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Here's how A's can win AL West title

Pitching, Semien, Murphy, Davis among the reasons to believe
@RichardJustice
March 4, 2020

On August 9, 2017, A’s manager Bob Melvin put these two names in his starting lineup for the first time: Matt Chapman at third base, and Matt Olson at first. So many ingredients go into making a winning Major League team that it might be a stretch to say Chapman

On August 9, 2017, A’s manager Bob Melvin put these two names in his starting lineup for the first time: Matt Chapman at third base, and Matt Olson at first.

So many ingredients go into making a winning Major League team that it might be a stretch to say Chapman and Olson changed everything for the A’s. Here’s the thing, though: They did.

Almost from the moment Oakland laid eyes on them, the organization saw them as cornerstone-type players. In the 940 days since, the A’s have won 219 regular-season games, sixth-most in the Major Leagues, including 97 in both 2018 and 2019. In each of those seasons, they advanced to the American League Wild Card Game after finishing behind the Astros in the AL West.

So, is 2020 the season when the A’s finally get over the hump and win their first division title since 2013? Here are seven reasons it can happen:

1. The A’s get great starting pitching
One of the most remarkable aspects of these two 97-win teams is how many veteran pitchers have turned their careers around in Oakland. What makes the 2020 A’s unique is the presence of young, homegrown -- and potentially generational-type -- arms.

In Frankie Montas, A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo, the A’s have three youngsters who could anchor the Oakland pitching staff for several years. They could line up behind veteran Mike Fiers and lefty Sean Manaea, who had a 1.21 ERA in five starts after returning from left shoulder surgery last season.

Two potential issues: Workload and health. The A’s intend to monitor the workload part of it closely and have already shut down Puk to allow a cranky left shoulder to rest.

2. Marcus Semien repeats his breakout 2019 season
Marcus Semien finished third in the AL Most Valuable Player Award voting, behind only Mike Trout and Alex Bregman, after a season in which every part of his game improved. To understand Semien’s value to the A’s, consider how he checked every box at the top of the lineup: 43 doubles, 7 triples, 33 home runs, 87 walks, 10 stolen bases and a .369 on-base percentage. He’ll be a free agent next winter, which might give him a little extra motivation.

3. Another Oakland Rookie of the Year?
Between 1986 and 2009, the A’s had seven AL Rookie of the Year Award winners, more than any other team. They haven’t had one since, but that may change with 25-year-old Sean Murphy starting the season at catcher.

A third-round pick in 2016 out of Wright State University, Murphy moved quickly through the A’s system, making his Major League debut last September and claiming a spot on the AL Wild Card team roster.

He was drafted with a defense-first reputation, but he compiled a .996 OPS in 34 games at Triple-A the last two seasons. He may not be a finished product offensively, but as part of a loaded lineup, a winning culture and with Melvin, one of baseball’s great teachers, as his manager, the A’s expect great things.

4. Khris Davis has a bounce-back season
Early in Spring Training, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter asked Chapman what a big season from Davis would mean to the A’s. His answer was: “That, to me, says AL West champion.”

After averaging 44 home runs the three previous seasons and signing a two-year, $33.5 million contract extension, Davis had a tough 2019 season: .220 batting average and 23 home runs.

He injured his side in May, and in trying to play through the pain, his swing mechanics got out of sync. He arrived in Spring Training early this year and he is confident of a comeback season. If he has one, Oakland’s lineup could be as good as any in the Majors.

5. More bullpen magic
Oakland’s bullpen (3.43 ERA) was baseball’s most effective after Liam Hendriks took over as closer in late June. That number was helped by Puk and Luzardo being summoned to the big leagues to work as relievers. They’re penciled in for the rotation this season, meaning that Lou Trivino, who struggled at times in 2019, is being counted on to help get the ball to Hendriks.

Trivino focused on conditioning and nutrition during the offseason. Melvin has said the righty setup man would have to play his way off the club this spring, “and I don’t expect that to happen.”

6. Astros regress
The Astros remain solid favorites to win a fourth consecutive division title, but they could be vulnerable after a tumultuous offseason that included Gerrit Cole (212 innings, 326 strikeouts) signing with the Yankees. And right now, their rotation is fronted by two guys on the wrong side of 35 (Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke) and not much depth behind them.

The Astros have prevailed through all kinds of pressure in the past three seasons, but in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal that cost them their manager, AJ Hinch, it’s reasonable to see 2020 as a different kind of challenge.

7. AL West gets better
The Rangers and Angels believe they’ve improved enough to make the playoffs in 2020, which creates a new kind of math for both the Astros and A’s. It could be difficult for Oakland and Houston to match their 2019 win totals.

If the Angels can piece together a solid rotation with new additions Julio Teheran, Dylan Bundy and Matt Andriese, and with an offense built around Mike Trout and prize new addition Anthony Rendon, L.A. could make things interesting. As for the Rangers, they have added three veteran starting pitchers and could have their best rotation in years.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.