The Oakland A's aren't nearly as boring as you think

ByJerry Crasnick ESPN logo
Saturday, March 10, 2018

MESA, Ariz. -- The Houston Astros are baseball's reigning World Series champions.Shohei Ohtaniis sucking up so much attention at Los Angeles Angels' camp, Mike Trout can barely get a mention. The Seattle Mariners have three potential Hall of Famers on the roster in Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez and Ichiro Suzuki. And the Texas Rangers have the makings of a terrific buddy movie ifBartolo Colonand Tim Lincecum -- Big Sexy and the Freak -- are both on the Opening Day roster.

The Oakland Athletics, the other team in the American League West pecking order, keep plugging away under the same tired narrative. When they're not part of a grievance filed by the Players Association alleging four teams with hoarding revenue-sharing money, the A's are on a seemingly endless quest for a new ballpark with modern amenities and adequate plumbing.

The A's have finished last in the division for three straight seasons, and they lack the established starting pitching to make the big leap to contention this season. But an improved farm system and an intriguing crop of young major leaguers give them reason to hope.

"It's incumbent upon us to put together a team good enough for people to talk about,'' general manager David Forst said. "We understand that. But I think the guys on the field play with a little chip on their shoulder because of it. There have been times over the last 20 years that it's worked to our advantage to have that.''

The A's have traded away Josh Donaldson, Sonny Gray, Yoenis Cespedes and blue-collar hero Stephen Vogt in recent years, and the players on the 25-man roster won't attract much attention as they pass through hotel lobbies and airport terminals this season. Still, a day at Hohokam Stadium reveals a likeable and close-knit group with some compelling storylines.

Here are five reasons why this year's Athletics are a lot more interesting than people think:

Oakland is home to baseball's next great defensive third baseman

Matt Chapman grew up in Lake Forest, California, and played in the same little league with Nolan Arenado. They both went to El Toro High School and played shortstop for the Chargers. When Arenado was a senior, Chapman looked on as a sophomore and learned all about the importance of determination and a strong work ethic.

Is there something in the Lake Forest water that breeds lockdown third-base defenders?

"Maybe our infield was so bad in high school, it seems easy when we're on good fields,'' Chapman said with a laugh. "Don't quote me on that. My high school coach might kill me.''

How much of a force is Chapman in the field? Ryan Christenson, Oakland's new bench coach, played with six-time Gold Glove Award winner Eric Chavez, and says he thinks Chapman is better at the hot corner.

An American League evaluator echoes that sentiment, ranking Chapman on a par with Arenado and Manny Machado, the twin gold standards of third-base defensive excellence. The early numbers bear it out: Last year, Chapman contributed a stunning plus-19 defensive runs saved in 84 games with Oakland.

"I'm not saying he's better than those other guys,'' the evaluator said. "But he belongs in the conversation.''

The A's also rave about Chapman's leadership skills and "it'' factor. He entered the big league clubhouse on June 15 and seemed comfortable from his first at-bat against the Yankees' Jordan Montgomery.

Chapman asserted himself during a testy encounter with the Angels in September. Los Angeles catcher Juan Graterol was convinced the Oakland hitters were peeking at his signs or getting signs relayed from second base, and he made his displeasure apparent to several hitters. As Chapman settled into the batter's box, he told Graterol to knock it off, earning an ejection from umpire Mike Everitt and instant respect from his teammates.

"He's a leader,'' Khris Davis told reporters after the game. "He's a natural at it. He might be a rookie, but one day he's going to lead the way.''

Chapman's success as a hitter will hinge on his ability to tighten up his swing, make more consistent contact and hold his own against breaking stuff. He was a .244 hitter in the minors, and he batted .234 and struck out 28.2 percent of the time as a rookie. But he gets the ball in the air, and his confident demeanor suggests he'll address the deficiencies in his game.

