Green and Gold going for three-peat in AL West
The A’s won two straight division titles and followed with a bunch of offseason moves. It was business as usual for a team with a relatively tiny payroll, so-so attendance and an antiquated ballpark. The A’s don’t rebuild. They recreate — even when they’re good, and they were good in 2013 en route to winning 96 games and running away with a division that included the high-spending Rangers and Angels. GM Billy Beane still felt the need to deal for relievers Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson and outfielder Craig Gentry and sign starting pitcher Scott Kazmir and utility infielder Nick Punto. With ace Bartolo Colon and closer Grant Balfour (Oakland’s two All-Stars last season) lost to free agency, the A’s again must prove themselves against the big boys of the division, which welcomes the Mariners’ Robinson Cano. Given their track record, the A’s seek nothing less than an AL West three-peat.
With Colon no longer around, the co-aces figure to be Sonny Gray, 24, and Jarrod Parker, 25. A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily are in the same age group, which makes Kazmir the old man at 30, a decade younger than Colon. The rotation ranked second in ERA in the AL and first in complete-game shutouts and opponents’ batting average, and Gray was around for only 10 starts. Oakland’s latest phenom to hit the rotation, Gray won the division-clinching game and threw eight shutout innings in a memorable playoff duel with Justin Verlander. A’s fans are eager to see the Vanderbilt product over a full season. He has a 96 mph fastball, wicked 12-to-6 curve and bulldog mentality that makes up for a slight frame. Parker has had time to rest after ending his season with fatigue and a forearm strain, coming in the wake of a 19-start unbeaten streak, the longest by an A’s starter since Lefty Grove in 1931. The Kazmir signing (two years, $22 million) made Brett Anderson, who started the 2013 opener, expendable, and he was dealt to Colorado. But Kazmir is a risk, considering that he struggled in independent ball in 2012 before making 29 starts for Cleveland last year.
The A’s broke ground when acquiring Johnson as their closer. They have a history of creating closers, including Balfour and Andrew Bailey and going back to Jason Isringhausen and even Dennis Eckersley. With Johnson, they’ve got a ready-made closer who saved 101 games the past two years for Baltimore. The bullpen was deep, and now it might be deeper with the addition of Johnson, who’s replacing Balfour (38 saves), and Gregerson, who boasts one of the game’s most effective sliders. Returning setup men Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and Dan Otero combined for a 2.52 ERA. With the absence of Anderson and Jerry Blevins, who was dealt to the Nationals, Doolittle won’t have much left-handed company unless Tommy Milone — an effective starter in 2012 who fell from grace in ’13 —former Rockie Drew Pomeranz or Fernando Abad, acquired from the Nationals in November, is in the mix. An ace in the hole down the stretch could be former Brave Eric O’Flaherty. The accomplished lefty setup man is coming off Tommy John surgery last May, so he could be back in top form for the second half.
Jed Lowrie is the undisputed shortstop. Not necessarily a defensive whiz, Lowrie makes the routine plays and is coming off his most durable and productive season, appearing in 154 games, 57 more than his previous high. He was the projected second baseman last year but played mostly short, because Hiro Nakajima of Japan spent the season in the minors. The A’s finished 2013 with an Eric Sogard-Alberto Callaspo platoon at second and added Punto. Sogard is something of a cult figure with his spectacles and aggressive style, prompting fans to embrace “Nerd Power.” But the double-play combination won’t wow you — the A’s turned only 112 DPs, fewest in the majors and fewest by an Oakland team in a non-strike season. Meantime, big-time prospect Addison Russell was solid in the Arizona Fall League and could play some shortstop for the A’s by season’s end.
Third baseman Josh Donaldson and first baseman Brandon Moss give the A’s plenty of pop. Donaldson might have been the majors’ best position player not to make an All-Star team or win an MVP or Gold Glove. But in Oakland, he was cherished. The former catcher had a breakout year and was especially adept in clutch situations, hitting .336 with runners in scoring position and going 8-for-12 with the bases loaded. His All-Star chances improved with the news that Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, the league’s MVP, was moving from third to first. Moss is a dead pull hitter who hit 30 homers and struck out 140 times. Nate Freiman, a Rule 5 acquisition, platooned with Moss for much of the season and could continue to hang around for at-bats against lefties unless Callaspo — mentioned by manager Bob Melvin as an option at first base — supplants him. Lefty-swinging Daric Barton, the team’s longest-tenured player, was re-signed to a non-guaranteed contract. He’s a better defender than Moss, so his presence allows Moss to DH.
