The Lost Season
The 2017 baseball season was, arguably, the worst in Bay Area history.
Both the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s finished last in their divisions. The Giants flirted with 100 losses before winding up at 64-98, a mere 40 games behind the National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers and tied with the Detroit Tigers for the worst record in baseball. The A’s were a little better at 75-87, finishing 26 games behind the Houston Astros in the American League West.
In a region long accustomed—and perhaps spoiled—by playoff berths, World Series championships, Most Valuable Players and All-Stars, this was quite a shock…at least with respect to the team at 24 Willie Mays Plaza. The Giants, remember, were the best team in baseball for the first half of the 2016 season before their bullpen imploded. Most pundits expected them to bounce back and contend for the division title in ’17.
So what happened, and what does the future hold for the Bay Area teams?
Bad Karma, Defensive Decline, Power Outage: The Giants’ troubles started on Opening Day when their high-priced closer, Mark Melancon, blew a save. Melancon was signed to a four-year, $62 million contract to solve the team’s bullpen woes, but was plagued by arm injuries all year, pitched only 30 innings, and posted a woeful 4.50 ERA. Less than two weeks into the season, the team’s best player, catcher Buster Posey, was drilled by a 94-mile per hour fastball and missed more than a week with a concussion. Just as Posey returned, manager Bruce Bochy had to skip several games after undergoing surgery for an abnormal heart rhythm. But the wheels really fell off when, a few days after Bochy’s surgery, Madison Bumgarner, the heart and soul of the pitching staff, was injured in a dirt bike accident and missed almost three months. The Giants’ number two starter, Johnny Cueto, who posted an 18-5 record a year ago, was plagued by blisters all season and finished at 8-8.
The injuries don’t tell the whole story, though. Several mainstays had off years and the Giants’ defense—a big factor in their formula for success at pitcher-friendly AT&T Park—declined dramatically. Denard Span, who had a good year with the bat, no longer can cover enough ground in center field and fan-favorite Hunter Pence, whose effort and enthusiasm are legendary in these parts, struggled both in the field and at the plate. Brandon Crawford continued his magic at shortstop, but hit .220 for most of the season before a late surge brought him up to .253.
Perhaps the biggest deficit, though, was lack of power. In the “Year of the Home Run”, the Giants finished dead last in major league baseball with only 128. By comparison, 17 teams hit over 200 and the closest team to the Giants (Pittsburgh) had 151. No one on the team hit even 20. Brandon Belt, who once again suffered long-term effects from a concussion, led the club with a paltry 18.
Looking ahead, there is no reason to panic. Posey, Crawford and Bumgarner are three of the best players in the game, and Bochy is a Hall of Fame manager. Vice-President Brian Sabean and General Manager Bobby Evans know their stuff, and team president Larry Baer is a savvy, proven executive. The Giants are committed to winning, and they will do whatever’s necessary to be competitive. I’d look for the team to make at least a couple of off-season moves to improve their outfield defense and, yes, obtain a right-handed power hitter. (The Giants have been and will continue to be built on pitching and defense, but an occasional three-run homer might be nice). If Melancon and lefty Will Smith--who missed the entire season after under-going Tommy John surgery--can return to form, the bullpen will be fine.
Bottom line: don’t plan on another World Series next year, especially with the Dodgers, Nationals, Cubs and Diamondbacks looking so strong, but the Giants will be back.
Oakland Optimism: Across the Bay in Oakland, while the results were similar, the season-ending vibe was considerably different. The A’s finished strong, winning 17 of their last 24 games, and showcased some very promising young talent. Rookie first baseman Matt Olson clubbed 24 home runs in just 70 games before his season was ended by a hamstring strain. Another rookie, Matt Chapman, was a revelation at third base. Other promising first-year players included starting pitcher Jharel Cotton, utilityman Chad Pinder and outfielder Boog Powell. DH Ryon Healy, in his first full season, belted 25 home runs.
Some of the A’s “old hands”, if there can ever be such a thing on a team whose senior player, shortstop Marcus Semien, has only been with the club three years, also had fine seasons. Second baseman Jed Lowrie, a Stanford product, had a career year, breaking the team record with 49 doubles, and outfielder Khris Davis hit over 40 home runs for the second season in a row.
With all this youthful talent, buttressed by a few key veterans, the future looks pretty bright in Oakland. There are potential stars at most positions, and a host of strong young arms led by Sean Manaea and Cotton (both 25), Kendall Graveman (26) and Daniel Mengden (24).
The biggest reason for optimism, though, is that the A’s have apparently changed their philosophy and are actually planning on keeping people around. For years, loyal fans had to stomach watching their favorite players get shipped out as soon as they became too expensive for the penurious Oakland ownership. Look at this year’s playoff teams and you’ll see ex-A’s everywhere. Sean Doolittle closing for the Nationals, Sonny Gray starting for the Yankees, outfielder Josh Reddick batting over .300 with the Astros, Dan Otero setting up for the Indians, Drew Pomeranz winning 17 games for the Red Sox. In the past, of course, ex-A’s have immediately won an MVP Award (Josh Donaldson), come close (Yoenis Cespedis) or helped win a World Series (Addison Russell).
That’s all changed, according to A’s Vice-President Billy Beane. The emphasis now is on keeping the mainstays, developing young players, and signing them to long-term deals. The reason for the new blueprint is the commitment to building a new ballpark near Laney College in Oakland. Earlier efforts in Fremont and San Jose cratered, but the A’s believe they have a solid plan in place.
New A’s president Dave Kaval is one of the brightest and most creative people around. He’s already scored big points with the A’s faithful by engaging with fans on a regular basis, removing the tarps in the upper deck, promoting a “Rooted in Oakland” theme, improving amenities at the ballpark, and celebrating the club’s legacy by naming the field after Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson and installing a “Holy Toledo” sign honoring broadcaster Bill King.
There are many obstacles to clear before the ballpark becomes a reality, but I wouldn’t bet against Dave Kaval.