Oakland A's in a Box
Owner: Lew Wolff. Derided by many, loved by few, but generally a hands-off guy who defers baseball decisions to Billy Beane and his front office crew.
GM: Billy Beane. The one, the only. The most well-known executive in sports will again look to win the last game of the season.
Manager: Bob Melvin. The 2012 Manager of the Year will again attempt to turn Beane's wheeling and dealing into a winning product on the field.
Key Additions: LHP Scott Kazmir, OF Craig Gentry, RHP Jim Johnson. All will replace key cogs in 2013's division championship team. INF Nick Punto, OF Sam Fuld, LHP Drew Pomeranz, LHP Fernando Abad, RHP Luke Gregerson, OF Billy Burns.
Key Departures: RHP Grant Balfour, RHP Bartolo Colon, LHP Brett Anderson, OF Seth Smith, OF Michael Choice, OF Chris Young, LHP Jerry Blevins.
Projected Starting Lineup:
C John Jaso/Derek Norris
1B Brandon Moss/Daric Barton/Alberto Callaspo
2B Eric Sogard/Nick Punto
3B Josh Donaldson
SS Jed Lowrie
LF Yoenis Cespedes
CF Coco Crisp
RF Josh Reddick
*A.J. Griffin on disabled list.
Dreams of a Horsehide Fiend
"Liiiiiiive!" screams Dr. Billy Beanenstein as his patchwork lineup once again contends for an AL West title. Hey, science may not always be pretty, but for the past two seasons it has dialed up 90-plus wins. Maybe the Yankees and Dodgers would turn up their surgically-enhanced noses at second-chance players like Brandon Moss and John Jaso, but damn it, they work when used appropriately. The mad scientist's next mission: get the team past losing starting pitchers Jarrod Parker for the season and A.J. Griffin for at least part of April.
Why the Oakland A's will win the pennant
The better question may be why the A's won't win the pennant. Their accomplishments over the last two years have proven that the current core group of key players can bring regular season success. Given that success, Billy Beane's offseason plan was clearly to replace the production of the group of players he was losing. Scott Kazmir will be counted on -- prayed over, maybe -- to replace Bartolo Colon's 190⅓ innings of 2.65 ERA ball. Craig Gentry (when healthy) will take over the fourth outfielder spot and potentially upgrade it over current Met Chris Young. Finally, Jim Johnson may not replace Grant Balfour's fiery demeanor, but he will be called upon to close games for Bob Melvin. It is remarkable, actually, how Beane was able to find available players who very closely match the players who left. It is true that he paid a relatively high price for those replacements, but the A's clearly have a window now that they hope to capitalize on.
On the offensive side, the A's will return nearly every productive piece of the third-best hitting team in the AL. On the other hand, there is significant regression risk in that Josh Donaldson and Jed Lowrie had excellent seasons that may not carry over into 2014. Conversely, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes both had down seasons for different reasons, and could have bounce-back years that keep the offense among the league's best. What's more, Coco Crisp may have found a late-career power stroke that could also continue into 2014. Full seasons from utilitymen Nick Punto and Alberto Callaspo protect the A's against injury, and also keep the bat away from sub-replacement players from Triple-A. Finally, Gentry is a starting-caliber fourth outfielder with superb defense who can step in should Crisp or Cespedes be hit with the injury bug.
Pitching-wise, the A's will rely on Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir to anchor a rotation that was ravaged by injuries before the team even broke camp. With Jarrod Parker out for the year with Tommy John surgery and A.J. Griffin on the shelf to start the season, journeyman reliever Jesse Chavez and 2012 standout Tommy Milone will join Dan Straily in the back of the rotation to begin the campaign. There is still depth behind those five, with Drew Pomeranz, Josh Lindblom and Arnold Leon waiting in the wings, but the fact is that this A's team has quietly transitioned to one which relies less on pitching and more on a powerful offense; last year's squad was seventh in MLB in ERA but ranked fourth in scoring.