Left fielder Yoenis Cespedes and right fielder Josh Reddick seek bounce-back years. Reddick should be stronger after undergoing postseason surgery on his right wrist, which bothered him last summer. Cespedes is more of a mystery. The Home Run Derby champ had similar power numbers to 2012, but his average slipped 52 points to .240, and his on-base percentage dropped 62 points to .294. It has been speculated the A’s might trade Cespedes, but they were 165–96 the past two years with him in the lineup, 25–38 without. At 34, Coco Crisp remains a valuable leadoff man and defensive center fielder, bringing oomph to the lineup when healthy. He’ll get some help. Gentry was acquired from Texas, where he posted a .373 OBP. He should be an upgrade over last year’s fourth outfielder, Chris Young, whose OBP was .280.
The A’s wouldn’t mind some stability. Last season began with a Derek Norris-John Jaso platoon. It ended with Stephen Vogt as the No. 1 catcher. Vogt is a nice story, having been acquired on the cheap from the Rays to provide depth in the minors. Jaso sustained a concussion and Norris broke a toe, and suddenly Vogt was playing (and succeeding) in the majors, hitting well and shedding his image as an iffy defender. Pitchers are comfortable throwing to Vogt. Once again, it’s likely that Jaso and Norris will see most of the time, with Jaso also getting some at-bats as DH.
At times last season, Melvin platooned at four spots, and it could be more of the same in 2014. Gentry will get significant time as the fourth outfielder, considering the health record of the top three guys. The A’s snagged two other outfielders from the Nationals: Corey Brown, whom they drafted in 2007 and shipped to Washington in the Josh Willingham trade, and Billy Burns, who stole 74 bases in 81 attempts in the minors. The switch-hitting Punto could find himself anywhere on the infield, perhaps mostly at second. Tampa Bay catcher Chris Gimenez was claimed off waivers as insurance. The lefty-swinging Jaso could get plenty of DH at-bats, but Melvin plans to rotate other players at DH, including Moss, Cespedes and Crisp.
No one works a roster quite like Melvin, who was named AL Manager of the Year in 2012 and finished third in the voting last year. Melvin platoons at several positions, relies heavily on left-right matchups and again has a group of versatile players furnished by Beane. No GM was busier in December than Beane, who pulled off five trades and a free-agent signing over nine days. In one 48-hour stretch, Beane traded for Johnson, Gregerson and Gentry and signed Kazmir, in the process replacing free agents Colon, Balfour and Young.
The A’s appear at least as well-rounded as last year. The bullpen is deeper with Gregerson, and the bench is deeper with Gentry and Punto. As always, it starts with the rotation, and the A’s must prove they can flourish without Colon, who had 18 wins and a 2.65 ERA. The A’s finished 5.5 games ahead of the Rangers, who added Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo. Oakland’s most expensive acquisition was Kazmir at $22 million, but the A’s never try to keep up with their free-spending division foes. They simply try to outplay them, which they have designs on doing for a third straight year.
CF Coco Crisp (S)
Energizes lineup. Set career highs in homers, walks and runs and played errorless ball.
3B Josh Donaldson (R)
Can he improve on finishing fourth in MVP voting? His 174 hits were A’s most since Mark Kotsay’s 190 in ’04.
SS Jed Lowrie (S)
Coming off career year (.290, 15 HRs, 75 RBIs). Eligible for free agency after the season.
LF Yoenis Cespedes (R)
Average dropped by 52 points and slugging dipped from .505 to .442 from first to second MLB season.
1B Brandon Moss (L)
Grip and rip, and never mind a two-strike approach. Led A’s with 30 HRs, 140 strikeouts.
RF Josh Reddick (L)
Coming off wrist surgery, looking for bounce-back season after his homers total dipped from 32 to 12.
DH John Jaso (L)
Life is safer as a DH. Missed final two months with concussion, which left his catching career in jeopardy.
C Derek Norris (R)
Season hit detour with broken toe suffered in August. After returning, hit .325 in 40 at-bats.
2B Eric Sogard (L)
Hit himself onto roster in spring training (.444) and stuck all year, appearing in 130 games.
OF Craig Gentry (R)
Superior runner and defender, and he can play any spot in the outfield.
INF Nick Punto (S)
Could share time with Sogard at second and play short or third when Lowrie or Donaldson rest.
INF Alberto Callaspo (S)
Candidate to platoon at either first or second. Played six positions in big-league career but never at first.
1B Daric Barton (L)
The seven-year veteran had 488 plate appearances in 110 games at Triple-A Sacramento last season; just 120 in 37 games with Oakland.
RH Sonny Gray
Huge expectations for the kid who was selected over Bartolo Colon to start Game 5 of ALDS.
RH Jarrod Parker
Fatigued late last season. Diagnosed with forearm strain that didn’t require surgery.
LH Scott Kazmir
Will he live up to the highest average annual value ($11 million) ever for an A’s starter?
RH A.J. Griffin
Entering second full season. Won 14 and led staff with 200 innings, finished with elbow tendinitis.
