Your 2013 Oakland Athletics: Hitters: A Primer and a Preview

In the laudably misguided tradition of bloggers everywhere, I’m going to improperly assume that everyone else spends as much time thinking about my favorite sports team as I do. What follows are my somewhat reasoned-out thoughts on the Oakland A’s as constructed for the 2013 season, peppered with insights from elsewhere. A little rosterbation never hurt anyone!

Batters

In 2001, Oakland seemed to have an embarrassment of riches on the offensive side of the ledger: Jason Giambi had just won the 2000 MVP, Miguel Tejada would win one in 2002, and Eric Chávez looked like he’d be hitting 30 homers a year for the next decade. What was not to be! The MVPs signed elsewhere, and Chavy got hurt and was never the same. For the rest of the decade and into the next, the A’s had a perennially antagonistic relationship with offense. Jack Cust seemed like a bona fide slugger in that climate.

Still can’t believe it.

All of which is to say that last year’s club was a…pleasant surprise. While the team didn’t remind anyone of the 1920s Yankees, the club did finish 14th in runs scored… which is in the top half of all MLB clubs! This resurgence was fueled by a number of individual breakthroughs that went beyond random variance. Team batting average remained frighteningly low, but this was offset by a smart year on the basepaths and unexpected pop around the diamond. Yoenis Céspedes acclimated to the big leagues faster than anyone thought he would. Josh Reddick busted out for thirty homers. Perhaps most of all, Brandon Moss (160 wRC+) and Chris Carter (137 wRC+) teamed up for a fearsome platoon at first base that no one could have foreseen. Moss wasn’t even a first baseman until last year, and Carter was only one in a mix of quad-A players at first base that included Brandon Allen, Daric Barton, and Kila Ki’ahue.

These breakouts were tempered by downright bad seasons from Kurt Suzuki (traded mid-season), Cliff Pennington (traded in the offseason), and Jemile Weeks (in this year’s 2B mix). However, smart roster moves and solid backups offset these losses in production. General manager Billy Beane and manager Bob Melvin got power, defense, and leadership from indefatigable veteran Brandon Inge, and when Inge went down, Josh Donaldson emerged. Beane/Melvin minimized the gaping black hole at second base by trading for Stephen Drew and moving Cliff Pennington to second, where he regressed to the mean somewhat on offense and was a plus defender at least.

The strategy of the offseason seemed designed to shield these upstart A’s from regression. Beane looked to consolidate the gains the team had made by adding depth, especially in the infield. Essentially, he looked to trade the volatile success of last year for something a little more certain. He bought low on centerfielder Chris Young, who was available because of Arizona’s glut of outfielders; Young mashes lefties and will throw better from centerfield than noodle-armed Coco Crisp. At catcher, he brought in John Jaso, who will mercifully take starts away from Derek Norris. Norris may have been overmatched at the plate last season, and Jaso will gladly take his at-bats against righties. Jaso had 2.7 fWAR in only 360 PAs last year, mostly against righties, so he is a significant addition. The infield up the middle could be all new faces: Hiroyuki Nakajima was brought in from Japan to play shortstop, and glass-bodied former prospect Jed Lowrie arrived in a trade that sent fan favorite Chris Carter to Houston. Nakajima will have the shortstop job as long as concerns about his defense don’t prove too serious. Lowrie, however, is harder to figure out. He’s never topped 100 games, due to a worrisome history of injuries. He played mostly short last year, but has seen time at every position in the infield and figures as a plus fielder all over the diamond. He has pop, too–14 homers in an injury-shortened season, good for third among all shortstops. Where he’ll play seems to mostly be a matter of where others fail.

With all of that out of the way, let’s take a look at some projected lineups:

v. RHP v. LHP
Lineup Lineup
CF Crisp DH Crisp
C Jaso 1B Lowrie/Barton
LF Cespedes CF Young
1B Moss LF Cespedes
DH Smith RF Reddick
RF Reddick 3B Donaldson
3B Donaldson SS Nakajima
2B Lowrie 2B Greeksmoregard*
SS Nakajima C Norris

*Greeksmoregard = whoever wins job out of Grant Green, Scott Sizemore, Jemile Weeks, Eric Sogard.

The A’s have three left-handed batters who should platoon well: Moss, Smith, and Jaso should always start against righties. Against lefties, the team gets a little better defensively: Young’s an upgrade in center, Barton is a beast in the corner, and Norris at least has the potential to be better than Jaso, who is a weak defender. However, it might be weaker offensively; it’s hard to tell.

