Anatomy of the A’s

On Monday, the Oakland A’s were sitting atop the AL West. Their 12-8 record matches that of the rival Angels and is tied for second-best in the American League. It’s a little early to start printing playoff tickets, but it might be time for a closer look at a club putting up the wins while in rebuilding mode.

A new look in Oakland

Thanks to Billy Beane’s offseason of wheeling and dealing, there are plenty of fresh faces in green and gold. Last month, the first question in Sal Baxamusa’s Five Questions piece was, “Who are these guys?”

The starting lineup has undergone a radical transformation. The only current full-time position players who filled the same role at this time last year are Mark Ellis and Bobby Crosby. The starting rotation consists of Joe Blanton and an intriguing mix of trade swag and waiver pickups.

The team’s future is defined by a slew of prospects, including current major leaguers such as Daric Barton and Kurt Suzuki, but the team itself is only so young. Much more common on this roster is the once-was, still-kinda-might-be prospect—Santiago Casilla, Andrew Brown, Lenny DiNardo, Jack Hannahan. These guys won’t get an All-Star nod, but they can hang in the bigs, and the very least, they’ll give Oakland the production to outperform the Giants at two-thirds the price.

What’s working

Given the cast of characters, the offense hasn’t disappointed, but that isn’t saying much. Team on-base percentage is a respectable .338, but slugging isn’t much higher (.364) and the A’s have managed only seven home runs in 20 games. That’s worst in the league, but as a sort of consolation prize, they have seven triples as well.

What has made the difference to this point is the pitching, and the rotation in particular. Blanton has been pedestrian, but Dana Eveland and Greg Smith—both part of the return for Dan Haren—have provided seven starts with a sub-2.50 ERA between them. The rotation as a whole has averaged almost exactly six innings per start.

How long can this go on?

We’re working with a small sample here, but in that sample, there’s strikingly little evidence of luck. The A’s are about even in one-run and extra-inning games, and their runs scored and runs allowed suggest that 12-8 is about right.

Looking at pre-season projections, there’s not the same grounds for optimism. To take them all in at once, we can turn to SG’s projection blowout, in which the aggregate forecast gave Oakland 80 wins. That’s not bad for a team in rebuilding mode, but it leaves the A’s eight games behind the Angels.

With Barton producing and Eric Chavez on his way back, it seems reasonable to assume that the offense can keep up its average-ish clip; the big question is how the rotation will hold up. There are certainly plenty of reasons to be skeptical: To name just one, pitchers like Eveland and Smith are the sorts of guys who—according to the conventional wisdom—don’t fare well the second time around the league. Barring the return (and continued health) of Rich Harden, the A’s are sure to give an awful lot of starts to guys who would be slotted at No. 4 or No. 5 in many rotations.

The low-downside roster

Where Beane is concerned, statheads have a tendency to look for a brilliant, hidden master plan. I can’t imagine that Beane expects to contend this year, but the current construction of the team (including Triple-A depth) is unusual, and deserves some discussion.

While players like Barton, Blanton, Chavez and Huston Street are important to this team, there are a remarkable number of replaceable parts currently occupying primary roles. More importantly, there are replacements hanging around for most of them.

Let’s just take one example. Few teams would envy an outfield of Emil Brown, Ryan Sweeney and Travis Buck. No Silver Sluggers in the bunch, but once Buck emerges from his current slump, that’s not an embarrassing trio. Behind them are Jack Cust and Chris Denorfia, followed by Carlos Gonzalez, Todd Linden, Jeff Fiorentino and Danny Putnam.

There’s little chance you can mix and match those pieces and come up with a group in, say, the top third of big league outfields. But there’s little downside risk, as well. A couple of simultaneous injuries are going to force roster moves, but they might not affect the bottom line at all.

The same is true to some extent with the starting rotation. Already, seven pitchers have started games for the A’s, and that doesn’t include Dallas Braden, Gio Gonzalez or Dan Meyer. Those names belong to the future more than the present, but they make it much less likely that the A’s will have to pick up the likes of Jeff Weaver or Alay Soler.

Let’s be foolishly optimistic

Once the league catches up to the back of the rotation, maybe the A’s will end up looking exactly as the pundits and projections figured they would. But there are plenty of reasons to think they could keep it up:

  • Chavez will be back. It may not be as early as planned, but even three or four months of Chavez would be a huge plus over what the A’s are currently getting from Hannahan.

  • Buck will not finish the season with an OPS of .474.
  • Out of all those upper-level prospects, somebody will emerge. It’s tough to predict who it will be, but early returns suggest that Carlos Gonzalez could be an improvement over any corner outfielder currently on the roster.
  • Harden might be back. (Hey, I said “foolishly optimistic,” didn’t I?)

There’s also the possibility that Eveland and Smith are for real. Neither has ever been projected as an ace, but neither did they come out of nowhere.

The elephant in the room for the last several paragraphs has been the possibility of an impact acquisition—namely, Barry Bonds. Last month, I wrote about how much some teams could benefit by adding him, and while Emil Brown is off to a nice start, the difference between Brown and Bonds is pretty clear.

The A’s payroll is down more than $30 million from 2007 Opening Day, which leaves more than enough room to pick up Bonds, or anyone else who might fill a gap. Even a fraction of that money would allow Beane to go on a midseason shopping spree to rival any others. They’ve got cash and they’ve got prospects, so whether it’s Bonds, Frank Thomas, or someone else who becomes superfluous later on, flexibility is not lacking.

Whether you’re an A’s fan or not, it’s hard not to root for a gang of written-off no-names as they try to keep pace with the $120 million behemoth in Los Angeles. It’s still a bit far-fetched, but it looks a good bit more likely than it did a month ago.

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