Monday, March 9, 2009

The Oakland Athletics' 2009 Slightly Premature Season Preview

There is a cautious air of optimism hanging over the entire San Francisco Bay Area heading into the 2009 Major League Baseball season. I've already covered the hometown Giants, but there are just as many pairs of rose-colored spectacles across the Bay.

The Gents will rely on pitching, pitching, and then a little dash of pitching while the Oakland Athletics will try a more balanced approach (for a change).

Although a lot of Oakland fans are pumping the breaks on the wagon due to Justin Duchscherer's latest injury woes, the Athletics still have a neat little pitching staff in his absence.

True, it's pretty young if Duchscherer can't go.

But the real impetus behind a lot of sincere hope in Oaktown—along with the erosion of talent suffered by the runaway division winner in 2008, the Los Angeles Angels—is the acquisition of offense this winter.

I'm still trying to wrap my noodle around the idea of Matt Holliday in an A's uniform.

Holliday is an offensive juggernaut, but he's the definition of a big money, pain-in-the-asset right down to his representation—super agent and all-around-great-guy Scott Boras. Even more so because he's in the walk year of his current contract. Holliday will bring it every day and won't cause ripples in the clubhouse, but he'll demand a huge contract after '09.

What's a guy like that doing on the team that wrote the book (literally) on building around cheap youth, cheaper reclamation projects, and pitching?

Oakland management also grabbed Orlando Cabrera, Nomar Garciaparra, and Jason Giambi. Those names certainly fit the "reclamation projects" part of the equation, but there may still be a year or two left in that collective tank.

And, despite the loss of Huston Street in the Holliday trade, the bullpen should still be nastier than most. Here's the complete roster:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Kurt Suzuki
First base—Jason Giambi/Nomar Garciaparra
Second base—Mark Ellis
Third base—Eric Chavez/Bobby Crosby
Shortstop—Orlando Cabrera
Left field—Matt Holliday
Center field—Ryan Sweeney
Right field—Travis Buck
Designated hitter—Jack Cust

Considering that Suzuki had the highest average in '08 of guys with over 500 at-bats and he hit .279, even the modest bats of Cabrera-Giambi-Garciaparra are considerable upgrades. Chavez just got shut down indefinitely after feeling pain in his surgically-repaired shoulder so Nomar might see time at the hot corner along with Crosby.

Daric Barton, once a highly touted prospect, still has considerable upside at 23. But his 500+ ABs have thus far shown little to justify the hype and he's now coming off of hip surgery in the winter. Rajai Davis can't hit a lick, but he sure can fly.

Other than those two, the bench is pretty thin.

Starting rotation

Ace—Justin Duchscherer (R)
Second spot—Dana Eveland (L)
Third spot—Sean Gallagher (R)
Fourth spot—Gio Gonzalez (L)
Fifth spot—Dallas Braden (L)

Again, Duchscherer is throwing rods left and right in Spring Training so the rotation gets a little shakier in his absence. Oakland has two of Baseball America's top 11 prospects up with the big club for spring, but neither Brett Anderson (21-year-old lefty rated No. 7) nor Trevor Cahill (21-year-old righty rated No. 11) will be rushed unless Duke's issues are long-term and maybe not even then.

In the meantime, Oakland has a bevy of other youngsters contending with prized lefties Gonzalez and Braden for a permanent place at the rear of the rotation—Jerome Williams, Vin Mazzaro (a 22-year-old righty who's throwing well thus far), Edgar Gonzalez, and Josh Outman.


Closer—Brad Ziegler (R)
Set-up—Joey Devine (R)
Set-up—Santiago Casilla (R)
Set-up—Jerry Blevins (L)
Set-up—Russ Springer (R)
Set-up—Michael Wuertz (R)

The weakness is obviously the starting pitching, but I'll get to that.

On offense, the acquisition of Matt Holliday cures a lot of ills for an offense that hit for no average and no power last year.

The new left fielder brings both and even flashed a little speed in '08—a .321 average, 38 doubles, 25 home runs, 107 runs scored, 88 runs batted in, 28 stolen bases, a .409 on-base percentage, and a .947 OPS despite mising over 20 games due to injury.

Maybe his power number suffer in the spacious new digs and heavier air in the Bay Area, but I think that's being overstated. This guy is a gamer and I think—should the Athletics contend this year as many expect—Holliday's performance will respond to meaningful games (as it did during the Colorado Rockies' march to the World Series in 2007).

The rest of the offense isn't gonna wow anyone, but it looks a lot tidier when you drop Holliday in the middle of it.

Kurt Suzuki won't give you any power, but he'll hit for decent average and has plus speed for a catcher. Mark Ellis ain't great, but he's a good bet for double digit homers and steals with an okay average when healthy (not the case in '08).

The Ryan Sweeney (24)/Travis Buck (25) combination in the outfield, but Sweeney led Oakland in average if you ignore his limited ABs (384) and contributed some swipes on the bases. Neither guy hits for much power and that might move Jack Cust into the picture.

Cust provides plenty of power and surprisingly good on-base percentage considering his propensity to fan—2008 saw him hit .231 with 19 doubles, 33 bombs, 77 runs, 77 RBI, a .375 OBP, and an .851 OPS in 481 ABs. He also whiffed 197 times.

All of those numbers are impressive and only average/Ks are such for the wrong reason.

The other new guys might've been pedestrian by other teams' standards, but each brings a sorely lacking dimension from previous years. Orlando Cabrera brings his .281 average, 19 steals, and a .334 OBP with a stellar glove from shortstop.

Jason Giambi brings his 32 bombs, 96 RBI, .373 OBP, and .876 OPS from only 458 ABs in 2008. Nomar Garciaparra doesn't bring much, but he does offer some power and at least the threat of offense (neither of which can really be said of Bobby Crosby or Eric Chavez).

So the offense—one of MLB's most anemic last year—should be much stronger this year. Like I said, though, the starting pitching is vulnerable.

Justin Duchscherer is a quality arm that can never stay healthy and, if he can't make 75 percent of his starts, the Athletics will have to hope they can get even more quality arms from a very young/unproven staff.

Even with Duke, they're gonna need Dana Eveland (25-year-old lefty) and Sean Gallagher (23-year-old righty) to join Dallas Braden and Gio Gonzalez in making leaps forward in their development. That's not as crazy as it sounds because all four have been the envy of farm systems in the very recent past.

And the aforementioned Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill will be waiting should things go really sideways.

The bullpen is rugged.

Joey Devine is nasty and figures to push the equally wicked Brad Ziegler for the closers role. Santiago Casilla was devastating for long stretches in '08, Russ Springer seems to be getting better with age, and Michael Wuertz might surprise some people after spending the last several years buried in a talented/crowded Chicago Cubs' bullpen.

Joey Blevins is one of the better lefty specialists in the game, which is a good thing since he's the only real one Oakland's got until the rotation gets settled.

If Oakland can get quality starts from its youngsters in the rotation, this team will be formidable and one of the serious players in the refurbished American League West. As I said at the outset, the Angels don't look to run roughshod over the division again and the rest of the teams haven't improved any more than the As.

The offense should be a revelation compared to last season's disaster and the 'pen's stuffed like a Christmas goose. Only that rotation looks rickety.

But rickety might just might be enough.

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