Of course, that doesn't mean that pitching will be a weakness. If the shaky rotation should falter, Billy Beane has constructed one of the deepest and most dominant bullpens in the league. Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson and (eventually) Eric O'Flaherty will join holdovers Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and Dan Otero to comprise a relief corps made up almost entirely of legitimate eighth-inning set-up men and potential closers. There have been losses -- 2013 ace Bartolo Colon, closer Grant Balfour and the dominant-but-fragile Brett Anderson -- but Beane has replaced them just like he does every winter. Indeed, the story of the 2014 A's will be written about their pitching, one way or another. The only question is whether that story will be lamenting the losses of guys like Colon and Parker, or praising Beane's ability to replace them effectively with his next wave of previously unknown players.
The competition for the AL West crown has not significantly improved. The Astros are, well, still the Astros. Despite their reported musings regarding Masahiro Tanaka, the team is not projected to even sniff competitive status. The Mariners have signed Robinson Cano and every player who can barely play defense and hit for some power, but are still not projected to improve enough to seriously compete for a division title (though they can make life harder for the A's, as they have in recent years.) The Angels' pursuit of starting pitching was somewhat satiated, having traded for Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, but they were also the third-worst pitching team in the AL in 2013 so they likely have further to go. On the other hand, their offense is still excellent, albeit with both Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols a year older, it could still regress. In short, the Angels have improved, but not by enough to vie for the division crown for the whole year.
Finally, the Rangers have pitching problems of their own, with Derek Holland out until midseason after tearing knee cartilage while playing with his dog in January, Colby Lewis recovering from elbow surgery and now being counted on to replace Holland's production, and Matt Harrison having continued back issues that plagued him last season, not to mention serious injuries to Jurickson Profar and Geovany Soto. Even with the additions of Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, they have significant questions going into 2014.
With their own injury problems, the A's will certainly not waltz away with the division title. Indeed, in 2013, the A's really only pulled away after a road sweep of the Rangers in Arlington. But they are in a much better position than their division foes and should be heavily favored to three-peat for the AL West crown.
Key Stat by Hunter Hewing
Opening Day relievers' ERA: 2.86
The seven pitchers who will open the season in the A's bullpen (plus the wounded Ryan Cook, who should be back by April 5) had a 2.86 ERA in 2013. Reliever ERA isn't at all predictive, but it suggests the quality of the pitchers Bob Melvin will have to choose from as he goes out to relieve his frayed starting rotation. Last year, A's relievers had the third-best ERA in the American League, but only the 10th-best strikeout rate, a bad sign, perhaps if the team was to avoid a balls-in-play-style regression in 2014. Intriguingly, once Grant Balfour left town, the team's solution was (a) import the Padres' Luke Gregerson, career strikeout rate of 9.1 per nine innings, and (b) trade for Orioles' closer Jim Johnson, who is more of a ground-ball pitcher than a strikeout artist. We'll see if it all balances out in the end.
Team MVP: Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes suffered from a sophomore slump in 2013. With the exception of home runs, he declined in nearly every way. He also swung at more pitches in the zone and made less contact. Yet, despite how it appeared on TV, his other plate discipline numbers aren't significantly depressed compared to 2012: he made more contact on outside pitches without swinging at significantly more of them and only marginally increased his overall swinging strike percentage. In other words, his issues in the zone have to do with pitch recognition -- this is a fixable problem.
Team Cy Young: Sonny Gray. Many of the questions about Gray's lack of a pitch repertoire have been answered after a strong debut in 2013. He featured both a two- and four-seam fastball, the latter of which he can push to 96 mph, and a devastating curveball he uses as a strikeout pitch. Indeed, his 24.8 percent strikeout rate was second in only to Danny Salazar of Cleveland among AL rookies. Gray may not be able to keep up such gaudy numbers over a whole season, but he will almost assuredly be the best starter on the A's. He will also start on Opening Day.
