2014 MLB Season Preview: Oakland Athletics
Is it “Ces-pe-des” or “Ces-pedes?” Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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Projected AL West Finish: 1st out of 5
Coming into this season, here at That Ball’s Outta Here we want to preview each team in the majors, with a different writer covering each division in the order of projected end of year standings. In this, my final installment in the series, I preview the Oakland Athletics of the AL West.
Major Additions: UT Nick Punto, RHP Jim Johnson, OF Craig Gentry, RHP Luke Gregerson, LHP Scott Kazmir
This off-season, the A’s largely added supplemental pieces to prolong their current two-time division title reign over the AL West. This was in lieu of spending on a big name free agent with a compensation pick attached.
That’s not to say that the traditionally conservative Athletics didn’t spend, and in fact the team used more resources than most expected to bolster their club.
However, they focused largely on the trade market, where monetary costs don’t inflate the way they do on the free agent market.
The A’s certainly traded some youth away to make their significant moves this off-season, but only one of what most would consider to be their best prospects (OF Michael Choice).
He was sent to Texas, receiving valuable bench OF and on-base machine Craig Gentry in return. Gentry can capably play all three OF positions, hits for high average (career .280 BA), walks a lot (.355 OBP), and is a strong base-runner (28 SB/162).
After trading DH Seth Smith and the departure of Chris Young, the A’s didn’t have a single backup OF with at least 10 PAs in 2013 – this was a necessary move.
Additionally, the A’s took on a lot of salary by trading for Baltimore closer Jim Johnson (who’s making about $10 million this season in arbitration). He’s made a career of outperforming his peripherals, as his ERA has been both below 3.00 and more than half a run lower than his FIP each of the last three years.
Further adding to the already deep bullpen, Oakland traded Seth Smith to San Diego for RHP Luke Gregerson. A possible setup man for the A’s, he’s been another consistent reliever over the last five seasons – he’s averaged 65 IP a year, with a 2.94 FIP and 1.092 WHIP.
The marquee free agent acquisition of this off-season was LHP Scott Kazmir on a two-year, $22 million deal. Kazmir is a two-time All-Star and former Rays mainstay who, after a swift decline, experienced a career renaissance in Cleveland in 2013.
Considered a risky investment, the team is hoping he brings a veteran presence to a very young rotation and his performance returns to the levels he produced from 2005-2008.
The final major signing of the off-season was UT Nick Punto, a 36-year old infielder who’s spent 13 seasons with 5 teams (most recently, the Dodgers). He’s a solid defender with only a so-so bat who is meant to create some depth at the team’s relative weakness of 2B.
Impact Bats: 1B Brandon Moss, SS Jed Lowrie, 3B Josh Donaldson, CF Coco Crisp, RF Yoenis CespedesEric Sogard
, or a visual approximation ofBilly Beane
Jr. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
In 2013, the Oakland A’s scored the 3rd most runs in the AL, and the 4th most overall. With all but one (Seth Smith) of their starters returning, and most still in their prime, their offense seems to not have many question marks associated with it.
At every position around the diamond, all starters were astoundingly worth at least 1.5 rWAR in 2013.
That’s a well constructed team – even at the position most widely considered a “weakness,” 2B, Eric Sogard refuses to strike out, gets on-base at a league-average clip, and provides strong defense. His weakness surrounds below-average power, speed, and low walk rate.
25-year old C Derek Norris is coming off of his first full year as a starter, after posting a nice .246/.345/.409 with a 114 wRC+, 9 HR, and adequate defense in 98 games.
His severe splits have lead to platooning Norris with C/DH John Jaso.
RF Josh Reddick suffered from a wrist injury, and some regression in 2013 after a breakout year in 2012.
That season, he batted .242/.305/.463 with 32 HR, 11/12 SB, and a 108 wRC+ over 156 games. Expect him to return closer to that form, with his consistently impressive defense, in 2014.
CF Coco Crisp is coming off of an under-appreciated year offensively, hitting .265/.335/.444 with 22 HR, 21/26 SB, 117 wRC+, and a BB rate almost matching his K rate.
Crisp is entering his age-34 season, so age-related regression is possible, but he’s an ever important piece for the team’s success in 2014.
Over in LF is Cuban defector and podcast inspiration, Yoenis Cespedes. He has insane raw power, but a lot of swing and miss exists. He cooled off from his strong 2012 rookie season, with strikeouts ticking up, walks ticking down, and his average dropping 52 points.
His OBP and SLG experienced similar drops as his hacking at the plate caught up with him. He’s got a similar toolset to fellow Cuban Yasiel Puig, but must be more patient at the plate in 2014 in order to tap into it.
1B Brandon Moss had a strong 2013, posting 30 HR and a 137 wRC+ on his way to a .256/.337/.522 line. He walks at an OK rate, but he has an even more exacerbated swing-and-miss problem than Puig, with a K rate hovering around 30% over the last two seasons.
If I had a nickel for every time I called an A’s player “under-appreciated,” I’d probably start doing it a lot more often – beginning with SS Jed Lowrie. While he has some notoriety, his production for his position is greater than many assume.
His wRC+ of 121 in 2013 ranked 2nd among all qualifying SS. His BA/OBP/SLG ranked 3rd/2nd/3rd, respectively, and his 15 HR put him in the top 5. Defensively, he’s nothing special at the position, but the bat is one you’d be happy to put in any lineup.
In 2013, the team’s MVP-candidate (but in a world with his holiness and Miguel Cabrera, in name only) was breakout 3B Josh Donaldson, who cut down on strikeouts by 20%, increased walks by 138%, and provided above-average defense (9.9 UZR). He batted .301/.384/.499, with 24 HR and an elite 148 wRC+.
