The Athletics have been the unlikely winner of the AL West each of the past two seasons, and they once again seem to be a solid bet to take the division crown. The A's made a number of moves this offseason, and though none were as significant as the Choo/Fielder duo that Texas got, or Robinson Cano to the Mariners, they were all upgrades in one way or another. Unfortunately, like the rest of the AL West, Oakland is facing a number of injuries that could put a damper on their division-winning aspirations. Among them, the loss of Jarrod Parker is especially crushing, as he was slated to be Oakland's ace and they could lose as many as four wins downgrading to Jesse Chavez. For a team that has predicated its success on extreme depth, 2014 is shaping up to be a true test to just how deep they really are.
LHP Scott Kazmir, IF Nick Punto, OF Sam Fuld, OF Craig Gentry, RHP Luke Gregerson, RHP Jim Johnson, LHP Eric O'Flaherty, LHP Fernando Abad, LHP Drew Pomeranz, IF Jake Elmore, C Dusty Brown, OF Kent Matthes, OF Billy Burns, RHP Chris Jensen, RHP Matt Buschmann, LHP Joe Savery, RHP Phillip Humber, RHP Fernando Nieve
The current Oakland Athletics are a team predicated on platoons and the art of mixing-and-matching. So, of course Oakland went out and spent a number of acquisitions aimed at bettering their platoon advantage. One of those such moves was their addition of infielder Nick Punto on a dirt-cheap one-year deal. With a .362 OBP last year against left-handers (.313 versus righties), Punto is expected to make up the left side of Oakland's second base platoon with #FaceofMLB Eric Sogard manning the other end.
The other "big" offensive moves made were adding a pair of outfielders in Craig Gentry and Sam Fuld. Gentry, who will start the season on the DL with a strained lower back, is the exact type of player that you would expect Oakland's front office to covet. A well above-average defender, Gentry also has a knack for getting on base, evidenced by his career .355 OBP (he had a .373 OBP in 2013). Due to Oakland's already strong outfield trio of Josh Reddick, Coco Crisp, and Yoenis Cespedes, Gentry's 2014 role will likely be as the team's backup outfielder, and a very good one at that.
Brought in as a flyer on a minor-league deal, Sam Fuld has reaped the immediate benefit of Gentry's absence, recently being named to Oakland's 25-man roster. The 32-year-old former Cub and Ray has been pretty useful over the past few years as a defensive-minded replacement, though he has performed horribly when masquerading as a starter. Not shy of the occasional highlight-reel play, Fuld should be a more than suitable replacement while Gentry's hurt.
Though not a major move by any means, the A's pickup of outfield prospect Billy Burns in the Jerry Blevins trade looks like a steal in retrospect. The 24-year-old owns a career .420 minor league OBP and is coming off a 74 stolen base season. He may not make much of an impact this season, but he should be an intriguing name to keep an eye on down the road.
To fill the void left by Bartolo Colon, Oakland brought in resurgent southpaw Scott Kazmir on a two-year, $22 million deal. Appearing in just one game since the end of 2010, and having not had any real success since 2009, the Cleveland Indians gave Kazmir a trial last spring, and he flourished, posting a 2.5 WAR, 3.51 FIP, and 9.23 K/9 in 158 innings pitched. With Oakland's recent rash of pitcher injuries, they're going to need Kazmir to step up and fill the role of the number two starter behind Sonny Gray.
The place where the A's made their biggest overhaul this winter was in the bullpen, where they brought in the quartet of Jim Johnson, Fernando Abad, Luke Gregerson, and Eric O'Flaherty. The added relief depth is already shaping up to be beneficial, as the team is currently dealing with injuries to Ryan Cook and Fernando Rodriguez, with O'Flaherty also starting the season on the 60-day DL. Of the four, Johnson is the most interesting addition, as the Athletics trading for a closer being paid $10 million is pretty much unprecedented, especially considering they could've retained Grant Balfour at essentially the same price and with an extra year of team control.
One other notable addition this winter was their acquiring of former number four overall pick and once highly regarded lefty pitching prospect Drew Pomeranz in the Brett Anderson trade. Pomeranz offers quite a bit of upside as a starting pitcher, and could come in handy if another starter goes down with an injury. The A's currently plan to use Pomeranz in a long-relief role as they await the results of the Jesse Chavez experiment, with the ultimate goal to stretch him out as a starter.
