Five questions: Oakland Athletics

The A’s shocked the world last year by stealing the American League West division crown on the last day of the regular season. The A’s were so heavily dismissed as the season began that the division was basically seen as a two-team duel between the high-powered Angels and Rangers. Fox Sports even created an elaborate webpage titled “How the West Was Won”, featuring in-season coverage of the Angels and the Rangers doused in red and blue.

Whoops.

Oakland won’t be able to count on being underestimated this time around, which led to a fairly significant, if understated, retooling over the offseason. The catcher and shortstop positions were revamped, and a new utility infielder and fourth outfielder were brought in. Here are five-ish questions about the 2013 Oakland Athletics.

How in the world is Bob Melvin going to give everyone the plate appearances they deserve?

The A’s are set to start the season with four legitimate center fielders, all vying for playing time. Six of the ten infielders on the forty-man roster have logged significant major league time at two, even three positions around the diamond. The A’s seem to be perennially injured, but this year, they’ve layered insurance policies on top of insurance policies, to the point where most positions have a backup or three who could start for the Astros.

(I know, I know, I couldn’t resist. Gotta get that division rival thing going on.)

Of course, the problem with starting-caliber backups is that you’re going to end up with too many hungry bats to feed, and only so many plate appearances to go around. How can Melvin sort this whole thing out? The short answer? He can’t. The outfield, for example, is stuffed to the brim with Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, and Chris Young, who are all deservedly accustomed to a full season’s worth of 600 plate appearances. Throw in Seth Smith, who should bat against the lion’s share of right-handed pitchers, and it’s mathematically obvious that these five outfielders simply cannot all hold full-time jobs.

The long answer? No, Melvin can’t give 600 plate appearances to all five outfielders, but through a judicious use of platooning, the designated hitter, and some form of a rotating rest day, he can stitch together a fantastic outfield mosaic that should perform quite admirably. Chris Young has batted 60 points of wOBA better against lefties than righties, over nearly 1,000 plate appearances. Seth Smith’s observed platoon split is double that (in the other direction), albeit with a third of Young’s sample size. The two of them together create one hell of a utility frankenfielder, which can slot in either corner outfield spot and in center field against lefties.

Long story short? Barring injuries, the A’s will have three well-rested, above average outfielders on both sides of the ball, 162 days out of the year.

That young rotation was great last year. What can we expect for an encore?

Depending on your definition of the term, the A’s trotted out a rookie starting pitcher in somewhere around 80 to 100 games last year. The top-end of that range is nearly historic, ranking fourth among all teams since the deadball era, using a 50 career innings cutoff as the qualifier. All things considered, the starting rotation had the third-lowest ERA mark in the American League, which is great for any team, chock full of rookies or not.

So what’s next for the talented quartet of Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, and Dan Straily?

Let’s get this out of the way right from the top—Tom Verducci’s Year-After Effect really doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot. Every year, Verducci hypothesizes that young pitchers under 25 who threw 30 more innings than their previous season high have an increased risk of injury the following year. And every year, analysts find that the evidence doesn’t support his claim. This year, he picked Parker and Straily. Don’t buy into it.

That said, there certainly is cause for concern among the rotation. That third-lowest AL ERA mark of 3.80 included 111 innings of 3.24 ERA work from the arm of staff ace Brandon McCarthy, who left for the sunny skies of Arizona over the offseason. Another 152.1 innings came from Bartolo Colon, who put up a 3.43 ERA before getting suspended for testing positive for synthetic testosterone. McCarthy’s sterling production will be difficult to replace, and Colon’s PED issues necessitate treating him as a semi-known wild card.

As far as the actual rookies, Parker and Milone have to be considered the top-flight options. Last year, Parker easily out-pitched his rotation mates with a 3.7 WAR mark on the strength of a 3.43 FIP. His peripheral statistics were right around his production level, and he had the strongest minor league track record of the four. Milone also put up convincing numbers last year, although his junkball finesse repertoire of pitches likely indicates that he doesn’t have the high-output ceiling of Parker. Still, Milone was quite good in 2012, and a comparable 2013 is not out of the question.

Griffin and Straily, the other two rookies, come into 2013 with a larger handful of concerns. Griffin was excellent, though only in 82.1 innings. His production also highly outstripped his peripheral statistics, which is a red flag to take note of. Straily had an even smaller sample size, with an ERA under four, yet an FIP above six. He likely felt a bit rushed, as last year was not only his first year in the majors, but also his first year in any level above High-A. With the presence of Brett Anderson, Colon, Parker, Milone, Griffin and longman Travis Blackley, it’s likely that Straily will get a little more time in the oven before starting a game in Oakland.

And speaking of Anderson, the owner of one of the prettiest left-handed sliders in the league has arguably been the most talented member of Oakland’s pitching staff for three years running now. It’s become an annual refrain, but I’ll say it again—if Anderson’s healthy, he can replace everything the A’s rotation lost after 2012, and then some.

