The Oakland A's are coming off of three straight successful seasons, each of which saw the team reach the postseason. However, each trip ended in increasingly heartbreaking fashion, culminating in a 12-inning loss in the 2014 Wild Card game. Meanwhile, in two of those three seasons, the crosstown Giants swooped in and nabbed the World Series trophy, the same trophy that A's fans had so closely in their sights. So close, both figuratively and literally, and yet so far.
But we're not here to talk about the past. We're here to look toward a brighter future, and no one looks to the future like A's general manager Billy Beane. Before the postseason lights had even faded, he was busy reshaping his entire roster, shipping away beloved star players like they were infected with Ebola and assembling his newest collection of flawed stars and no-name talent. To the outside world, it's a confusing and terrifying earthquake, but to Oakland fans it's business as usual, a 3.0 tremor that we see all the time and that tends to work out just fine. They say you can't win without this player or that, but Billy Beane always seems to. The last time the A's had a team this new, this full of question marks, was ... gosh, all the way back in 2012, when this most recent run of success began.
Now join me in a walk through our 2015 Oakland A's preview, and I'll show you why this season is going to be a lot of fun.
Rather than summarizing who is gone from the 2014 team, perhaps it would be easier to explain who remains. Stephen Vogt is still part of the catching equation, and Eric Sogard is in the mix in the infield. The outfield remains mostly untouched, and the best parts of the bullpen are back (with the worst parts gone). From the rotation in the second half of last year, only Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir remain, though part-timers Drew Pomeranz and Jesse Chavez are back too. And that's about it. Everyone else is new.
Let's start with a chart. This is not a comprehensive list of arrivals and departures, because even the Internet has limited space. Each column is separated into pitchers, position players, and prospects.
SP Jeff Samardzija (traded to White Sox)
SP Jesse Hahn (acquired from Padres)
C Derek Norris (traded to Padres)
C Josh Phegley (acquired from White Sox)
SP Seth Streich (traded to Padres)
2B Joey Wendle (acquired from Indians)
(Note: SS Yunel Escobar was acquired from the Rays and then traded to the Nationals four days later, because Beane was bored that week.)
The first thing to do is laugh at the Braves, who somehow managed to spend $8.6 million to bring in the three worst players from the 2014 A's: Jim Johnson, Alberto Callaspo, and Jonny Gomes. By worst, I mean that they accounted for the three lowest bWAR totals of everyone who suited up in green and gold last season, for a combined total of 3.3 wins below replacement-level. Go home Braves, you're drunk.
Anyway, back to the A's. With several key free agents out the door, Billy Beane saw two options: cling to a good roster that had probably peaked and would only get worse and more expensive, or sell everything a year too early, before his stars began to decline and lose value, and reset his window of contention in 2015 rather than committing to a full rebuild in 2017. He went with the latter, and chose to sacrifice his great-but-declining team in favor of one that was less proven but younger and more likely to improve.
This wasn't a traditional youth movement, with an eye toward high-ceiling prospects in their early-20s. Rather, Beane seemed to target players who had already mostly navigated the pitfalls of the minor league system but had not yet fully blossomed at the MLB level, hoping to isolate and capture those peak years of 25-28. In terms of potential value, a high floor seemed more important than a high ceiling, and the emphasis seemed to be on ridding the lineup of any glaring weaknesses rather than loading it up with any specific strengths.
Now that the offseason dust has mostly settled, let's take a look at the roster the A's will likely take into Opening Day.
Starting Rotation: Anybody's guess
Even on March 16, this area of the team is nearly impossible to predict. All we can say with certainty is that Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir will be the top two in the rotation. The right-handed Sonny was fantastic in his first full season, and if he improves at all this year then he'll compete for a Cy Young. The lefty Kazmir earned an All-Star berth in the first half and faded in the second half, but he showed a lot more good than bad and there's no specific reason not to count on him for a quality 2015.
And then, there will be an assortment of the following hurlers in the final three spots:
That list has everything. The young incumbent. The journeyman incumbent. Cy Old. And four entirely different youngsters, all of whom have in common that Billy Beane really likes them (no small praise for a pitcher). Fortunately, the group contains plenty of quality in addition to its quantity, so this is a battle between good options rather than a round of bumfights to see who is accidentally standing at the end.
