Five Questions: Oakland Athletics

Over the past few years, no team has polarized baseball observers as much as the Oakland A’s have. Since general manager Billy Beane took over the club’s baseball operations in 1998, the A’s have gone from scrappy overachievers to title contenders to a young team on the rise. With the help of home-grown stars like Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada and their Big Three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, Beane’s A’s have won three division titles, a Wild Card, and 732 games, the fifth-most in the majors over that time period. Nonetheless, the A’s playoff failures, along with their recent string of postseason misses, have given detractors ample ammunition with which to criticize Beane.

In many ways, the 2006 Oakland A’s will help shape Beane’s legacy. Not only must he prove to fans and critics alike that he can win without Hudson, Mulder, Giambi and Tejada, this year’s team features Oakland’s top two picks from the Moneyball-draft, right fielder/first baseman Nick Swisher and starter Joe Blanton, who got their feet wet on last season’s surprise AL West contender. Having acquired veterans Esteban Loaiza, Frank Thomas and Milton Bradley, and with most of their top prospects in the majors, the A’s are clearly built to win now. Whether or not they are able to will give us a hint as to whether Beane is remembered as a lucky neophyte who inherited his stars or one of the top baseball men of his generation.

1. How will the A’s youngsters fare?

In 2006, the A’s should feature seven players 26 or younger in key roles on the team, with Bobby Crosby, Dan Johnson and Swisher on offense, to go along with Rich Harden, Dan Haren and Blanton in the rotation. Huston Street, less than two years removed from pitching at the University of Texas, will be counted on to be the closer.

Let’s take a look at how these players fared last season, and what the ZiPS projection system sees them doing in 2006, using OPS for hitters and ERA for pitchers.

Name           Age    2005     2006 (Projected)
Dan Johnson    26     .806     .822
Bobby Crosby   26     .802     .801
Nick Swisher   25     .768     .782
 
Rich Harden    24     2.53     3.30 
Joe Blanton    25     3.53     3.88
Dan Haren      25     3.73     4.02
Huston Street  22     1.73     2.49

Basically, Crosby has been and should continue to be an above-average hitter at the shortstop position, while Johnson and Swisher should be about average for their positions. But the real gems are the A’s trio of young pitchers. Harden projects to be a Cy Young contender—his ERA projection is the sixth-lowest in the majors among starters for next season. Street has the fourth-lowest ERA projection in the majors among relievers. Blanton and Haren both project to be significantly above average starting pitchers in the third and fourth spots in the rotation.

But will the A’s young guns manage to hit their projections? Therein lies the rub. Young players, who have less of a major league track record, are among the hardest players to reliably predict. As with all young players, this group of promising A’s comes with its set of question marks. Blanton succeeded last season despite striking out only 116 batters in 216.1 innings. Harden made only 19 starts last season and has never pitched 200 innings in a professional season. Johnson hit for a .597 OPS in September, meaning that pitchers may have figured him out. Crosby missed half of last season.

Nonetheless, the solid projections mean that the A’s youngsters should perform up to snuff if healthy. Of the aforementioned players, only Blanton’s performance has been seriously in question. However, even if he fails to reach his projection, the A’s should be more than fine as long as the rest of them play as well as expected and manage to stay off the disabled list. Which brings us to …

2. How well will A’s deal with the inevitable injuries?

Injuries are a part of the game, and the sad fact of the matter is that the A’s are relying on a number of players with injury concerns. And when players like that go down, it’s not a matter of bad luck, because that’s what injury-prone players do: they go down. For any A’s fan who’s seen a few too many optmistic projections, here is a list of A’s regulars with injury concerns:

