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While the Oakland A's underwent several significant changes this offseason, one thing remains the same for Bob Melvin's squad — they are still the team to beat in the American League West.
A year after claiming their first division title since 2013, the Green and Gold possess the talent and depth to make it two straight in 2021.
The A's have reached the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, and this year's club might be the best of the bunch. Sure, the roster will look a little different — gone are mainstays like Marcus Semien, Khris Davis, and Liam Hendriks — but Billy Beane and David Forst used every ounce of creativity to fill those voids, and then some.
With all of that in mind, here are five major storylines to monitor this season in Oakland:
Last year, the A's not only won their first postseason series since 2006, but they did it without arguably their best player. All-Star third baseman Matt Chapman missed the final 30 games of the season, including the playoffs, with a hip injury that required surgery. Now, by all accounts, he's back at 100 percent and ready to make up for lost time.
Chapman, 27, launched three home runs in his 39 Spring Training at-bats while dazzling crowds with some of his patented defensive gems at third base. The two-time Platinum Glove Award winner should take the A's infield defense to another level, while his powerful bat will be a welcome addition in the middle of the lineup.
In his last full season, Chapman belted a career-high 36 home runs and posted an impressive .848 OPS. His return this year will lengthen the Oakland lineup and add some much-needed run production in the middle of the order.
At one point this offseason, it appeared the A's bullpen might be the weak link of the team. Hendriks, Oakland's All-Star closer, left in free agency, as did key setup man Joakim Soria. But following a few shrewd moves by Beane and Forst, the pen may actually now be the strength of the roster.
Veteran right-hander Trevor Rosenthal will replace Hendriks in the closer role after signing a one-year, $11 million contract with the A's. The 30-year-old recorded a 1.90 ERA last season with 11 saves, striking out 38 batters in just 23 2/3 innings. Rosenthal's overpowering stuff should lessen the blow of losing Hendriks.
Meanwhile, Oakland also snagged Sergio Romo and Adam Kolarek to join Jake Diekman, Yusmeiro Petit, J.B. Wendelken, and Lou Trivino as Melvin's primary setup options. Romo, 38, agreed to a $2.25 million deal with Oakland and brings a wealth of knowledge, not to mention his nasty slider to the pen.
Kolarek, 32, comes over from the Dodgers, where he went 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA last season. The left-hander owns a career ERA of 3.32 and figures to fit in well at the pitcher-friendly Coliseum.
The A's also bolstered their lineup with a trio of key additions, acquiring Elvis Andrus from the Rangers and signing veteran Mitch Moreland and old friend Jed Lowrie in free agency.
Let's start with Andrus — the two-time All-Star replaces Semien at shortstop and fits in naturally near the top of the lineup. Andrus, 32, is a career .274 hitter and despite a down year last season, he appears to be healthy with plenty of mileage left in the tank. He was also one of the most popular players in the clubhouse during his time in Texas.
Moreland signed a $2.25 million contract with Oakland this offseason and provides a powerful left-handed bat, as well as some much-needed depth. The 35-year-old slashed an impressive .265/.342/.551 last season with 10 home runs and 29 RBI in just 42 games. He can play both first base and the corner outfield positions but figures to see most of his action as the designated hitter.
Of course, Lowrie is no stranger to the A's and their fans — this marks his third stint with the Green and Gold. The 36-year-old missed nearly all of the last two seasons with the Mets due to injury but has looked healthy in Spring Training upon his return to Oakland on a minor-league deal. Lowrie's best season came with the A's in 2018 when he slashed .267/.353/.448 with 23 homers and 99 RBI, earning his first trip to the All-Star Game. The switch-hitter will get another chance to take control of the starting second baseman job this year.
In addition to the new faces, the core of the A's lineup is still in place from last year. Matt Olson, Ramón Laureano, Sean Murphy, Mark Canha, and Chad Pinder, among others, all enter the season with lofty expectations.
Olson tore the cover off the ball in Spring Training, mashing a team-high six home runs and 18 RBI in just 49 at-bats, not to mention a ridiculous 1.142 OPS. The 27-year-old is extremely motivated to bounce back after a subpar 2020 which saw him hit just .195, though he still did crush 14 homers in 60 games.
Similarly, Laureano is looking to prove that last year's struggles were an aberration. The 26-year-old looked phenomenal this spring, slashing a ludicrous .357/.526/.857 in 13 games. Murphy, 26, came on strong in the second half of last season, including the playoffs. The defensive wizard is poised to once again showcase his bat this year.
Meanwhile, Canha and Pinder have already shown what they can do on both sides of the ball. Their power and defensive versatility will only bolster the A's success this season.
Now to perhaps the best A's starting rotation since the Big Three. Between Chris Bassitt, Jesús Luzardo, Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, Mike Fiers, and possibly A.J. Puk, Oakland's starting pitching is just absolutely loaded.
Bassitt, 32, enjoyed a breakout season in 2020, vaulting to the top of the rotation. The right-hander went 5-2 with a 2.29 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 11 regular-season starts. Bassitt possesses the combination of swing-and-miss stuff and a fierce mentality which should see him thrive again in 2021.
A's fans already know all about Luzardo. The 23-year-old southpaw has some of the best stuff in all of baseball and now he has a couple of seasons under his belt. Luzardo is also mature beyond his years. Watch for an All-Star type performance this season from the youngster.
Montas and Fiers are a little banged up entering the season, but neither injury appears too serious and they shouldn't miss much time. Add in Manaea and the A's have plenty of experience toward the back end of the rotation. Daulton Jeffries and Cole Irvin both impressed in Spring Training and add even more depth.
And then there's Puk, the wild card of the entire pitching staff. The towering 6-foot-7 left-hander has long been ranked as one of Oakland's top prospects, but injuries have slowed the start of his major league career. If Puk can stay healthy this year, he could provide a massive boost, either in the starting rotation or out of the bullpen.
Ultimately, the A's have both the talent and experience to win the AL West for the second straight year. Perhaps the bigger question is whether they can finally put it all together in the postseason to make a deep run into October. Stay tuned...
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