Athletics eliminated: Gray emerges as an ace; busy winter ahead for Beane

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Athletics eliminated: Gray emerges as an ace; busy winter ahead for Beane
By Mike Axisa | Baseball Writer
September 20, 2015 10:55 am ET

Thanks to Friday night's loss (HOU 10, OAK 6), the Oakland Athletics have officially been eliminated from postseason contention. Not many expected them to contend in 2015, but not many expected them to have the worst record in the AL either. Time to review their season and look ahead to 2016.

What went right in 2015: Not much, obviously. Sonny Gray established himself as a bonafide No. 1 starter despite his September struggles, and Scott Kazmir was dynamite before being traded at the deadline. Ditto Ben Zobrist. Jesse Hahn (120 ERA+) and Kendall Graveman (100 ERA+) pitched well before going down with forearm and oblique injuries, respectively.

On offense, Josh Reddick rebounded to hit .275/.333/.460 (116 OPS+) with 24 doubles and 19 home runs. Stephen Vogt hit .271/.349/.467 (123 OPS+) with 18 home runs and was a very deserving All-Star. His backup, Josh Phegley, was quietly excellent by backup catcher standards (103 OPS+). Billy Burns (26 steals and a 102 OPS+) emerged as an everyday center fielder and Rule 5 Draft pick Mark Canha (15 homers and a 102 OPS+) had a productive season.

What went wrong in 2015: First and foremost, the Josh Donaldson trade has been a disaster. Graveman pitched well before getting hurt and Brett Lawrie has been okay (101 OPS+), but geez, trading an MVP candidate -- Donaldson was an MVP candidate while still with the A's, remember -- for a package of three okay players and a prospect is not good. (Sean Nolin, the third player, spent most of the year either hurt or in Triple-A. The prospect is infielder Franklin Barreto, who is a very good prospect, to be fair.) That's as lopsided a trade as we've seen in a very long time.

The bullpen was also a total mess. Oakland's relief crew ranks 27th among the 30 clubs in both ERA (4.52) and the FanGraphs version of WAR (0.7). There's a reason this team is 17-32 (.347) in one-run games. Bullpen stalwarts Dan Otero and Fernando Abad had poor years and closer Sean Doolittle has been limited to 9 2/3 innings by shoulder trouble. It felt like the A's never had more than one reliable reliever in the bullpen at any point this year.

Billy Butler has not hit (96 OPS+) in the first year of this three-year contract and Ike Davis (80 OPS+) was both unproductive and hurt. Marcus Semien, who came over in the Jeff Samardzija trade, has a 91 OPS+ and leads baseball with 34 errors. (Ian Desmond is a distant second with 25). Even the various advanced fielding stats agree Semien has been awful at short. Coco Crisp has been hurt most of the season and both Jarrod Parker (elbow) and A.J. Griffin (elbow, shoulder) did not throw a single pitch in 2015.

If it could go wrong for the A's this year, it did. It was one of those types of seasons.

Athletics MVP: Gray, easily. Reddick and Vogt have strong cases but Gray was on another level this season. He's a legitimate Cy Young candidate -- his recent struggles probably knocked him from serious consideration, however -- and has been their best player from start to finish in 2015.

Athletics LVP: Butler. He's a DH who hasn't hit. A .252/.324/.388 (96 OPS+) batting line with 26 doubles and 13 home runs from a player with no defensive or baserunning value is very bad. That he's only in year one of this three-year, $30 million contract is salt in the wound.

Pending free agents: Edward Mujica, Barry Zito

2016 payroll commitments: According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the A's have only $24.25 million tied up in 2016 payroll. That's because Crisp, Butler and Doolittle are the only players with guaranteed contracts. Everyone else is either in their pre-arbitration or arbitration years, and will sign 2016 contracts during the offseason.

Reddick, Lawrie, Danny Valencia and Drew Pomeranz are among the players due significant raises through arbitration. Davis, Felix Doubront, Sam Fuld and Craig Gentry are among the team's plethora of non-tender candidates. The A's have opened the last two seasons with a payroll in the $80 million range, and, after accounting for arbitration raises, they'll probably have $30 million or so to spend this winter if they maintain a similar payroll level.

Biggest offseason decision: Longtime GM Billy Beane and his staff has to determine whether this season was an anomaly, or simply the result of a poorly built roster. According to FanGraphs, the A's were projected to win 83 games coming into the system, so the projection systems like the talent on their roster. At least somewhat, anyway. They're going to fall short of their projection by 10-15 games. That's what a leaky bullpen can do to you.

If Beane and his staff determine this year was an anomaly, they can spend the offseason looking to add pieces to help them win now. Another starting pitcher, some bullpen help, and a quality middle infielder or two may do the trick. But, if they decide it was not an anomaly and the roster simply isn't good enough, Beane could start selling off pieces. Reddick, who will be a free agent after 2016, may be gone either way. Others like Doolittle, Vogt and even Gray could be moved as part of a rebuild.

The A's have never been truly awful under Beane -- prior to this season, they never won fewer than 74 games since he took over prior to the 1998 season, and only five times in 17 years did they win fewer than 81 games -- so this season is atypical. They're at a crossroads now. A full blown tear down and rebuild seems possible now moreso than ever.

2016 will be better if ... The A's get even average bullpen work and young players like Gray, Semien, Lawrie, Burns and Graveman all take steps forward with another season under their belts. It would help if Hahn stayed healthy as well. It appears Beane will have some money to spend this winter and as long as he doesn't repeat the Butler signing, that will help as well. The Athletics probably aren't as far away from contending in the not great AL West as their record indicates. A few upgrades here and there and they could be in a race next year.

2016 will be worse if ... Beane decides to tear it all down and deals guys like Reddick and Gray for prospects. Hahn has a long injury history, so expecting him to throw 180+ innings in 2016 probably isn't realistic, and there's no way the A's could count on Griffin and/or Parker to contribute at this point. They've both missed two full seasons following Tommy John surgery and various setbacks. Beane loves to take risks, and a lot of those risks backfired this year, none moreso than the Donaldson trade. If he tries something similar with Reddick or Gray, 2016 could be real ugly.

Ridiculously premature 2016 prediction: Next season the A's will not be as bad as they were this season. They have almost nowhere to go but up at this point. Beane will make one of his trademarket blockbuster trades -- my money is on Reddick going given his impending free agency -- and land a few undervalued pieces, a la the Valencia claim. That said, it won't be enough to get this club back to the postseason. I can see the Athletics getting back around .500 next season, which won't be enough to win the AL West or really push for a wild-card spot.