  • Rich Harden: Last season, Harden missed time with both a strained stomach muscle and a strained shoulder muscle in his non-pitching shoulder, and pitched in only three innings after August 19. He underwent surgery to reattach the labrum in that shoulder on Oct. 5, 2005.
  • Eric Chavez: In 2004, he missed over a month with a broken hand and battled back problems that at times prevented him from playing in the field. Last season, he struggled with an injured throwing shoulder and opted to forgo surgery this offseason.
  • Bobby Crosby: Crosby missed a month and a half at the beginning of last season with two broken ribs, then broke his ankle on August 27 against the Orioles. Earlier this spring, Crosby was examined by arm specialist Dr. Lewis Yocum for right shoulder soreness.
  • Milton Bradley: Bradley had season-ending knee surgery last season, after previously missing 47 games with a torn ligament in his finger. He has topped 110 games just three times in his professional career.
  • Mark Kotsay: Kotsay suffered from a herniated disc in his back while with the Padres in 2003, a problem which has lingered since then, causing him to miss the occasional game. He’s missed some time this spring training, and, according to David Gassko’s Range calculations, his defense has suffered to the point where he was over 13 runs worse than the average center fielder last season.
  • Frank Thomas: Thomas broke his ankle last season while with the White Sox, and was only recently cleared to play. He also hasn’t seen so much as a half season of action since 2003, and is entering his age-38 season.

For those keeping score at home, that’s two-thirds of the starting outfield, the left side of the infield, the designated hitter and the team’s best pitcher. I don’t need a red light-yellow light-green light system to tell me that that’s bad. As of now, all of those players are healthy enough to be playing in spring training games, but with that kind of track record, it’s only a matter of time. Luckily for the A’s, the difference between last year’s team—whose AL West title run was derailed by injuries to Harden, Crosby and Kotsay—and this year’s version is that the 2006 A’s are much better equipped to deal with injuries.

Last season, when Harden, Crosby and Kotsay went down, it meant starts by the likes of Joe Kennedy (who gave up 4 runs in 3.2 innings on September 27 against the Angels to eliminate the A’s), Marco Scutaro and Bobby Kielty. This season, the A’s will have Kirk Saarloos, Antonio Perez and Jay Payton instead. Here’s a look at the performance of the A’s top reserves last season, along with the projected performance of their top reserves this season, again using ZiPS, OPS and ERA.

2005                            2006
Name            Performance     Name            Performance (projected)
Joe Kennedy     5.27*           Kirk Saarloos   4.34
Seth Etherton   6.62            Chad Gaudin     4.32 

Bobby Kielty    .746            Jay Payton      .739
Marco Scutaro   .701            Antonio Perez   .773
*Kennedy's performance only includes his innings as a starter        

The only change that doesn’t appear to be a major upgrade is from Kielty (who is still on the team, and projects to a .751 OPS) to Payton. However, Payton is an extremely underrated fielder, with great range and solid instincts; Gassko’s Range measure had Payton as 39.3 runs above average defensively in center field in 2004. (He did not play enough innings in 2005 for a full analysis.)

The bottom line is that while the A’s are still an injury-prone team—perhaps even more so than last season, with the addition of Thomas—they are much better equipped to deal with them. Had they been able to trot out Saarloos, Chad Gaudin, Payton and Perez as backups last season, the division may very well have turned out differently.

3. How will Ken Macha sort out the logjam at left field, first base and designated hitter positions?

Of course, the price of having depth is that when everyone is healthy, as seems to be the case going into the season, someone deserving will have to sit. While Perez and Saarloos have bounced around the majors and have been used on the bench and out of the pen in the past, the A’s best players at the left field, first base and designated hitters all have reasonable claims to starting roles.

The logjam starts at left field. With Kotsay and Bradley seemingly (and deservingly) penciled into center field and right field, only left field remains for Swisher and Payton. Swisher projects to hit better than Payton, while also being young and under the A’s control for the next 5 seasons. Payton, however, is the superior defender, and forced a trade out of Boston last season when he didn’t feel like he was getting enough playing time. Because Swisher, a switch hitter, hit better from the left side last season, a platoon would be the logical thing to do. However, the last thing the A’s need is an unhappy Payton around, especially with the always unpredictable Milton Bradley in the same clubhouse. The A’s depth won’t do them any good if it talks its way out of town, either.

Complicating matters is the fact that Swisher can also play first base. However, that would then displace either Johnson or Thomas. Thomas can still rake when healthy, but actually projects to be worse hitter than Johnson, but better than Swisher. Given the relative ages of the players, the A’s would also be wise to allow Johnson continued at-bats to develop. However, Thomas, who had numerous playing time incentives written into his contract, clearly expects to start when healthy.

