MESA, Ariz. -- Another season, another math problem for the Athletics: How to be last in the division in spending and remain competitive over 162 games?
That's been the perennial question for Oakland and will remain the case until it builds the new stadium the team has been seeking for more than a decade. The good news is that Billy Beane was an early adapter at this game, helping his team reach the postseason eight times in a 15-year stretch, and the formula of pitching, platoons and precocious talent still works.
Since the Bash Brothers era of the late 1980s, no team has produced more Rookie of the Year Award winners than the A's. Manager Bob Melvin believes third baseman Matt Chapman and fellow infielder Franklin Barreto are the kinds of talent that evoke Josh Donaldson, the best rookie that the franchise has had in Melvin's time as a manager.
"There's prospects, and there are guys who are big-time prospects,'' Melvin said Friday before a workout. "Both of these guys are [big-time prospects].''
They're not expected to be on the Opening Day roster, but they are fast approaching the big leagues.
Barreto, a speed-power player in the middle infield who turns 21 in a few days, is an interesting starting point. He was acquired in the trade that sent Donaldson to Toronto -- a deal that has proven to be the wrong kind of tipping point for the organization.
Barreto was 18 and in low Class A at the time of the trade, but he has flown through the Oakland system. He ranks as the organization's No. 1 prospect, according to MLBPipeline.com. A career .293 hitter in the Minors, Barreto combined to hit 11 home runs and steal 30 bases between Double-A and an abbreviated stint in Triple-A last season.
With Marcus Semien entrenched at shortstop, the A's will take a long look at Barreto at second base this spring. He's played center field at times in the Minors, but he's more likely to wind up on either side of second base.
Chapman is a big-power, high-strikeout player the A's selected from Cal State Fullerton with the 25th overall pick in the 2014 Draft. Kyle Schwarber and Trea Turner came from the same Draft, and Chapman seems likely to join them in making his mark in the near future.
Chapman won the Texas League Most Valuable Player Award last season. He had 36 home runs and 173 strikeouts between Midland and Triple-A Nashville. Chapman has a strong arm and the tools to develop into a better-than-average defensive third baseman.
Chapman follows on the heels of Ryon Healy, who emerged from Minor League camp to earn a spot in the Futures Game and then hit like a natural once he was promoted to Oakland. Healy finished with a .305 average, 13 home runs and an .861 OPS in 72 games.
"We barely saw him in spring,'' Melvin said. "He wasn't over at Major League camp. He's a terrific player, played as well as anybody on our team last year.''
Healy is set to move to DH this season after the signing of third baseman Trevor Plouffe, who was non-tendered by Minnesota. The A's also signed Rajai Davis to be the primary center fielder and Matt Joyce to help offset the departure of longtime right fielder Josh Reddick, who was traded to the Dodgers alongside Rich Hill at the Trade Deadline.
"Part of what we're doing this year is to hold down the fort for the guys who are coming up,'' Melvin said.
Depending on how quickly they can get things turned around, the list of "guys who are coming'' could be expanded to include players acquired in a midseason trade for Sonny Gray, the 2015 All-Star who lost his swagger last season.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Gray experienced a complete nightmare season, going 5-11 with a 5.69 ERA. He made 21 starts before being shut down to rest seemingly minor elbow and forearm issues in early August, and he hopes to put the bad stretch of pitching behind him as quickly as it appeared.
Melvin said Gray seemed especially sharp in an intrasquad game Thursday.
"He threw the ball well,'' he said. "He had a real good breaking ball, which this early in spring is rare. Also guys have difficulty throwing breaking balls in Arizona. He looked good throwing it, and was healthy. All in all, good start for him.''
Best-case scenario is that Gray experiences a couple good seasons pitching in front of Barreto and Chapman.
That will mean the A's have made it back from the bottom of the very competitive American League West.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.