Five questions: Oakland Athletics

Will Billy Beane‘s roster of role players all play their role?

In writing preseason player comments for the Oakland A’s, something jumped out at me. While very few Oakland hitters were poised to post elite or even all-star seasons in the Oliver projections (the exceptions being Daric Barton and David DeJesus), the prospective 25-man roster was knee-deep in 2.5-3.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) players.

To put this in perspective, a +0 WAR team has an expected win total of approximately 50. A team with a roster of 25 players capable of merely posting 1.5 WAR seasons would have an expected win total of 88. Hence, while general manager Billy Beane’s team largely lacks superstars, it is deep with above-average players capable of collective success.

This strategy mirrors how I draft my fantasy teams and is intelligent for two reasons. The first is that it mitigates risk. A team that has two or three central players, for example, loses a lot of value when injury, bad luck, or ineffectiveness strikes one of these key assets. It’s the idea of putting all of one’s eggs in a single basket. Beane has constructed a risk-mitigating model that will enable him to swap out parts more effectively. It is substantially easier to replace a 2 WAR player than a 5+ WAR player.

Likewise, the distribution of talent leads to balance. While the outcome (say, 88-90 wins) might be the same as a centralized team like the Cardinals, collective distributive balance tends to favor smaller variations. If nine identical players, collectively as valuable as nine differently valuable players, take the field every day, variations in a few players are less likely to result in variations in total output than the polarized team.

Of course, not every A’s player is going to accumulate 2+ WAR this season, even if each player is truly 2+ WAR talented. There are clear playing time constraints in play. Still, it is hard to ignore how deep a roster Beane has assembled via player development and free agency in recent years. Beyond just the hitters/fielders, the A’s have a formidable pitching staff of five starters (Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Dallas Braden, and Rich Harden) that rivals their early 2000s rotation in terms of talent. The staff fits Oakland’s spacious park dimensions and the A’s strong defensive situation. Beane has also reconstructed his bullpen to resemble one of baseball’s best, at least this early in the preseason.

Accordingly, the question of success for Oakland will be not whether one or a few players succeed. Rather, it will be whether the collection of “role players” can succeed in the roles they have been hired to fill. Given the deep roster of talent, I expect the answer to be yes; that Beane will find success in his starting lineup and that he will have enough resources at his disposal to interchange cogs as necessary.

It should be noted that much of Beane’s non-pitching talent revolves around athletic young players and expected defense, with the pitching staff picking up most of the runs differential slack. General manager Jack Zduriencik’s 2010 Mariners showed us what disaster might result from that model.

Will luck regression in good young pitchers be offset by “taking that step forward”?

As noted above, Oakland has a very talented pitching staff. Last season, the A’s had the best team ERA in the AL and fifth-best team ERA in baseball (3.58). Given their middle-of-the-pack offense last season (measured by on-base percentage and Runs Created), you have to imagine that the pitching and fielding (fifth best in the majors in terms of Ultimate Zone Rating) had much to do with the A’s winning 81 games last season and posting their first .500 winning percentage since 2006.

Worrisome within the pitching staff, however, was last year’s collective 4.13 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and 4.24 xFIP. The other six of the top seven ERA teams posted FIPs of 4.00 or lower. This is not to say that pitchers like Cahill are not talented, just that their minor league success has not sustainably translated into pitching results when you factor out variables like batting average on ball in play and runners left on base.

Cahill, Anderson and Braden were strikeout-oriented pitchers in the minors, yet none posted a strikeouts-per-nine innings mark above 6.0 last season. Still, Cahill’s minor league wildness has yet to flare in the majors, and Braden and Anderson have seen their minor league control translate well. Each of these pitchers has shown strong groundball tendencies. These are all positive signs, especially with the emergence of post-hype prospect Gonzalez as a strong No. 2-type pitcher.

But if the Oakland starting pitching staff is going to succeed, Braden, Anderson and Cahill will need to collectively strike out more than 15 percent of the batters they face this season—and stay healthy, of course. Given the youth and upside of the starting staff—Cahill and Anderson will be only 23 this year, Gonzalez will turn 26 and Braden will be 28—outside of “old-man” Harden (he will be only 30), there is a lot of reason to hope and expect the team will close the gap between luck and results this season.

