2011 Record: 74-88, 3rd AL West
2011 Prediction:
92-70, 1st AL West

Impact Player: 2B Jemile Weeks
Impact Pitcher:
RHP Brandon McCarthy
Best Reliever:
RHP Grant Balfour
Top Prospect:
RHP Jarrod Parker

Last Year

I was naively bullish on the Oakland Athletics last season, predicting them to win 92 games and the AL Pennant. Unfortunately, ace lefty Brett Anderson succumbed to Tommy John’s surgery last July after pitching decently in the first few months of the year and Dallas Braden underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in May. The lineup was abysmal, finishing 12th in the AL in runs scored getting almost no contribution from first baseman Daric Barton, catcher Kurt Suzuki or rightfielder David DeJesus who left via free agency.

The A’s finished with a 74-88 record, 22 games behind the division-winning Rangers a year after finishing at the .500-mark and looking like a team on the rise. As a response, the A’s front office blew the team up, shipping out two of their top three starters from last season. Trevor Cahill was traded to Arizona for a package of prospects fronted by starting pitcher Jarrod Parker and outfielder Collin Cowgill and then lefty Gio Gonzalez was dealt to the Nationals for another package of prospects fronted by catcher Derek Norris and pitchers Brad Peacock and Tom Milone. The Major League talent definitely took a hit in those two trades but GM Billy Beane managed to rebuild his suddenly barren farm system in two trades.

The A’s have some talent on the field, but realizing they were going to be nowhere near the Rangers or the Angels (who seem to be embarking on some sort of cold war), Beane decided a semi-rebuild was necessary. It’s hard to imagine this team being any better than they were last year, but I’ve been wrong before…a lot.

Pitching

The A’s pitching staff finished sixth in the AL in runs allowed in 2011 thanks in large part to the turnaround year from Brandon McCarthy. The 28-year-old had been left for dead after flopping out of the Rangers system and the A’s picked him up on the cheap. McCarthy proceeded to reinvent himself into a cutter/sinker pitcher in the mould of Roy Halladay and ended up leading the AL in FIP at 2.86. Obviously the cavernous Coliseum helped him but his road splits were nearly as good.

McCarthy is the only starter on the A’s that was on the opening day roster a year ago. Anderson and Braden are both hurt, and Gonzalez and Cahill are both gone. Among those replacing them will be resurgent veteran Bartolo Colon. Colon had experimental surgery on his shoulder using stem cells and came back with the Yankees as a 38-year-old last year after not having pitched since early 2009. He logged 164.1 innings and posted a solid 3.57 xFIP. His second half drop-off was overblown by the New York media and provided he stays healthy he should provide solid innings for the A’s.

The other three projected starters for Oakland are all prospects and were all acquired in the Cahill and Gonzalez trades. Peacock (24) and the lefty Milone (25) were both acquired from Washington while Parker (23) was acquired from Arizona. Parker probably has the highest ceiling of the three and looked good last year in AAA-Reno despite coming off of Tommy John’s surgery.

Peacock and Milone both saw some time in September with Washington and pitched very well. Peacock is your prototypical power righty with a mid-90s fastball. He won the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year Award last season with AA-Harrisburg. Milone, however, is the classic crafty lefty. He doesn’t throw particularly hard, but consistently posts excellent walk rates and his flyball tendencies should play well in the Coliseum. Tyson Ross could also challenge for a rotation spot or a spot in the bullpen.

Gonzalez and Cahill weren’t the only pitchers to be jettisoned out of town by Beane this offseason; the A’s also sent closer Andrew Bailey (along with outfielder Ryan Sweeney) to the Red Sox for Josh Reddick and prospects. Replacing Bailey as the closer will either be lefty Brian Fuentes or righty Grant Balfour. Fuentes drastically outpitched his peripherals in 2011 but can get away with a high flyball rate in Oakland. Balfour, meanwhile, was the best reliever on the team outside of Bailey, posting a 3.57 xFIP and a very solid 2.95 K/BB ratio.

