Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Looking Ahead: Oakland Athletics

2006 W-L Record: 93-69
2006 pW-pL Record: 85-77
Runs Scored: 771 (9th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 727 (3rd in AL)

Free Agents: Jay Payton, Frank Thomas, Barry Zito

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Dan Johnson
2B -- Mark Ellis
SS -- Bobby Crosby
3B -- Eric Chavez
LF -- Nick Swisher
CF -- Mark Kotsay
RF -- Milton Bradley
C -- Jason Kendall
DH -- Mike Piazza

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Rich Harden
Dan Haren
Joe Blanton
Esteban Loaiza
Joe Kennedy?

2007 Proj. Closer: Huston Street

The Oakland defense tied for 2nd in the AL in fielding percentage (.986) but were 6th in DER at .688. This could indicate the declining range of aging guys like Mark Kotsay and Mark Ellis, as well as injuries to key defenders Chavez and Crosby. But even if it's not quite as good as it looks, the Oakland defense is fine; the problem here is the offense.
The A's 9th-place finish in runs scored was the result of a roster stretched to its limits by injuries. Not only did the A's see regression from defensive stalwart Mark Ellis (249/319/385), they had to deal with the increasingly dismal output of guys like Jason Kendall (295/367/342) and Mark Kotsay (275/332/386).
But even with these guys bringing up the rear, the A's were supposed to be contenders with the rest of their lineup. Unfortunately for them, that didn't quite work out the way they'd hoped.

Despite getting good defense from Eric Chavez, the third baseman just isn't hitting like an MVP (241/351/435 in '06; career 271/350/489) and probably never will. When he's healthy, that's fine. But if he struggles with injuries again, as in 2006, the A's don't have the depth to replace his output.
The same can be said of Bobby Crosby. Crosby, a big-time prospect, suffered through yet another injury-plagued season (229/298/338) that was even worse than 2005, when he was also injured. It's easy to stay positive about Crosby since he's still young (just 26 next year) and does have a decent major league season under his belt (a 239/319/426 2004). But Crosby has yet to hit really well in the majors, and since 2004, he hasn't been able to stay in the lineup. Neither of these things bode really well for a guy who was supposed to be a future MVP. The A's need him to be productive to avoid another quick playoff exit.
First baseman Dan Johnson didn't have the high expectations of Crosby, but he was supposed to be a solid-hitting first base option like he was in 2005 (275/355/451). Instead, he was barely adequate (234/323/381) and got shipped to the minors. With prospect Daric Barton stalled (259/389/395 at Triple-A), The A's had no choice but to shift Nick Swisher to first and spend far too much time playing Jay Payton in left (296/325/418). Johnson should bounce back next year, and he's still got that 2005 swing left in him, but this was another step back on a team that couldn't afford any more of them. Combined with the injuries/regression suffered by 2B Mark Ellis, and the Oakland infield was effectively decimated in 2006. In the postseason, instead of a strong Johnson-Ellis-Crosby-Chavez infield, the A's were forced to play Swisher-D'Angelo Jimenez-Marco Scutaro-Chavez, with the punchless Payton in left field. Little wonder then that the Tigers swept them.
Swisher, who split time between left field and first base, was one of the few bright spots for the team. The team of Moneyball fame finished with a merely average .340 OBP, but that was no fault of Swisher's; the 25-year-old paced the team with 97 walks and also swatted 35 homers. He helped fill a big vacuum, and it was lucky for the A's that one of their young hitters was finally coming through.
Fiery trade acquisition Milton Bradley spent most of the time in right field, but the injury bug bit again, limiting him to 96 games. Bradley performed quite well, hitting 276/370/447 with the team, but it was little consolation; it was a case of "another one bites the dust" with Bobby Kielty forced to replace him.
The other Special Ks, Kotsay and Kendall, were unimpressive, as mentioned above. So the team went through most of the season with only Swisher (and sometimes Chavez and Bradley) contributing from the field. The team that looked like it had strong depth was instead held back by numerous injuries and disappointments, and their lack of depth (especially in the middle infield) was what people remembered.
Fortunately for Oakland, they had an insurance policy at DH. Now coming into 2006, no one would have predicted that Frank Thomas -- of all people -- would be the most reliable and productive hitter on the ballclub, and yet that's exactly how things turned out. Thomas only played 137 games, but he made them count; he hit 270/381/545, with a team-leading 39 HR and 114 RBI. He almost single-handedly kept the team afloat and resurrected his chances for Cooperstown, all for a relative pittance.