Will the A’s defense be the best, or just pretty good?

With the A’s focusing on the runs-saved side of the runs differential equation for 2011, they need to do more than simply have a good defense. They need to have one of the best. In 2010, the A’s had the fifth-best defense in baseball, collectively saving 38.9 runs from scoring compared to the league average, for a +4.8 team UZR/150. Those numbers are strong, but far from the level of the top three teams (Diamondbacks, Giants and Padres) which each saved more than 50 runs from crossing home plate compared to the league average. The Diamondbacks and Giants posted team UZR/150s of 8.0 or better.

While the 2011 A’s do not need to be as efficient as the 2009 Mariners (+85.3 team UZR, +11.7 team UZR/150), they will need to improve over their 2010 line. With the continued presence of Barton, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Mark Ellis and Cliff Pennington, the recent infusion of David DeJesus the subtraction of Travis Buck, and a full season by Coco Crisp, this should be easily attainable. Then again, as I noted above, we all know how the Mariners’ 2010 season looked.

Is anyone left in the pipeline of young talent?

It has been a five-year rebuilding process for the Oakland A’s, but much of the fruit of their traded talent (or maybe just Dan Haren) has culminated into a formidable major league roster. Sure, it would probably be nice if the A’s still had Carlos Gonzalez rather than Michael Taylor (the input/output of the Matt Holliday experiment), but Anderson (the Haren deal), Chris Carter (Haren), Barton (Mark Mulder), Gonzalez (Nick Swisher), Michael Wuertz (Harden), Ryan Sweeney (Swisher), Andrew Bailey (drafted) r Cahill (drafted) and Braden (drafted) collectively make a solid set of compensation for dealing partsof the 1998-2006 Oakland A’s.

These players lead a roster of above-average major league talent that, while perhaps not individually anything special, jointly establish the true definition of a team. While above I note reasons for optimism for the A’s of 2011 and the near future, what about the long-term stability of the current roster? Assuming the A’s are strong enough to compete for the next three or four seasons, is there enough ready, reliable talent in the system to sustain success for more than just a few seasons?

Turning to the top 10 prospect lists of Matt Hagen (The Hardball Times), Marc Hulet (Fangraphs), and Jim Shonerd (Baseball America), there are few reasons to be concerned. Oakland has some major league-ready talent in the upper minors (Carter and Jemile Weeks) that could be useful as soon as needed. (Hideki Matsui and Ellis are free agents after this season.) Outside of DH and second base, a pair of other essential outfielders will depart after the season unless resigned or extended: DeJesus and Crisp. The team has Taylor (disappointing 2010, but strong showing over 2008-2009) and Josh Willingham (at least for 2011) to fill in for the short term, with Michael Choice, a strong 2010 draft pick, likely a few seasons away from contributing to the major league roster.

The A’s would be wise to retain either DeJesus or Crisp for the short term, but someone useful could likely be had via trade or free agency if either wants “too much money” from Lew Wolff and Josh Fisher’s cold, dead wallets. At least Carlos Beltran, and perhaps even Grady Sizemore, will be a free agent following this season. While the team will obviously need better luck than it’s had recently with bargain free agency signings (Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera and Ben Sheets come to mind), Beane is known for being smart and the gambler’s fallacy says luck has to swing the A’s way eventually, right?

If the A’s can lock up their young starting pitchers, and they stay healthy, Oakland should be in a good long-term position with the pitching staff. Locking up at least three among Gonzalez, Braden, Cahill and Anderson may be essential, as the A’s minor league pitching depth largely consists of only Ian Kroll and maybe Tyson Ross, neither of whom profiles as more than a No. 3 starter.

A’s fans should be excited for the future, especially with Beane around through at least 2012.

Can the A’s trump the thunderous Rangers’ bats and the Angels’ luck?

