How much worse can the Oakland A’s get in 2023?
The 2023 season looms as a historic one for the Oakland Athletics, and by historic, I obviously mean historically bad.
A’s management has spent the past two offseasons, stripping the roster of virtually all the talent that took the Athletics to a 2020 division title, its third straight postseason appearance. Management’s motivation is pretty obvious: a miserable wreck of a ballpark in a declining area of town creating baseball’s worst draw.
The A’s have failed to attract as many as 800,000 paying customers since 2019. They are the first franchise to fail to crack 800,000 paying customers in consecutive seasons since 1985, when both the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates did so. It’s become so bad that rival executives have called out the “mess” in Oakland.
Only six A’s listed on the team’s 40-man roster achieved a 2022 ERA+ or OPS+ above 100, that being the statistical point denoting an average MLB player. Only two rated above 120, and those two — Sam Moll and Conner Capel — were both late-season rookie callups.
As presently constructed, the sum-total of 2022 Win Probability Added for the entire 40-man roster amounts to -9.2 games. But that figure is misleadingly high because nearly half that roster is populated by rookies, who are less likely by nature to perform at league average levels.
Only two A’s projected to be in uniform on Opening Day had as many as 400 plate appearances in 2022, and those two — Seth Brown and Tony Kemp — both batted in the .230s. Only three pitchers got in as many as 100 innings, and only one of those — Cole Irvin (3.98) — got in under a 4.00 ERA.
The A’s lost 102 games last season and proceeded to dump their best every-day player. Catcher Sean Murphy was traded to Atlanta in a three-way deal that netted Oakland journeyman catcher Manny Pina and four prospects.
Losing 100 games has become the fashionable move in MLB in recent seasons because it can net a team high draft picks and, so the story goes, jet propel that team’s reconstruction. In the four full seasons since 2018, 15 teams have lost at least 100 games.
This concept of losing in order to win is decidedly a recent practice. Between the most recent expansion in 1998 and 2017 — a matter of 19 seasons — the average number of 100-loss teams was fewer than 1.3 per year. In six of those 19 seasons, there were no 100-loss teams. Since 2018, that average has ballooned to 3.75.
Of the 25 teams since 1998 that lost 100 games, 19 improved their performance one year later … and the improvement could be substantial. The average gain was about 8.5 games, with four teams improving by more than 20 games. The record for improvement by a 100-game loser since 1998 was set just last season when the Baltimore Orioles (112-game losers in 2021 that shot to 83-79 in 2022, a 33-game one-season upgrade).
Nobody envisions the A’s doing anything like that. In fact, the consensus is in the other direction. That’s largely because the A’s are not considered to have a strong farm system capable of supplementing that talent-depleted major league roster. One year ago, the website Prospects1500 rated the A’s as the game’s fifth-worst system. Additionally, no Oakland minor leaguer ranks among the top 40 on the current MLB Top 100 prospects list.
Put it all together and the A’s appear poised to make history of the negative kind. The franchise record for losses in a season, 117 by Connie Mack’s horrible 1916 team, is probably out of reach. But the Oakland record, 108 losses in 1979, is decidedly in play.
If the A’s sink to that level, they merit legit consideration among the worst teams of the past half-century. Since 2001, seven teams have lost at least 106 games, a list the A’s fell just four games short of joining last season. Here are the seven:
- 2002 Milwaukee Brewers 55-107
- 2003 Detroit Tigers 43-119
- 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks 51-111
- 2005 Kansas City Royals 56-106
- 2013 Houston Astros 51-111
- 2018 Baltimore Orioles 47-115
- 2019 Detroit Tigers 47-114
Some of those teams made quick recoveries. Three seasons after their disastrous 2003 campaign, the Tigers were playing in the World Series. The Astros rose to World Championship status within four seasons of 2013, and the Diamondbacks were a postseason club three seasons after their 2004 disaster. The Orioles made the aforementioned major improvement in 2022.
But none of those teams faced the underlying chronic problems that hamper reconstruction efforts in Oakland. Unlike those very bad teams, this very bad Oakland team stands an excellent chance of getting even worse in 2023.