What follows is a depth chart with projected WAR values, based on FanGraphs’ reports of Oliver, Steamer, Bill James, and Fan projections, combined with my own intuition. I give a range for each player: the high end represents them playing to the level of their best season, and the low end represents them playing to their lowest. Injuries are not factored in, and I am assuming exclusivity (i.e., I can’t say Barton is going to be a five-win player because even if he regains form, he’ll be splitting PAs with Moss).

C:

Looks like he’ll fit right in.

John Jaso (1 – 3.5): Jaso came close to the OBP holy grail of .400 last year, and should bat near the top of the order for the A’s this year. Twenty-nine and at his peak, Jaso raked against righties–a .927 OPS–and fared nearly as poorly against lefties, hitting a measly .119. Though he figures as a strict platoon, Jaso should be a strong contributor on offense for the A’s this year. Except for the conventional prejudice that a leadoff hitter should hit first, he’d be good in that spot. More here.

Derek Norris (0 – 1): I have Norris figured as a replacement-level player, because that’s what he looked like to me at the end of last year, and I don’t want to trust some random calculations over my own eyes. HOWEVER–for whatever reason, the Oliver and Fan projections have faith in his development, calling for 3.1 and 2.5 WAR, respectively. I’m not buying it, but I’d take it if given.

1B:

Brandon Moss (1 – 3.5): Moss’ profile screams regression, though I wish it weren’t so. A 160 wRC+ makes sense next to a name like Edwin Encarnacion, whose power has always been apparent, but last year’s showing from Moss was unexpected. I hope it’s real, though the number of swing-and-misses I saw from him last year belies that expectation. We’ll see whether he starts against lefties; he hasn’t shown too much difficulty against them, and could surpass the upper bounds of my projection if he does keep those starts. I don’t think he will, though.

Daric Barton (0 – 2): I may be the only one with irrational confidence in Barton. Following his defense-fueled 5-win season in 2010, he’s fallen apart and continually lost the job. His defense is real, and in his favor is a bizarre reverse-platoon split that may see him see action against southpaws. He has no power–not really even the doubles kind–but as long as he can get on base and keep his line-drive rate up, he’s worth something. Despite hitting as poorly as ever last year, he kept walking and defending, and lo and behold!–value: .5 WAR in 136 PAs, better than 2 WAR for 600 PAs. If you can have that kind of value while hitting .200, you’re making up for it somewhere. Consider me intrigued.

2B:

Jed Lowrie (1.5 – 3.5): Lowrie can contribute all over the field, and will really end up wherever he is needed. He should be fine at the plate as long as he keeps walking like he did last year–look at his 2011 season for what happens when he doesn’t.

Scott Sizemore (1 – 3): Oliver actually loves him, projecting 2.6 WAR. We’ll see what a year off has done.

Depth–Jemile Weeks, Grant Green, Eric Sogard, Adam Rosales

SS:

Hiroyuki Nakajima (0 – 3): We really don’t know what we’re getting in him, but he’s supposed to be able to hit.

Jed Lowrie

Depth–Brandon Hicks, Adam Rosales, Eric Sogard, Grant Green

3B:

Josh Donaldson (1.5 – 3.5): Crazy to look for 3-4 WAR? Not really–he went for 1.8 in 75 games last year, and those include his horrific start. Defense should be there–can he keep hitting like he did at the end of the year? Even if he can’t, his double in ALDSG4 lives on forever.

Jed Lowrie

Depth–Scott Sizemore

OF:

Good doing business with you, Sr. Céspedes.

Yoenis Céspedes (3-6): Yo put up 3 WAR in his first season in America, and I can’t see him putting up less than that given the in-season development he showed. I think concerns about his defense should disappear this year as he adapts to left field, and he’s got quite an arm even if it’s not on Reddick’s level. His ISO may drop, but I see him putting up a continually high BABIP–have you seen how hard the guy swings? Hopefully he’ll play all season and hit that upper bound.

