Why The 2011 A's Are Poised To Contend, Plain And Simple

First of all, it will probably take 90 wins to get into the playoffs but it probably won't take 95. The Rangers look to be neither great nor mediocre, but rather "quite good," with the biggest question marks currently being how well will Josh Hamilton recover from pneumonia, how healthy will the perennially injured Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler be, and how well will the worse of Colby Lewis and CJ Wilson pitch?

Good news on any of these fronts helps the Rangers a lot, but bad news on any could be derailing. Ultimately, you're looking at a team that experienced a big loss (Cliff Lee) and a big gain (Adrian Beltre), plus a small loss (Vlad Guerrero), a taem that on one hand won 90 games in 2010 but on the other hand played .500 ball against the American League. It's a good team and going into any season you should expect to need to win 90 games to earn a playoff berth. Can the A's reasonably hope to do that?

The 2010 A's won 81 games, and by their Pythag should have won more like 84 games. Let's not look at the players, new and old, one by one for a moment, but rather let's look at this, the four most basic components of the game:

The 2011 offense looks a lot better than the 2010 offense.
The 2011 bullpen looks better than the 2010 bullpen.
The 2011 defense looks about the same as the 2010 defense (I'll elaborate below).
The 2011 rotation looks about the same as the 2010 rotation.

The offense:

How much better does the offense look to be? Last season, Ryan Sweeney batted 3rd a lot and this year he figures to open the season as a 4th OFer. Kurt Suzuki and Kevin Kouzmanoff batted 3rd and 4th a lot and this year figure to bat 6th and 7th. Josh Willingham, David DeJesus, and Hideki Matsui, who would have been 3 of the team's top 5 hitters last year, have been added, and one of the other two, Daric Barton, is still here.

The bullpen:

Perhaps the A's money wasn't most wisely spent on relievers, but the fact that it has been spent there strengthens the bullpen, mostly by deepening it. Bailey has a darn good understudy in Devine, Wuertz and Balfour give the A's two legitimate set-up men from the right side, Breslow is still in the mix, and now Ziggy and Fuentes can often be used in the ROOGY/LOOGY roles for which they are best suited. And Harden. And Blevins (who can be stashed at AAA so that the first injury is not a big problem at all). Folks, this is an excellent bullpen even if you pick out 3 pitchers and assign them to be injured or ineffective.

The defense:

Sure, Kevin Kouzmanoff will almost certainly regress, at least in the eyes of the UZR rating that placed him on a pedestal, and Mark Ellis is a year older at an age where "a year older" usually matters, but by the same token Kurt Suzuki will probably rebound from a strangely bad defensive season, David DeJesus is an excellent addition to the OF, Coco Crisp may play in more games than he did last year, and Ryan Sweeney figures to be more of a factor.

But that's just to say, "some things will be better, some worse, and a lot will even out in the wash" -- it's not why I am optimistic that the A's defense will once again be a significant strength. I'm optimistic because defense isn't played by each individual's one-year UZR and subsequent regression/progression.

There are easy to field balls, medium ones, tough chances, and impossible ones. Now look around the diamond. When Brett Anderson is pitching and a bunch of ground balls are hit to the left side -- some one-hoppers to 3B, some bouncers between 3B and SS, some choppers up the middle, and so on -- how do you feel about Kouzmanoff's and Pennington's chances of making the play? How about when Trevor Cahill is pitching, and Mark Ellis and Daric Barton have to pursue a series of ground balls to the right side? The outfield, with DeJesus, Crisp, and Willingham/Sweeney (late innings) offers the same level of assurance: The A's are going to, as a team, field very well overall -- plays are going to get made, pitchers made to look good.

The rotation: Same core group (Anderson, Cahill, Gio, Braden), all with big league experience but not past their prime, with at least some depth in McCarthy, Harden, Outman, and Ross.

In summary, the A's, coming off an 81-win season that looks on paper like it was good for 84 if you changed nothing, figure to trot out a team with about the same starting pitching and defense, a better and deeper bullpen, and a much better lineup. Get psyched.

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