Consecutive AL West titles by the “underdog” Oakland A’s should earn them a little respect heading into 2014, but baseball pundits are hesitant to tag the Swingin’ A’s as frontrunners. After all, the Los Angeles Angels can’t be a disappointment for the third year in a row, the Texas Rangers added Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, the win-now (maybe) Seattle Mariners mortgaged the farm in signing Robinson Cano, and the Houston Astros added Scott Feldman to their emerging kiddie corp of future stars. The division is so much better than last year, right? Absolutely.
But so are the A’s.
The emergence of Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick as blossoming superstars helped the A’s eke out the AL West in 2012 by one game over the Rangers with a 94-68 record. “Fluke” said the pundits. Won’t happen again they said. But the A’s increased their win total to 96 last season and won the division by five and a half games – despite a slight regression from Cespedes and a horrendous season from Reddick. How did they do it? Run production (MLB fourth-best in runs scored) and pitching (AL second-best 3.56 ERA).
Josh Donaldson emerged as a star at third base, finishing fourth in the AL MVP; Coco Crisp delivered a 20-20 season from the leadoff spot; Brandon Moss supplied power with 30 home runs; and the young rotation and deep bullpen dominated.
While the A’s lost ageless ace Bartolo Colon and closer Grant Balfour to free agency, they added resurging Scott Kazmir and the AL saves leader for the past two seasons in Jim Johnson. Both could arguably be considered upgrades, especially Johnson. Lost in all the hoopla of offseason transactions was the A’s acquisition of setup man Luke Gregerson, whose addition gives the A’s one of the best bullpens in all of baseball.
Most fans don’t think of the A’s as a feared lineup due to a lack of star-caliber names, save for Cespedes. But by platooning at four positions and rotating four outfielders through three positions last year, the A’s finished third overall in the majors in homers and OPS, and fourth overall in runs, doubles, RBI and slugging. That’s a potent offense, and the cast remains largely the same in 2014. How good are they? ESPN’s Buster Olney tabbed the A’s as the sixth-best starting lineup in the major leagues. (Note: Two of the teams in AL West finished ahead of the A’s on Olney’s list — the Rangers were first and the Angels fifth.)
The infield returns in tact, with Donaldson at third, Jed Lowrie at short, Eric Sogard at second and Moss at first. Derek Norris and John Jaso will share duties behind the plate. Alberto Callaspo, a midseason acquisition from the Angels last year, will get plenty of starts throughout the infield, and that may include first base. Yes, that’s right, the 5’-9” Callaspo is taking reps at first base this spring with the hope he can spell Moss against left-handers. Moss hit .200 against lefties in 2013 with 38 strikeouts in only 80 at-bats, while Callaspo hit .268 with only 10 strikeouts in 149 at-bats.
Cespedes, Crisp and Reddick return in the outfield from left to right, and Craig Gentry replaces departed Seth Smith as the fourth outfielder. If Crisp repeats his power surge (22 HR, 66 RBI) and Cespedes (.240, 26 HR, 80 RBI) and Reddick (.226, 12 HR, 56 RBI) return to 2012 form, the A’s could score even more runs.
Year in and year out, Oakland promotes young arms that deliver. Last year was no exception, with breakout seasons by Jarrod Parker (197 IP, 12-8, 3.97 ERA) A.J. Griffin (200 IP, 14-10, 3.83 ERA), Dan Straily (152 IP, 10-8, 3.96 ERA) and Sonny Gray (10 starts, 5-3, 2.67 ERA). The big question: Who fills Colon’s big shoes (18-6, AL second-best 2.65 ERA)? Kazmir (158 IP, 10-9, 4.04 ERA) is expected to carry some of the load, especially after a strong second half last season with the Indians, which may indicate his arm issues are behind him. A full season from Gray, one of the most highly touted young starters in the game, and 10-12 wins from Kazmir should have the A’s rotation among the best in the AL once again.
Where the A’s made the biggest improvement, however, was in the bullpen, with the addition of Johnson and Gregerson to an already formidable relief corp. Johnson posted 50 and 51 saves over the last two seasons, and Gregerson was one of the best eighth-inning guys in the NL with the Padres. They join lefty Sean Doolittle and righty Ryan Cook who helped lead the A’s to an AL third-best bullpen ERA of 3.22. Doolittle is far from a lefty specialist, facing twice as many righties in 2013 and surrendering only a .227 BAA vs. .188 against lefties. He also added a slider, which has looked plus so far this spring, to his already dominant fastball, making him even more difficult to face. Add to all that former Braves set-up specialist Eric O’Flaherty, who’s due back midseason, and the A’s have one of the deepest bullpens in the majors.
Opening day lineup
1. Coco Crisp, CF
2. Josh Donaldson, 3B
3. Jed Lowrie, SS
4. Yoenis Cespedes, LF
5. Brandon Moss, RF
6. John Jaso, DH
7. Josh Reddick, RF
8. Eric Sogard/Alberto Callaspo, 2B
9. Derek Norris, C
The prospect cupboards are relatively bare, save for shortstop and superstar-in-waiting Addison Russell, who should start the season in double-A and get a call up in September. The A’s top pick in 2012, Russell is being groomed to make the jump in 2015. In 165 minor league games over two seasons, Russell is batting .302 with 25 homers and 105 RBI. He needs to cut down on strikeouts (173) and improve his footwork on defense, according to reports.
Most of the A’s prospects have either graduated to the majors (Parker, Straily, Gray and Norris) or were traded (Jemile Weeks, Gant Green and Michael Choice) to acquire Callaspo, Gentry and Johnson.
Although every team in the AL West should improve in 2014, GM Billy Beane has worked wonders yet again by plugging the few holes the A’s had, improving the team in the process. In the end, the significant advantage the A’s have over AL West teams is pitching. The A’s are five deep in the rotation and can turn to the best bullpen in the American League. That should be more than enough for the team with the fourth-lowest payroll in baseball to make another trip to the postseason.