If I had to guess, I'd say that Hahn is a lock for one of the spots. He's easily the most talented of the group, he's already succeeded in the Majors, and his injury resume is such that it seems foolish to waste even one pitch out of his arm in the minors. Pomeranz will make it based on his strong showing last year, and Graveman is my pick to steal the last spot with a stellar spring. That would leave things looking like this on Opening Day:
No. 1: Sonny Gray
No. 2: Scott Kazmir
No. 3: Jesse Hahn
No. 4: Drew Pomeranz
No. 5: Kendall Graveman
I think that Chavez will end up in the bullpen, even though he's good enough to start. Bassitt will begin in Triple-A to hone his skills against lefties, Nolin will as well after missing much of the spring due to injury, and Zito won't do enough to break camp with the team but will emerge at some point and make at least one start for the A's (or another team if he refuses a minor league assignment). However, there are any number of possible permutations and we won't know the real rotation until April.
Oh, and Brad "Buck" Mills, who made three starts for the A's last year, is lurking in Triple-A as well. I'll buy THAT for a dollar!
Bullpen: How many relievers can you fit in a phone booth?
(Update, March 24: After a brutal spring, Ryan Cook has surprisingly been sent to Triple-A, where he will presumably start the year. Therefore, there is one more spot open in the bullpen that is not accounted for in the following write-up -- so, whoever you thought was the last guy out of the picture will probably now make it on Opening Day.)
The bullpen is a bit easier to put together. Closer Sean Doolittle will start the year on the DL, but he isn't expected to miss much time as he recovers from some shoulder issues. This is how things will look:
Tyler Clippard (R)
Ryan Cook (R) (unexpectedly demoted)
Dan Otero (R)
Eric O'Flaherty (L)
Fernando Abad (L)
Clippard is expensive but he's an absolute ace, without any of the wobbly question marks that Jim Johnson carried with his similarly bloated salary. Otero and Abad emerged as excellent options last year, O'Flaherty should be back to full strength after returning from Tommy John surgery last season, and Ryan Cook took a step backward but is still a solid arm at worst.
R.J. Alvarez, a young right-handed flamethrower acquired in the Derek Norris trade, seems to have the inside track on one of the open spots. If Chavez doesn't make the rotation, then he'd likely have the last spot. It might be as simple as that.
However, there is a lot of depth in this area. Pomeranz began 2014 in the bullpen and could go there again. Many see Bassitt as a reliever rather than a starter, and the A's could just put him there to get him into some MLB games like they did with Pomeranz last year. Switch-pitcher Pat Venditte is making his case in the Cactus League, and in our hearts. Zito might need a spot if the A's want to keep him but can't fit him into the rotation. Right-handers Evan Scribner, Fernando Rodriguez, and Chad Smith won't make the team out of spring, but they could be called on later (Scribner will have to clear waivers if he's sent down, though). Lefty Eury De La Rosa was solid for Arizona last year.
Pomeranz (and the rest of the young starters) can safely be sent to the minors, though, as can Alvarez. Chavez is the only crucial on-the-bubble guy who has to make the team to avoid being exposed to waivers. There is room here for a surprise on the Opening Day roster, especially with Doolittle's spot temporarily up for grabs. And, as an extra bonus, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin are both set to return from their Tommy John operations sometime this summer, providing even more intriguing reinforcements for the unknowns of a 162-game schedule.
Lineup: A whole new ballgame
If you took a six-month nap after the Wild Card game, then you might want to sit down before reading this section. Actually, stand up, because you've been asleep for half a year. But hold on to a chair or something.
The catchers? They're gone. All-Star Derek Norris and his platoon-mate, John Jaso, were sent away in separate trades for brilliant returns. Instead, Stephen Vogt will step up from being the extra backstop to serving as the primary receiver, with newcomer Josh Phegley likely taking the shorter side of the platoon. You probably know Vogt by now, but Phegley's calling cards are his power (when he makes contact) and his throwing arm (a welcome change from the noodles of Norris and Jaso). The catchers won't hit as much, but they might defend well enough to make up most or all of the difference.
