Five Questions: Oakland Athletics

When the “Five Questions” preview assignments went up for grabs, I plucked the A’s assignment as quickly as I could. There are few things in the world that I am truly passionate about, and of course one of those things is A’s baseball. Another one of those things is my family, and it is by the grace of providence that my wife is always tolerant, usually encouraging, and occasionally enthusiastic about my particular brand of fandom. Living on the East Coast means that I complain incessantly about MLb.tv while watching games at ungodly hours of night, and yet when September rolls around she’s not sick of me—or baseball—yet. To honor her inexplicable commitment to me, I am going to let her ask the Five Questions.

What will the A’s do without Zito and Thomas?

My wife is a casual fan, and casual fans will remember Barry Zito and Frank Thomas as forming the basis for the A’s success last year. It’s not a bad record of history; Zito led the pitching staff in WSAB and Thomas did the same among hitters. Both took a familiar road out of Oakland, free agency, leaving the team scrambling for help on both the run prevention and run scoring.

For pitchers, the A’s signed Alan Embree as the primary left-handed guy in the ‘pen to free Joe Kennedy for starting duty. Kennedy is not as good as Zito by any stretch of the imagination, but the A’s are clearly hoping that 30+ starts by Rich Harden can make up the difference. Mathematically, Oakland is banking that (Harden + Kennedy) > (Zito + Harden/Kirk Saarloos/Brad Halsey). That’s not a bad bet so long as Harden stays healthy, but the A’s will count their blessings if his annual oblique strain only keeps him out for a few starts and doesn’t cascade into a scary elboy injury like last year.

On the hitting side, Mike Piazza will be stretched to replace Thomas. Eric Chavez, Bobby Crosby, Milton Bradley, Mark Ellis will have to stay healthy and productive if the A’s want to match even last year’s below-average offensive output. The lineup has a decent dose of on-base ability, but there is a distinct lack of power as only Piazza, Swisher, and Chavez project to 20 home runs. The offense won’t be awful, but it will be awful frustrating as the high-OBP, low-SLG approach will lead to lots of double plays and stranded runners.

Who’s going to be “your boy” this year?

Embarassment is what I get for letting my wife ask the questions. Every year, I dub an Athletic “my boy”. Whenever that player does something good, I run around the house screaming, “That’s my boy!” In 2004 it was Crosby, in 2005 it was Nick Swisher, and in 2006 it was Chad Gaudin. I tend to lean toward younger players that I think will have a large but uncounted-upon contribution.

But unlike Oakland teams of recent vintage, this team is not particularly young. At 26, Swisher is the youngest among likely starting position players; in the rotation, Rich Harden has outgrown the precocious label and and is now the longest-tenured Athletic starter. In the middle of 2004, this was an up-and-coming team with the primes of Harden, Swisher, Crosby, Chavez, Huston Street, Danny Haren, Joe Blanton, and Dan Johnson still to come. And while some of these players have delivered, either poor health or poor performance have kept Blanton, Johnson, Crosby, and Chavez from becoming everything A’s fans thought they would.

That brings us to the 2007 model, which will need significant contributions from old-timers Mike Piazza, Jason Kendall, Shannon Stewart, Mark Kotsay (already out for three months after back surgery) and Esteban Loaiza. Old players as a rule aren’t bad things, but the old players that Oakland can afford are generally…well, let’s just say that Stewart probably won’t finish in the top five for MVP balloting. But since there is a dearth of youngish guys with no expectations, this year I’m going to reverse course and dub Loaiza as “my boy.” He struggled mightily with a bum shoulder early last year, but when healthy he pitched well (4.42 ERA, 3:1 K:BB, 0.9 HR/9). If he can do that over 180 innings this year, A’s fans should be ecstatic—and that’s not out of the question given his THT projection (4.27 ERA, 2.23 K:BB, 0.9 HR/9). That would be excellent production out of a #3 starter.

He is not an easy guy to root for, but I’ll have to stretch my limits this season. So, uh, go Esteban! You’re my boy! (Late note: Loaiza exited his last Spring Training game with “shoulder tightness.” This could be a looong season.)

Are there any names that I should know?

Translation: she wants to surprise me in August by randomly asking, “I thought that [player X] would be really good this year. How’s he doing?” She likes to humor me.

Two A’s on the short list of “might be household names by June” are Haren and Milton Bradley. Many fans, and I would guess most THT readers, know very well who Haren and Bradley are. Either could be one of the top five players at their positions starting this year.

The THT projection is very bullish on Haren (3.91 ERA, 3:1 K:BB, 1 HR/9, and ninth-highest Wins Above Replacemnt in the AL); I’m perhaps even more optimistic. The more I watch Dan Haren the more I see Roy Halladay-like upside. Haren is stingy with the walks, keeps the ball on the ground, and pitches deep into games. There’s a decent chance that he emerges as the best non-Felix pitcher in the AL West and one of the top five in the AL.

Bradley’s potential and troubles are well documented, and a number of teams have taken a chance that Bradley will realize the one while forgetting the other. Last year, he appeared to outgrow any lingering behavioral issues—at least the public ones—and now has a positively cheery relationship with the local media and (presumably) his teammates. Last year’s batting line of .276/.370/.447 is in line with reasonable expectations of his capabilities, he rarely has poor at-bats, and he will be expected to man center field while Kotsay is out. If he puts up that line while playing above-average defense, he will be a very valuable player; any better and he would trail only Grady Sizemore and Vernon Wells among AL centerfielders. But all of this is of course contingent on his health: he missed 66 games last season and has exceeded 140 games only once.

Will you be crying inconsolably in October?

Since 2000, the A’s have been either eliminated in the playoffs or in the last days of the season, often in spectacularly heart-rending fashion. My world is shattered and my poor wife is left to pick up the pieces while I sit shiv’ah. This year, she’ll have less time to prepare but elimination won’t be so awful. In other words, I have a hard time imagining that the A’s will be realistically in the race deep into September. With all due respect to the Mariners, the AL West looks to be three teams deep.

Texas, Los Angeles, and Oakland finished with nearly identical Pythagorean records last year. While the offseason record of the Rangers is mixed, the Angels almost certainly have improved. The A’s will have good pitching, but the Angels look absolutely stacked. Neither team will have a world-beating offense, but the Angels have lots of young players with upside and the A’s have a number of players whose injury struggles could crater the offense. It’s not a slam-dunk that the A’s will fall out of the race by early September, but it would not be surprising. In this case, I will have had plenty of time to accept the fate of the A’s. And if the A’s are going strong deep into September or even October, I will be more than happy to have my heart broken.

Are you ever going to take out the garbage?

I told you I’d take it out after dinner. And you just burned the fifth question on something that has nothing to do with the A’s.

It wasn’t really a question.

Ah.

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