"With every team I've been on, I've wanted to be a guy that people look at as a leader or say, 'That guy is doing things the right way. I want to be like him,' '' Chapman said. "I haven't dug too much into it. I don't know if there's a specific role where somebody gets a thing on their jersey. But I want to be there for anybody on our team, just like I'd expect them to be there for me and help us to be the best, most successful players we can.''

And Rhys Hoskins West

Or maybe Rhys Hoskins is Matt Olson East, and people just don't know it yet.

In mid-September, the A's traveled to Philadelphia for a three-game interleague series. At one point, Hoskins reached first base and exchanged salutations with Olson, and the two young sluggers shared some thoughts on their late-season power binges.

"He was aware of what I was doing and obviously I was aware of what he was doing,'' Olson said. "His name was plastered everywhere. We just talked to each other and he asked if I was getting hounded by the media. I was like, 'Uhh, honestly, no.' I feel like nobody knows. It was good. I told him, 'Stay healthy, keep it up, and good luck the rest of the way.' ''

Hoskins went on a riveting run with 11 homers in 79 at-bats in August before Olson topped it with 13 long balls in 79 ABs in September. For the season, Olson averaged one homer every 7.88 at-bats -- the fourth-best ratio ever for a hitter with at least 200 plate appearances. Only Barry Bonds (in 2001), and Mark McGwire (in 1998 and 2000) have surpassed it.

By the end of the season, Olson had accumulated 24 home runs and 23 singles. Try wrapping your mind around that for a second.

Olson grew up in Lilburn, Georgia, about 40 minutes from Atlanta, and he played on the same youth league fields that spawned Clint Frazier, Austin Meadows and Lucas Sims. An older brother went to Harvard, and Olson was bound for Vanderbilt until the A's enticed him to sign with a $1.08 million bonus in the 2012 draft. Like his boyhood favorite, Chipper Jones, he opted to jump right into the fray as a teen.

Olson's setup is a bit unorthodox, with his hands held away from his body. But he has made the necessary adjustments to become less vulnerable to hard stuff on the inner half. The next big item on his agenda is improving upon that .184 batting average in 56 MLB plate appearances vs. lefties. The A's plan to give Olson as much time as he needs to figure it out.

The A's are home to the home run trivia answer you never would have guessed

Forst and executive VP Billy Beane pulled off a heist in 2016 when they traded minor leaguers Jake Nottingham and Bubba Derby to Milwaukee for Khris Davis, a young outfielder who was just coming into his power potential. Last year, Davis joined Jimmie Foxx as the second player in Athletics history to record back-to-back 40-homer seasons. Over the past two years, his 85 homers are second to Giancarlo Stanton's 86 among MLB hitters.

"You could make a lot of money asking people, 'Who has the second-most home runs in the big leagues behind Stanton?' '' an American League scout said.

The power production is doubly impressive because of Davis' unimposing physical stature. He's a compact 5-11, 200 pounds, and he generates a lot of power with his hips and a strong lower half. He has hit 45 of those 85 homers at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, even though the park is notoriously challenging for sluggers. (Last year, when it ranked as the 11th-most generous home run park in the majors, was a notable exception).

Davis has struck up a bond with his namesake, Baltimore's Chris Davis, who has shared some encouraging words with him during casual conversations at first base. The Orioles' Davis has a $161 million contract, an All-Star Game appearance and two home run titles in his portfolio. His counterpart in Oakland launches homers with regularity and remains anonymous on the national stage.

"I get some 'his', and people drop the nickname 'Crush' on me,'' Davis said. "I've been in restaurants in Oakland and people are nice enough to take care of my meal. I truly appreciate the hospitality and the perks like that. It never really happens on the road. You would really have to know baseball to know my face."

Davis received a pleasant surprise recently when informed that his No. 1 batter similarity score on is Bo Jackson, who was anything but anonymous in his dual-sport career in baseball and the NFL.

"That's' awesome,'' Davis said. "I had his poster when I was a kid. He was an amazing player.''

They have baseball's most heartwarming family story

In December, the A's traded minor leaguers Yairo Munoz and Max Schrock to St. Louis for outfielder Stephen Piscotty, a former first-round draft pick fresh off a down year. Piscotty's OPS declined to .708 from .800 the previous season, and he hit only nine homers in 401 plate appearances.

