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Oakland A's spring preview: Rebuild ongoing in Oakland

By Eric Gilmore, The Sports Xchange   |   Feb. 18, 2016 at 12:41 PM
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The 2015 season couldn't end quickly enough for the Oakland A's. They finished with the worst record in the American League at 68-94, 20 games behind the first place Texas Rangers in the West.

The A's went 19-35 in one-run games, setting an Oakland record for one-run losses. They led the majors in errors with 126. To make matters worse, there was discord in a clubhouse that traditionally has been known as one of the loosest and most fun-loving spots in baseball.

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After the A's ended their streak of three trips to the postseason, executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane and general manager David Forst went to work in hopes of getting their team back on track to the postseason.

Job No. 1 was to overhaul what was one of the worst bullpens in the major leagues last season. The A's landed veteran right-handed relievers Ryan Madson and John Axford, a pair of hard throwers, as free agents. They traded for right-hander Liam Hendriks, another flame thrower, and lefty Marc Rzepczynski, adding two more weapons to a bullpen that had the AL's highest ERA (4.56) and the major leagues' worst save percentage (52.8).

The A's also reacquired infielder Jed Lowrie from Houston and traded infielder Brett Lawrie to the Chicago White Sox, cutting ties with a key component of the Josh Donaldson deal after just one season. They made another deal with San Diego, adding first baseman Yonder Alonso.

Then on Feb. 12, the A's made their biggest trade of the offseason, sending a pair of prospects to the Milwaukee Brewers for outfielder Khris Davis, who hit 27 home runs last season. Davis will start in left field and provide some much-needed power to an A's team that hit only 146 homes runs last year, fourth fewest in the AL.

"This was an important piece for us, and we're happy with the team we've got right now," Forst said after the trade for Davis.

One of manager Bob Melvin's biggest jobs of spring training will be to learn the best ways to use all his new bullpen arms. Unlike last year, he'll have a handful of options with mid-90s heat.

"One of the things we probably didn't have that some of the other bullpens had were hard throwers, guys that come in and miss bats, throwing 95, 96 miles an hour," Melvin said. "We had a couple of guys, but it seems like most bullpens, every time that bullpen door opens up, someone is coming out of the bullpen throwing hard, so that was key."

Melvin will have some decisions to make concerning his pitching rotation. The A's enter spring training with only one established starter, ace Sonny Gray, who pitched his way into the AL's Cy Young Award conversation last season.

NOTES, QUOTES

POSITION BATTLE TO WATCH: Former Padres 1B Yonder Alonso, a left-handed hitter, and returning 1B/OF Mark Canha, who bats right, are expected to platoon at first base, but Canha has the potential to hit his way into a bigger role. As a rookie last season, Canha hit .254 with 16 home runs and 70 RBIs in 124 games. He had five home runs during an 11-game span from Aug. 31 to Sept. 12, and he hit .309 in August. Canha, who came to Oakland as a Rule 5 draft choice, can also play left field. But that position became much more crowded on Feb. 12, when the A's traded for Khris Davis, and Canha will likely get the vast majority of his at-bats as a first baseman. Alonso is a skilled defensive first baseman and a .273 career hitter in 508 major league games, but he hit only five home runs last season for San Diego and has never hit more than nine homers in a season. Alonso's career high for RBIs is 62.

ROOKIE WATCH: Hard throwing lefty Sean Manaea will probably start the season with Triple-A Nashville, but manager Bob Melvin hasn't ruled out the possibility of him winning a job in the rotation during spring training. The A's acquired Manaea on July 28 from Kansas City, along with RHP Aaron Brooks, for super utility man Ben Zobrist. Manaea, who turned 24 on Feb. 1, has 236 strikeouts in 196 minor league innings. After coming to the A's, he went 6-0 with a 1.90 ERA in seven starts for Double-A Midland. If he doesn't make the A's Opening Day roster, the odds are high that he'll join the team during the season.

COMEBACK TRAIL: RHP Jarrod Parker has had two major surgeries on his pitching elbow and zero major league appearances over the past two seasons, but he's feeling good and is optimistic that he'll be able to return to the big leagues this year. After undergoing his second career Tommy John surgery on March 24, 2014, Parker appeared to be on track for a return to the A's last season. But in his fourth minor league rehab start on May 8 for Triple-A Nashville, Parker suffered a setback, fracturing his right elbow. He underwent season-ending surgery 11 days later to repair the fracture, but the good news for Parker was that he did not need a third Tommy John surgery. Parker has been throwing during the offseason, but the A's will likely ease him along this spring. Parker is 25-16 with a 3.68 ERA in 62 career starts and went 12-8 with a 3.97 ERA in 2013. There's a chance Parker could move to the bullpen, but for now he's preparing to be a starter.

PLAYER NOTES:

--OF Coco Crisp is due to make a team-high $11 million this season, but he'll apparently do it as a backup unless he resurrects his career and somehow beats out CF Billy Burns. Crisp lost his starting job in left field when the A's acquired LF Khris Davis from Milwaukee in a trade on Feb. 12. Crisp, most likely, will back up Davis in left and Burns in center, pinch hit and get some playing time at DH or as a late-game defensive replacement. Considering Crisp's injury woes, a utility role is probably better for him and the team. Crisp played only 44 games last season when he had two stints on the disabled list. He underwent right elbow surgery and began the season on the DL. He also battled a chronic neck injury, as well as a sore wrist. He hit a career-low .175 with six RBIs and went homerless for the first time in his career.

--RHP Henderson Alvarez underwent right shoulder surgery on July 28 to repair a torn labrum, but the A's signed the 2014 National League All-Star to a one-year contract as a free agent on Dec. 28. Alvarez is still recovering and won't be ready for Opening Day, but if his shoulder heals, the A's would have an enticing option for their rotation at some point this season. Alvarez went 12-7 with a 2.65 ERA with 111 strikeouts and only 33 walks over 30 starts and 187.0 innings in 2014 for Miami. He also pitched a no-hitter against Detroit on the final day of the 2013 season. Last year, he went 0-4 with a 6.45 ERA in four starts for the Marlins.

--RHP Ryan Doolittle, the younger brother of closer Sean Doolittle, is one of 22 non-roster players invited to the big-league camp. The reliever has spent eight minor league seasons with the A's since being drafted by them in 2008 in the 26th round. Last year, he went 4-3 with a 3.32 ERA and four saves in 40 relief appearances for Double-A Midland. He had 46 strikeouts and 16 walks over 57 innings.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You look at the one-run games and how we did in the bullpen late in the games, and you look at what we acquired this year. You win a good share of those games instead of losing them, and now we're in a completely different position. And I think the offense got better as we went along. I think with all those parts combined, we're looking forward to having a good year." -- A's manager Bob Melvin.

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