The 2010 Rangers were quite a balanced and formidable team, ranking top 10 in the majors in team hitting and pitching WAR as well as team UZR. However, with the departure of Cliff Lee, the team’s rotation becomes thinner. Colby Lewis is the residual ace of the Rangers 2011 pitching staff. Some less sabermetrically inclined might say I am forgetting about C.J. Wilson when I call Lewis the Rangers’ “ace,” but while Wilson had a better ERA last season, he had far worse peripherals and, at age 30, pitched 200+ innings for the first time in his career. (He never threw even 75 innings in any season prior.) Wilson’s BABIP-against last season (.271, .295 career) does not inspire particular WHIP confidence for the future (increasing runs-scoring opportunities for opponents) and while his 3.56 FIP and 3.81 tERA are solid, his 4.20 xFIP and home park inspire some concern regarding regression.

There is also a lingering concern of injury, though optimists should note that he was only No. 27 on Baseball Prospectus’ list of pitchers ranked by total pitcher abuse points (PAP) and No. 36 in average PAP by start.

A lot of the value of Lee’s departure should be made up in terms of more Derek Holland and a healthier Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton, but there are lingering concerns about some regression in Mitch Moreland and the 2010 Hamilton and the departure of designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero. Then again, the team added Adrian Beltre, which should improve the defensive bottom line. At most, I would say that the 2011 Rangers have not improved. Conservatively, I would estimate the team lost between 3 and 5 WAR during the offseason. Pegging the Rangers as a 88-90 expected wins team, assuming the above analysis of the Oakland A’s holds true, would allow Billy Beane’s team to be quite competitive with Texas.

With the Angels, there is little to like. Yes, the Haren midseason acquisition was a strong one geared at competing in 2011, but even before the Angels sold out traded Mike Napoli and sold their souls acquired Vernon Wells’ full contract to make room for the mighty bat of Jeff Mathis, there were reasons to doubt the team could compete in 2011.

The first reason is that they did not add any pieces of consequence. Despite an opening in the outfield (assuming Bobby Abreu is a DH), at third base, and, if not in the outfield, at DH, the Angels failed to sign any big free agent hittes: Beltre, Jayson Werth, Carl Crawford, or even Manny Ramirez (all of whom make less money per season than Wells). The Angels have been a lucky team in recent years, outpacing their Pythagorean expected wins each of the past five seasons, a total of 26 wins. Lady luck has smiled favorably on a team that, with the exception of Napoli, collectively hit .300 or better through August of last season.

However, manager Mike Scioscia’s aging Angels should be in for trouble this year when they replace Napoli (+2.7 or more WAR each of the past three seasons) with Mathis (career -0.8 WAR) and company. Having a top tier team batting average, a feat the Angels have managed in four of the past five seasons, is nice if you play fantasy, but unless you work for Topps, Fleer, or Upper Deck, the superfluous number is largely useless. The Angels’ middle of the road on base percentages and power output over the past five season are certain to take a substantial hit now that they are both Guerrero-less and Napoli-less. Abreu is still an on-base machine, but his power output at this point is nothing special; no team should be proud of having Abreu as its team-leading slugging percentage player. And then, you have the addition of Wells’ contract, which, even if he offsets the loss of Napoli, kills the Angels’ payroll flexibility to solve midseason needs.

Looking at early CAIRO projections from late 2010, the Rangers (including Beltre) were projected to win 89 games, the A’s 82 games, and the Angels only 78. I think the A’s have since improved by a few games while revamping their bullpen, so the race should be closer than CAIRO’s projection indicates. What should be apparent here, however, is that the Angels should be a non-factor next season, and the AL West will be a two-horse race.

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Comments

  1. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Thanks for bringing that to my attention Dan. I’ll update the article when I get a chance. Not sure how I missed that.

  2. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Since I wrote this article, I’ve become increasingly concerned over Dallas Braden. It has nothing to do with his spring training performance, but I’m worried about the effect his nerve damaged feet will have on his future performance.

  3. John R. said...

    “Worrisome within the pitching staff, however, was last year’s collective 4.13 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and 4.24 xFIP. The other six of the top seven ERA teams posted FIPs of 4.00 or lower. This is not to say that pitchers like Cahill are not talented, just that their minor league success has not sustainably translated into pitching results when you factor out variables like batting average on ball in play and runners left on base.”

    This could be the fruit of the A’s defense, not luck. If so, it’s totally sustainable.

  4. jeffrey gross said...

    John,

    I don’t disagree. I think the A’s have the beginning of a special team. They’ll make the playoffs this year, IMO.

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