Piscotty was understandably distracted by family issues back home in Pleasanton, California. His mother, Gretchen, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in May 2017, and her illness weighed on him from afar.

"I feel like there's been a big weight kind of lifted off my shoulders,'' Piscotty said. "ALS is tough. It moves fast, unfortunately -- especially the one my mom has. It would have been really hard to go into a season knowing I wasn't going to come back for eight months. That was pretty hard to swallow. When the trade happened, that was a huge relief.

"I'm gonna be living at home. We'll have musical chairs with the rooms with my two younger brothers, but yeah, there's a room open. And that's where I want to be. At our house right now, there's always someone there helping us, and I can be one of those people. That's a great feeling. There's nothing worse than being far away and wanting to help, and you just can't be there.''

While Forst, Beane and Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak were all cognizant of the off-field ramifications, the deal made sense for both sides. The Cardinals were comfortable enough with their outfield alignment of Marcell Ozuna, Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler to move Piscotty and Randal Grichuk over the winter. The A's, who ranked 25th in the majors with a .704 OPS against left-handed pitching a year ago, get a young outfielder with on-base ability and a contract that keeps him under club control for an affordable $30.5 million through 2022. The A's previously had Piscotty on their radar when he was at Stanford, playing ball and working toward his degree in atmosphere and energy engineering.

"I talked to Stephen right after we made the trade and I said, 'Look, this was a baseball trade. We needed a right-handed hitting outfielder, and you fit perfectly for us. That said, I'm thrilled for your family -- that you're able to come home and your mom is able to see you play,' '' Forst said.

Piscotty, 26, got engaged during the offseason. His fiancée will move into the family home in Pleasanton with him, and she has an apartment in San Francisco where he can slip away for what he calls some occasional "me time.'' Piscotty is close enough to home that he has been able to get back to California and see his mom during an off day or two in the Cactus League, and the publicity generated by his story has helped raise more than $20,000 for the ALS Therapy Development Institute.

"The stars definitely aligned,'' he said. "I felt good about coming out here and joining this young team. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people.''

The Little Big Unit is in camp

A.J. Puk wore his hair short as a high schooler in Iowa and at the University of Florida, before deciding to let it ride with a long, red mullet that's as polarizing as "Moneyball.'' Puk says 50 percent of people like it, and the other 50 percent, not so much.

"It's a lot like 'Bull Durham,' '' Forst said. "When you win 20 in the show, you can wear your hair however you want and people think you're creative.''

The Athletics have a lot riding on Puk. They selected him with the sixth pick in the 2016 draft and signed him to a $4.07 million bonus before sending him on a developmental jaunt across America. In 157 2/3 innings with the Vermont Lake Monsters, Stockton (California) Ports and Midland (Texas) RockHounds, Puk has struck out 224 batters.

Puk grew up a Jon Lester fan and is accustomed to comparisons with Andrew Miller and Chris Sale, tall thin, lefties with unorthodox looks. Melvin acknowledged the five-time Cy Young-award winning elephant in the room this spring when he said a lot of things about Puk remind him of Randy Johnson.

"You can't help but think that,'' Melvin said. "There just aren't too many guys who look like that. They're a little bit closer to you when they deliver the ball. They throw hard, the hair, the whole bit. We don't want A.J. to feel like he has to live up to a comp like that. He has pretty good stuff, though.''

Melvin, who managed Johnson in Arizona in 2007-08, arranged for a one-on-one meeting between the Big Unit and Puk last year. Puk has made significant progress with the help of minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson, who introduced him to a hybrid stretch-windup delivery that allows him to maintain his release point and throw strikes with all the pitches in his arsenal.

"I can't imagine it's going to be long before he's an option for us,'' Forst said.

If and when Puk joins the big club, his distinctive name and look could make him a rarity on the Athletics' roster: He might attract enough of a following to snag a free meal someplace other than Oakland.