Josh Reddick (2-5): There’s a wild range of possibilities for this guy. He could be an All-Star or far from it. Many of Reddick’s issues seem to be in his head. He should be able to ride his defense and baserunning to at least 3 wins, but his contribution to the team plateaued in a disturbing way last year as his Ks ticked up toward the end of the year. His swing is a bit long–perhaps due to an effort to loft fly balls for homers–and he’s an oddly poor fastball hitter. His potential is great, but he really gets into ruts; he’s got a lot of variability. If he could become a true middle of the order hitter, with a .270/.350 line, that would quite a coup, but for now he’s best in the 6 spot with his abysmal OBP. For all this criticism, it’s important to remember that last year was Josh’s first in the big leagues, so even if he comes down to earth this year we’ll hopefully see some long-term improvement.

Coco Crisp (2-3): Bob Melvin loves Coco and his speed, so I expect him to get play even when Young starts in center. Coco’s years with the A’s have been remarkably consistent, but he is aging with reliance on speed, so giving him some time off could be good.

Chris Young (2-4): Young is an extreme pull hitter who should always face lefties. His power numbers should come down as a result of the move to the cavernous, terribly-named o.co Coliseum, but hopefully his speed will come back after the shoulder injury that kept him hobbled last year. He has put up multiple 4-win seasons before, but since he’ll probably play less, that might be his upper bound now.

Seth Smith (1-2): Smith will probably mostly DH, perhaps spelling Céspedes at times. As part of Oakland’s platoon advantage, he’ll be our professional hitter against righties. He’s been the model of consistency, so there shouldn’t be any surprises here.

Depth: Smith, Michael Taylor, Michael Choice, Grant Green (last three are prospects close to big leagues; Taylor could start the year with the club, though I’m no expert on such things)

Questions:

1. How will Nakajima adapt to the big leagues? The A’s new shortstop will almost certainly not be an elite hitter as he was in Japan. If he can be an above-average hitter, though, the A’s will gain some cushion on offense.

2. Fitting the puzzle pieces together in the infield. Scott Sizemore has played second and third, Josh Donaldson has played third and catcher, Eric Sogard can play anywhere up the middle, and Jed Lowrie can play anywhere, period. It’s possible that the pieces will fall into place naturally as performance and injury thins the competition, but right now the A’s have a glut of infielders, with little clarity on how things will shake out. Lowrie, Donaldson, and Sizemore all have similar profiles, but as the A’s traded a decent amount for Lowrie, he figures to be a starter–but where?

3. Options. We saw last year how adept Bob Melvin proved to be in milking platoon advantages for all they’re worth. The A’s have definitely given themselves flexibility with this winter’s flurry of moves. Some are projecting that Chris Young and Brandon Moss will be full-time starters, on the basis of Young’s excellent defense and Moss’ lack of an apparent challenger. To be honest, I have no idea how all this will shake out. As I’ve noted, Young mashes lefties, but he’s no slouch against righties. Crisp still has a better OPS and better speed, though, so I think we’ll see him bat mostly from the left side this year as he gets the starts against righties. On the Moss front, he hit for the same average against both righties and lefties last year, but his power disappears against southpaws.

In general, I have to say I have very little idea how our lineup is going to shake out. There are way too many permutations to try to nail it down now: we just have to wait and see who steps up.

4. Youth and improvement. The A’s had enormous success last year from players in their first year as major-league starters: Derek Norris, Brandon Moss, Josh Reddick, Yoenis Céspedes, and Josh Donaldson were all such players. Whether these players continue to improve will be a huge question going into the season. Norris can’t really get worse, and while I won’t be surprised to see Reddick and Moss, I really think Donaldson and Céspedes will build on last year’s campaigns. (I’m secretly really optimistic about all of them, but won’t let myself get carried away!)

Other Previews:

Alex Hall at Athletics Nation: http://www.athleticsnation.com/2013/1/18/3892226/constructing-oakland-as-lineup-by-the-book

Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS Projections: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/2013-zips-projections-oakland-athletics/

ESPN’s David Schoenfield: http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/32768/offseason-report-card-as

Oakland’s Top Ten Prospects: http://www.baseballamerica.com/today/prospects/rankings/organization-top-10-prospects/2013/2614395.html

SB Nation: http://mlb.sbnation.com/2013/2/6/3956166/oakland-athletics-trades-jed-lowrie-chris-young-john-jaso

MLBlogs: http://formerlyfausto.mlblogs.com/2013/02/08/oakland-athletics-2013-team-preview-billy-beane-is-sexy-and-he-knows-it/

Oakland’s Infield at Bleacher Report: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1522773-oakland-athletics-starting-infield-predictions-for-2013/page/1

Rotochamp: http://rotochamp.com/baseball/TeamPage.aspx?Team=OAK

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