How The West Will Be Won: Oakland Athletics

Its been five years since Oakland has won the division, finishing behind the Angels every year since then. Now boasting a retooled offense and a few upgrades to their already phenomenal pitching staff, Oakland may be an obstacle in the long road back to the top of the AL West for the Angels. Will they falter like they have year after year since 2006, or will they make a run for it all on the back of their pitching?

stomper the mascot
This is the only interesting picture of anything A’s based on the Internet. It’s the best I could find, trust me.

Offense

Oakland went into the offseason coming in a close second behind the Texas Rangers in the AL West. Hungry for more, they struck a deal almost immediately with the Kansas City Royals for outfielder David DeJesus. David DeJesus put up great numbers last year, a slash line of .318/.384/.443, which would be an immediate upgrade to the A’s, who posted a team slash line .256/.324/.378. DeJesus should rebound from his season ending injury last year, which occurred when he leaped against the right field wall to make a catch and tore a tendon in his right thumb. Once he rebounds, his bat is going to inject some life into the A’s lineup.

Along with DeJesus came Hideki Matsui and Josh Willingham, who are looking to replace the power lost in the departure of Jack Cust. These two combined for 44 HR’s, 140 RBI’s, and 90 XBH’s, which will look a lot better coming out of the 4-5 hole for Oakland then what they’ve had in a while. Angel fan’s are very familiar with Matsui, not only being a key player with rival Yankees for many years, but also as an Angel after coming to LA after the 2009 season. Although Matsui still carries the ability to put up strong numbers, his decline (while graceful) is becoming apparent. The Coliseum is notorious for heavily favoring pitchers, so those power numbers will most likely take a small dip next season. Still, a 3-4-5 of DeJesus-Willingham/Matsui-Matsui/Willingham will improve the A’s offensive greatly, but will they do enough to send the A’s to the 2011 playoffs? It all really depends on the performance of the regulars from last year.

The A’s are looking to place Coco Crisp at the top of the lineup, followed by Daric Barton. Coco Crisp isn’t one to dazzle with the bat, although he does have the skill-set to leadoff. He definitely has the speed for the gig, stealing 32 bases while only being caught 3 times last year. He’s the type of player that can leadoff a game with a single and steal second before the batter steps into the box. Daric Barton may not be the guy who’s going to bring in Crisp, but he will help set the table for some big innings. Posting an impressive OBP of .390, Barton will find any way to get on base, whether it be the walk or the hit (posting team highs of 152 hits and 110 walks). Barton is only 25, and his numbers have been steadily increasing year after year. A breakout season seems to be looming in the near future for this young player, and hopefully (for the A’s) he has one. God knows, how much the team needs a breakout  offensive player.

At 6, lies the always unimpressive Kevin Kouzmanoff, who put up the eye popping slash line of .247/.283/.396. Getting on base at that rate is a liability anywhere in the lineup, especially when your batting 6th. The A’s need someone who at the 6 hole who can essentially keep rallies alive, and Kouzmanoff is not the player for that role. Offensively, he really isn’t fit for any role in the offense. Kouzmanoff needs to bring his A game to the table this season, otherwise the A’s may look to dump him for a player who can get the job done.

Kurt Suzuki, Mark Ellis, and Cliff Pennington cap off this (so far) slightly above average A’s offense. I’ve heard a lot of talk about Kurt Suzuki, and I can easily say he is an extremely overrated player. His offensive numbers are average for a catcher, putting up a career slash line of .264/.322/.389. In 2010, Suzuki batted .242/.303/.366, laughable at best. A .303 OBP is nothing to write home about, and a .366 SLG is enough to laugh away all the “potential power” talk. The best “power” Suzuki has shown came in 2009 when he put up 15 homers and slugged his way to a .421 percentage and an OPS of .734, while a real power catcher like Mike Napoli puts up a .461 SLG and .784 OPS in a down year. Definitely not the kind of hitter you want batting seventh, ESPECIALLY when this hitter is following Kouzmanoff in the lineup. 

Finally, capping off the major drop-off is Cliff Pennington and Mark Ellis. Together, Ellis and Pennington serve as a suitable 8-9 for most teams, not on this team however. Ellis hit .291/.358/.381 last year, which is a far cry from his 2006-2009 seasons, in which batted a collective .255/.320/.401. Although he cannot contribute to the power starved bottom 4th of the lineup, he is still able to get on base at a decent enough rate to keep the bottom half of the order slightly meaningful. Ellis does tend to strike out a lot more then he walks (40 BB’s to 56 K’s), meaning his value at the bottom of the lineup is questionable at best. Rounding off the offense is Cliff Pennington, the stereotypical 9th batter. In a total of three seasons, Cliff has shown that he can’t hit (career .256 AVG, .373 SLG, .699 OPS ) or get on base (career 80 BB’s, 160 K’s), and .327 OBP), showing that he is neither a power threat, a stolen base threat, or any threat for that matter. 

