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2014 Preview: Oakland Athletics

Mar 24, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT

Nate Freiman, Josh Donaldson, Adam Rosales, Jed Lowrie AP

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Oakland Athletics.

The Big Question: Is there life without Jarrod Parker?

The A’s rotation has been a strength over the past couple of years, with A’s starters posting the second-best ERA in the American League last season. Bob Melvin has had the luxury of several good young arms at his disposal, some with considerable upside.

But this spring has dealt the A’s a blow, first with A.J. Griffin missing time due to flexor tendinitis and then with Jarrod Parker going down for his second Tommy John surgery. Parker has been key to the A’s two straight division titles, posting a 3.73 ERA in 378 innings for the A’s during the past two seasons after coming over in the late-2011 trade for Trevor Cahill. Coming into spring training he was expected to be the staff ace, now he’s gone for the season. Oh, and free agent signee Scott Kazmir has had some health issues this spring as well.

Suddenly, the rotation has Sonny Gray — who has a grand total of ten major league games under his belt — as the Opening Day starter with Kazmir, Jesse Chavez, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone following him. It’s also possible that Drew Pomeranz and Josh Lindblom will see some time starting. Girffin is expected back in early May, but if he has a setback and if Kazmir hits some more speed bumps in the early going, there are going to be some problems with the A’s pitching.

The A’s aren’t a pitching-first team or anything — they are a well-balanced team with a potent offense — but the weakening of the starting rotation right out of the gate is not good news to say the least, and it puts that much more pressure on untested starters, the bullpen and the offense.

What else is going on?

That offense: it’s a nice, balanced one that isn’t too terribly reliant on any one guy. The A’s ranked third in the AL in runs last season and did so via a healthy slugging percentage while not totally abandoning a running game and the A’s historically strong OBP skills. While the A’s would love for Yoenis Cespedes to develop into an MVP candidate, his regression last season was cushioned by the presence of Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Jed Lowrie, Coco Crisp, Derek Norris and others. Just so many weapons here.

The bullpen is revamped but is still a profound strength. Gone is Grant Balfour, in at closer is Jim Johnson. Johnson has saved over 100 games over the past two seasons, but he was far shakier and far unluckier last season than he was in 2012. Also in are Eric O’Flaherty (who won’t be available until June following Tommy John rehab), Fernando Abad and Luke Gregerson. With holdovers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook setting things up the bullpen — however different it looks — will still be a strength, especially once O’Flaherty comes online.

Be it pitching or offense, the A’s are an uncommonly deep team. They, as last season, will use multiple lineup combinations and will hand more at bats to bench guys like Craig Gentry, Eric Sogard, Daric Barton and even Nick Punto than a lot of teams might. It’s a tribute to Bob Melvin’s strengths as a manager that he always seems able to put the right peg in the right hole at the right time and to play the matchups.

Last year most people couldn’t have picked Josh Donaldson out of a police lineup, yet as the year wore on there was increasing talk of him becoming an MVP candidate. Between his power and his top-notch defense at third base, such talk should continue. That thing I said about the offense not being too reliant on one guy? It isn’t, but Donaldson is turning into a star.

Prediction: I had it as a tossup between the A’s and the Rangers for first place, but the Parker injury gives me reason to worry about Oakland. Still, they should be a strong contender for the wild card and, if a few things bounce this way instead of that, a third straight AL West title would not be at all surprising. Still: Second place, AL West.

  1. mordecofe - Mar 24, 2014 at 12:34 PM

    Now that Profar and Soto are out for Texas though, looks like the window is a lot bigger.

  2. nymets4ever - Mar 24, 2014 at 12:36 PM

    actually the Indians are not “next up” as they were previewed 3 days ago.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Mar 24, 2014 at 1:15 PM

      Oops. Copy and paste error.

  3. southpaw2k - Mar 24, 2014 at 12:43 PM

    AL West champs, and I still think they win the World Series this year, even minus Jarrod Parker.

    • clydeserra - Mar 24, 2014 at 1:37 PM

      the issue isn’t paker out Milone in. its now Milone and chavez, pitchers 6 and 7 are needed for parkers innings and Pomeranz and Lindbloom are going to get the Milone and Chavez’s.

  4. spudchukar - Mar 24, 2014 at 12:50 PM

    Everyday I am more optimistic about the Mariners’ chances in 2014. Oakland looks like an 84 win team.

    • aceinthehole12 - Mar 24, 2014 at 1:21 PM

      Hahahaha.

