In just a few hours, the Oakland A's will open their 2015 season, and to be honest with you I have no idea what is going to happen. I'm pretty sure the A's are going to be good. I'm pretty sure two or three other teams in the AL West are going to be good as well. But there are a lot of question marks and otherwise unproven commodities on this team, and in fact every squad in this division seems impossible to predict. There have been flurries of offseason moves, injuries to key players, and other stars returning from extended absences. The West is open to whoever wants it most.
In order to wrap our heads around all of this, here are five questions to ponder as you watch the clock creep towards 7:05 p.m., gradually, like molasses, second after second, checking the batteries to make sure clocks always run this slowly. Tick. ... ... Tock.
1. Where will the power come from?
The big boys are gone. Donaldson, Moss, Cespedes, all out of town. Even some of the mid-level power options, like Norris and Jaso and Lowrie, have departed. But in their place is a lineup devoid of extremes, with no true centerpiece but also no Callaspo-level weakness. Someone will probably hit 20 homers, but you can't really say who yet. Here is the current Steamer projection for Oakland's top power bats, remembering that Steamer simulates real-world playing time so things like sitting 50 games as part of a platoon are already factored in:
Brett Lawrie -- 17
Josh Reddick -- 17
Ike Davis -- 15
Billy Butler -- 15
Marcus Semien -- 15
Ben Zobrist -- 12
Coco Crisp -- 11
Now, Coco will miss at least two months, so we can scratch him off that list. But, that means that someone else will get another two months' worth of at-bats -- someone like slugger Mark Canha, perhaps. The Opening Day lineup features the slappy combo of Gentry & Fuld, but they won't necessarily team up every day. Canha will get his reps, and if he capitalizes then the A's might have found a nice unexpected prize in the bottom of their box of Waiver-O's. As for Reddick, he may not even miss a week, so we don't need to adjust him yet until something else goes wrong. This list also doesn't include Stephen Vogt or Josh Phegley, both of whom are capable of cracking 10 dingers apiece.
So, who on that list do you think is too optimistic? Anyone? I don't see one. And out of those top five guys, who definitely won't hit 20? Still no one. The A's hit 146 homers last year, and Steamer's conservative projections have them at 133 for this year. Sure, that's before someone gets hurt, but it's also before someone else breaks out and exceeds his projection by 10 or more. I mean, that happens a lot around here. There's a chance to have double-digit power at every position, and everyone on the team who can't reach that mark plays superlative defense to make up for it.
My guess: The biggest power will come from Brett Lawrie and Mark Canha. Lawrie is just itching to have that big breakout season, and Canha will be a poor man's Moss. Ike Davis will beef up the lineup even further when they're facing a righty.
2. Who will step up in the bullpen?
Sean Doolittle is still expected to miss a month while his rotator cuff heals up, so some guys will get the chance to operate in roles they wouldn't otherwise have tried. So, this question has two meanings -- who will step up to replace Doolittle specifically, and who will permanently move himself up the depth chart by opening eyes in April?
Well, the first part is easy. Tyler Clippard will close while Doo is out. And he may be the answer to the second question as well, because if he's dealing and Doo needs to work his way back into things then Clippard could conceivably hold onto the role until or unless he pitches his way out of it. If we learned anything last year, it should be that if it ain't broke then don't try too hard to fix it. If Clipp is looking like an All-Star closer in early May, then would you really want to mess with that?
With Clipp moving from the 8th to the 9th, someone else will get to be a set-up man in his place. Furthermore, with Ryan Cook on a vision quest in Nashville there are really two guys missing from the top of the pyramid, so someone previously destined for the 6th inning might now be pitching in the 8th. Perhaps Eric O'Flaherty can find his old groove -- he posted a combined 1.59 ERA over three seasons from 2010-12 (175 innings), and his Tommy John surgery is now nearly two years in the rearview mirror. Dan Otero was quietly a late-inning stud last year, and Fernando Abad was not just a LOOGY (he's even better against righties than lefties). R.J. Alvarez may be a closer-in-waiting, and he could quickly earn high-leverage innings just like Cook did before him. Heck, Evan Scribner probably won't become a set-up man, but maybe he could at least get himself into games that are decided by fewer than seven runs.
Here's the Opening Day bullpen. Who do you think is pitching the 8th inning in August?
Tyler Clippard (closer)
My guess: O'Flaherty rediscovers himself, like so many other pitchers have done in Oakland. When Doo returns, O'Fats and Clipp become the lefty/righty set-up duo.
