By now you know the story: before last season, Oakland traded away three of its best pitchers (and its last three All-Stars): Trevor Cahill, to the Diamondbacks; Gio Gonzalez, to the Nationals; and Andrew Bailey, to the Red Sox. At the time, it seemed like the confirmation of the trope we in Oakland have come to know so well in the last decade: raise great pitchers and auction them off before they become too expensive. It looked like this was the biggest fire sale yet.
Oakland’s pitching–traditionally a strength–came through as always. Despite trotting out an extremely untested staff, the A’s were a pitching-positive team last year. Perhaps Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone’s success could have been foreseen–but what about Travis Blackley, Dan Straily, Bartolo Colon, and AJ Griffin? The A’s got unpredictably good efforts out of all of them, and trotted out a hard-to-believe 7 starters who each recorded at least one win of cumulative fWAR value. By year’s end, injuries had left the club basically starting all rookies–and it didn’t seem so terrible, especially given the late-season 7-8-9 dominance of the Doolittle-Cook-Balfour trio. If you watched the ALDS it was easy to see how we could have won.
The real question is how likely the young staff is to repeat last year’s success. Brandon McCarthy is gone, which is my main quibble with this front office this offseason; with him gone, Brett Anderson is the new big man on campus (Colon’s heft aside). Tyson Ross is also gone; while he was bad as a starter, his real problems always came in the 3+ time through the lineup, so he could have become a valuable stretch reliever.
Credit the ballpark, to an extent: the A’s held their opponents to nearly a run fewer at home, posting a 3.08 ERA at home to a 3.95 average away. You can also credit the team’s defense, which went from being a famous afterthought in the Moneyball-proper era to a new advantage around the turn of the century. The A’s should be even better in the field this year: they have four legit center fielders, and as I’ve mentioned before I think Yo’s flyball-route woes will evaporate as he gets more major league coaching. Up the middle they may miss Pennington’s glove; it really depends on how Nakajima shakes out, which is a total wild card.
Without any further ado,
1. Brett Anderson — That slider bites. I have no qualms about Anderson when he is out there. The only question seems to be how often he will be out there. He came back from Tommy John surgery last year having recovered his old velocity, but hasn’t approached the 175 IP he threw as a rookie in 2009. I hope he can top that this year — if so, he’ll be the ace we need. (5-3)
2. Bartolo Colon — I don’t think many of us thought we’d see Colon but not McCarthy back this season. Colon’s 2012 was cut short by a suspension for PEDs, but he went 4-2 in six starts even after he knew he would probably be suspended. Assuming he’s not going to be on them now, I don’t know if he can repeat last year’s success. PEDs aside, his control last year was absolutely insane–a ridiculously low 1.3 BB/9. This was far below his career average of 2.91, but maybe (?) is due to a strategic change. Last year, despite the velocity decrease that comes with age, Colon threw an absurdly high percentage of fastballs–89%! I expect him to be solid (ha, ha) when he’s out there, though I don’t know how much that will be. (3-1)
3. Jarrod Parker — Parker showed gravitas in stepping up to become the A’s effective #1 by the NLDS, given the injuries/suspensions that took down McCarthy, Anderson, and Colon. Don’t get too excited by the Greg Maddux comparison ZiPS comes up with–okay, it’s pretty awesome, but still. Dude’s a sophomore. The concern with Parker & Milone alike will be whether their arms can withstand the rigors of pitching 150+ innings, given their heavy workload as rookies. I’m looking for a sub-4 ERA, and will be happy if it’s sub-3.5. What a nasty changeup. (4-2)
4. Tom Milone — Am I the only one who sees Jamie Moyer out there? (Given the Maddux comp above, maybe even Tom Glavine?) Okay, maybe the soft-tossing lefty comparison is a little lazy. If he’s as good as Moyer, though, we’re set. In any case, as a fly-ball pitcher he’ll always have an advantage at o.co: he was basically an ace at home last year (.271 wOBA allowed) and replacement-level away (.367 wOBA allowed). He has some minor-league history of higher strikeout rates; if he can improve in that area, his weaknesses away might be mitigated. I’m quite happy with him as a 3rd or 4th starter, though. (3-2)
5. Dan Straily/AJ Griffin — While the first four spots in the rotation are relatively set, it’s much less clear who will take the ball on the fifth day. Both Straily and Griffin were surprising successes last year, though in different settings. Griffin took the ball for the A’s on the way to a sterling 7-1 record. He relies on control. Straily became the talk of the minors when he shot from non-prospect status to lead the minors in strikeouts (he is now considered one of the A’s top prospects). While Griffin had a better big-league season last year, most expect Straily to come out with the fifth spot. In the long run both are major league starters. (2)
Depth: Andrew Werner, Travis Blackley
Okay, I don’t want to be here all day. The bullpen will be fine. Jordan Norberto might get suspended as he’s recently been linked to PEDs, but we were fine without him anyway. We won’t have to deal with Brian Fuentes, thank the stars. The last couple innings seem set, though I’m not sure how long Balfour can keep it turned up to 11 without bursting a blood vessel. Sean Doolittle may have been the strangest story in baseball all last year, but I look forward to a lot of 1-2-3 innings from him. Blevins can handle lefties. Ryan Cook probably has the most potential out of all of them. For long relief… who wants to hear about long relief, anyway?
