2011 pre-season preview: AL West – Oakland Athletics
Athletics staff ace, Brett Anderson
Oakland Athletics (2010 record: 81-81)
The Oakland Athletics finished last season with a .500 record after three consecutive losing seasons. They were able to do so thanks largely to an excellent young rotation, a good bullpen and a solid defense. Little of what they accomplished was owing to their offense – which finished 11th in the league in runs scored.
In an effort to improve the offensive attack, the front office bid adieu to DH Jack Cust and outfielder Rajai Davis and replaced them with DH Hideki Matsui and outfielders David DeJesus and Josh Willingham. I’m not sure I would have cut ties with Davis, who is just starting to reach his potential, but Beane & Company probably saw him as redundant due to the presence of Coco Crisp. Willingham and Matsui should provide quite a bit more power to a lineup devoid of power bats.
Catcher: Kurt Suzuki
Designated Hitter: Hideki Matsui
The A’s offense averaged a little more than four runs per game last year (663 runs scored on the season)… and while the starting rotation often compensated for the team’s dismal run production, it wasn’t always able to do so. Thus, the team finished at just .500.
The front office went into the off-season needing to construct a lineup that is worthy of the pitching staff, and it seems to believe it accomplished the task. Time will answer the question as to whether or not it succeeded. The organization subtracted LF Rajai Davis and DH Jack Cust from the offensive equation, and added outfielders David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, and DH Hideki Matsui. The totality of these moves will render Ryan Sweeney to the bench, and should help improve the lineup. The three displaced players hit .283, with 19 HR and 140 RBI last season… the new players combined to hit .285, with 42 HR and 177 RBI.
Over at the hot corner, the torch has been passed with the departure of Eric Chavez (who is currently rostered with the NY Yankees). Kouzmanoff is an adequate third baseman, but neither he nor Daric Barton will provide the power customarily associated with corner infielders.
2B Mark Ellis had a rough 2010 campaign in the batter’s box but was nonetheless typically outstanding in the field, posting a .995 fielding percentage (making it five consecutive seasons in which he has posted a .990 or better fielding percentage at second base). It seems remarkable that he has never been rewarded with a Gold Glove. Prior to last season, he had accumulated five straight seasons of double-digit home run totals… and his 85 HR are the most ever by an Athletics second baseman.
Cliff Pennington has not received much respect for the effort he exerted last year, but he managed to hit .250, drive in 46 runs and steal 29 bases in his first year as a regular in the big leagues. Some pundits have conjectured that he will need to improve his performance this season or lose his status to Grant Green, but others believe the USC alum needs at least another full season in the minor leagues. Look for him to improve in his second full season as the team’s starter.
Catcher Kurt Suzuki is a horse behind the plate, appearing in 426 games over the last three seasons. He posted a career-worst .242 batting average last year, but still managed to drive home 71 runs in 495 at-bats. His performance suffered after the passing of his grandfather in June (.234 with just 3 HR in the second half)… some pundits believe there was a cause-and-effect relationship between the two and believe his offense will rebound in 2011.
All three outfielders have had health issues in the past and will need to demonstrate their durability over the course of an entire campaign.
The pitching staff:
Closer: RHP Andrew Bailey
The club should be competitive in the AL West once again on the strength of its starting pitching, which led the major leagues with a 3.47 ERA in 2010.
Southpaw Brett Anderson should be healthy when the season gets underway. In spite of two stints on the disabled list last year (elbow), went 7-6, with a 2.80 ERA. Fellow left-handers Dallas Braden and Gio Gonzalez combined to go 26-23, with a 3.35 ERA, over 63 starts… but the two men get their jobs done in very different ways. Braden exhibits excellent control but does not strike out many hitters. Gonzalez issues too many walks, but he strikes out a decent number of hitters while inducing a large number of ground balls (many of which turn into GIDPs).
Cahill is considered by many to be the ace of the pitching staff, but his 18 wins and 2.97 ERA last year were abetted by a large dose of luck (a 24% hit rate and 77% strand rate). As his peripherals regress to the league-average, so will his primary stats. He doesn’t demonstrate especially good command, but his ground ball rate will help to offset his deficiencies elsewhere. Look for his ERA to increase by upwards of a run per game in 2011.
The A’s have once again added Rich Harden to their roster, but his effectiveness has been lost after several years of arm troubles. Look for McCarthy to win the fifth and final spot in the rotation.
Andrew Bailey is coming off an elbow injury that slowed him in the second half of last year and required surgery in September. When healthy he is among the best closers in the game. He experienced discomfort in his elbow again this spring, but was assured by Dr James Andrews (his surgeon) that the discomfort was just a strain. The situation bears some watching. He’ll be supported by a deep relief corps which will include newly-signed free agents Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes, as well as holdovers Craig Breslow, Michael Wuertz and Brad Ziegler.
Prediction for 2011: 2nd place (84-78)
The A’s could be this year’s version of the 2010 San Diego Padres. The offense will be improved, and while I expect the starting pitching will be less effective it will still be very good nonetheless.
Look for Oakland to make a run at Texas for the division title, and to overtake them if the Rangers rotation struggles after losing Cliff Lee to free agency.
Oakland’s top prospect, Grant Green
Top Five Prospects:
Grant Green was selected in the first round (13th overall) in 2009 after hitting .390 and .374 in his sophomore and junior seasons at the University of Southern California.
He has an inside-out swing that regularly drives the ball to the right side of the diamond, a fact that will minimize his power production. He is said to have good hitting instincts, but his pitch recognition and selectivity leave something to be desired (he struck out more than 20% of the time in A-ball last year).
There are questions as to whether he will remain at shortstop as he continues to ascend through the A’s farm system due to his physical attributes (6’3”, 180 lb) and his lack of defensive prowess in college. His range and arm strength are considered fringy and his footwork needs considerable improvement if he is to succeed at the position in the big leagues. Eventually, he will almost-certainly be moved to second base.
He has a lot of work to do both at the plate and in the field, yet his upside is considerable. Suggestions that he could make his debut later this year seem misplaced, and it seems more likely he is looking at mid-2012, at the earliest, before he becomes part of the A’s lineup on a continuing basis.