Rookie starters need a strong bullpen to back them up. How is the bullpen looking?

The A’s bullpen finished with the second lowest ERA in the American League last year, and all of the major pieces have stayed in green and gold for 2013. The seventh-eighth-ninth combination of Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, and Grant Balfour that worked so well in the later months of 2012 will still be around to slam the door in emphatic fashion.

It’s worth noting that the second lowest AL ERA came with an FIP that’s decidedly middle-of-the-road, ranking seventh in the AL. That said, much of the differential comes from innings thrown from secondary and tertiary options. The Cook/Doolittle/Balfour trio remains strong in both surface and peripheral stats.

If given the choice between two 3.50 ERA bullpens, one with a stout front and a weak back end, and the other with a perfectly balanced bullpen across the board, I’ll take the former without reservation, considering the manager can use his strong arms when it counts. Oakland’s bullpen is very strong up front, which bodes well for a strong 2013.

Yoenis Cespedes exceeded all expectations in 2012. How will new import Hiroyuki Nakajima fare?

I have no idea.

No, seriously, not even a guess?

Nope.

Upgrading a 3 WAR lineup slot to a 4 WAR star is difficult, but upgrading a replacement level position to a league average one is far easier. In that vein, A’s shortstops combined for an abysmal 68 wRC+, one of the worst marks in all of baseball. Oakland’s answer is one of the best hitters in Japan, Hiroyuki Nakajima.

Here’s the thing, though—it’s incredibly difficult to translate NPB stats to major league baseball, and any projection should have error bars as large as the moon. Translating minor league stats to the majors is far easier, at least relatively, because of the extremely large sample size of players who have, for example, moved from the Pacific Coast League to the majors. By comparison, the Japanese transition happens extremely infrequently, by a difference of a few orders of magnitude. The breadth of our knowledge of the jump is sized accordingly.

What I can say is that Nakajima has had an OPS 21 percent better than the league average, at least for the past six years Baseball-Reference tracks. His numbers on the surface appear to have dropped in the last two years, but that’s only because NPB changed the construction of the baseball before the 2011 season in an effort to bring the Japanese ball closer in line to the MLB ball and the ball used in the World Baseball Classic. After the change, NPB run scoring dropped a fair amount, so while Nakajima looks like he hasn’t been quite as good as he used to be, he’s been actually been internally consistent as compared to the league.

I will say this, though. Nakajima’s numbers in Japan are very similar to Norichika Aoki’s, who racked up 2.9 WAR as a rookie right fielder for the Brewers last year. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections see Nakajima with a 2.2 WAR .298 wOBA season, which seems as good a guess as any.

Is Jemile Weeks looking at the end of the line?

Not so long ago, 2008 first round draft pick Weeks was a speedy second base rookie who had smashed his way into a regular major league job. A 110 wRC+, 22 stolen bases, and 1.9 WAR in 437 plate appearances pointed to a promising young talent dripping with potential.

That was 2011. His sophomore 2012 season was, by any measure, awful. The A’s gave him the starting job for five months, but he responded with a 73 wRC+, fewer stolen bases in more playing time, 0.0 WAR, and a two hour drive to Triple-A Sacramento in August. He managed to claw his way back to Oakland when rosters expanded in September, but the message was clear—he hadn’t justified a starting major league job in 511 second year plate appearances, and unless he started producing soon, the A’s couldn’t afford to give him many more chances.

He may not even get one.

The A’s are in contention for the division crown, and as such, they can’t run the risk of having a regular in the starting lineup with a wOBA in the .270s. Two years ago, the A’s converted second baseman Scott Sizemore to third base, where he performed very well. After Sizemore tore his ACL in spring training last year, the A’s scrambled and converted catcher Josh Donaldson to third base, where he also performed very well. Sizemore is healthy again, which makes him the heavy favorite at his original position.

To sum up this ridiculous game of infield musical chairs, Sizemore and Donaldson should have second and third base covered. New trade acquisition Jed Lowrie can serve as an insurance policy for the two of them and shortstop Nakajima, and on the off chance that three of these guys fail at the same time and second base is left open, Jemile also has to worry about Grant Green, Oakland’s 2009 first round draft pick (as a shortstop-turned-second baseman, of course).

How awesome is that Coco Crisp bobble-torso?

So awesome.

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Comments

  1. asym said...

    For the first time in years, I’ll be an Oakland fan again in 2013 [1].  I’m pretty sure that the Angels will be the over-hyped team that fails (again) to perform.  That leaves it between the A’s and Rangers, and the Rangers just don’t seem dangerous.  Thanks for pumping up my optimism.

    [1] out in the desert, far, far away…you can watch any team, so why be limited.  Players move from team to team and so do I.

  2. Connor said...

    I project Nakajima for roughly a .311 wOBA. And according to my conversation with some front office people, the A’s expect strong defense and I do too. He could easily be a 3 win player. He won’t be a star with the bat, but could certainly be good for a shortstop.

    My projections are available on my site at nomprojections.com.

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