The A’s broke completely beyond expectations last year to win the AL West. To do so, they had to get past the Rangers, who had become something of a juggernaut in the past couple yars, as well as the Angels, who have seemingly never had a down year since 2001. Well, the Rangers have three of the top prospects in baseball (Leonys Martin, Jurickson Profar, and Mike Olt), and the Angels added a couple of guys named Josh Hamilton and Jason Vargas (who seemed to own the A’s last year). Competition is likely to remain fierce on the left coast. On the plus side, the Angels’ pitching seems like it might have gotten even shakier than it was, and the Rangers lost an MVP in Hamilton. On the other side… the Rangers offense is still scary, Yu Darvish might get better, and the Angels are trotting out Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.
So the picture in the West is pretty cloudy. What about around the rest of the AL?
The AL Central seems to be the Tigers’ for the taking. The Indians should be much improved, and the White Sox might crack .500, but there’s no one predicting the result won’t be mostly the same as last year.
So what about the AL East? The division seems to get more crowded every year, and this may be the year when every club can lay claim to some shred of real hope for the crown.
Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but the Yankee dynasty may be coming to an end. While Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are still around, the house seems to be crumbling around them. A-Rod may or may not ever be effective, much less play, again. Mark Teixeira is rapidly declining in productivity. I still expect them to contend, but the hope now is for 90 wins, not 100 as the standard has seemed to be for the last fifteen years. (Oh, crap. Just looked at their roster. This is frightening. I’m a sucker for redemption stories, so seeing that they signed Travis Hafner has me afear’d he’ll go back to being the Pronk of old.)
The Blue Jays were the big movers of the offseason. Their top four batters (Reyes, Me. Cabrera, Bautista, Encarnación) rival the Angels’ for most fearsome in the league, and they also added last year’s NL Cy Young (RA Dickey), the guy people keep picking to win the NL Cy Young (Josh Johnson), and veteran Mark Buehrle. However, their bullpen still isn’t great and the other five batters nowhere near as impressive.
The Orioles had a dismal offseason, and don’t seem likely to repeat last year’s miracle, but can’t be completely ignored.
The Rays should be their usual pesky selves; they lost Upton, but added Wil Myers, and a full season of Evan Longoria will be nice.
I wish I could say the Red Sox won’t compete, but look at that lineup! They have power all the way through. Stephen Drew, who hit 2nd for the A’s for a time, is projected to bat last!
My conclusion is that the AL is going to be a murderfest this year. By my count there are seven teams (Jays, Yanks, Rays, Tigers, Rangers, A’s, Angels) that are very good. I’m leaving out the Red Sox on the basis of their pitching. Of these, the A’s probably have close to the lowest ceiling. However, that was never what this offseason was about. Following the front office’s strategy this winter was to be given notice of the value of stabilizing the team and consolidating the gains made last summer. Compare this with the Yankees, who are relying on a number of aging stars: Andy Pettite could win fifteen games or none, Ichiro could hit .300 or .250. Oakland has major-league depth around the diamond, and if they make the playoffs, I expect this to be a major reason why. I listed seven “very good” teams. Only four/five of these seven will make the playoffs. If I had to guess, injuries will play a significant part in downing the two teams that will be on the outside looking in come Wild Card Day. Luckily, these A’s are built to withstand injuries.
For fun, I’ve summed the wins I think we’ll see from each of the A’s significant players and added that to the replacement level for wins (47 last year), as follows:
C = 4 (Jaso 3, Norris 1)
1B = 4 (Moss 3, Barton 1)
2B = 2 (Lowrie 1, Sizemore 1)
SS = 2 (Nakajima 2)
3B = 3 (Donaldson 3)
RF = 4 (Reddick 4)
CF = 4 (Crisp 2, Young 2)
LF = 4 (Céspedes 4)
DH = 1 (Smith 1–Crisp & others may also get time at DH)
SP = 15 (Anderson 4.5, Parker 3.5, Milone 2.5, Colon/Straily/Griffin 4.5)
Relief = 4.5 (Balfour, Cook, Doolittle 1 each, Blevins etc .5)
Total = 47.5
Total + Replacement Level = 47.5 + 47 = 94.5
I do not expect Oakland to win 95 or even 94 games this year. However, they will be in the thick of the Wild Card race, maybe give someone a scare for the pennant, and I will not be surprised if they do win 94 or 95 games. That’s the best I can do.