The Oakland A’s looked to be headed into another round of rebuilding when they dealt top-of-the-rotation talents Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill to Washington and Arizona respectively last winter. That perception was furthered when the team limped to a 37-42 record by the end of June. Still, they weren’t as bad as people assumed they would be and rookie Cuban import Yoenis Cespedes surpassed everyone’s expectations and looked to be blossoming into a legitimate star.
Then the A’s went bananas. They reeled off 16 wins in the first 18 games of July and went 57-26 from July 1st on. The dream season culminated in a season-ending sweep of the Texas Rangers, catapulting them to their first division title since 2006 and fifth in the last 13 years. Although they lost to Justin Verlander and the Tigers in five hard-fought ALDS games, there’s no question that the A’s far surpassed any expectations they had at the outset of the season.
Oakland was the most rookie-reliant contender in history in 2012, fielding 12 rookies on their ALDS roster and for large chunks of the season they relied on an all-rookie starting rotation and a rookie starting catcher.
Among AL teams, only the Rays allowed fewer runs than the A’s pitching staff last season. Two of the main pieces in the Gonzalez and Cahill trades, Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker, were impressive in their rookie campaigns combining to throw more than 370 innings with a combined WAR of 6.4 according to FanGraphs. For Milone, much of that was park-aided, pitching much better in the cavernous Coliseum than on the road where he had a rather miserable .367 opponents’ wOBA as opposed to a .271 mark at home.
Parker, on the other hand, was good at home and on the road and projects to get better as he’s still only 24 and should only now be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery two years ago. If command is truly the last thing to come back, he should better his already decent walk rate and continue to limit hard contact.
Joining Parker and Milone at the top of the rotation will be left-hander Brett Anderson who made only six starts late last year after his own meeting with the ghost of Mr John’s elbow ligament in 2011. Before getting hurt Anderson, who’s still just 25, was on his way to becoming a legitimate ace and pitched very well down the stretch. If he can return to form, the A’s have a formidable top of the rotation.
Bartolo Colon has just five games to serve on his suspension for PED use last summer and should join the rotation in April. At 40-years-old, he’s coming off a very impressive comeback season where he was worth 2.4 WAR in just 152 1/3 innings. If he can sustain even part of that performance, he’ll be a more-than-adequate number four starter. The final spot in the rotation will likely go to either A.J. Griffin or 2012 minor-league breakout player Dan Straily. Both were solid in limited Major League time in 2012.
The one problem with the rotation, which projects to be well-above-average, are the home-road splits. At home, the A’s held their opponents to an impressive .228/.290/.351 slash line, while on the road those numbers jumped to .257/.324/.406. Although that’s still respectable, there were many pitchers—Milone and Griffin chief among them—that were far more homer-prone on the road.
Like the rotation, the bullpen should be solid again in 2013 with not only impact talent, but an enviable amount of depth. Grant Balfour eventually superseded Brian Fuentes as the closer last year and returns as the likely choice in that spot again. Knee surgery might land him on the DL to start the year, but he’s not expected to miss much regular season time. Balfour was great last season posting a 2.53 ERA and his third WAR above 1.0 in the last five seasons, but a league-low .201 batted-ball average suggests that he could be in for some regression in 2013.
In setup, the A’s will rely upon a dominant lefty-righty combo in Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook. Both posted impressive numbers across the board last season and Doolittle has only one full year of pitching under his belt after converting from a failed attempt at a career as a first baseman.
Left-handers Jerry Blevins and Jordan Norberto will join righty Pat Neshek in the bullpen’s supporting cast and all three pitched well in 2012. Chris Resop, who was acquired from Pittsburgh, will battle with Fernando Rodriguez, 2012 breakout Travis Blackley and Evan Scribner among others for the final bullpen spot.
The A’s transformed their lineup last winter with the acquisition of Cespedes along with fellow outfielders Josh Reddick, Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith. They went from bottom-feeders incapable of scoring even a small amount of runs to firmly middle-of-the pack, finishing eighth in the AL in runs scored. Cespedes was a revelation, slugging his way to a 136 wRC+ and produced more than 3 WAR despite missing some time on the DL. The four-year $36-million contract he signed last winter went from looking rather expensive to looking like one of the more considerable bargains of the 2011-12 offseason.
Reddick led all AL rightfielders with an 18.5 UZR which contributed to a breakout 4.8 WAR season. At the plate, he slugged 32 home runs, but had an underwhelming .305 on-base percentage and posted an anemic .509 OPS in the last month of the year. How he responds in 2012 will go a long way to determining the success of Oakland’s offense. With the savvy acquisition of Chris Young from Arizona, the A’s outfield depth is unparalleled. Young, Coco Crisp and Seth Smith should all see time and will swap in at DH with Smith getting most of the playing time there.
In the infield, the acquisition of Jed Lowrie from Houston gives Oakland another movable part along with Scott Sizemore, Josh Donaldson, Adam Rosales, and Japanese import Hiroyuki Nakajima. Lowrie was terrific last season in only 97 games, slugging .438 with 16 home runs with the Astros. He could start at second, short or third, but that will mostly depend on the success and defensive ability of Nakajima. Donaldson can play the corner infield and catch if need be and Rosales can play almost anywhere on the diamond. Sizemore has some offensive upside but is coming off a knee injury that caused him to miss all of 2012.
At first base will be Brandon Moss who came out of nowhere and posted huge numbers as a 28-year-old. He led the team with a 160 wRC+ in only 296 plate appearances. There are, of course, issues of small sample size and his batted-ball average of .359 will assuredly come back down to earth in 2013. Look for the A’s to upgrade at first as the season goes on. Daric Barton is still around if Moss completely falls apart.
At catcher, the A’s made another savvy pickup in grabbing John Jaso from the Mariners as shrapnel from the Mike Morse trade and he’ll split time at catcher with Derek Norris who struggled at the plate in 2012, but has plenty of upside. Jaso put up one of the best offensive seasons of any catcher in baseball in 2012 and although regression should be expected—especially in terms of power production—he should still be an above average offensive contributor.
Proof that the “Moneyball” philosophy is as much about adaptation as it is about a certain skill-set, the A’s have seemingly kicked their early-aughts habit of all but ignoring defense and have become one of the most consistently excellent defensive teams in the league. Last year, they were third in the AL in defensive efficiency behind the Angels and Rays and should benefit from the additions of Young and Lowrie who are both solid defenders. Jaso is by all accounts an awful defensive catcher, but Norris is much more highly regarded.
Unlike the Orioles, the A’s success wasn’t based on fluky records in one-run games; their Pythagorean record, derived from run differential, was 92-70, suggesting their 2012 dream season was more the result of actual performance than of smoke and mirrors. Although there are some individual regression candidates like Moss, Milone and Balfour, there are just as many players who could build on their 2012 success.
The biggest strength of the A’s is their nearly unparalleled depth so even if some players regress to the point of uselessness, there are plenty of options that could step up. Repeating their lofty second-half is probably unlikely and the AL West is extremely competitive, but Oakland should at least be in the conversation late into the year. GM Billy Beane has also shown an impressive aptitude for improving in-season where need be. If Oakland struggles out of the gate, look for him to make significant changes.
2013 Prediction: 86-76, 3rd AL West
For a comprehensive depth chart with stats, click here. Most stats provided by FanGraphs (A’s team page here) and Baseball Prospectus. Depth chart info acquired from the irreplaceable MLB Depth Charts.