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AL West crown is next step in A's title hopes

@MartinJGallegos
February 12, 2020

OAKLAND -- The 97-win season in 2018 that ended with a loss in the American League Wild Card Game left the A’s feeling optimistic about the future. The exact same win total and playoff result in '19 left them frustrated. What will '20 bring? This is the storyline that will

OAKLAND -- The 97-win season in 2018 that ended with a loss in the American League Wild Card Game left the A’s feeling optimistic about the future. The exact same win total and playoff result in '19 left them frustrated. What will '20 bring?

This is the storyline that will dominate the A’s upcoming campaign, with the question sure to be asked of manager Bob Melvin and his players during Spring Training.

What will it take for the A’s to get over the American League Wild Card hump? The obvious solution would be to win the AL West and avoid the one-game playoff, but dethroning the Astros will be no easy task. However, the loss of Gerrit Cole and a potential cloud hanging over the club following the fallout from its sign-stealing scandal leaves Houston as vulnerable as it has been since the start of its wildly successful run in 2015.

But while the Astros could be slightly on the decline, A’s players are taking note of the big moves other division rivals have made in order to close the gap on talent, like the Rangers assembling a solid rotation that now includes Corey Kluber, and the Angels bringing even more thunder to a dangerous lineup with recent additions of Anthony Rendon and Joc Pederson.

“Obviously, until you dethrone the Astros, it’s their division to lose,” A’s third baseman Matt Chapman said. “I think we have a great opportunity here. But the Rangers did get better, and so did the Angels. It’s not just us and the Astros. This is a top-heavy division with four really good teams. It’s going to be a tough division. We have our work cut out for us, but we’re good and fully confident we can win it.”

The A’s believe they have assembled a roster that can make a serious run at not just a division crown, but a World Series championship. It’s a squad that will only get better in 2020 with full seasons out of its exciting top three prospects in Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk and Sean Murphy. The young trio bolsters a strong core that already includes Chapman, Marcus Semien, Matt Olson, Ramón Laureano, Sean Manaea, Frankie Montas and Liam Hendriks.

It’s clear the A’s expect to reach the postseason for a third consecutive season. Whether it comes through winning the Wild Card or the division, Oakland is looking to get a monkey off its back this October by getting past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

How will Fiers handle the noise?

Another storyline that will dominate at least the early part of A's Spring Training will come with Mike Fiers and his role as the "whistleblower" which led to MLB's investigation into the Astros' sign-stealing scheme. In a session with Bay Area media last month, Fiers declined to comment on the fallout from the scandal, saying he wants to focus on baseball.

That might be easier said than done once the national media hits Spring Training looking for answers from Fiers on a nearly daily basis. The right-hander maintains that he does not want to be a distraction as he gears up for another season as the anchor of the A’s rotation, but will that be possible?

In a year in which the A’s are looking to improve on what has already been an impressive past two seasons, Fiers will need to find a way to block the noise.

Martin Gallegos covers the A's for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @MartinJGallegos.