Next man up: The A’s say pitcher A.J. Puk will start the season in the minors, if only to delay his major-league start date, arbitration year and ultimate deal when he nears a big contract. But Puk is probably already one of Oakland’s five best starters, which may not be saying much for a team whose starters had a 4.74 ERA last year. Puk’s was an unfairly elevated 4.03 over two levels last year, but he fanned 184 in 125 innings and walked only 48. The A’s didn’t have a major-leaguer fan more than Sean Manaea’s 140, and that in 158.2 innings. Puk allowed just 108 hits in those 125 innings, and only three of those were homers. A’s manager Bob Melvin said, “It’s tempting not to say, ‘Let’s just start with him;'” extra tempting when your projected third starter is Jharel Cotton and his career 4.95 ERA.
What he said: Melvin on having former A’s Dave Stewart and Rickey Henderson address the team: “I’ve said before that you come up in a certain organization and you get to the big leagues with that organization, it almost feels like a university.” What he meant: “If we’re a university, it’s a junior college.”
Three reasons it will be a good year: 1. The A’s can hit home runs. They were fourth last year with 234 of them, and that’s with Matt Olson, who hit 24, only getting 216 plate appearances. Kris Davis has hit 85 in two Oakland seasons; Olson slugged .651; Matt Chapman, who hit 14 in half a season, hit 29 in AA in ’16; and Marcus Semien, who hit 10 in half a season last year, hit 27 in 2016. They may not be the Bash Brothers, but they could have six players hit 20 or more homers, if they’re not traded in midseason. 2. Rajai Davis isn’t in center field. Davis may be a World Series hero in Cleveland, to which he returned, but he was a nonsensical addition for a rebuilding team. Davis played center field, batted .233 and put up a .647 OPS in 100 games last season. No guarantee Dustin Fowler, acquired in the Sonny Gray trade, will do better (Fowler’s single-season minor-league high in walks is a Rajai-like 26), but he’s 22 and has power (slugged .542 last year) and speed (15 triples in 2016, 30 steals in ’15). That’s already more promising than Rajai. 3. Santiago Casilla won’t be closing. Hopefully. Like Davis, Casilla was brought in as a veteran free agent last offseason. Like Davis, he wasn’t worth having around. Casilla saved 16 games but blew seven, had a 4.27 ERA and .757 OPS against. He only kept the closer’s job until July, which was long enough to help propel the A’s to a third straight last-place finish. The bad news is Casilla is still an Athletic. The good news is he’s a setup guy, a position he’ll probably do less harm.
Three reasons it won’t: 1. The A’s can throw home runs, too. They allowed 210 last year, 12th in MLB, and no one in their projected rotation threw more than Manaea’s 158.2 innings. Only three starters (Kendall Graveman, Manaea and Cotton) threw more than 100 major-league innings last year, whether because of injuries or inefficiency. A’s executive Billy Beane is a conservationist when it comes to service time, but he’ll be hard-pressed to keep Puk in the minors for long. 2. The A’s did nothing to improve at catcher. Last year they were 26th in MLB at the position with a .641 OPS and tied for 27th with 10 homers — four of them hit by the departed Stephen Vogt. The A’s are down to Bruce Maxwell, arrested in the offseason after a .237/329/333 regular season, and Josh Phegley, who hit .201 with a .590 OPS. 3. If Blake Treinen could close, he’d still be a National. Treinen took over for Casilla after coming in the Ryan Madson-Sean Doolittle deal and did well enough — a 2.13 ERA and 13 saves in 16 opportunities — but that after putting up a 5.73 ERA for Washington and blowing two saves. Treinen is 29 and has pitched in 220 major-league games over four seasons. He’s compiled a .692 career OPS, which might be better than Casilla can still do, but it’s hardly stopper like.
Team song: Otis Redding (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay