2015 offseason preview: Oakland Athletics

The effort to retool the Athletics team that contended from 2012-14 flopped. An underpowered lineup finished next-to-last in slugging in the American League, a rotation’s worth of young pitchers landed on the DL at one point or another (the outfield was equally banged up), the bullpen was awful, and the best you can say of the effort to make Marcus Semien a big-league shortstop is to give him an incomplete.

The positives? Despite the 20-win plummet and last-place finish, there were a few bright spots, starting with seeing several of the young pitchers acquired last winter look good when they were available to pitch. Mark Canha can be considered a Rule 5 win at a time when it’s harder than ever to find value there. And to his credit, Semien improved at short on coach Ron Washington’s watch.

What do they need? They must judge each player on the basis of how well he will help them be a winning team again by 2018, and dealt with -- or dealt -- accordingly. They need a first baseman with power, whether they repeat the Ike Davis experiment or not. They need to make an early decision on whether an infield with Semien at short, third baseman Brett Lawrie playing second and journeyman Danny Valencia at third is going to work. They could use complete returns to health for Jarrod Parker, Jesse Hahn, A.J. Griffin and Drew Pomeranz (and Jesse Chavez and Kendall Graveman) so that the A’s can get back to having the nice problem of choosing a rotation on the basis of performance, not availability. And they need a healthy Coco Crisp, as long as we’re on that subject. Lastly, they need Billy Butler to deliver on the ‘H’ part of DHing.

Guy on the rise: While it speaks volumes to their predicament, there may not be a better choice than Valencia. Snagged from the Blue Jays on waivers on Aug. 3, he got his first shot at playing every day -- and at third base, his natural position -- since 2011 and busted out for an .886 OPS for Oakland. Mired in platoon roles much of the previous three and a half seasons, he was much improved against right-handed pitching after finally getting another chance to face it. On the other hand, Valencia is already 31; he’s a former Twins 19th-rounder you can feel good about, but maintaining this won’t be easy, and it probably won’t last long.

Prospects to anticipate: There’s no easy choice here, because most of the pitching prospects already got a taste of The Show last season. If you’re confident that Chad Pinder can play shortstop in the major leagues, you’ll be excited about his .847 OPS in his Double-A debut. Lefty Sean Manaea's mid-90s heat could be a factor in 2016 if the A’s decide that the best way to keep him healthy is to move the former Royals talent to the pen. But there aren’t any great breakthrough bets for 2016. The really interesting prospects -- guys like catcher Sean Nottingham, third baseman Matt Davidson or shortstop Franklin Barreto -- are a long ways off, so anticipation’s payoff here is going to be of the classic Heinz variety.

Winter action plan: The type of free agents the A’s might sign will be guys looking to leverage playing time with the A’s into either a deadline deal to a contender next summer or to set up a more lucrative run at free agency next winter. The A’s can at least afford to add some payroll in trades with teams looking to cut costs or create roster space by eating some of the money owed. However, their most movable assets in trade right now -- guys such as Lawrie, catcher Stephen Vogt, and 2016 free agents-to-be Josh Reddick and Chavez -- simply won’t generate a ton of value in return. The only guy in the organization who might is No. 1 starter Sonny Gray. If there’s any fan base inured to the pain of dealing a favorite, it’s Oakland’s.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.