One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.
Part of what makes baseball so exciting is how unpredictable it is. In the 2011 MLB season, we saw two perennial contenders, Boston and Atlanta, complete spectacular September collapses on the final day of the MLB season to allow Tampa Bay and eventual World Series winners St. Louis into the postseason. We saw David Freese emerge from obscurity to win the NLCS MVP and the World Series MVP while also setting the record for RBI in a postseason. We saw Justin Verlander win the MVP award and become only the third pitcher since 1986 to do so. If, prior to the season, you had guessed that these events would occur, please let me know so we can discuss stock tips.
Despite all the uncertainty that comes with every MLB season, there are a few things that seem to stay constant. In recent years, perhaps no statement has remained consistently as true as the following: the Oakland Athletics have solid pitching but will head into the offseason needing to improve their offense if they want to contend. Since they last made the postseason in 2006, their AL rank for wOBA by season has been as follows: 10th, 14th, 12th, 10th, and 12th. In the same timeframe, their AL rank for xFIP by season has been sixth, 10th, fourth, fifth, and fifth. When you combine that with their above-average UZR—they have ranked fourth in the AL since 2007—it becomes clear that poor run production, and not poor run prevention, has been the reason the A’s have seen their early 2000s AL West supremacy snatched away from them. This offseason, Oakland appears to be faced with the same offensive problems. A reasonably productive outfield of David DeJesus (.309 wOBA, 2.2 WAR – update: left to join the Cubs), Josh Willingham (.350 wOBA, 2.1 WAR), and Coco Crisp (.317 wOBA, 2.2 WAR) will likely be gone via free agency in 2012. Their DH, Hideki Matsui (.306 wOBA, 0.3 WAR), may also leave.
But perhaps the most important offseason issue that Oakland faces is their stadium situation. The A’s have made it clear that their top offseason priority is working with Bud Selig to get some direction on a potential relocation to San Jose. These talks seem to be moving forward; however, the same has been said at times in the previous unproductive three years, ever since relocation to Fremont seemed possible. The A’s expect the MLB to make a decision regarding their stadium plans at some point before the 2012 season. Like always, there are still some hurdles to clear; for instance, the A’s cross-town friends in black and orange own rights to the San Jose area and may not want fan base competition.
If approved, this move would end the franchise’s 40-plus-year run in Oakland—an era that saw the rise of “Moneyball” and the legendary 20-game win streak with the big three of Mulder/Hudson/Zito, four championships, six AL pennants, 14 AL West division titles, and legends such as Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley, and the Bash Brothers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco (note: they may have been steroid users). This move would also likely upset many loyal fans in the Oakland area (I would forever mourn the loss of Dollar Wednesdays), but it would certainly give the team much-needed cash, and as a result, a better chance to compete on a year-to-year basis. If the deal is approved, look for some big free agent signings and/or trades in an attempt to get the A’s back to contender status. If the deal stalls, the A’s may have a quiet offseason.
However, since it is difficult to speculate at length about the stadium issues, and since the move itself would almost certainly be at least a couple years down the line, let’s take a look at some of the immediate personnel decisions the Athletics will face this offseason.
The infield, while certainly not stellar, is in better shape than the outfield. Kurt Suzuki (.300 wOBA, 2.2 WAR) will likely return to catch. Scott Sizemore (.343 wOBA, 1.8 WAR) had a solid year and looks poised to take the majority of third base playing time in 2012. Jemile Weeks (.332 wOBA, 2.0 WAR) had a productive rookie season and looks to be a part of the A’s future at second base. The first base position may be done by committee—Daric Barton, Brandon Allen, Kila Ka’aihue, and youngster Chris Carter will fight for playing time, and it is possible one of them could play DH if no player is signed to replace Hideki Matsui. Cliff Pennington (.302 wOBA, 1.5 WAR) will most likely play shortstop. Since Billy Beane has essentially made it clear that anyone except Jemile Weeks could be traded, this infield might not hold until the opener, but since free agent signings would likely come in the outfield, I don’t expect too much to change here (unless the stadium is approved, then the A’s might look to make improvements).
The outfield will almost certainly see some new faces in 2012. With the aforementioned (likely) departures of Matsui, Willingham, Crisp, and DeJesus, the A’s only pure outfielders left are Jai Miller, Ryan Sweeney, and Michael Taylor. Brandon Allen could potentially see some time in left field as well, but you can see that this clearly is not currently a strong major league outfield. Miller has shown promise, but his 37.7 percent strikeout rate for Oakland’s AAA affiliate in 2011 is troubling and almost makes Jack Cust look like a contact hitter. Michael Taylor is a hot prospect that has found success in the minors, but he has seen very limited time in the majors. Ryan Sweeney is another decent option, but he isn’t a terrific hitter (.318 wOBA, .096 ISO in four years with Oakland) and he seems more suited for a platoon role. The A’s may have another solid prospect in Jermaine Mitchell (.443 AA wOBA, .383 AAA wOBA), but he recently had knee surgery and may not be ready until May. The A’s also acquired youngster and former Padre Cedric Hunter off waivers, but his minor league stats aren’t too impressive and he seems to be more of a backup option. As such, the A’s will likely look to free agency to help out their thin outfield.