Top Rookie: Sonny Gray. Without any clearly qualified candidates to play a significant role in Oakland, that award has to go to Sonny Gray now that Michael Choice has been traded away. It is conceivable that, with an injury to Jed Lowrie, Addison Russell could find his way to Oakland in 2014 and put together some actual rookie numbers. However, it is more likely that if he is called up, it won't be until September. It should be noted, though, that Gray doesn't technically qualify as a rookie because he threw more than 50 innings in the majors last year.
Sleeper: Tommy Milone. Milone was strangely both home-run and walk-prone in his sophomore season. Those are not tendencies he had shown in the upper minors or his rookie season. On the other hand, he also increased his swinging strike rate; players just tended to lay off of pitches in the zone they had previously swung at. A different pitch mix, or simply better luck, could make him a more effective starter in 2014.
Subjects for further research
Jed Lowrie, SS: Lowrie posted career highs in every offensive category in 2013, and also played in a career high number of games. He had never before stayed healthy through an entire season. He'll be an above-average hitter, but whether he is again the second-best offensive shortstop in the league remains to be seen. Given that concern, Nick Punto was acquired to potentially spell Lowrie on days when the A's play left-handers. Punto's excellent defense could counteract some of Lowrie's poor defense, which is not expected to improve.
Coco Crisp, OF: Crisp had a breakout 2013 season in the power category, posting career highs in home runs and isolated power and near-highs in slugging and on-base percentages. He is also a superior baserunner, even though stolen bases may not end up being as much a part of his game as it was in the past. Crisp is the type of player who will miss 25-30 games per year with a hamstring pull here and there, but is a very productive player when he is healthy. He better be, as the A's just re-signed him (again) to a two-year contract.
Josh Reddick, OF: Despite the guff he takes from some A's fans, Reddick brings Gold Glove caliber defense to the table along with occasional power. In 2012, that meant 32 home runs; in 2013, it meant 12. Where his true power lies is uncertain and may hinge on the health of his surgically repaired wrist. He was able to improve his walk and strikeout rates last year, but didn't have much to show for it. His contact and swing rates also improved overall. Some upward regression is possible here offensively, but if all else fails, he'll still be a 2-3 win player when defense is accounted for.
John Jaso, C/DH: A concussion shortened Jaso's season, but he showed the approach the A's acquired him for when he was able to play. A high-OBP, low-power player, Jaso will provide a better-than-average bat when he is in the lineup. Despite the concussion he's still in there catching, but it is likely he will see significant time at DH and maybe even first base. It seems clear now that the power he displayed in 2012 was most likely a mirage, but that doesn't mean he isn't still useful.
Top five A's fantasy players by Ray Guilfoyle
1. Yoenis Cespedes, OF: Cespedes had a bit of a down year in 2013, but I see the batting average rising in 2014 and he could approach 30 home runs if healthy.
2. Josh Donaldson, 3B: Donaldson enjoyed a breakout season in 2013, and is ranked accordingly. Donaldson offers a high batting average, with 20-plus home-run power in 2014.
3. Sonny Gray, RHP: Gray was dominant in his 10 starts last season, striking out more than a batter per inning with an excellent 2.67 ERA. He is being drafted as a top-40 starter right now, but will go through some growing pains, as most young starters do.
4. Brandon Moss, 1B: Moss showed that his power is for real in 2013. He is a solid mid-round power option at first base.
5. Jed Lowrie, SS: Lowrie had the best season of his career, playing in a career-high 154 games. Can stay healthy again? Our font set does not permit a large enough question mark.
Popular A's Scenarios
If everything goes right: The Athletics will not only win the AL West once again, but they'll finally advance in the playoffs and bring home their first World Series title since 1989, all because of their impressive lineup, balanced rotation, and strong bullpen.
If everything goes wrong: The A's will face Justin Verlander in the playoffs again.