Nice place to start: New-look Oakland A’s savor being on Opening Day roster for first time
OAKLAND — The guys you’ve never heard of are here, ready to take the field along the third-base line of their crumbling old stadium tonight just before 7:07 p.m., lift their cap to the American flag and kick off a brand new season of A’s baseball.
Expectations? Couldn’t be lower. Expensive roster? Not even remotely. Experienced? Barely.
The silver lining for a franchise in the midst of a rebuild? A fresh start. Of the 26 players expected to suit up for the A’s Opening Day game against Shohei Ohtani and the Angels, 10 of them will be on an Opening Day roster for the first time.
“You can’t take it for granted,” said 31-year-old Tony Kemp, who will be playing in his fifth Opening Day game. “There are fewer than 800 guys in the whole world who make these rosters. Half of those guys are pitchers. So it’s really special to make an Opening Day roster. These guys are excited and hungry for a good season.”
Look across the Bay Bridge and the Giants will have just four players experiencing Opening Day festivities for the first time. It’s a team with a $200-million payroll trying to keep up with the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres.
What the A’s can’t offer in salary, they can offer in opportunity. The A’s could almost field a lineup with first-timers: A full outfield with Brent Rooker, Conner Capel and Esteury Ruiz; a catcher in Shea Langeliers; a first baseman in Ryan Noda; a shortstop in Nick Allen; and four pitchers. One of the pitchers, Kyle Muller, will get the start Thursday night. Another, Shintaro Fujinami, will pitch Saturday.
“It’s a great accomplishment to be on an Opening Day roster,” A’s manager Mark Kotsay said. “That’s what I told them. Hopefully, it’s just one of many to follow.”
Allen, the glove-first shortstop who hit .207 with four home runs in 100 games his rookie year in 2022, thought back to his childhood in San Diego where his dad, Tom, and mom, Cathi, made sacrifices to make sure he made it to baseball practice on time.
Thursday they’ll be in the stands, witnessing his major league dream.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to achieve,” Allen said. “It’s going to be amazing to have my family there and feel the love and support. I don’t do this just because I love baseball. I do it for them, too.”
Langeliers, the likely starting catcher Thursday night, said his parents used to pull him out of school so they could attend the Texas Rangers’ Opening Day game.
“It was a tradition,” he said.
By the time he reached high school, Langeliers realized he might have a chance to be on the field for an Opening Day game.
After a successful college career at Baylor, he was drafted No. 9 overall by the Atlanta Braves in 2019. Traded to the A’s in March 2022, he made his MLB debut in August and is now charged with handling a starting rotation that will include three guys — Muller, Fujinami and Ken Waldichuk — who have never been on a Major League Opening Day roster.
The A’s, with a $56 million payroll, built the cheapest team in the big leagues. Of the 26 players expected to be on the roster, 19 will make close to the league minimum salary.
Thursday night’s opponent, the Angels, will be paying about $106 million to three guys: Ohtani ($30 million), Mike Trout ($37 million) and Anthony Rendon ($39 million). Their total payroll is $210 million.
The A’s have been here before.
Last year, it was ugly. The A’s opened the season with a $48-million payroll, lower than all but one team in MLB. They lost 102 games, most in the American League and second only to the Washington Nationals (107) in MLB.
Oakland clings to the magic of 2013 when they opened with a $62-million payroll and surprised the baseball world with a 96-win season and made the playoffs. That team was led by veteran players such as Josh Donaldson, Bartolo Colon, Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick.
This year’s club has few recognizable names, but “everybody in here knows how to play this game,” said Allen. “I think we’re all big leaguers. We can all put it together. We’re all very talented. We have that underdog feeling. We have to go out there and get after it every day and find ways to win.”
To say they’re underdogs is an understatement.
FanGraphs gives the A’s a 1.2 percent chance of making the playoffs. ESPN’s Jeff Passan wrote last week that the best wager in Oakland is betting on the A’s to win fewer than 59.5 games.
But hope is renewed on Opening Day. Everybody is in first place.