The infielders? They're gone. Except Eric Sogard, he's still here. But Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss were dealt, Jed Lowrie walked as a free agent, Alberto Callaspo thankfully left town, and Nick Punto started chasing a plastic bag in the wind and hasn't been heard from in months. Even Daric Barton is gone, for realsies this time. In their places, Ike Davis (first base) and Brett Lawrie (third base) will primarily man the corners, while Marcus Semien is slated as the everyday shortstop. Ben Zobrist is the most obvious choice to play second, but his superpower is his versatility and it seems premature to pencil him in at any specific position just yet. Rather, he'll fill in wherever needed on a daily basis, and if he's not at second than Sogard most likely will be. Tyler Ladendorf and Andy Parrino also exist as middle infield options, and Ladendorf feels like the best fit as a right-handed hitter who can play shortstop, but they will likely start in Triple-A as Sogard is the favorite for the extra infield spot at the moment.
Sadly, shortstop prospect Will Ferrell will not break camp with the team. -- Photo credit: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports
The outfield? Actually, they're all still here. Josh Reddick may or may not be ready for Opening Day as he rests a tweaked oblique, but he rediscovered his stroke last summer and still brings elite defense in right. Coco Crisp was derailed by a neck injury in 2014, and given his advanced age and injury history he seems on board with the plan to shift him to left field. That leaves center to split between Craig Gentry, who quietly has an argument as the best defensive outfielder in baseball, and Sam Fuld, who is fun as hell to watch and can provide some value when he's at his absolute best. In case of emergency, Billy Burns is waiting in a glass case in Triple-A, ready to sprint into action as a speed-and-defense sparkplug off the bench. The group won't hit a ton overall, but they'll be wizards with their gloves.
Oh, and don't forget designated hitter. I mean, the A's certainly did last year, as their leftover parts combined to hit only .215/.294/.343 from the DH spot. It didn't help that their worst hitter, Callaspo, inexplicably got the biggest share of plate appearances there. However, they resolved the problem by adding Billy Butler as a free agent. Even last year, in what was arguably the worst season of his career, he was still markedly better than Oakland's DHs, and if he returns to the .800 OPS he's used to then he'll be a considerable upgrade. There's also Mark Canha, an untested righty power hitter who will get a shot due to his Rule 5 draft status; he's billed as a 1B/OF, but his bat is his ticket to sticking in Oakland.
The lineup has lost most of its star power, but what remains is much better than initially meets the eye. One obvious thing that jumps out at you is the loss of home run power, with most of the top slugging threats gone and no one remaining who is a good bet for 20 dingers. But that's the trick to understanding this roster: it's not all about the highs, because the lows count too. Having one star and one scrub isn't necessarily better than having two solid players, because the drop from star-to-solid can be made up for by the upgrade on the other end. And that's how the A's hit 146 homers last year, got rid of all their top hitters, and ended up with a team projected by Steamer to hit 143 long balls in 2015. And again, Steamer didn't credit any single player with more than 17 bombs, so that sum is a true team effort.
The best way to illustrate this concept comes in the infield. Here's a stat for you, courtesy of our own BWH:
2014 A's 3B/SS/2B, combined: .244/.318/.365
2014 Lawrie/Zobrist/Semien, combined: .258/.329/.396
Remember, that first batting line includes MVP candidate Josh Donaldson, who blasted 29 homers. But it also includes Jed Lowrie, who had an off-year and didn't hit well. And it includes second base, which so bad that it was further below-average than Donaldson was above-average; A's second basemen had an arguable claim as the worst-hitting positional group of any team, with only Seattle Mariner center fielders being notably worse. Meanwhile, Lawrie and Semien are both sold short by their 2014 lines, since they are young players who are expected to improve this year. And lest you think I'm cherry-picking by leaving out first base, note that the unheralded Davis was actually marginally better against right-handed pitching last year (120 OPS+) than Moss (119 OPS+); even if you figure that Moss will bounce back once he's healthy, Davis is still no slouch when he's in his proper platoon role.
There are a loooot of question marks in this lineup, but with even a tiny amount of good fortune this squad can come close to the production of yesteryear despite parting with several of its top hitters. Here are a couple of sample lineups to show how things could turn out, picked from the dozens of possible arrangements:
LF Coco Crisp
2B Ben Zobrist
DH Billy Butler
1B Ike Davis
3B Brett Lawrie
RF Josh Reddick
SS Marcus Semien
C Stephen Vogt
CF Sam Fuld
DH Coco Crisp
2B Ben Zobrist
1B Billy Butler
3B Brett Lawrie
RF Josh Reddick
SS Marcus Semien
LF Mark Canha
C Josh Phegley
CF Craig Gentry
Again, you could put these players together in any number of ways. These are just two examples.
