One of the fun parts of being an A's fan is that you never know who your star hitter is going to be. Maybe you had a star last year, but he probably signed somewhere else this year. And if he didn't, then he's going to get hurt or decline. Here is a complete list of Oakland position players who put up two consecutive seasons of at least 4.0 bWAR since 1999:
Jason Giambi, 1999-2001
Miguel Tejada, 2000-03
Eric Chavez, 2001-05
Mark Ellis, 2007-08
Raise the bar to consecutive 5.0 bWAR seasons, and the list goes down to:
Tejada, 2002-03 (counting his 4.9 bWAR in 2003)
It was pretty cool having cheap versions of Giambi, Chavez and Tejada in those Moneyball years. That run of sustained success was clearly the exception to what is now the rule in Oakland, though. Billy Beane may uncover a few guys like that at the same time once again in the future, but don't hold your breath waiting for it.
No, for the A's fan of the last 10 years, every season is a guessing game as to who is going to be the star. Here are the team's leaders in position-player bWAR for the last several campaigns, since Chavez handed off the mantle to abler bodies:
2013: Josh Donaldson, 8.0
2012: Josh Reddick, 4.8 (tanked the next year)
2011: Coco Crisp, 2.7 (let's not speak of 2011)
2010: Daric Barton, 5.4 (one-year fluke, so far)
2009: Kurt Suzuki, 3.4 (then declined and never got good again)
2008: Mark Ellis, 4.0 (played only 105 games the next year)
2007: Mark Ellis, 4.8
2006: Jason Kendall, 3.7 (traded the next year)
To put that into context, here is the same list for the Detroit Tigers:
2013: Miguel Cabrera, 7.2
2012: Miguel Cabrera, 7.3
2011: Miguel Cabrera, 7.6
2010: Miguel Cabrera, 6.5
2009: Miguel Cabrera, 5.1
2008: Placido Polanco, 4.3 (Cabrera's first season in Detroit and the American League)
Tigers fans have a pretty good idea who is going to lead the charge every year. But everyone knows that the Motor City Kitties are the closest thing you can get to a successful one-man team on offense in baseball. How about the Boston Red Sox, who tend to spread the talent around the field a bit more?
2013: Dustin Pedroia, 6.5
2012: Dustin Pedroia, 4.9
2011: Jacoby Ellsbury, 8.1 (Pedroia second at 7.9)
2010: Adrian Beltre, 7.8 (Pedroia missed half the season)
2009: Kevin Youkilis, 6.5 (Pedroia second at 5.6)
2008: Dustin Pedroia, 6.9
Outside of a one-year rental of Beltre and a Brady Anderson impression from Ellsbury, Pedroia is clearly The Man in Boston, at least in terms of on-field production. He's their best player year after year, though Youk and David Ortiz have provided strong competition (Big Papi was the leader from 2005-2007, and missed out on 2004 by just 0.1 behind Johnny Damon.)
The position-player bWAR leaders from a few other teams:
Cincinnati Reds -- Joey Votto, 2008-13
New York Yankees -- Robinson Cano, 2010-13
Pittsburgh Pirates -- Andrew McCutchen, 2010-13
Minnesota Twins -- Joe Mauer, 2006, 2008-10, 2013 (second in '07 & '12, injured in '11)
Colorado Rockies -- Troy Tulowitzki, 2007, 2009-11, 2013 (injured in '08 & '12)
Philadelphia Phillies -- Chase Utley, 2005-10, 2013 (injured 2011-12)
Chicago White Sox -- Alexei Ramirez, 2009-2011, 2013 (third in '12) (wait, what?)
Los Angeles Angels -- Mike Trout, 2012-2017 (projected)
Houston Astros -- (no bWAR accumulated)
Adrian Beltre has been The Man in Texas since he arrived in 2011. Giancarlo Stanton has topped the Marlins for the last three years, as has Alex Gordon in Kansas City. Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist have split those duties in Tampa Bay since 2009. Jose Bautista is a good bet in Toronto when he's healthy, and Ryan Braun has more or less led in Milwaukee since 2008 when he's not busy being suspended for things. Buster Posey is two years into what could be a long run on top of the Giants' charts, and David Wright is back on top in Queens.
This isn't to say that the Athletics' situation is unique. The other 10 teams that I haven't mentioned have been closer to Oakland's mix-and-match than Detroit's repetitive Cabrera-ness. The Cardinals have received balanced production from their lineup in the post-Pujols era, while the Padres have been star-free since Adrian Gonzalez left. The Braves, Orioles and Dodgers haven't had a repeat leader since 2007-08 (Chipper Jones, Nick Markakis and Russell Martin, respectively), and the Indians and Nationals haven't had one since Shin-Soo Choo and Ryan Zimmerman in 2009-2010. Justin Upton could never put together successful back-to-back seasons, so Arizona has to look back to Orlando Hudson in 2006-07. The Cubs last repeat was Aramis Ramirez in 2006-07, and in the last four years they've been led by guys named Marlon, Starlin, Darwin and Wellington -- that sounds like the name of a law firm owned by cartoon characters. This seems like a good opportunity to mention that Brendan Ryan led the Mariners in bWAR in 2011 and 2012, even though he batted .194 in the latter year. What is it the kids say ... oh yeah: LOL.
The Cubs and Diamondbacks are the only two teams who have to reach back further than the A's do to find a repeat bWAR leader, and Arizona will likely fall off that list this year if Paul Goldschmidt doesn't explode. The question at hand is: Who will lead Oakland position players in bWAR in 2014?
As we all know, Donaldson led the team last year. However, a significant portion of his bWAR total was accrued through defensive metrics, and those can fluctuate wildly even if the player's general defensive talent level doesn't change and the eye test doesn't register any difference. On the offensive side, he made the kind of huge strides last year that often lead to a bit of regression to the mean the following year. I expect Donaldson to be good again this year, but if he "only" puts up 5.0 bWAR I won't be surprised or disappointed.
Of course, if Donaldson dips down to (or below) 5.0 bWAR, then it opens up the possibility that one of his teammates could pass him. Coco put up a mark of 4.3 last year, and while that required a career year at the plate that he is unlikely to repeat, he has the defensive skills to rack up a flukishly high one-year defensive value. Yoenis Cespedes could theoretically break out at any time and put up a monster year. If Jed Lowrie's poor defense last year was partly the result of shaking off the injury rust and he can stabilize his metrics in 2014, the positional adjustment for playing shortstop could put him over the top. Josh Reddick only needs an .800 OPS to break 5.0 bWAR with the consistently high defensive numbers he posts. Get Brandon Moss off of first base, where the metrics kill him, and he could have an outside chance. Addison Russell could be promoted in July and bat .450 the rest of the way (for those of you who see the glass as 150% full).
The incumbent always gets the benefit of the doubt, in almost all areas of life. Donaldson is the best bet to lead the A's lineup in bWAR once again, simply because he blew away the field last year and is still healthy and under 30 years of age. But if he does so, he will be the first Athletic since Mark Ellis six years ago to achieve the repeat.