Billy Beane's offseason left little doubt among A's fans that the team was shifting its focus beyond 2012. Beane traded away Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey, the only three players who have represented Oakland as All-Stars over the past three years. In return, the A's received a handful of prospects whom they plan to use to build toward the opening of their new ballpark, whenever that may be. Oakland did make a small splash by signing Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36-million deal. Unless you count signing Manny Ramirez to a minor league deal knowing he must serve a 50-game suspension before being active, the A's were quiet in the free agency market. Beane has said he has no choice but to operate under the assumption that the A's will eventually be moving into a ballpark that produces enough revenue to let them compete. In the meantime, he's got a team with a skimpy payroll and almost no chance to contend in 2012.
The Opening Day starter will be Brandon McCarthy, a nomadic righthander whose career had been floundering until he busted out with a 3.32 ERA in 25 starts for the A's in 2011. The two true “aces” will likely start the season on the disabled list. The A's were optimistic about Dallas Braden's rehab from shoulder surgery, but shoulders are always tricky, so they'll be cautious with him, especially in a rebuilding year. But he will be ready months before Brett Anderson, who isn't expected back until midseason at best after undergoing Tommy John surgery last July. They bought some insurance with veteran Bartolo Colon, who was a revelation in the first half for the Yankees last year. If Colon's 2011 season, which came after being out of the big leagues for a year, wasn't a total fluke, which it may have been, he can eat innings and allow the A's not to rush so many young pitchers. The A's essentially have five pitchers fighting for the final two spots in the rotation (three if Braden starts on the DL). Graham Godfrey and Tyson Ross come back after bouncing between Triple-A and the majors with the A's, and Tom Milone and Brad Peacock who each had impressive cameos in the bigs last year before the A's acquired them this winter. If even two of those five can establish themselves as better-than-average big league starters sometime in 2012, the A's have a shot at a decent rotation in 2013 and beyond.
The A's could afford to deal Bailey and Craig Breslow (to Arizona, in the Cahill deal) because they still have Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour, two veterans who have track records of late-inning success in the majors. Fuentes has 195 saves since 2005. Balfour has a 2.85 ERA over the past four seasons. Those two pitchers will each be free agents at the end of 2012, so they'll simply be holding the late innings warm while the A's figure out who their next young closer will be. One of the leading candidates is Fautino De Los Santos, who showed electric stuff at times in his rookie year in 2011. Joey Devine might also be a candidate. He missed two years because of Tommy John surgery, but he came back last year with a 3.52 ERA in 26 games. Ryan Cook was a closer in the Arizona system before he came to the A's in the Cahill deal.
There were reports that Beane went into the winter with only one player on his untouchable list: Jemile Weeks. The second baseman came up in June and wasted little time establishing himself as someone who could hit and make an impact on the bases. His defense isn't quite what the A's had come to expect with Mark Ellis, though. Across the bag, Cliff Pennington is a very good defensive shortstop who has some offensive shortcomings. Pennington's numbers in 2010 and '11 were eerily similar - his OPS was .687 both years. It's a safe bet that he'll be somewhere in that range again, which makes him a below-average hitter, even for a shortstop.
Daric Barton looked like the long-term answer at first base after he showed significant defensive and offensive improvement three years in a row, but last season he started terribly and got hurt. He was a candidate to be non-tendered, but the A's re-signed him for $1.1 million, signaling that they plan to let him have a crack at getting back into their good graces. He is still recovering from shoulder surgery. They have plenty of candidates in Brandon Allen and Kila Ka'aihue (both acquired in trades since July) and the tantalizing Chris Carter, whose raw power allows him a long leash while the A's hope for him to put it together. Carter will start the year at AAA, but will return if he shows more consistency. At third, the A's seemed settled on Scott Sizemore as the answer, for the short term anyway, that is until he tore an ACL early in the spring and will miss the season. That left the A's scrambling a bit, but Adam Rosales and Josh Donaldson are the best options.
Halfway through the winter, the A's had an entire outfield worth of unproven players, but then in a two-week span in January, they re-signed Coco Crisp to play center and traded for Seth Smith to play left, then signed Cespedes in mid-February to complete the group. Cespedes offers good speed and power, but is still a little raw. He may look overmatched at times, but the A's will allow him to learn at the big-league level. A word of caution could be his maturity. That seemed to scare off a few teams. Crisp is an above average defender and he can be a dynamic player at the top of the lineup, but he's had injury problems over the past few years. With Weeks slated to lead off, and considering the dearth in the heart of the order, Crisp will be forced into the No. 3 hole. Smith has been a fairly consistent performer over his three full seasons in Colorado, but if he hit only 15-17 homers there, he's not likely to do better in Oakland. Smith is not such a proven commodity that the A's couldn't slide him to the bench if more than one of the young players proves worthy, though. Josh Reddick, who came from Boston in the Bailey deal, is the top of the pack. He's solid defensively and has some pop, but, like Smith, probably not enough to be a long-term answer in a corner outfield spot. The A's also have Collin Cowgill, who will get just enough of a shot in 2012 to show whether he can be a part of the long-term solution. The real budding star, top prospect, Michael Choice, also could be ready to make his debut sometime this year.