RH Dan Straily
Trying to avoid the Sacramento shuttle, which he took several times in 2013. Still managed 27 starts.
RH Jim Johnson (Closer)
Struggled early last season for the Orioles, but a 50-save season is a 50-save season.
LH Sean Doolittle
Tough against both righties and lefties. Would have been good closer option if A’s hadn’t acquired Johnson.
RH Luke Gregerson
Accomplished setup man with mean slider. In five years with Padres, had 2.88 ERA and 1.092 WHIP.
RH Ryan Cook
Posted 2.54 ERA but allowed 50 percent (15 of 30) of inherited runners to score. He’s dealing with shoulder inflammation during the spring.
RH Dan Otero
Worked way into a setup role by yielding three earned runs in final 35.1 innings (0.76 ERA).
RH Jesse Chavez
You know you’ve got a quality long reliever when he throws the final 5.2 innings in an 18-inning win.
LH Drew Pomeranz
Hoping to improve away from Coors Field. Could make team as reliever/spot starter.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Billy McKinney, CF
The A’s love on-base percentage, and McKinney’s was .585 as a senior at Plano West Senior in Plano, Texas — 36 walks, just six strikeouts in 130 plate appearances. After McKinney was selected 24th overall in the draft, his parents rented “Moneyball,” the movie that offers a slightly fictionalized portrayal of GM Billy Beane’s behind-the-scenes work during the A’s 2002 season, including emphasizing OBP. “Awesome movie,” said McKinney, who quickly signed and accumulated a .387 OBP in 55 games in rookie league and Low-A. Scouts love his left-handed swing, which he modeled after Josh Hamilton’s, having grown up in Texas close to the Rangers’ ballpark. McKinney played center in his first pro season, but he could be moved to a corner. In 243 plate appearances as an A’s minor leaguer, 15 of his 70 hits went for extra bases: nine doubles, three triples, three homers.
SS Addison Russell (20)
The 2012 first-round pick hit .302 with .389 OBP in first two pro seasons; could be A’s shortstop by 2015 with Jed Lowrie’s contract expiring after 2014.
RHP Michael Ynoa (22)
Signed as 16-year-old in 2008. Progress slowed by injuries but had a 2.14 ERA in 15 starts at Class A Beloit last year.
SS Daniel Robertson (19)
In Russell’s shadow, also from 2012 draft (34th pick overall). Hit .277 with Beloit. Could switch positions down the road.
CF Billy Burns (24)
Obtained in Jerry Blevins trade. Stole 74 bases in 81 tries in Nationals’ farm system last season.
3B Renato Nunez (19)
Collected 19 homers and 85 RBIs in A-ball three years after being signed out of Venezuela.
1B Matt Olson (19)
The 47th overall pick in 2012 had low average (.225) but hit 23 homers with 93 RBIs at Beloit.
Beyond the Box Score
Consistency The A’s were the only team in the majors with winning records all six months of the regular season. In fact, the streak is 10 months, dating to June 2012. Problem is, they’ve had two straight losing Octobers, dropping the Division Series in five games to Detroit in back-to-back seasons.
Couple of pros Nate Freiman, who hit .274 as a rookie, isn’t the only athlete in his family to reach the pro ranks. His wife, Amanda Blumenherst, was on the LPGA tour for several years, and Freiman served as her caddy in offseasons. They met at Duke, where they were the school’s senior athletes of the year in 2009. How’s Freiman’s golf game? “I can’t even shoot under 100. I’m the least competitive person on the golf course,” he says. Blumenherst stepped away from the tour late last year to travel with her husband.
Clean shaven Josh Reddick trimmed his long beard in November, having lost a “beard off” to pro wrestler Daniel Bryan. Reddick made the announcement by sending his cleaner-looking mug out on Twitter. The right fielder had a breakout 2012 with 32 homers and 85 RBIs. In 2013, a bearded Reddick hit 12 homers and 56 RBIs, but the reason for the decline wasn’t about facial hair as much as a sore wrist that required postseason surgery.
Quick start The A’s have been known as a second-half team, amping it up when the weather warms up. But last year, they had two solid halves. Of the franchise’s last eight playoff teams, dating to 1992, only last year’s club was in sole possession of first place at the All-Star break. The A’s were 56–39 at intermission and weren’t bad after, either, going 40–27 and leading the majors in second-half homers for the second straight year.
Back, back, back Bob Melvin usually throws batting practice to Yoenis Cespedes but took a break in July. Cespedes was invited to the Home Run Derby, and Melvin wasn’t planning to be in New York for the All-Star Game. So third-base coach Mike Gallego became Cespedes’ designated batting-practice pitcher. Gallego threw to Cespedes in the days before the derby. At the big event at Citi Field, he served up 32 home run pitches. Cespedes easily won it, beating Bryce Harper in the final round.