RHP Pat Neshek, LHP Brett Anderson, 2B Jemile Weeks, IF Scott Sizemore, RHP Bartolo Colon, OF Chris Young, C Kurt Suzuki, OF Michael Choice, 2B Chris Bostick, OF Seth Smith, C David Freitas, LHP Jerry Blevins, LHP Pedro Figueroa, OF Corey Brown, IF Andy Parrino, RHP Grant Balfour
Oakland let a lot of players go this offseason, including a few once deemed as part of the team's long-term plans. On paper, the losses of Seth Smith, Michael Choice, Kurt Suzuki, Jemile Weeks, Scott Sizemore, and Chris Young looks like quite a bit of turnover, but in reality, none of them really stood a chance at garnering significant playing time with the A's this season, especially when it comes to the outfielders. It is interesting to see Choice and Weeks traded away since each of them were regarded as key pieces of Oakland's future at some point over the past two years.
In the rotation, the A's lost Bartolo Colon to free agency and traded away Brett Anderson. Anderson was such a wild card due to his tendency to get hurt, and the A's were lucky enough to get a player of Pomeranz's caliber in return for him anyways. Letting Colon walk is also more than understandable, as he is almost 41 and it should be nearly impossible for him to be the same guy he was last year. Giving a player of his age and body type a two-year deal just wasn't a move Oakland wanted to nor should have made.
The A's also curiously let go of closer Grant Balfour (curiously due to his ultimate contract terms and expensive replacement), preferring to install Johnson at the position. Balfour has been the definition of stability over the past three years with the A's (he averaged a 154 ERA+ and 1.9 WAR in Oakland), and his presence will surely be missed.
Players to Watch
Josh Reddick was outstanding in 2012 (112 OPS+, 5.0 WAR), but less so last season (93 OPS+, 2.2 WAR), mostly due to a large drop in his power production, as his ISO slipped from .221 to .153. Reddick is a superb right fielder with elite arm strength, but at the plate, his production is almost entirely dependent on how much power he produces, as he just doesn't have even average contact ability (.239 career batting average) and doesn't walk enough to compensate for it (.302 career OBP). Reddick is a good bet to be worth 2+ WAR just due to his defense, but there's the potential for two to three extra wins there if he can return his power numbers to 2012 form.
The once bright spot in the devastating injury to Jarrod Parker is the spotlight it puts on Sonny Gray. The 24-year-old former 18th overall pick is diminutive at just 5'11", but he packs a punch, throwing a mid-90's fastball with a breathtaking curveball that is already a major league out pitch. Gray performed well in his 12-game, 10-start trial last summer, notching a 2.67 ERA and 1.5 WAR in 64 innings. While it's hard to imagine him keeping up a sub-3.00 ERA all season, Gray is one of the brighter young pitchers in the game, and is advanced enough that he could be a ~3.40 ERA, 2.5-3.0 WAR pitcher right out of the gate.
One of the biggest question marks facing the Athletics this season is how third baseman Josh Donaldson will respond to his breakout 2013 season. Few, if any, expect him to repeat the 7.7 WAR, MVP caliber season he had last year, but expectations have now squarely pegged him as one of the best players in the majors and a focal point of the A's' lineup.
For some reason, I've always been a huge proponent of Derek Norris, so why not showcase him here. The 24-year-old backstop has one of the most interesting offensive profiles in baseball, displaying minimal ability to make contact, but showing some of the best plate-discipline in professional baseball, as well as enough power for him to reach 20 home runs at some point. He's also not terrible defensively, with the metrics depicting him as a slightly above-average defender with more than adequate pitch-framing skills. The current plan for him is to platoon at catcher with John Jaso, and that makes sense considering Norris hit .320 off lefties last season, though I see him as a capable starter worthy of more than just a part-time role. His situation speaks more to Oakland's depth and roster philosophy than Norris himself.
Best Case Scenario
Like their counterparts in Texas, the A's are going to need to stay healthy in order to reach their potential. However, unlike the Rangers, the A's have a number of insurance plans and are a team built to deal with injuries, though the drop in performance would be inevitable.
The A's don't have as much upside as division rivals such as the Rangers and Angels, but they have a relatively high floor and figure to be good for 88-94 wins. Their ultimate ceiling is pretty much what they were last year (96-66), but I have a tough time seeing them exceed 94 wins.
Worst Case Scenario
As I mentioned above, the downside here is still a fringe playoff contender. Oakland's worst nightmare would be seeing some of their core players like Gray, Reddick, Cespedes, or Donaldson go down with long-term injuries, or significant drops in production from someone like Donaldson who has a lot riding on whether or not he will be able to repeat his 2013 performance.
Thanks to Andrew Koo's brilliant work at Baseball Prospectus, we now know that Oakland's front office is favoring fly-ball heavy hitters to go along with their ever-increasing use of the platoon. The Athletics' roster clearly depicts this philosophy, as despite lacking in the star-power department over the past two years, the A's have emerged as the class of the AL West. Oakland is hoping that trend continues this year, but with a rebooted American League, there will be plenty of competition to just earn a Wild Card berth. Fortunately for Oakland fans, on paper, this year's squad may be the best since the "Moneyball run" ended in in the late-2000's.