Kurt Suzuki appeared to be on his way to becoming one of the best young, two-way catchers in baseball. The A's were betting on it when they gave him a four-year, $16.25-million deal early in 2010. But he has struggled in the two seasons since. The A's don't have any alternatives in the short term, so they'll hang with Suzuki and hope that he can figure out what went wrong offensively and defensively. They may have to drop him into the middle of their young lineup, though, which is only going to add more pressure.
Whoever doesn't get the bulk of the playing time out of the first base jumble - Barton, Allen and Ka'aihue- is going to get a good crack at the DH spot. The odd man out in the outfield sweepstakes will see some time there as well. Smith is the most likely candidate given that Reddick is better defensively. If the A's are going to punt this season and look to the future, there's no reason not to let Carter (49 Triple-A homers the past two years) see what he can do.
When Beane hired Bob Melvin to replace Bob Geren last June, it marked the first time in his tenure as a GM that he'd hired a manager with any big league managerial experience. Perhaps it's a sign that Beane is yielding more power to his on-field boss. Melvin has been widely heralded by his players for his touch with a team, but he's going to have a big job with this bunch. In any case, don't expect much pressure on Beane or Melvin this season. Ownership most likely understands exactly what's happening here. As long as Beane and Melvin can show some development among the young players, their jobs will be safe. Beane also owns a small piece of the club, so that never hurts.
The A's have some pieces to have a passable pitching staff. Between the guys coming back and the prospects coming in, this team should be in the middle of the pack in pitching. The problem is going to be scoring runs. They didn't score much last year, and the guys who provided what little pop they had (like Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui) are gone. Weeks and Cespedes are still unproven and the A's best offensive prospects (Choice and Green) are not likely to see the majors until late this season, at the earliest, so it's hard to imagine how this team is going to avoid being one of the lowest-scoring teams in the majors again. The A's have managed to win at least 74 games in the five seasons since their last playoff berth, and they'd probably be ecstatic to win that many this year. More likely they'll be fighting to crack 70 victories.
2B Jemile Weeks (S)
Picked a bad year to be a rookie; got no votes for Rookie of the Year despite hitting .303.
SS Cliff Pennington (S)
Slick fielder with a cannon arm who will hit in the .260 range.
LF Coco Crisp (S)
His .693 OPS in '11 was second-lowest of his career, but he led the AL with 49 stolen bases. Is out of place hitting in the middle of the order.
RF Josh Reddick (L)
A nice fourth outfielder on a good team - but he will be forced to start in Oakland.
CF Yoenis Cespedes (R)
Cuban outfielder is expected to prop up A's lineup immediately - a tall order.
DH Seth Smith (L)
Served as Eli Manning's backup at Ole Miss; has a chance to play everyday in Oakland.
C Kurt Suzuki (R)
Should be a 15 HR, .270 hitter, but slumped badly last two years; he's expensive, too.
1B Brandon Allen (L)
Hit .354 in first 13 games after July trade from Arizona, then .133 in last 28. Has an opportunity to prove himself with Daric Barton recovering from shoulder surgery.
3B Eric Sogard (L)
Batted .200 and hit two homers in 27 games for the A's last season.
1B Daric Barton (L)
Hit zero homers in 280 PAs in the majors in '11; not good for a first baseman. Coming off shoulder surgery.
1B Kila Ka'aihue (L)
Former Royal spent parts of four seasons at Triple-A, with a .412 OBP.
C Anthony Recker (R)
Hit double-digit HRs every full season in the minors, including 16 in 345 ABs in 2011.
INF Adam Rosales (R)
Probably the fastest HR trot in the majors; played five positions in 2011.
OF/DH Manny Ramirez (R)
Manny will be available in June after serving a 50-game suspension.
OF Jonny Gomes (R)
Redundant once Ramirez becomes available.
C/3B Josh Donaldson (R)
Primarily a catcher, he has 53 games of experience at third base in the minors, none in the majors.
RH Brandon McCarthy
Had a 3.32 ERA in '11 but better known for his cult following on Twitter (@BMcCarthy32). Already named as Opening Day starter.
RH Bartolo Colon
Was out of the majors for a year but returned to throw 164.1 innings for the Yankees in 2011.
LH Tom Milone
Not the most talented, but probably the most polished of the pitchers acquired this winter.
LH Dallas Braden
Has eight wins and one shoulder surgery since May 2010 perfect game. Likely not ready Opening Day.
LH Brett Anderson
Ace of the staff had Tommy John surgery in July, so a midseason return is optimistic.
RH Tyson Ross
Definite major leaguer (2.75 ERA in limited duty last season) who could start or relieve in 2011. Will get opportunities to start with Braden and Anderson on the shelf.