Here is a link to my Oakland A’s preview. The full column runs below:
The A’s have won back-to-back American League West titles. They are a good team that’s probably getting better. They have a young roster, an inexpensive roster that plays with passion. They platoon players all over the place and sometimes it’s impossible to predict who’s on first — literally.
For an excellent team, their roster can seem somewhat anonymous because people come and go so quickly around there — general manager Billy Beane is addicted to making roster moves, but he always makes the team better.
Here are five things we want to know.
Does the pitching staff have a true ace?
The A’s have a very good starting rotation and a lights-out bullpen, but is there a true ace in the sense Dave Stewart was an ace? An ace is a guy who wins the big game, ends losing streaks, scares the pants off the other team and pitches opening day. With the A’s this is open to interpretation.
They lost Bartolo Colon, their ace, after last season. Colon won 18 games, but the A’s did not let him pitch the final game of the year, a 3-0 loss to Detroit in the American League Division series. A season-ender. They had Sonny Gray pitch that game, even though Gray was a rookie and currently has, get this, 61 days of major-league service. Gray pitched well, but not well enough. He lasted five-plus innings and gave up all three Detroit runs.
This is no knock on Gray, a vastly talented pitcher. But it is difficult to project him as the ace. He is 24. In place of Colon, the A’s picked up Scott Kazmir. Kazmir was basically out of the majors for two years, 2011 and 2012 because of nagging injuries and poor performance. He was with the Indians last year and had a decent season — his record was 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA. The A’s signed him for two years, but he is a question mark.
The ace is probably Jarrod Parker, 25, who did not lose a game in 19 straight starts from May 28 to Sept. 10, the longest streak of its kind in Oakland history. His record was 12-8 with a 3.97 ERA. He is the closest the A’s have to an ace and likely will claim that honor/responsibility in the upcoming season.
Will right fielder Josh Reddick have a bounce-back year?
Reddick was a phenomenon in 2012. He crushed 32 home runs — a very big number — and drove in 85. The A’s expected big things from him in 2013, but he fizzled. He batted a paltry .226 with 12 homers and 56 RBIs. His hitting fell off the cliff.
There are reasons for his decline. Well, there appear to be reasons. He hurt his right wrist and was on the disabled list twice. A hitter needs healthy wrists.
This from the A’s public relations department: “Became the first player in Oakland history to hit 30 or more home runs one season and then hit fewer than 16 the next year while playing in more than 33 games. (I admit these stats can get pretty complicated. That detail about 33 games is a lulu.) His batting average included a .227 mark while playing the outfield, third lowest among American league outfielders and the lowest in Oakland history.”
Those numbers are gruesome and probably do not reflect what a healthy Reddick can do. He needs to do it.
Who will play second base?
The A’s love to platoon players. The team is Platoon Central. You want an example? Brandon Moss hit 30 homers last season and still is not necessarily the everyday first baseman. So, the A’s will platoon.
But the mob at second base is unique even for them. Right now, they have three second basemen: Eric Sogard, Alberto Callaspo and Nick Punto. That’s a lot of second basemen. As Safeway used to say, “Three’s a crowd.”
Sogard was kind of the starting second baseman last season, except when he wasn’t. He batted .266 — not bad. He hit two home runs and drove in 35. He’s not exactly Jeff Kent in the power-hitter department.
The A’s got Alberto Callaspo from the Angels in late July. In two months, he hit five home runs and got 22 RBIs for Oakland. And that means he is more of a power hitter than Sogard.
During the offseason the A’s obviously wanted to create competition at second base — or upgrade the position — and signed switch-hitting free agent Nick Punto who spent 2013 with the Dodgers where he hit .255 with two home runs and 21 RBIs.
So, the A’s have a battle on their hands at second, although “battle” may not be the appropriate word. Sogard should get extra credit for his Clark-Kent glasses.
Can the A’s new closer close?
Before we address that question, let’s say this. The A’s have a whopping good bullpen, one of the best on Earth. Ryan Cook, Dan Otero and Sean Doolittle return. In the offseason, the A’s picked up Luke Gregerson (2.71 ERA last season) and Eric O’Flaherty.
O’Flaherty’s 2013 season ended abruptly with Tommy John surgery. He still is rehabbing and will miss the start of the season.
Is he worth the risk?
I quote the A’s release on him: “Is 20-9 with a 2.85 ERA in 373 appearances in eight seasons. Has posted a 1.45 ERA in 161 appearances over the last three seasons, the lowest mark among Major League relievers with 125 or more innings pitched.”
Before last season’s surgery, he was 3-0 with a 2.50 ERA. We’re talking quality.
Back to the new closer — Jim Johnson. The A’s traded for him last December and he takes over for Grant Balfour, no slouch himself. Last season, Balfour had 38 saves in 41 tries and ranked fourth in the American League with a 92.7 save percentage.
Johnson comes to the team with heat on him — to live up to Balfour’s standard. He’s used to heat. His numbers as a closer sizzle. He had 122 saves in 360 games in eight years with the Orioles. He is second in Baltimore in career saves. He led the majors with 51 saves in 2012 and tied for most saves in the big leagues in 2013 with 50. He joins Rollie Fingers as the only other reliever to lead the bigs in saves in back-to-back seasons.
One more impressive stat: Only one other reliever had two seasons with 50 or more saves. Guess who. Mariano Rivera.
Can Josh Donaldson repeat?
Repeat what? Well, he had a great year in 2013. Can he do it again?
Before last season, hardly anyone gave Donaldson a second thought. Last season, Donaldson was among the best third basemen in the American League, but he’d mostly been a catcher before that. He converted to playing third base in the spring of 2012, which means he’s a recent convert. We’re not talking religion here, just ball.
Wow, what a conversion. In 2013, he was the A’s top offensive producer. He finished fourth in MVP voting. He batted .301, hit 24 homers and drove in 93. Impressive to the max. The last Oakland player to hit at least .300 with 20 or more home runs and 90 or more RBIs was Miguel Tejads in 2002. That’s some pretty classy company for Donaldson.
All of that means Donaldson was formidable last season and anchored the A’s batting order. Now, do it again, Josh.