After strong continuity contributed to reaching the playoffs for a third consecutive season, the A’s enter the offseason facing potential departures of key figures on and off the field.
Here are some of the big questions facing the organization:
1) What's life like after Billy Beane?
It’s hard to imagine the A’s operating without Billy Beane at the helm. The club’s executive vice president of baseball operations has been the architect of Oakland’s many successful clubs over the past two decades. But according to a report from the Wall Street Journal published earlier this month, Beane’s time in baseball could be nearing an end as he is expected to merge with Red Sox owner John Henry through a business venture, switching his focus to other sports entities owned by Henry’s Fenway Sports Group.
The front-office structure doesn’t figure to change much if Beane leaves. Current A’s general manager David Forst, who has been with the club since 2000, would likely elevate to Beane’s role. A’s assistant GM Billy Owens, who could be a top candidate for clubs with GM vacancies around the league, could take over GM duties in Oakland. But given the A’s heavy player turnover over the years, Beane’s longevity has made him synonymous with the franchise. So while his "Moneyball" philosophy might still be carried out in Oakland, Beane leaving would certainly change the identity of the organization.
2) Does Semien return?
After the Astros eliminated the A’s from the postseason in Game 4 of the American League Division Series, Semien said he spent the game’s final two innings pondering whether that might have been his last time wearing an A’s uniform.
Semien’s value to the club is an interesting dynamic. Though he followed up an MVP-caliber 2019 campaign by struggling for most of the '20 regular season as he dealt with a rib injury, Semien turned it on during the playoffs and was Oakland’s top hitter with a team-leading .407 batting average and 1.151 OPS over seven games. The shortstop’s leadership presence in the clubhouse is also something to consider. As the longest-tenured A’s player, Semien has helped mold the winning among the team’s younger players, and his strong work ethic has rubbed off on stars like Matt Chapman and Matt Olson. The Bay Area native has also been involved in numerous community programs in Oakland.
A’s manager Bob Melvin and the club’s front office have made it clear there is a desire for Semien to remain with the club. But with multiple offers expected to come his way, it’s unclear how far the A’s might be willing to go to keep Semien in green and gold should a bidding war ensue.
3) Can the A’s replace Hendriks?
Establishing himself as a dominant closer over the past two seasons, Hendriks enters free agency as the top reliever on the market. As the importance of bullpens increases as each year, Hendriks should have no shortage of lucrative offers from pitching-hungry clubs. The A’s managed to replace one All-Star with another with Hendriks stepping in to fill the void left by Blake Treinen in 2019. If Hendriks moves on in '21, Oakland may need to turn to veteran left-hander Jake Diekman or rely on a younger reliever like Lou Trivino or Jordan Weems to fill that ninth-inning void.
4) What is Puk’s long-term role?
The A’s had visions of a dynamic rookie duo of Jesús Luzardo and A.J. Puk making an impact in their rotation this season. But while Luzardo graduated to the big leagues on a full-time basis and impressed, Puk, Oakland’s No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, was shelved for the whole season and underwent left shoulder surgery in September.
Puk is expected to make a full recovery and be ready to go at full strength by Spring Training. While the front office maintains that Puk is still being considered for a starting role, it might make more sense for the electric left-hander to pitch out of the bullpen given his arm injuries over the past few years. Puk already has experience pitching in relief, having made a brief cameo out of the bullpen in 2019, and his premium stuff could make him a strong candidate to take over as closer should Hendriks leave in free agency.
5) Are the kids ready for the Majors?
Daulton Jefferies, James Kaprielian and Grant Holmes, three of Oakland’s top right-handed starting pitching prospects, would enter 2021 expected to be ready to join the A’s starting rotation had everything been normal in '20. But with no Minor League games played and prospects around the league limited to intrasquad games at alternate training sites as their only form of game action, their Major League-readiness for next season could become a bit more difficult to gauge.
“It's weird to go into an offseason trying to project players like James Kaprielian and Daulton Jeffries and Grant Holmes and where they stand,” Forst said. “I'll give those players and the whole group [at the alternate site in San Jose] a lot of credit. Those guys were there for two months basically practicing every day. They put in a lot of good work.
“I don't know what to make of basically a lost development year. It's obviously not just those guys close to the big leagues, it's throughout the system. We're regaining a little bit of it right now with instructional league for the guys who are there. But it's certainly one of the more difficult parts of this.”