Prospects: Who's behind Door No. 2?
The A's farm system was already weak after graduating several top prospects and sending away several more in trades for MLB players. It took an even bigger hit when No. 1 prospect, shortstop Daniel Robertson, was shipped to Tampa Bay in the Zobrist trade. The system lacks elite talent, but it's not completely devoid of interesting names. It's just that most of those names are still in the lower levels.
As things stand, the consensus top prospects are first baseman Matt Olson and shortstop Franklin Barreto. Olson is a slugger who has played well since being drafted by Oakland. Barreto, acquired in the Donaldson deal, is a shortstop with a promising bat. Here is the current Community Prospect List, which so far stretches 16-deep, with each player's position and expected level for 2015:
1. Matt Olson, 1B, Double-A
2. Franklin Barreto, SS, High-A
3. Matt Chapman, 3B, High-A
4. Renato Nunez, 3B, Double-A
5. Dillon Overton, LHP, Single-A
6. Kendall Graveman, RHP, MLB or Triple-A
7. Yairo Munoz, SS, Single-A
8. Sean Nolin, LHP, Triple-A or MLB
9. Raul Alcantara, RHP, Double-A
10. Joey Wendle, 2B, Triple-A
11. R.J. Alvarez, RHP, MLB
12. Rangel Ravelo, 3B, Triple-A
13. Mark Canha, OF/1B, MLB
14. Chad Pinder, 2B, Double-A
15. Chris Bassitt, RHP, Triple-A or MLB
16. Dustin Driver, RHP, Low-A or lower
Note that Hahn is missing from the list because he exhausted his prospect status due to his MLB service. The other four young pitchers (Graveman, Nolin, Bassitt, Alvarez) figure to graduate this year, at least enough to not count as prospects anymore. Canha will either succeed or fade away to the land of Quadruple-A, and Wendle has a chance to make it up to Oakland sometime this season. Otherwise, there won't be much help before 2016 -- and given Beane's recent track record, any prospect who isn't on the verge of promotion is more likely to be packaged in a trade for an established contributor than to ever don an Oakland uniform.
Division Outlook: An AL West in flux
Last year, the Angels ran away with the AL West. Meanwhile, the A's and Mariners fought for second, the Astros made baby steps toward respectability, and the Rangers dissolved in a vat of injurious goo.
The Angels probably got worse. The lineup got a year older and lost strong second baseman Howie Kendrick to a peculiarly timed trade. The deal made sense on paper, with one year of Kendrick going for six of a good pitching prospect, but the Angels are trying to win now and probably would have been better served keeping Kendrick and finding a more experienced pitcher to shore up their rotation. Andrew Heaney might pan out immediately in 2015, but now they've got a big hole at second base. And that was all they did to address their rotation, meaning that they're relying on optimism as a strategy with their incumbent group.
The Mariners probably got better. They still have their top-notch pitching staff, but now they've added Nelson Cruz and Seth Smith to their weak lineup. Cruz led MLB in homers last year, and Smith is perpetually underrated, but the Mariners will need more than them and Robinson Cano if they want to properly support King Felix and his rotation-mates.
The Astros probably got better. They've had another year to run tests, chucking out the chaff and keeping the wheatiest performers. They now have an infield of Singleton/Altuve/Lowrie/Valbuena, an outfield of Gattis/Springer/Rasmus, Chris Carter DHing, and Castro/Conger catching a rotation led by Keuchel/McHugh/Feldman and a pen anchored by actual Major Leaguers. That's not a championship roster, but where's the embarrassing part that's supposed to make me laugh out loud? It's not there anymore.
The Rangers, man. Yu Darvish is having Tommy John, and Jurickson Profar will miss the season as well. I mean, you already had to count on a lot of key players bouncing back from injuries for the Rangers to even have a shot at .500 in 2015. I'd really just rather not talk about them.
All told, this is a tough division to predict. The Angels are the easy pick as incumbents, and the Mariners are the trendy one as the offseason noisemakers. The Astros lurk, and one year they will finally strike. The A's could finish absolutely anywhere, though it's hard to see anyone but Texas finishing in the cellar.