How will it all shake out? Thomas has been rehabbing for most of the spring, but has been healthy for the past two games. On March 26, against Colorado, the A’s started Payton in left field, Swisher at first base and Thomas at designated hitter, sitting Johnson. None of the players played on March 27 against Arizona. Recent reports from spring training indicate that the A’s expect Thomas to start around 100 games, and that Swisher and Johnson are battling it out for the starting first base job. Regardless, given the A’s injury issues, expect each of these players to start a decent number of games—it’s just up to Macha to keep them happy when everyone is healthy.

4. How much longer will Barry Zito be in Oakland?

Zito is last remaining member of Oakland’s Big Three, and the A’s have apparently not talked with him or his agent, Arn Tellem, about a contract extension. Zito, owed $8.25 million for 2006, is in the final season of his current contract and, similar to when Jason Giambi was an impending free agent, he has made noises about leaving Oakland after the season. Local newspapers around the country are already salivating at the thought of adding a 29-year-old Cy Young winner. Zito was quoted in Newsday saying:

“I think every guy, that crosses his mind. Just because when you go into New York, you play [against] New York, you see how intense everything is there. How fun it is just to play in front of those East Coast fans. Baseball is different on the East Coast.”

He also told the Los Angeles Times that he’d be open to pitching in southern California:

“It’s hard for me to think about anything but Oakland right now,” Zito said. “At some point in my career, I could definitely see myself playing in the L.A. area.”

Despite the fact that, like Hudson and Mulder, Zito’s production is no longer in line with his reputation, he is still a valuable player who can be relied upon to pitch over 200 above-average innings. Given the A’s pitching depth and Beane’s handling of the Hudson, Mulder, Tejada and Giambi situations, it appears that Zito will play out the season in the green and gold, and the A’s will offer him arbitration and take the compensatory draft picks when he leaves as a free agent. Nonetheless, if the A’s fall out of contention don’t be surprised if Zito is dealt for prospects at the deadline.

5. Will Milton Bradley’s temper affect the A’s?

In general, the importance of chemistry—whatever it actually is—is overrated by the mainstream media; plenty of teams without chemistry have won, and plenty of teams with chemistry have lost. However, that doesn’t mean that Milton Bradley’s attitude cannot negatively impact the A’s. Regardless of his impact in the A’s clubhouse, if Bradley is suspended, or pisses off the organization enough to get traded, that will negatively impact the A’s chances of winning.

Bradley’s run-ins with teammates and managers have already gotten him run out of Los Angeles and Cleveland, despite his obvious talent. He’s also been suspended twice; five games for slamming a water bottle at a fan, and four games for throwing a bag of baseballs onto the field during a game.

So, far, Bradley has been saying all the right things, and the spin coming out of the Oakland organization is that the combination of a more laid back clubhouse and a significant contingent of players from Bradley’s native southern California will help Bradley be more comfortable. But even Bradley admits that he still plays with a lot of anger, in a quote that should send shivers down the collective spine of the Athletics Nation:

”I tried coming here trying to be too nice, and I wasn’t very good on the field. I need to get rowdy and a little nasty, then take it out on the baseball field. ‘I woke up with a little bit of a red [behind], and it shows when I get out there. If I come in smiling and happy, I’m not good.”

With Bradley’s history, it would be foolish not to expect another flame up. Whether or not Macha and the A’s organization is able to prevent that flame up from happening before the end of the season could significantly impact the A’s title hopes.

So what does it all mean?

Coming off an 88-win season that was riddled with injuries, the A’s are deeper and better. If they are able avoid too many injuries, and their young players are able to complement established players like Chavez, Kotsay and Zito, the A’s should be primed for the latest round of their “NorCal/SoCal” rivalry with the Los Angeles Angels. Will they prevail?

If we knew that, then they wouldn’t have to play the games.

References & Resources
This preview would not have been possible without stats from Baseball Reference, The Baseball Cube and news archives from ESPN.com.

Articles from the San Francisco Chronicle and the Contra Costa Times were cited in the position battle section.

The Newsday article on Zito.

The LA Times article on Zito.

Bradley was quoted talking about his anger in this Chicago Sun-Times article.

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