The A’s have a right to feel a little disrespected.
Coming off a third consecutive postseason appearance in a year that saw them dethrone the Astros for the American League West title -- their first since 2013 -- the A’s are thinking big in 2021, like World Series big. Yet, with Opening Day on the horizon, the overwhelming talk surrounding the AL West has been about the Astros and if they can get back to their reign atop the division in a normal 162-game season. It’s as if the A’s finishing seven games ahead of Houston last year didn’t count because it was a 60-game schedule.
The A’s don’t mind the underdog label. They probably prefer it. But the talent they carry into '21 should not be overlooked.
With a loaded club devoid of real holes at any position, the A’s have legitimate hopes of competing for a World Series title. That quest begins Thursday night (7:07 PT) at the Coliseum, when the A’s welcome the Astros to Oakland, seeking revenge after Houston knocked them out of the playoffs last year in the ALDS.
What needs to go right?
Like most teams in their position, health will be key for the A’s. The injury bug hit the A’s hard last year when Chapman sustained a hip injury that led to season-ending surgery, leaving them without their star third baseman for the postseason. Save for Mike Fiers, who will begin the regular season on the injured list due to left hip inflammation, the A’s enter 2021 with most of their regulars in good health.
A.J. Puk , Oakland’s No. 2 prospect, was expected to evolve into a co-anchor atop the A’s rotation alongside Luzardo in 2020. But while Luzardo established himself as a big league starter, Puk’s arm issues popped up again, ultimately leading to surgery in September to clean out bursitis in his left shoulder. Easing his way back this spring, Puk was viewed as a strong candidate for the rotation at the start of camp, but the left-hander has seen his fastball velocity decrease from the 97.1 mph average he showed with Oakland as a reliever in 2019 to around 92-93 mph in his Cactus League outings. He’s also struggling to command his pitches, which A’s manager Bob Melvin indicated he needs to improve in order for him to pitch effectively in the big leagues. Having thrown just 36 2/3 innings since 2019, Puk might still need to shake off some rust before he can stick in Oakland for the long term.
Team MVP will be …
Slugging first baseman Olson has swung the bat in Spring Training like he has something to prove after feeling disgusted with his .195 batting average last season. Bringing Gold Glove-caliber defense and power that can make even the biggest ballparks look tiny, Olson is primed to have a huge bounceback season.
Team Cy Young will be …
Luzardo, a 23-year-old lefty, went through the typical ups and downs of a rookie season in 2020. He flashed his electric arm, racking up 59 strikeouts in 59 innings. There were also times when he struggled to put hitters away, perhaps falling in love with his high-90s fastball too much. Ultimately, he posted a 4.12 ERA in 12 games. Entering Year No. 2 in the big leagues, Luzardo has focused on consistency all spring. We know the nasty stuff will be there. If the consistency comes along for the ride, Luzardo will emerge as the ace of the staff.
Olson will win the AL MVP. The last time the A’s played a full schedule in 2019, Olson hit .267 and bashed a career-high 36 homers. He managed to do that despite suffering a broken hamate bone -- an injury that usually zaps away power from hitters for a while even after they return -- just two games into the season. If he can hit that many home runs while missing 35 of the first 37 games of a season, just imagine how many he can hit while healthy during a full season.
Entering 2021 motivated to prove that his .195 average over a shortened 60-game season last year was a fluke, Olson is already tearing through the Cactus League. He believes he’s on track for a big year after working hard with hitting coach Darren Bush over the offseason to fix mechanical issues with his setup at the plate. Combine a bounceback at the plate with his excellent defense that has earned him two Gold Glove Awards, and Oakland might have its first MVP winner since Miguel Tejada in 2002.