Can a young rotation push the A's into the postseason?
With an enviable young rotation, a solid bullpen and passable defense, the A’s desperately needed to upgrade an offense that ranked near the bottom of the American League in most, if not all, categories. Not even baseball’s best statistical rotation could overcome an attack that produced barely four runs per game, though the A’s did finish .500 after three straight losing seasons. The new A’s — Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus and Josh Willingham — should provide fans with a long-awaited power jolt. With payroll flexibility, there may be another big bat added before camp opens in February. Maybe GM Billy Beane’s maneuvering will have a bigger impact than those from recent offseasons, when the likes of Jason Giambi, Matt Holliday, Nomar Garciaparra and Orlando Cabrera came and went quickly. With defending AL West champ Texas losing Cliff Lee, the division title is available for the taking. “There’s definitely a strong possibility for us to go beyond the regular season and into the postseason,” Matsui said at his inaugural press conference. “Hopefully, I can help this team and propel them to the next level.” A dwindling fan base can only hope Matsui’s proclamation comes true.
It’s difficult to imagine the A’s starting pitching improving after a major league-leading 3.47 ERA. It’s more than a distinct possibility, though. Back are 2010 All-Star Trevor Cahill as well as Dallas Braden, Gio Gonzalez and Brett Anderson. Though Braden is owner of a perfect game and has an outgoing personality that endears him to the media, Cahill has become the team’s ace. His 18 wins last season were the most for a player 22 years or younger since Bret Saberhagen went 20–6 at the age of 21 in 1985. Braden, despite a 3.50 ERA, finished 11–14 but provided the team’s signature moment for 2010 with a Mother’s Day perfect game against Tampa Bay. Gonzalez had a breakthrough year in his first full season in the majors, going 15–9 with a 3.23 ERA. He also led the A’s with 171 strikeouts and 92 walks. Anderson’s progress wasn’t quite as measurable, yet he finished 7–6 with a 2.80 ERA despite two stints on the DL due to elbow problems. Though the A’s traded Vin Mazzaro as part of the Willingham deal, they may have a familiar face back in the rotation — Rich Harden. Signed after being released by Texas, Harden featured an electric fastball and tantalizing changeup during his first stint with the team.
The group was solid, finishing with a 3.83 ERA, but certainly not on par with the AL-best 3.54 figure the year before. The drop-off could be traced partly to the injury troubles of closer Andrew Bailey, the 2009 AL Rookie of the Year who underwent right elbow surgery in late September. Bailey, who missed a month-and-a-half, converted on 89 percent of his save chances. Two key additions, Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour, bring experience and talent to an already solid bullpen. Fuentes, a lefthander, has experience as a closer. Balfour had 48 holds for the Rays over the last three seasons. During that time he has 207 strikeouts and just 204 hits plus walks. Michael Wuertz had six saves in Bailey’s absence, but his 2010 numbers (2–3, 4.31) weren’t nearly as impressive as those from the previous season (6–1, 2.63). Lefty Craig Breslow bounced from San Diego to Boston to Cleveland to Minnesota before landing in Oakland two seasons ago. He recorded five saves, and his 75 appearances were second among AL relievers. On the front end of the bullpen, Jerry Blevins completed his first full season in the majors with a 3.70 ERA, while Brad Ziegler was 3–7, tied for the most losses among league relievers.
Mark Ellis is the last remaining starter from the 2006 team that reached the ALCS. Barring an injury, this season will mark his seventh straight Opening Day start, moving ahead of Dick Green for the most in Oakland history. Ellis, with no Gold Gloves or All-Star appearances, might be the most underrated player in the game at his position. His .990 fielding percentage is among the top five in major league history. Ellis also has five seasons of double-digit homer totals, and his 85 homers are the most ever for an A’s second baseman. Cliff Pennington will enter his second season as the A’s shortstop. He’ll need to provide more offense (.250, six homers), or the A’s might hasten the ascent of heir apparent Grant Green, the team’s top draft pick in 2009.
The A’s will no longer wonder if third baseman Eric Chavez can return from one of his various injuries. Unless there is a late signing, the job belongs to Kevin Kouzmanoff. He’s adequate, but the A’s searched for an upgrade over the winter. Kouzmanoff led the A’s with 16 homers, which is more of an indictment against the team’s anemic offense than of him. Although he tied for the team lead with 71 RBIs, he wasn’t exactly the prototypical “Moneyball” hitter, striking out 96 times with just 24 walks, resulting in a weak .283 on-base percentage. On the other side of the infield, Daric Barton is slowly becoming the player the A’s envisioned when he was acquired from St. Louis in the 2004 Mark Mulder trade.
Fans won’t recognize the revamped outfield. The corner outfielders (DeJesus and Willingham) were acquired via trades, and center fielder Coco Crisp was hardly healthy enough last season to determine whether he’d be a long-term solution. Crisp was limited to 75 games because of injuries to his pinkie and intercostal muscle but hit .279 with eight homers and 38 RBIs with a career-high 32 stolen bases. DeJesus also suffered through an injury-curtailed season with Kansas City, hitting .318 in 91 games before his year ended with a thumb injury. Willingham also missed most of the second half with a right knee injury, which required surgery in August. Willingham hit 16 homers and drove in 56 runs in 114 games for Washington. The season before, Willingham slugged 24 homers for the Nationals.
Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino might be the most notable major leaguer from Maui, but A’s catcher Kurt Suzuki is right behind him. Suzuki tied for the team lead with 71 RBIs, though he hit .242, a drop-off from the previous two seasons. Suzuki had one trip to the disabled list last year, but his durability is unquestioned. His 389 starts over the last three seasons are second-most in baseball behind Jason Kendall, once an A’s catcher. When Suzuki needs a rare day off, Landon Powell will be his replacement.
Designated hitter is now in the hands of “Godzilla,” although Matsui is 36, and his home run total dropped from 28 with the Yankees in 2009 to 21 with Anaheim last season. With the remade outfield, Ryan Sweeney moves from starter to the bench despite signing a $1.4 million deal for the 2011 season. Sweeney hit .294 with a homer and 36 RBIs in a season hampered by a right knee injury. Sweeney will see plenty of playing time since he has gone 117 games without an error, the sixth-longest streak in Oakland history. The A’s, ever evolving, are not exactly blessed with a deep bench at this juncture. Adam Rosales can play almost every position except catcher. Conor Jackson, a one-time starter with Arizona, hit just .228 with a homer after he was acquired by the A’s. Jackson was out most of the second half with a right hamstring injury. Rookie Chris Carter went 33 at-bats before collecting his first major league hit last season.
Manager Bob Geren survived three losing seasons before guiding the A’s to a .500 mark last season. He appears to be in no jeopardy of losing his job. The A’s have lost many fans as the ownership group has deemed that Oakland is no longer a viable option for the future. With nearby Fremont not an option either, the team awaits Major League Baseball’s findings on whether San Jose could be a future home. The Giants own territorial rights in the South Bay.
With the American League’s best starting rotation and an offense that should be improved with the addition of Matsui, DeJesus and Willingham, the A’s can legitimately consider themselves a contender in the AL West.