Free agency presents some interesting targets for Oakland, and other not-so-interesting ones, although moves may be slow until the stadium situation is ironed out. While not technically a free agent, Oakland has shown some interest in pursuing Yoenis Cespedes of YouTube infamy. If the A’s are cleared for the new stadium, they could make an immediate splash by signing this Cuban phenom—there would certainly be stiff competition for him, but the A’s good international standing, the promise of a new stadium, and more money from the move would make Oakland an attractive destination. Without the move, this possibility seems unlikely and they would head for less sexy and usually veteran free agents, as they normally do (see Cabrera, Orlando; Sheets, Ben; Garciaparra, Nomar). Options in this category include Jason Kubel, Ryan Ludwick, Andruw Jones, Kosuke Fukudome, Vladimir Guerrero, J.D. Drew, Mike Cameron, or Endy Chavez, to name a few. While none of these players would turn the A’s into a World Series threat, they would certainly improve Oakland’s current outfield situation.
The A’s seem to be in good shape with regards to pitchers—their young core of starters Gio González (2011 xFIP 3.73), Trevor Cahill (3.90), Brandon McCarthy (3.30), Dallas Braden (2010 xFIP 4.22 – missed most of 2011), and Brett Anderson (2010 xFIP 3.62 – missed most of 2011 also) is among the best in the MLB. Unfortunately, Brett Anderson might be sidelined until after the All-Star break after having Tommy John surgery, and Dallas Braden may also miss the start of the season with a bum shoulder. Four other young starters will compete for a job on the rotation—Graham Godfrey (age 27, 2011 xFIP 4.51), Tyson Ross (24, 3.89), Guillermo Moscoso (28, 5.02), and Josh Outman (27, limited most of 2011).
Their bullpen also figures to do well again, with only Michael Wuertz departing so far. They did lose Brad Ziegler to a trade during the season, but relievers such as Grant Balfour, Fautino de los Santos, Craig Breslow, and Andrew Bailey did an admirable job of supporting the A’s quality starting pitching. The only thing preventing this staff and bullpen from reaching elite status seems to be the injury bug, but if they can put a relatively healthy season together, they will most likely end up in the AL’s top five xFIP again.
Because of their strength in pitching, if the A’s want to improve via trade it will most likely come at the cost of one of their arms. Andrew Bailey could be attractive trade bait, as Billy Beane has made a habit out of trading successful closers (Huston Street, Billy Koch, Jason Isringhausen). If the A’s are serious about improving, as they most likely would be if the stadium comes through, they may look into trades involving one of their young aces—any one of them could help Oakland land the big bat that they’ve been lacking. Gio González has been the name most frequently mentioned in potential trades so far.
Essentially, the whole offseason for Oakland revolves around the stadium situation, and until it is resolved the Athletics will likely stand pat. Once the situation is resolved, the team will move in one of two ways depending on the outcome. If they get their new stadium, there is a good chance they will look for immediate improvements so that they have a contender by the time they move. These improvements would likely come in the form of pitching-for-hitting trades and a big free agent signing (or at least a few medium-sized ones) to bolster their offense—mostly their outfield but their infield could definitely use help too. If they do not get their new stadium, expect the A’s to make a couple minor free agent signings to shore up the outfield but mostly stand their ground and take a bumpy ride through what would most likely be a rebuilding season. They could still make a big pitching-for-hitting trade, but it would make more sense with the new stadium in their future.
So, as a fan of the Athletics organization, I am rooting for relocation since it will certainly bring the team more money, interest, and thus a better shot at their first championship in my lifetime. However, as a fan of their games, it would be tough to see them go. Despite the subpar stadium and the team’s lack of recent success, Oakland games have an undeniable charm to them that fans wouldn’t get to experience anymore, as I’m sure the atmosphere would change in a new venue. But part of what makes the games so enjoyable is the loyalty of the fans—the camaraderie fostered by the “overshadowed by San Francisco” feeling, the appreciation of their rich history, etc.—so I’m sure the fans will root for the A’s regardless of their location. I’d sure miss seeing our pachyderm mascot Stomper and enjoying Dollar Wednesdays, though.