The A's will get to re-boot and try again next year, with the same cast of characters (sans Thomas) out to prove that they weren't overachieving when they reached the ALCS last year. The A's offense has a lot to prove. They must stay healthy, simply because there is little room for error; with most of the roster injury-prone, new manager Bob Geren will have to play mix-and-match with hopefully better options than Mark Kiger in 2007. A lot of people will have to step it up if the A's want to fight off the Angels and repeat in '07, with the most obvious being Eric Chavez and Bobby Crosby.

The Oakland pitching staff saved the offense last year, and there's every indication that they can do the same thing this year. Injuries struck here, too, as erstwhile ace Rich Harden made only 9 starts the entire season due to injury. Projections are still good for Harden, but his injury history is long enough now that Billy Beane should have visions of Mark Prior dancing in his head.
The good news is that even without Harden, the A's pitching staff survived. Barry Zito led the team in ERA at 3.83, despite a career-high 99 walks and a surprising 27 HR allowed (Oakland played as a pitcher's park in 2006). With Zito headed out as a free agent, the mantle of "backup ace" falls to Danny Haren, who should bear the burden quite well. Haren is, in fact, a better pitcher than Zito in the present and future. Haren will be just 26 next year and is coming off a season where he led the A's staff in innings (223) and strikeouts (176). His HR allowed were troubling (31), leading to a less-than-stellar 4.12 ERA. But Haren is the real deal; a strong #2 who can step in as a temporary ace if Harden falls again.
Behind Harden and Haren, the A's have two perfectly acceptable LAIMs. Esteban Loaiza got off to a woeful start, but -- while he didn't justify his brand-new contract -- he pitched well enough, managing a 4.89 ERA in 26 starts. Injuries may have played a part in Loaiza's struggles, although he doesn't have much potential to go under 4.50 in ERA at age 35.
The LAIM with the better growth potential is Joe Blanton. Blanton came on the scene with a strong rookie seaosn in 2005 (3.53 ERA in 201.1 IP), but his low strikeout rate caught up with him (116 K) and his 2006 ERA fell all the way to 4.82. The real Blanton is likely somewhere in between, and -- at age 25 -- he'll be cheap and productive for a while yet.
If Rich Harden can stay healthy and somewhat replace the departing Barry Zito, there's no reason to think that the 2007 starting rotation will be any worse than the 2006 squad. They've got the guys out there to eat up innings, but they would certainly like a better showing from everyone, at least in terms of runs allowed. They're losing depth along with Zito -- Joe Kennedy will likely step into the #5 spot -- but they may not be losing any quality at all.

The Oakland bullpen took a similar path as the rotation. Despite the troubles facing closer Huston Street, the A's managed to surround him with a fine cast of supporting players and ended up with a solid staff. Street regressed from his unlikely brilliance in 2005 (1.72), seeing his ERA nearly double to 3.31. Street's poise is real and was documented past the point of insanity in 2005. But his stuff is debatable. It's doubtful that he's going to assume the mantle of Mariano Rivera as the game's best closer, as the 2005 hype suggested. But even if he settles in as an above-average guy, he'll be valuable. And there's every reason to indicate that he can do that and more.
Behind Street, the A's have competent setup man Justin Duchscherer (2.91 ERA), Kiko Calero (3.41) and young Chad Gaudin (3.09). The A's wrote the book on the fungibility of closers and setup men, and their current pen is not only cheap, but very cost-effective. Behind those three, the team has long man Kirk Saarloos, Ron Flores, and a couple other options out of the 'pen. If the A's fail to repeat in '07, it will not likely be the fault of the bullpen.

Offseason Game Plan:
The A's have already nabbed Mike Piazza to fill the Thomas void at DH; they just need to hope that he's the 2006 version (332/372/564 on the road) and not an earlier version (251/326/452 overall in '05).

The A's could use a better insurance policy than Kirk Saarloos for the possible Harden injury. But considering the going rate for starting pitching, it's not likely that the team will do anything more than nibble at the free agent periphery. GM Billy Beane has even been involved in rumors trading away a starting pitcher, such as Blanton or Haren.
Really, though, it all comes down to the options. While the team needs better depth, the problem is mostly with the incumbent personnel. There's not a lot you need to change about a lineup that still includes Nick Swisher, Bobby Crosby, Eric Chavez, Milton Bradley and Piazza.
Top priority is keeping everyone healthy.


t ball said...

I have greatly enjoyed reading your posts since finding your blog recently. Don't always agree with you, but highly respect your opinion.

Regarding the Oakland 'Looking Ahead' post, Ron Washington is listed as the new manager, must have been thinking of the Rangers for a moment there.

The Whiz Kid said...

As a sharp reader pointed out, I mistakenly named Ron Washington as the new A's manager instead of Bob Geren. That's a temporary loss of sense on my part, and my apologies.