Last Friday, we took a look at the PECOTA projections for the 2010 season. These have now been corrected (and almost reversed); the A's are tied for second with the Angels (both under .500), with Texas in the top spot in the AL West and Seattle in the cellar. There is still only a 10-game gap between first to last, so from all accounts, it's going to be a close race. As many users pointed out last week, there can be up to a +/- 10 game swing with regards to Runs Scored vs. Runs Allowed, so it is possible that the AL West truly is up for grabs.
The A's certainly have the pitching to compete, with their stacked bullpen and two potential ace starters, and Spring Training is set to showcase the race for the fifth starting slot between Mazzaro, Cahill, and Gonzalez. But the big questions look like: How will (and how can) the A's offense compete? How in the world can the A's fit the best offensive and defensive options on the 25 man roster?
I think the key to creating the best offensive lineup lies in the combination of three positions. Barring an injury or a trade, these players are locked into their starting jobs, at least to begin the season:
Basically, that leaves potential offensive substitutions to be made at 1B, DH, or the outfield. And considering how many players are competing for playing time at those positions, it is a very real possibility that one of the three A's power threats may not even make the 25 man roster.
You may also have noticed that I left someone off the list above.The updated PECOTA projections have Daric Barton with 90% of the 2010 playing time (70% at first base, and 20% at DH), and he is obviously the A's probable starter at first base. And indeed, if I was creating the A's all-defensive team, Daric Barton would play first, Coco Crisp would be in center field and I'd put the biggest power threat at DH (Cust for RHP, Fox for LHP). However, since the outfield combination of Crisp/Davis/Sweeney hit a total of 12 homeruns last year, I'm not all that excited about having to make up power numbers with Daric Barton.
But Barton will make the team and start at first base.He is projected for 673 plate appearances; hitting 15 homeruns and driving in 66, while batting .260. (Just for comparison's sake, Jake Fox is projected at .250/18/59 in 439 PA.) But the gap in defense between Barton and Fox is considerable, and is why Barton will win the job.But I think that 90% playing time is too high of a projection for the good of the team.
The outfield is a little more interesting. Assuming Davis and Sweeney start the year, that leaves one starting job for a number of players. I assume that Coco Crisp was signed to play, since he was paid the $5.5 million, but it doesn't make sense to sign Gabe Gross only to cut him, and he fits well as the 4th outfielder. Remembering a couple of interesting (read: awful) plays last year, I'd like Jack Cust to get the lion's share of his starts at DH, but I know that he will likely play somewhere around his projected 35% in left field for the sole reason that the A's can't afford to have his bat out of the lineup. And if those are the five outfielders that the A's keep, where does that leave Eric Patterson (out of options) and Travis Buck (out of patience)?
The third piece of this triangle is at DH. The catch-22 of this situation is that the A's have two power threats who are absolutely abysmal in the field; yet if they are both to play in a game, one of them has to field. The A's will score more runs with Cust and Fox both in the game, but we would have to see Cust in LF or Fox at first base. The question will become: Can the combination of Cust/Fox score more runs on offense to make up for one of them playing in the field? And I think the answer is yes. If it were up to me, I would decrease Barton's playing time at first to get Fox some more AB's (particularly against tough lefties), and find a way to rotate Cust into the outfield on a limited basis to allow Fox to DH. (And certainly Fox would be DH-ing against all the lefties Cust can't hit.)
Simple, right? Except, not. There is one more wild card out there, that probably won't become a factor, but it still needs to be considered: What about Eric Chavez?
If Chavez is really and truly healthy, one would assume he would spell Kouzmanoff at third, Barton at first, and would also DH, which would add one more bat to be juggled into an already crowded combination of positions. And if Chavez makes the 25-man, it is likely that Fox doesn't.
Let me explain. No...there is too much. Let me sum up:
A's Tentative 25-Man Roster
6) Long Reliever
13) Kurt Suzuki: C
14) Kevin Kouzmanoff : 3B
15) Cliff Pennington: SS
16) Mark Ellis: 2B
17) Rajai Davis: OF
18) Ryan Sweeney: OF
19) Daric Barton: 1B
20) Jack Cust: OF/DH
21) Coco Crisp: OF
22) Gabe Gross: OF
23) Utility/Backup IF (Rosales, since E. Patterson can't play SS?)
24) Landon Powell: Backup C
25) Eric Chavez/Jake Fox
Chavez and Fox are competing for the last 1B/3B/DH spot on the team, and as much as I love Eric Chavez, and want him to be healthy and productive, I'm worried about the offense without Fox in it. Yet, who else can be shuffled around to make room for Fox? Would the A's really not start Eric Chavez? Will Spring Training numbers be looked at when narrowing down this roster? Who will take the last starting outfield position? How long of a leash do Rajai and Sweeney have if they struggle? Should the A's have signed Fox to DH and not paid Cust?