2012 was a vintage performance by the Oakland A’s. They were just kind of cruising along under the radar, sitting at 43-43 at the All-Star break, and then BAM, they went on a roll like old times and shockingly bypassed the Rangers on their way to an AL West pennant.
Under Manager Bob Melvin, the A’s took their $52M payroll and went 51-25 in the second half of the season to finish 94-68, just 1 game ahead of the Rangers. They won their last 6 including a 3-game season-ending sweep of Texas to but a bow on their improbable regular season.
In the playoffs, the A’s gave the eventual AL champion Tigers all they could handle, but eventually fell to Justin Verlander in the 5th and deciding game of the ALDS.
GM Billy Beane conducted an interesting offseason as they let go of Cliff Pennington via trade and watched Stephen Drew leave by way of free agency. The rest of the roster remained pretty much intact. Oakland is sure to get some offensive help from some of their newcomers, including Jed Lowrie who should play 3rd base on most days, import Hiroyuki Nakajima – slated to play short, Chris Young (in from Arizona in the Pennington deal), and catcher John Jaso, who will be the lefty half of the platoon with Derek Norris and is a prototypical Beane type of player, evidenced by his .394 on-base % for Seattle last year.
Did you notice how no pitchers were mentioned in the roster turnover? Well, when you only give up 614 runs (2nd only to Tampa in the AL) there isn’t much that needs changing. Bartolo Colon will be back from suspension to further strengthen the A’s pitching depth.
Will 2013 be a repeat performance or did the A’s just play too far over their heads in a fairly loaded division to reach the postseason again?
Best Case Scenario for 2013
The A’s will probably be picked 3rd in the division by most experts, behind the Angels and Rangers. From a talent perspective that is a fair assessment. But for anyone who saw the chemistry that this team played with a season ago, it would be impossible for them to surprise anyone at this point. When a team can pitch lights out from innings 1-9 like Oakland can, as well as play long ball with gusto, then a lot of wins tend to follow. Many fans would be surprised to know that Oakland crushed 195 homers in 2012, more than teams such as the Nationals, Angels, Reds, Tigers, and Cardinals. Beane figures that if his pitching is good enough to keep it close, it just takes one or two long fly balls to steal a win. With all of this in mind, I’d say the ceiling for this team is another shocking AL West pennant. I only say this because it’s the A’s. My brain tells me that they are more likely to finish 2nd or even 3rd yet still have a shot at a wild card berth as 3 playoff teams from the West could end up making the postseason.
Most Important Athletics
Much hype surrounded the A’s signing of Yoenis Cespedes last offseason. The 27-year old Cuban lived up to the billing. He represents the closest thing Oakland has to a legitimate star player and what he did in his first year in the USA was truly impressive. The adjustments he had to make from a living, social, and media standpoint were daunting, but he just came over and played good baseball. Cespedes missed time in May and June, which limited him to just 129 games played, but he still found time to hit .292 with 23 homers, 25 doubles, 5 triples, 82 RBI’s, and he swiped 16 bags. He is the middle of the order presence that Melvin can rely on. If he can stay on the diamond for 150+ games this year, he is more than capable of hitting 30 homers and stealing 25 bases.
Of all the pitching assets that the A’s feature, none of them have the potential to be more dominant than Brett Anderson. In 2012, he didn’t make his first start until August 21st and then was sidelined again for a few weeks just prior to the playoffs. In all, he started just 6 games and has had a very difficult time taking the ball every 5th day since coming to the majors. Since making 30 starts as a rookie in 2009, he has made just 19, 13, and 6 in the 3 subsequent campaigns. When he is on the mound he has proven to pitch with great command and can miss his fair share of bats. 2013 is a big season for Anderson to finally prove that he is a pitcher that can be relied upon. After 2013, Oakland has club options for both 2014 and ’15 at $8M and $12M respectively. Nobody knows at this point what a full season of Brett Anderson will look like, but I think it’s something along the lines of a 3.30 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and about 160 K’s. If he can provide that and the other pitching pieces fall in place behind him as they should, Oakland is going to be a tough team to beat.
