The AL West might have the Los Angeles Angels throwing the big money at free agents and they might have a financial power and recent two-time pennant winner in the Texas Rangers. But the division’s reigning champion is the Moneyball Boys. The Oakland A’s have won the AL West in both 2012 and 2013. Is Goliath ready to slay the well-heeled giants again this season? The Notebook Nine provides TheSportsNotebook’s nine focal points to take into the 2014 campaign…
*Las Vegas loves Oakland—or at least likes them an awful lot, with an Over/Under of 88.5 on the win futures. Their 8-1 odds to win the American League pennant trail only the Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and mark the A’s as the betting favorite to at least win another AL West title.
*Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson have quietly become one of the league’s better corner infield combos, particularly when it comes to hitting for power. Moss has hit 51 home runs in two seasons and slugged well over .500 in that timeframe. Donaldson slugged .499 last season. Factor in just how hard a park Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is to hit in and these two performances look even more impressive.
*It would be nice if the corner outfield outlook was as promising. Leftfielder Yoenis Cespedes might have had a good debut year in 2012. He might have won the Home Run Derby last summer. But Cespedes otherwise had a miserable 2013 campaign. He doesn’t get on base consistently, so if the left fielder isn’t hitting for power, he isn’t helping the team. Rightfielder Josh Reddick had a similar collapse in 2013. At least one, if not both of these players, need to pick it back up if Oakland is going to win another division title.
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*As you would expect from the team that made Moneyball famous, there’s some nice consistency here in terms of players who get on base. Jed Lowrie and Alberto Callaspo will both hover in the .340s for on-base percentage, which is pretty good for middle infielders. John Jaso posted a .387 OBP at DH and can also help with the catching. Derek Norris also has good promise, and he’ll split catching duties with Stephen Vogt.
If Coco Crisp replicates his 22-home run campaign of 2013, it’s time to raise the PED flag. The evidence? A 34-year-old centerfielder, known more his defense, suddenly finds a power stroke at this stage of his career? Maybe Coco had one magical year, but if it becomes a pattern, I’ll simply ask this—how many times are we supposed to be fooled? For the record, I like Crisp. As a Red Sox fan, I remember him for the solid defense he provided and running down a ball in the Fenway Triangle for the last out of the 2007 American League Championship Series. But the track record of professional athletes and sudden late-career turnarounds is what it is.
*Oakland’s starting pitching has a good reputation, and there is nice balance and talented young arms. I’m just not as impressed though. In a pitcher’s park, there’s no one who has put together an entire year with a sub-3.00 ERA. Jarrod Parker is what passes for an ace, and over two seasons he’s shown himself good for 12-13 wins and an ERA in the high 3s. There’s nothing wrong with that for him, nor for Dan Straily, A.J. Griffin and Tommy Milone, who have similar profiles. But in a park like this, it doesn’t make you an ace.
*If a big-time ace is going to emerge, let’s look at Sonny Gray as the possible candidate. He came up midseason, made 10 starts and finished with a 2.67 ERA. What impressed me the most was how good he was in two playoff starts against Detroit’s Justin Verlander in the Division Series. Gray matched zeroes with the Tiger ace in a must-win Game 2 and Oakland eventually won. Gray also pitched well in a losing effort in Game 5 and only Miguel Cabrera getting him for a fifth-inning home run and Verlander being unhittable was the difference. Let’s see if Gray can put together an entire season of 30-plus starts, 15 or so wins and a sub-3.00 ERA.
*Oakland is making a change at closer. Grant Balfour is gone and former Baltimore closer Jim Johnson is in. Johnson has saved 101 games in 113 opportunities over the last two years and was a top setup man for four years prior. There’s no question he’ll get the job done, and if anything goes awry, Ryan Cook can easily handle the job. But since the A’s already had gotten good work from Balfour, it’s tough to see where this constitutes any significant improvement.
*Cook leads up a good battalion of setup men, including Luke Gregerson and Sean Doolittle. A potential wild-card would be the healthy return of Eric O’Flaherty later in the summer. O’Flaherty was one of the National League’s best relievers in Atlanta for four years before his 2013 was cut short.
The A’s have exceeded my expectations for two straight years—which is the diplomatic way of saying I’ve been dead wrong about them. I’m going to be stubborn again this year. The starting pitching is modestly overrated. I think it more likely than Moss/Donaldson slip in production than it is that Cespedes/Reddick pick up their game. The bullpen is going to be good and the team will be competitive, but I’m taking them to go Under 88.5.