Righty Joey Devine and lefty Jerry Blevins should also leave camp with the big club. Devine has lived through a nightmare of injuries over the past few years, but when he’s healthy he can still get guys out. He hasn’t surrendered homerun at the Major League level since 2006 when he was still with the Braves.

Fautino De Los Santos also has a good shot at making the team. The 26-year-old was seventh in the AL among relievers in strike-out rate (min. 30 IP), while Ryan Cook (also acquired in the Cahill deal) should travel north after spending most of his year in 2011 at AA-Mobile.

Among the many candidates to crack the team in the bullpen is former first baseman Sean Doolittle who has moulded himself into a potentially terrific late-inning lefty reliever. He’s been hitting the upper 90s with his fastball and although it’s unlikely he heads straight to the Majors, it’s possible that he could see time at some point in 2012.

Lineup

The A’s have only three players in their projected lineup that accumulated more than 2.0 fWAR in 2011: outfielder Coco Crisp, Suzuki and second baseman Jemile Weeks. Weeks managed to accumulate 2.2 fWAR despite only playing in 97 games. He had a terrific .303/.340/.421 slash line to go along with 22 stolen bases. Crisp may be asked to shift from centerfield to left with the addition of Cuban phenom Yoenis Cespedes where his average offense doesn’t profile quite as well. Suzuki, meanwhile, is still a decent second-division starter, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever get back to his 2008-09 numbers.

The A’s expect Cespedes to start the year with the Major League club and in centerfield after signing a record contract for Cuban born players. He has tremendous power and is an excellent athlete, but has never played professional ball outside of the Cuban leagues. If he struggles, Crisp will shift over to centerfield while he gets some seasoning in the minors. The rightfield job will likely go to Reddick. He looked to be finally figuring things out last season with Boston and is an elite defensive rightfielder.

Seth Smith should also get some outfield time, but should see plenty of at-bats at DH. Smith was acquired over the winter from the Rockies for two fringy pitchers in Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman. He had a 115 wRC+ and was very good against righties posting a .300/.366/.527 slash line against them. Brandon Allen will also see some DH-time, but will compete for the starting first base job as well. Allen has terrific power but has yet to put it all together. Barton and prospect Chris Carter are still around and should also compete for time at 1B and DH.

Of course, there’s also Manny Ramirez, who’s attempting his comeback on a minor league deal. He can’t play until early June when his 50-game PED suspension is served, but when he comes back, he should get a shot at the regular DH job. If he’s awful or becomes a distraction, the A’s will waste very little money releasing him.

Cliff Pennington is back to play short stop after a bit of a down campaign. He had a 4.0 fWAR season in 2010 due mostly to excellent defense which took a nose dive last season according to the metrics. If he can be an average hitter and bring his defense back up to 2010 levels, he’ll be a very valuable asset. Pennington’s running mate on the left side of the infield, Scott Sizemore, tore up his knee and will miss the whole season leaving a gaping hole at the hot corner. Catcher Josh Donaldson is one of the players vying to take over the spot despite having played just 53 professional games at third while Adam Rosales and Eric Sogard could also compete for the job.

Bench

Anthony Recker, Landon Powell and Donaldson (if he bombs out at third), will battle for the backup catcher job behind Suzuki. Rosales can play almost anywhere, but needs to hit at least a little to keep his spot on the team while Jonny Gomes was acquired in the offseason and should get some playing time against lefties in either leftfield or at DH. Cowgill, Carter, and a few others are also in the mix.

For a detailed statistical look at the Oakland A’s roster, click here.

Outlook

The A’s appear close to sealing a new stadium deal somewhere in the Bay Area and when that happens, they’ll assumedly have more money to spend. For now, Beane and company appear content to let some of their young players get acclimated while the Rangers and Angels slug it out for the division. If they catch lightning in a bottle and the young trio of Parker, Peacock and Milone perform beyond expectation, they could approach .500, but it isn’t likely.

2012 Prediction: 71-91, 3rd AL West