Potential Breakout Players
Offensively, Scott Sizemore is back from injury and will be battling Jemile Weeks for the 2nd base gig. Sizemore, at age 28, will be given yet another shot to prove he belongs. He broke in with the Tigers in 2010 but has managed just 511 at-bats since then. He will provide extra-base pop at the bottom of Oakland’s order if he wins the job over Weeks. To get a sense of what he can do in a full season, you have to go all the way back to 2009 when he split time between AA and AAA in the Tigers’ system. That year he hit .308 with 17 homers, 39 doubles, and 21 steals. Sadly, Sizemore started off this spring’s workouts by instantly spraining his knee. The only way this guy breaks out is if his body holds up and gives him a chance. If it does, he could hit .270 with double-digit homers and steals.
Sometimes it takes a guy a little bit longer to put it all together. For Dan Straily, the light bulb went on big time in 2012. He went from a sleeper prospect at best, to dominating minor league hitting and putting up 7 respectable starts for Oakland late in the year. Straily was a 24th round pick in the 2009 draft and went on to post ERA’s of 4.12, 4.32, and 3.87 from 2009-2011. Despite the somewhat inflated ERA’s he showed good strikeout ability. And then came last year. In 25 starts between AA and AAA, he K’d 190 hitters in just 152 innings with a 2.78 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. Add in his strikeout totals in Oakland and he fanned 222 hitters in 191.1 innings of work. His arm is ready for a big league load right now and his repertoire appears to be there as well. 4 rotation spots appear to be on lock down in the form of Anderson, Jarrod Parker, Colon, and Tom Milone. The 5th spot will likely come down to either Straily, AJ Griffin, or possibly Travis Blackley. It should be a heckuva battle.
Worst Case Scenario
The A’s will play in the same division as the Rangers and Angels, as usual. Seattle looks to be an improved ball club as well. I’m not sure any of these teams can pitch as well as Oakland can, but the division is going to be a wrestling match from Day 1. The A’s can’t lean on an improbable late season run again to make their way into October. They will have to play good baseball right out of the gate. If they don’t and fall behind by a large margin before the calendar flips to June then things could spin out of control. A 3rd place finish isn’t unlikely, but a sub .500 record and 4th place finish would truly be a worst-case scenario for this team.
Areas of Concern
One area of great concern are the departures of Pennington and Drew. The A’s middle infield defense was a huge reason for their success down the stretch in 2012. Nakajima is projected as having average range at short but good hands. Sizemore won’t be a world-beater if he wins the 2nd base job. Oakland will need to back up their stout pitching staff with good defense up the middle. Grant Balfour, the sometimes psychotic closer who performed so well last year, is out after knee surgery and will miss 4-6 weeks. If he doesn’t get up to speed quickly that could certainly put Opening Day in question. That would thrust Ryan Cook back into the closer’s role, which is the one place where he didn’t excel last year, blowing 7 of 21 save chances before moving to the setup slot. Melvin really had his bullpen rolling late in the year with Sean Doolittle and Cook handling the 7th and 8th and Balfour locking down the 9th. That is the same formation he wants to plug in all season long in 2013. The health of the 35-year old Balfour will be the key.
Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2012
The Jemile Weeks love-fest really calmed down after his sophomore slump in 2012. Interestingly enough, his walk rate was way up from his brilliant rookie run in 2011 and his strikeout rate dropped. Heck, even his stolen-base % was dramatically improved. These are all usually good signs but in 38 more at-bats he hit .221 rather than .303 and his on-base % dropped from .340 to .305. The big difference for Weeks came via his BABIP (batting average on balls in play). In 2011 it was a solid .350, not shocking for a slap-hitting speedster of his style. However, in 2012 it tumbled all the way down to a pathetic .256. Weeks was either the most unlucky player in the big leagues or the contact he was making was routine and weak. At just 26 years old the book certainly isn’t closed on Weeks. If Sizemore keeps being Sizemore, and Weeks can swipe the job in camp with a strong performance, then it could mean good things for Oakland’s offense.
24-year old catcher Derek Norris figures to get almost all of the starts against left-handed pitching. He came up last year as a rookie, was given 209 at-bats, and hit just .201 with a .276 on-base %. He struck out in 32% of his at-bats. As a minor leaguer he showed tremendous raw power and excellent on-base skills. Over parts of 6 minor league seasons he boasts a .394 on-base %. That’s the kind of sample size that leads Oakland’s brass toward thinking that he will grow into his role as a big leaguer starting this year. With Jaso getting most of the starts there won’t be any pressure on Norris. It’ll be up to him to take the opportunity and prove his worth.
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