3. Will the rotation pan out or flame out?
Here is the Opening Day rotation:
1. Sonny Gray
2. Jesse Hahn
3. Scott Kazmir
4. Kendall Graveman
5. Drew Pomeranz
I don't know if we're supposed to read anything into the order of that rotation, but that's how they are arranged.
Sonny and Kaz are already known quantities, and while you never really know with a pitcher, it'll be major news if they're bad. But at least one of those other three will have to step up and be a strong No. 3. This isn't a team that we know will score a lot of runs, so preventing them will be all the more important. There are other options in Triple-A (Jesse Chavez, Sean Nolin, Chris Bassitt, Barry Zito, Brad Mills), but of course you'd rather your first resort go well enough that a last resort isn't needed.
My guess: I picked Graveman to make the rotation at the start of spring, and he did so with flying colors. I'll stay with my hot pick and say Graveman has the second-best season of the A's starters. That doesn't mean the others will flame out, and I think the rotation will be good 1-thru-5, but Graveman in particular will be a standout.
4. Can Marcus Semien stick at shortstop?
Semien was an exciting get because he's an East Bay native, but also because he might solve Oakland's shortstop problem. Jed Lowrie was a good stopgap but had an off-year 2014, and there's no help coming from the farm until 2016 or later. If Semien can stick there, the most important position on the diamond is solved long-term with a quality player. If he has to move to second (or even worse, if he can't hit), then there isn't much of a Plan B. Either someone (like Ben Zobrist or Eric Sogard) will have to play out of position, or a defensive specialist (like Andy Parrino or Tyler Ladendorf or a new acquisition) will have to play there every day (and probably won't hit well). There are better players on the team, and some who are also difficult to replace, but no one would throw the whole lineup into a tailspin like Semien can.
The good news is, he's been playing short for most of his professional career, so he has experience. The bad news is that no scouting reports are better than lukewarm on him there, so we definitely won't be getting Mike Bordick-level glovework. He made it through the spring without anyone complaining much, so that's a good start.
My guess: Semien will be fine. I'm highly confident that he'll hit well enough, especially for the middle infield, and I think he'll be at least as good as Lowrie was on defense. That's a low bar, but getting a clone of 2013 Lowrie would be just fine. (Note that I also think Ladendorf will find a way to stick in MLB for most or all of the year.)
5. Does Ben Zobrist have another Ben Zobrist season left in him?
Here are Zobrist's bWAR by season (Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement):
2009: 8.6 (3rd in MLB)
2011: 8.7 (T-2nd in MLB)
Those are superstar numbers. He doesn't do it by swatting 40 homers or hitting .350 or really leading the league in anything, but rather by doing everything pretty well. He hits for a solid average, he takes his walks and gets on base, he hits up to 20 homers, he steals double-digit bases, and he plays three positions exquisitely (and can hold his own at three more). All those things add up.
However, his best days are probably behind him. He turns 34 at the end of May, and one of these days he'll only be good instead of great. He's at an age when you expect defense to start slipping, if it hasn't already, but can Zobrist keep it up for one more year? He only hit 22 homers combined the last two years after hitting 20 twice in a row, but can he dig down for 15 more in '15? He hit the disabled list in 2014 for the first time since 2008, when he dislocated his thumb; can he stay healthy and play at least 150 games this season? (He's averaged 153 since '09.) There aren't any reasons to worry yet, because Zobrist hasn't been bad yet. But everyone gets bad someday. Hopefully that day waits until at least 2016, when he's picked a new suitor via free agency.
My guess: What do you think I'm going to say? I've been waiting years to see Zobrist play for my team, hoping one day he'd don the green and gold. Now I have him. I've already got a mental image of what his B-Ref page will look like with a 6-win season listed under 2015. Or better, I'm not picky.
Bonus: What will the competition do?
This is as important as anything. Even if the A's hadn't collapsed in 2014, I'm not sure they would have stayed ahead of the Angels in the division.
The Angels could repeat, or their rotation could fall apart, with their infield following right behind it. The Mariners could run away with the West behind Cruz & Cano, or King Felix could find himself toiling with a peasant's offense once again. The Astros could win 88 games just as easily as 68, given all the moving and shaking they've done. The Rangers will probably not contend, but they could if Prince Fielder comes back full-force and the pitchers finally stay healthy. I'm not even leaving a guess for this one, because I've already made my predictions. (The Mariners win, sorry.) This entry is just to point out that the West truly will be wild this year, and literally anything can happen. There is not an arrangement of 1st-thru-last that would completely drop my jaw.
What are your answers to these questions? And what other important questions do you think there are that aren't covered here? Will the A's break their 10-year streak of Opening Day losses? Who will end up replacing Coco while he's out? Will Brett Lawrie finally stay healthy? Will Sonny become a true ace?