MLB March Report: Oakland A’s

It’s a cruel irony, that just as casual or even non-baseball fans become interested in the story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in the wake of Moneyball—I have family members and friends asking me about the storyline—that the A’s fall on about as hard of times as they’ve known in the last ten years. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at this troubled franchise based on their ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: I suppose it’s a sign of Beane’s triumph that his emphasis on on-base percentage became so universally accepted that the richer teams just adopted his ideas, did it with more money and left Oakland with nothing. Because the 2012 A’s look absolutely awful when it comes to producing baserunners. Let’s give them second baseman Jemile Weeks, a fabulous young talent who had a .340 OBP in his first season. Even better, that came with a .303 batting average, meaning the 25-year-old already knows how to hit, and teaching him to be a little more patient and perhaps create a 60-70 point spread between his batting average and on-base percentage, is a realistic goal. Seth Smith was a complete offensive player in Colorado, and even allowing for the statistical dropoff that will take place in moving from Coors to Oakland-Alameda, Smith will still be a solid asset in Bob Melvin’s lineup. Beyond that, all that’s left is celebrated Cuban free agent Yoenis Cespedes. If he’s all he’s cracked up to be, it will obviously help, but even at that, Oakland just needs a lot more talent than what’s on hand. It’s a sad sign of the times that Coco Crisp’s 49 steals are as big a positive as this offense has. Why is that so sad? Because Crisp’s on-base numbers are poor, and it was an essential part of the original Moneyball theory that stolen bases were at best an overrated part of the game, and at worst an outright liability. Now Oakland has to live for them.

POWER: Smith will DH and hit about 15 home runs a year in Colorado, a number that’s definitely coming down in Oakland. But the positive is that his slugging percentages were always good, so perhaps the dropoff on park effects can mitigated by driving the ball to the alleys. Josh Reddick was brought in from Boston to play rightfield, after a .457 slugging percentage in part-time duty last year. Reddick was a good young hitter for the Sox. Not to sound like a broken record on the whole park effects thing, but factor in some decline for going from Fenway to Oakland Alameda, factor in some improvement because Reddick’s only 25, and you have a hitter with a good power stroke who needs to learn some patience at the plate.  This is another area where Cespedes is a big X-factor. Ultimately Oakland is hamstrung by the fact they get no power—for that matter, nothing at all—from their corner infield spots, the traditional place for the thumpers in the lineup. Obviously losing starting third baseman Scott Sizemore for the year didn’t help, but even when was on the field, Sizemore wasn’t bringing back memories of Carney Lansford in the early 1990s for Oakland fans, or Sal Bando for old-timers who watched Charlie Finley’s A’s win three straight World Series from 1972-74.

STARTING PITCHING: If there’s giong to be one area you have promise, this is the area it should be. Brandon McCarthy stayed reasonably healthy for the first time, with 25 starts and he posted a 3.32 ERA. The A’s staff will be even better if Dallas Braden can make it back from a shoulder injury in May like he’s currently projected. After that’s about some kids the organization loves and one old guy trying to sustain a career. The latter is Bartolo Colon. At age 38 he can still pitch well when he’s healthy, but his body is almost certain to break down. That he made 26 starts for the Yankees last year was a minor miracle and no small reason the Yankees won the AL East over Tampa and the Fenway Fried Chicken outlet. If he makes that many starts for Oakland this year, he’ll be a big difference-maker, but there’s no reason to count on it again. If they have an Over/Under line posted in Vegas for Colon’s start totals and listed it at 20, I’d take the Under. Then we come to Brad Peacock, Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone, average age of 24. Milone’s five starts last year make him the veteran of this trio. Oakland loves all three and they’re currently projected to be in the rotation when the season begins. Milone had a nice 3.81 ERA in his starts, so based on that he’s the best bet to get something going. But at least one, and probably two of these pitchers need to be effective if Oakland is going to be respectable. Also on the disabled list is Brett Anderson, whose elbow problem will keep him out to at least August.

RELIEF PITCHING: Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour are battling for the closer’s job. Over their careers, Fuentes has done substantially more ninth-inning work, while Balfour has been a setup man. At ages 26 and 34 respectively, I’m not sure how they would change in such a way that makes it worthwhile for them to flip roles, so I’m guessing Melvin makes Fuentes the closer. There’s some opportunity for the manager to put together a nice bullpen in front of these two. Joey Devine, Jerry Blevins, Graham Godfrey and Faustino De Los Santos didn’t pitch a lot last year (between 20-30 IP apiece), but the work they did give was good, so Melvin will have to settle on which can pitch effectively over the long haul.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 71.5—I know it’s low number as it is, assuming 91 losses, but I have no heistation about taking the Under. Seth Smith is the only position player with more than one year of quality play under his belt, and the pitching is entirely dependent on rookies. I suppose if they all come through fast and become the next edition of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, the trio that Beane rode to prominence in the early ‘00s, then Oakland can be a surprise team. But would you bet on that? I wouldn’t. Oakland’s an organization in a lot of turmoil right now, with the focus being on nailing down a stadium in San Jose and moving, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this year’s team lost 100 games.