    • Pete - Mar 24, 2014 at 9:37 PM

      I don’t think the M’s have a realistic shot at the division. Especially with Iwakuma and Walker off to late starts. They’re putting a LOT of faith in Erasmo Ramirez and James Paxton, 2 guys who could be pretty good….or maybe not. Lots of variance. The outfield defense is still terrible. Of course Cano is great but he seems like an odd pickup since they had a pretty good and dirt cheap guy there (Nick Franklin) at 2nd base for the next 5 years or so. A stud outfielder would have been a much better fit. I think they COULD win the division, but I’d put it at like 3% chance or so. I wonder what the various playoff odds reports say?

      If the Angels start having the injury situation that the A’s and Rangers are having, sure eventually the M’s odds go up. Right now most have them as like an 81 win team, and the teams ahead of them in the mid to upper 80s, so its certainly not impossible.

    • zacman83 - Mar 25, 2014 at 10:50 AM

      You could have said that in March 2012 or March 2013, too! This isn’t a team that wows baseball observers with their star power or can’t-miss, blue-chip prospects. They just have won consistently for two years. Believe me, I understand when folks shake their heads in disbelief at the A’s success the last to years, and I understand if they remain skeptical; certainly the loss of Parker could portend a slip back into mediocrity. But they still have no major weaknesses in their lineup, and a strong bullpen last season got even better with Beane’s additions. 84 wins is probably their basement if all goes wrong. But I think 90 or so is probably more realistic, with the all-around talent in Oakland.

      • spudchukar - Mar 25, 2014 at 11:03 AM

        Yep. And I was wrong in 2012 & 2013 too. It isn’t that I have anything against them, kinda like the A’s but I am just not sold on their starting pitching.

        Agreed, the bull pen is better. The Parker loss, and perhaps Griffith, who’s success mystifies me, won’t be easily overcome, and Colon did provide a lot of quality innings. Gray I like a lot, but he is young, and hasn’t amassed major Big League innings.

        If they can overcome the pitching losses then 90 is attainable, but I still have my doubts.

  5. aceinthehole12 - Mar 24, 2014 at 1:23 PM

    Jarrod’s loss will be felt but I still think our rotation will be fine. Knowing Beane I’m sure he’ll make a trade for a AA or AAA guy that will in turn win 10 games or so for us. I still feel like the A’s are the class of the AL West but Texas will be right there all year, it’s going to be another fun 162 between us and them.

  6. hookersdontsnuggle - Mar 24, 2014 at 1:51 PM

    The A’s are stronger this season than last. WS bound.

  7. scatterbrian - Mar 24, 2014 at 2:11 PM

    Nice Craig. This is the first pre-season review of the A’s/Josh Donaldson that refers to him “turning into a star” rather than turning back into a pumpkin after the obvious outlier season he just put up.

  8. dhalb34 - Mar 24, 2014 at 3:41 PM

    Don’t forget about Dan Otero in the bullpen as well. He was absolutely awesome after his call up last year, and looks great so far this season.

  9. APBA Guy - Mar 24, 2014 at 4:48 PM

    Last year, the going rate for Brandon Moss’ OPS regression from 2012 was something in the range of low .700’s. He put up over ,850, and not just as a platoon player. The combination of Moss, Donaldson, and, wait for it…Crisp provided the power that helped the A’s to that #3 in run scoring. Meanwhile, both Reddick and Cespedes lost ground compared to their 2012 seasons. So it’s fair to say that even if some guys’ OPS goes down, some guys will go up, and we can expect a decent offense again. Another thing is the overall team defense. The outfield is excellent, catching is good, corner infield is good. The only problem is shortstop, where Lowrie’s range is an issue. The A’s now have Punto for defense, a big improvement in the late innings over last year. Craig did a good job with the pitching, but suffice to say that a lot hinges on Griffin coming back healthy in late April. Otherwise, losing 550 innings of proven starting pitching (Bartolo, Parker, and Griffin) may be too big an ask for any team.

    Personally, I see the West as a 3 team race this year. I think the Angels will be better than last year, and I think the A’s and Texas will be in a dogfight with the Angels all year long.

  10. embinoratsicus - Mar 24, 2014 at 7:34 PM

    I am always amazed that people are surprised when the A’s win with a combination of castoffs, rookies and second year players, and one or two reasonably top range vets who are having their last few good years.

    Has nobody noticed that this happens more often than not? I guess not if you are already asleep before the games out here are finished.

    Protip: Read moneyball. I suppose you could see the movie as well, but the book is better. The A’s will be in the low to mid 90s for wins, and then the playoffs are considerably less certain. But I would bet on A’s for the AL West, and I would take your money.

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