Impact Arms: RHP A.J. Griffin, RHP Sonny Gray, LHP Scott Kazmir, RHP Jim Johnson, RHP Luke Gregerson, LHP Sean Doolittle
Sonny Gray realizes his name is an oxymoron, mid spontaneous toss. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
This list was going to look even stronger than the one list presented at the top of this post, until the recent news of Jarrod Parker‘s impending second Tommy John surgery.
He was projected to be the team’s opening day starter, an honor now probably bestowed upon ALDS darling and rookie Sonny Gray.
Fellow homegrown starter A.J. Griffin also looks to start the season on the DL, but he’s not expected to miss too much of the season. He, Parker, and now-Met Bartolo Colon anchored the 2013 rotation, each pitching at least 190 innings.
The only of the three left standing, Griffin posted 200 IP with a below-average 4.55 FIP in 2013. He had roughly average K and BB rates, but was hit hard by the long ball (1.62 HR/9 IP).
Expect both that and his ERA to regress in 2014 towards league-average and his average peripherals, respectively.
The aforementioned Gray was promoted after a strong AAA season, and made an immediate impact in the majors in the latter part of the season.
In 64 IP (including 10 starts), Gray earned a 2.70 FIP, with 9.42 K/9 and a 1.109 WHIP. Very notably, he pitched 8-shutout innings against the devastating Tigers offense, facing off against ace Justin Verlander.
Expected to fill out the rotation should be last year’s #4 and #5 starters, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone.
Straily is coming off of being voted 4th in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2013, having been called up early in the year and sticking in the rotation. As a starter, he was statistically average across the board, but that becomes valuable when a pitch is able to do it over 150+ IP. Expect some modest improvement in 2014.
Milone’s line looks very similar to that of A.J. Griffin, with around the same BB rate (2.25/9 IP vs. 2.42/9 IP), slightly fewer K’s (7.25/9 IP vs. 7.70/9 IP), and a similar HR bug (11.3% HR/FB vs. 12.5% HR/FB) in 2013.
There’s not a ton of separation between the two young pitchers, save for Milone’s rough luck as far as ERA is concerned.
In the bullpen is the aforementioned Jim Johnson as closer, who will groundball his way through another 40-50 saves this season. Another off-season acquisition, Luke Gregerson will likely be the one who passes the ball to Johnson through the 8th inning.
An additional reliever of interest is LHP Sean Doolittle. After progressing quickly through the minors (he pitched a minuscule 26 IP before reaching the majors) and his ERA has underperformed his peripheral value each of his two MLB seasons.
Owning a career 3.09 ERA and 2.46 FIP, expect him to finally break the mystical-if-misleading “sub 3.00 ERA” barrier this season.
Major Prospects: SS Addison Russell, RHP Michael Ynoa, OF Billy McKinney
Someone forgot about Addison Russell and he didn’t know what to do. Rumor has it he’s still standing there. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The Oakland A’s farm system is not the elite prospect system you’d presume with such a forward-thinking front office.
This is because, like the similarly budget-strapped Rays, they’ve dominated the trade market in recent years.
Were I talking about the Phillies, this would be a negative. Trading away prospects for major league veterans?!!? That’s what caused our sudden, downward spiral!
However, the differentiation is that Brad Pitt and the rest of Oakland front office don’t just make a Hunter Pence deal every year (still not over it).
The team is willing to strategically deal prospects when receiving undervalued players with several years of team control remaining. They also judge value very well and don’t overpay.
Just as an example, prior to 2013 they traded their third ranked (and top starting pitching prospect) A.J. Cole to the Nationals in a three-way deal with the Mariners, receiving current C/DH John Jaso in return. He was coming off of an impressive offensive season and still had three remaining years of team control.
A comparable Phillies move would be the Ben Revere trade, if the team found a way to get a slightly better deal (maybe still giving up Worley, and maybe a lesser pitching prospect than Trevor May).
But, anyway – the Athletics current farm system. There’s one stud (multiple All-Star potential) prospect, and a few risky, but potential everyday regulars.
The pride of the system is Baseball America’s 14th-ranked prospect, SS Addison Russell. He’s been aggressively pushed through the system, and at only age-19 hit .275/.377/.508, with 17 HR and 21/24 SB in A+ Stockton.
With plus bat speed and advanced fielding instincts for his age, Russell is all but a sure thing to be Oakland’s everyday SS by 2015. He projects to have league-average power (which is good for a shortstop), and patience at the plate that allows a high contact rate. He’ll begin 2014 in AA Midland.
Behind him is 2013 1st-round pick Billy McKinney, a 19-year old OF who hit .326/.387/.437 in his first professional action after the draft. He’s known as having solid-average tools across the board, with good instincts and makeup. Long-term, he’s likely to move to LF, but for now he gets his reps in CF and will likely begin the season in A Beloit.
RHP Michael Ynoa is another above-average potential, high risk prospect. Ynoa was injured for almost all of his first three American seasons (he was signed out of the Dominican Republic after 2008).
Still only 21-years old in 2013, he finally experienced his first full season of professional baseball, pitching well in A Beloit (54.2 IP, 3.53 FIP, 7.4 H/9, 3.0 BB/9) before being overmatched in A+ Stockton to end the year (21.0 IP, 5.25 FIP, 9.9 H/9, 7.3 BB/9).
He has a strong fastball that sits in the mid-90’s, supplementing it with a currently average curveball and change-up. He’ll return to Stockton to begin the year.