Despite a slightly different cast of stars from their playoff-bound clubs of the past few years, the A’s still entered Spring Training with the same mindset.
The key losses from the roster this offseason -- chief among the departures were longtime team leader Marcus Semien and All-Star closer Liam Hendriks -- do not deter them from aspirations of defending their American League West title. In fact, Oakland has its sights set on a deeper playoff run than last year, when its World Series dreams were dashed by the Astros in the AL Division Series.
“I don’t think there should be any surprise," A’s general manager David Forst said. “I’ve said all offseason how much I liked the group that was here. We have, in the past few weeks, finally had a chance to add to that group. There’s a group of position players who we have every reason to believe are going to continue to get better and we return a very good rotation and made improvements in the bullpen. I hope it’s not a surprise that we expect to compete and defend the division title.”
Even in an offseason that has seen them lose seven players to free agency, the A’s still have a young and talented core in place that continues to get better. The two Matts -- Chapman and Olson -- lead the way on the hitting side along with Ramón Laureano and Sean Murphy. Oakland added to that offensive firepower by replacing Semien with former All-Star shortstop Elvis Andrus in a deal with the Rangers on Feb. 5. Meanwhile, Jesús Luzardo, Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea headline a starting rotation that also features Chris Bassitt, whose dominance in 2020 earned him some AL Cy Young Award votes
Then there’s A.J. Puk, Oakland’s No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline whose huge potential to anchor the A's rotation has teased fans over the past couple of years as he’s dealt with left shoulder injuries. A large part of this year’s camp will focus on Puk's health and whether his long-term outlook remains as a starter or if the club might decide to reverse course and utilize him as a reliever -- a role he impressed in during his brief callup in 2019.
With Spring Training now underway, here’s a look at some info and key dates for the next six weeks:
Given the pandemic, how is Spring Training going to be different this year?
The Cactus League will operate as usual in 2021, with each club playing two games against each of the other 14 (not counting some additional exhibition games held in Major League ballparks, beginning March 28). One notable change is the elimination of split-squad games.
What are the key roster/position battles to watch?
Tommy La Stella’s departure leaves the A’s in search of a new starter at second base. The club could opt to utilize the platoon of Tony Kemp and Chad Pinder that was in place last season prior to the trade for La Stella, though former All-Star Jed Lowrie, who is back with Oakland this spring on a Minor League deal, could push himself into that mix with a strong showing in camp.
The A’s also have a group of young outfielders who could compete for playing time in left field. Seth Brown, prospect Luis Barrera and Rule 5 Draft pick Ka’ai Tom top the list of left-handed-hitting outfielders vying for that spot, which could platoon with Mark Canha.
When is the first Spring Training game?
The A’s open up Cactus League play at 12:05 p.m. PT on Feb. 28 against the Dodgers at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, Ariz. The opener could see Andrus' first appearance with his new team, as well as Chapman’s first game action since undergoing season-ending hip surgery Sept. 12.
How can I watch/listen/follow Spring Training games?
Radio broadcasts are available on MLB.tv/audio and A’s Cast, the club’s 24/7 audio streaming station on iHeartRadio. Oakland has not announced a TV schedule, but a limited number of games are expected to be televised on NBC Sports California.
Who are some prospects to keep an eye on in camp?
Puk is coming off of left shoulder surgery and will be stretched out as a starter this spring, though a bullpen role is also on the table. Other A's Top 30 prospects invited to big league camp include 19-year-old catcher Tyler Soderstrom (No. 3), Oakland’s 2020 first-round Draft pick, and shortstop Nick Allen (No. 4), whose impressive defensive tools have him on the big league radar. Outfielder Buddy Reed (No. 23) is also in camp as a non-roster invite.
What’s the story with Chapman, and when will he be back?
A big focus early in camp will be Chapman's health as he returns from hip surgery that cut his season short in September. The third baseman is expected to be a full-go for Spring Training, though manager Bob Melvin indicated the club might look to ease the star back in by utilizing him as the designated hitter early in Cactus League action.
When is Opening Day and who is the opponent?
April 1 at 7:07 p.m. PT, vs. the Astros at Oakland Coliseum
Is the team planning to sell tickets to regular-season games?
The A’s hope to host fans in some capacity at the Coliseum this season, though that will depend on the guidance of health officials in California. There has been no formal announcement on when fans might be allowed to attend games.