analyst.

    1. Franklin Barreto, 2B-SS: Barreto hit .290 and 15 home runs as the youngest infielder (21) in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League. He possesses good power for his size (5-10, 190 pounds) and has high batting average potential with plus bat speed and hard contact. He’ll contend for a major league gig in the spring.

    2. A.J. Puk, LHP: Puk had186 strikeouts across two levels. His fastball-slider combination is dynamite and his secondary pitches have bite and movement, but he has trouble repeating mechanics. At 6-7, the 22-year-old has the size and stuff to be a high-strikeout guy. He should return to Class AA.

    3. Jorge Mateo, SS: A 22-year-old speedster, Mateo saw his power start to emerge. He stole 52 bases and hit a career-high 30 doubles. He strikes out a lot, but the speed is elite. Mateo has the range and arm to stick at shortstop but might move to center field. He’ll likely start in Class AAA.

    4. Austin Beck, OF: Beck, 19, is a toolsy outfielder who started slow in rookie ball. He has explosive bat speed and should hit for plus pop with a good batting average. He runs well and could be an above-average defender in center. He will likely be in short-season ball.

    5. Grant Holmes, RHP: Holmes, 21, led the Class AA Texas League in strikeouts (150) but also in walks (63). His inconsistent mechanics lead to command issues, but he keeps the ball low in the zone and has a power curveball. Holmes will graduate to Class AAA.

    — Jeremy Deloney.

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