Everything goes right, from top to bottom. Sonny is in the mix for the Cy Young, Hahn and Graveman emerge, and the A's lead MLB in quality starts without any weak links in the rotation. Doo and Clipp keep the ninth inning on lockdown, and Pat Venditte earns a permanent spot in the pen. Semien plays enough defense to stick at short, and he chips in 20 homers as well. Lawrie plays 150 games, and so does Reddick; they combine with Davis for another 60 dingers between the three of them. Coco is fully recovered from his neck injury, and Butler bounces back from his off-year. The biggest problem is finding at-bats for Canha, who just won't stop hitting. The A's get double-digit homers from every single position. Even Sogard hits three long balls in limited time, a new career high.
Behind this jackpot of best-case scenarios, the A's win 95 games and run away with the AL West. They knock the Royals out of the Wild Card race on the last day of the season (by harmlessly losing a game to the second-place Mariners), win their ALDS matchup over the Tigers, defeat the Red Sox in the ALCS, and then vanquish the Dodgers in the World Series, thus exorcising as many postseason demons from the last three decades as possible. Meanwhile, the Angels revert back to 2013 form, the Yankees finish below .500, and the Giants miss the postseason. Moneyball 2: The Platoon Advantage is announced, with Bryan Cranston playing Bob Melvin.
It's the second half of 2014, but for six months. Pomeranz is the de facto ace by season's end because Sonny got hurt, Kazmir got traded at the deadline, and none of the new youngsters stepped up. Also, the prospects received for Kazmir already got hurt too. Doo's rotator cuff never heals and he misses the season, and Clipp explodes in full Johnson fashion. Coco is never the same, Reddick's oblique lingers all year, Lawrie somehow runs into the tarp while fielding a ground ball and breaks a bone, and Zobrist decides that pitching is the final frontier he has to conquer and renounces his former life as a superstar-level position player. Semien can't play short, reopening the hole in the middle infield, and Sogard somehow starts 100 games. Whoever is left healthy clocks in below their expected levels; Gentry leads the team with a .278 average, while Butler's 13 homers are tops in the lineup.
With everything in flames (literally, the Coliseum's gas lines start to leak alongside the sewage, lighting an inferno of poo in the dugout), the A's win only 65 games and manage to finish below even the Rangers in the standings. Donaldson leads the Blue Jays to a thrilling ALCS victory over Moss' Indians, but they fall short to the Giants in the World Series. Gregor Blanco is the World Series MVP, or some stupid crap like that. The "even year" jokes go away, but for the worst possible reason. Addison Russell homers in his first at-bat for the Cubs, and Samardzija throws a perfect game to battery-mate Geovany Soto in Chicago.
There are a lot of question marks and a lot of moving parts on this roster, so it's tough to pick just one or two players to be the linchpins of the team's success. Here's my best shot at it:
Pitcher: Jesse Hahn ... The A's rotation has two distinct levels. There's Sonny and Kaz, and then there's everyone else, but Hahn seems like the one with the best chance to jump into that top tier. If he backs up his 2014 success, then the A's have three reliable starters and only have to fill two spots at the back of their rotation with their jumble of promising-but-unproven hurlers. If he falls short or gets hurt, then there's more pressure on the top two guys and the resources get stretched even thinner -- the rotation could start to become a weakness if no one else steps up. Graveman is my sleeper pick among the unprovens, but only because I'm already taking for granted that Hahn will be good.
Hitter: Marcus Semien ... The middle infield has been the A's biggest weakness the last couple years, and they've struggled to find any way to shore it up. I'm confident that Semien will hit well enough, but more important will be his performance on defense. If he sticks at short and hits reasonably well, then Oakland has a solid answer at the position for years to come. If he can't cut it with the glove then he might still find a valuable role elsewhere on the diamond, but the A's will once again be up Shortstop Creek without a paddle, and with no time or resources to find a new one before the season is lost. There are better players on the team, and Zobrist is technically more irreplaceable, but Semien gets the nod as a long-term asset who is playing the most premium position in the game. His success is important not only this year, but for many to come.
The A's will finish 88-74, same as last year but with a totally different team. They'll earn a Wild Card berth, with Seattle taking the division. Astros third, Angels fourth, Rangers fifth.