2016 Oakland Athletics: They’re not getting better

Johnnie Wyatt

John Wyatt was one of the last players to come out of the Negro Leagues, and the fourth African American pitcher to win a World Series game (Joe Black, Bob Gibson and Mudcat Grant preceded him), which he did for the Impossible Dream Red Sox in 1967. Wyatt’s manager in the Negro Leagues was Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, and Wyatt  was with the Cardinals and Braves organizations before he had success with the Athletics. Wyatt won 10 games as a rookie in 1962 and became a full-time reliever in 1963, when he was 6-4 with 21 saves and a 3.13 ERA. He never started again. In 1964, he set an MLB record by pitching in 81 games, winning nine and saving 20. By the end of 1965, he was third all-time for games in a single season, passed by Eddie Fisher (82) in the AL and Ted Abernathy (84) in the NL. Today, Wyatt’s 81 games are  tied for 73rd in games pitched in a single season. Wyatt saved 18 games in ’65 and 10 more in ’66, nine of those with the Red Sox after being traded with Jose Tartabull. Wyatt was 10-7 with a 2.60 ERA and saved 20 games for the ’67 Red Sox, but didn’t pitch in the final five games of the season after losing Game 157 to Baltimore on a Brooks Robinson home run. In the World Series, Wyatt appeared twice, pitching two scoreless inning in Game 1 won by Gibson, 2-1, and winning Game 6 after giving up Lou Brock’s game-tying home run in the seventh before the Red Sox scored four runs in the bottom half. Wyatt was sold to the Yankees in 1968 — he claimed, according to his bio at sabr.org, friction with manager Dick Williams — and the Yankees sold him to the Tigers a month later. He returned to the Athletics, by then in Oakland, for the final four games of his career in 1969. Wyatt was often accused by opposing hitters of doctoring the ball. To no one’s surprise, he denied it. Wyatt died of a heart attack at 62 in 1998. Career numbers: 42-44, 3.47 ERA, 435 games, nine starts, 103 saves, 687.1 innings, 600 hits, 72 homers, 346 walks, 540 strikeouts, 109 ERA+, 3.95 FIP, one All-Game selection in 1964 (he pitched an inning and gave up two runs on homers by Billy Williams and Ken Boyer), 4.91 postseason ERA in 3.1 innings, 11.0 WAR (2.7 in ’64, 2.2 in ’67).


On deck: The Athletics traded 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson and about all they have to show for it is 20-year-old shortstop Franklin Barreto. It doesn’t take Gertrude Stein to realize there’s not enough there there. Barreto hit .302 and slugged .500 at age 19 in Class A, though he had barely more walks (15) than homers (13), and more errors (34) than walks and homers combined (28). Given that big-league shortstop Marcus Semien made 35 errors, there’s a positive spin. Barreto dropped in walks (26-15) and alarmingly in steals (from 29-34 to 8-11) last year, and his propensity to err (88 in three seasons) begs the question of whether he’ll remain a shortstop. With the Athletics, it may not matter much.

2015 stat: No Athletic hit 30 doubles last year. Brett Lawrie led the team with but 29, which tied him for 38th in the AL. The last time the A’s were led in doubles by a player with so few was 2012, when Josh Reddick had 29.

What he said: A’s GM David Forst: “Our plan is not to trade Sonny Gray.” What he meant: “Make us an offer.”

Outlook: It’s been two years since the A’s won 88 games and a wild-card berth in 2014, although it feels a lot more like two generations.

Last year’s A’s were 20 games worse, which was not unsurprising given how few of them remained. You have to wonder how the histories of the A’s and Royals would be different had Sean Doolittle protected the lead on Sept. 30, 2014..

The A’s shortstop that night was Jed Lowrie, who signed as a free agent with the Astros for 2015 and was traded back to the A’s for 2016. By then the 2014 A’s had been purged or defected. Lowrie only knew seven players when he returned, according to Carl Steward of the San Jose Mercury-News.

It’s typical of the A’s strategy over the last 18 months. They keep taking one step forward and one step back and then are surprised to find they’re standing in the same place.

“Our approach will be to make sure we keep that core group of kids together,” Billy Beane said in December. Two months later he traded one of them, catcher Jacob Nottingham, for outfielder Khris Davis, who hit 27 homers for the Brewers. Beane never said how long the Athletics would keep them together.

It’s the kind of deal the A’s have made so many of in the last 18 months, hinting at contending and then feinting at rebuilding. It’s like trying to watch Lonnie Smith run the bases; you’re not sure if the A’s are going to zig this way or zag that way.

The Athletics spent the last 18 months recycling players as if they were regifting, dealing for Brett Lawrie, Jeff Samardzija and Ben Zobrist and then dealing them, signing Scott Kazmir and then trading him, letting Lowrie leave as a free agent and then trading for him and his increased contract.

On most of the trades, the Athletics gave up more than they received, none more so than the Samardzija deal. The A’s traded shortstop prospect Addison Russell to get Samardzija and received Semien to play shortstop when they dealt him.

There shouldn’t be much question on which shortstop a team would like to have for the next 10 years, and it’s not the one who made 35 errors last year. You have to wonder if Barreto was the motivation for the Donaldson deal, to get a young shortstop to replace the two (Russell and Daniel Robertson, who went to Tampa Bay for Zobrist) they traded.

The 2016 Athletics won’t be very good. Even worse, the core group Beane referred to may not be either. ESPN.com’s Keith Law ranked the Athletics’ farm system 18th, and that was presumably when it included Nottingham, who was moved on Feb. 12, just after the rankings came out.

The Athletics lost 94 games last year, though with a minus-35 run differential they didn’t deserve to. This year they might. After Sonny Gray, the rotation doesn’t have a pitcher who’s thrown 200 innings, and Rich Hill, whom the A’s signed for $6 million off four September starts, has a 15.26 ERA and 12 walks in seven spring training innings.

To the Athletics, the $6 million spent on Hill might be as big a part of their 2016 payroll as the $30 million the Red Sox gave to David Price.

The bullpen is adequate, but it’s likely Beane and new Forst will deal Doolittle or Ryan Madson or Fernando Rodriguez if they can get a decent return; the parts may be greater than the sum. The unfortunately named rookie Ryan Dull, who fanned 73 and gave up just 39 hits in 61 innings last year, promises to be anything but. The lineup is another matter.

The Athletics missed the playoffs for five straight seasons from 2007-11 after making them five of the previous eight seasons. After making them three straight  again from 2012-14, they may miss them for that many again. There was a time it seemed as if San Jose and Oakland were fighting for the Athletics. If so, it appears now the loser gets to keep them.

Team Song: Joni Mitchell: The Circle game


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