This Oakland offense showed great potential starting out, with the speed of Crisp, the on-base consistency of Barton, and the bat reliability of DeJesus setting up the RBI power of Matsui and Willingham. The lineup dropped off considerably at Kouzmanoff, and has no real recovery point in the bottom of the lineup. Although this team improved greatly at the top of the order, the bottom 4 is a big black hole for this offense. Unless any of these players have any rebound or breakout years, this bottom half lies very stagnant for this team. Aside from the bottom half, this team improved both greatly and efficiently the top half of the offense.

Defense

 Defensively, the A’s are looking at a sharp club to open the season. The infield lineup is the exact same from last season, featuring the following:

3B-Kouzmanoff

SS-Cliff Pennington

2B-Mark Ellis

1B Daric Barton

C-Kurt Suzuki

Together put up a fielding collective percentage of .982%, which looks good on paper. Look closer at their infield defense and you’ll notice that together Kouzmanoff and Pennington put up a .967%, which is significantly lower than that of Barton and Ellis who put up a .994%. An imbalanced infield can create some problems for the defense and open up enough holes for the opposing offense to exploit. Aside from those four, Kurt Suzuki posted a fielding percentage of .991% which so happens to be very deceiving. His fielding percentage does prove he is a good fielder, but being a catcher isn’t all about being able field the ball, its about being able to control the ball. Kurt’s biggest weakness in showing dominating control over the catchers position is his inability to throw out base stealers. Last season 66 guys thought it would be smart to steal on Suzuki, and 47 of them were right. That’s right, he only threw out 19 total base runners last season, which totals a measly CS% of 22%!. This wasn’t just  bad fluke either, his career CS% is a grand 27%! Now Oakland can finally sleep in peace knowing Suzuki was only slightly worse than his usual bad ol’ self. Oh, and to give you Angel readers something to brighten your day: Jeff Mathis’ career CS% is 23%, meaning that Kurt Suzuki is almost as bad as Mathis.

Aside from the infield defense, the outfield for Oakland is looking to rock Willingham-Crisp-DeJesus to open the season. While Crisp and DeJesus may not be the best outfielders in the AL, their match-up is sure to hold its own in the league. Both players have career fielding percentages over .990 and commited only 2 errors together (2-Crisp 0-DeJesus). DeJesus continues to get better as a fielder year after year, putting up a fielding percentage of 1.000% two back to back seasons along with 0 errors in both seasons. While Crisp does have as strong of a glove as DeJesus, his speed is his best asset while manning center.  Aside from them two, Willingham is nothing too special in left field. He doesn’t shine with the glove as much as Crisp and DeJesus nor is he as fun to watch, but he still makes plays when needed. Willingham will get the job done, but don’t expect him to turn any heads while he’s doing it.

Overall, Oakland’s defense is looking stronger than ever with their completely revamped outfield defense. The infield is looking pretty good, even though the defence falls off on the left side of the infield. With Suzuki’s defense at catcher, runners are bound to be found bouncing all over the base paths next season. Based off  Oakland’s defense and pitching (which we’ll get to later), the opposing offenses will have quite some trouble getting runs on the board. 

Pitching

Finally, we arrive at the lifeblood of this young Oakland A’s team, their pitching staff. Of the 5 pitchers looking to start this season, not a single one posted an ERA above 4. The most notable starter on the team, Trevor Cahill,  threw a 2.97 ERA in 196.2 IP, followed by Brett Anderson and his 2.80 ERA. Even though Anderson put up stellar numbers, he was only able to start 19 games as he was sidelined for a few months in the middle of the season. At 3 and 4 we have Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden, both starters starting over 30 games rach and posting ERA’s of 3.23 and 3.50. There is an open competition for the 5th starter, which is most likely going to Rich Harden due to his experience in the majors. Harden is extremely injury prone, to say the least, only posting more than 150 innings more than once in his entire career as a starter. It’s all just a matter of whether or not these young pitchers will be able to keep it all together next season.

Just like the San Fransico Giants being carried on the backs of their four homegrown starters, Oakland will be carried by their homegrown four, none of whom are over 27 (Braden being the oldest), and even more impressive is the collective 3.13 ERA they produced. Don’t let this amazing starting rotation overshadow the just as stellar bullpen. 

Fuentes, Balfour, Breslow, Ziegler, and Bailey are looking to spearhead the bullpen for the A’s next year. Unfortunately for the A’s, 2009 ROtY award winner Andrew Bailey is looking to miss the start of the season due to a Spring Training injury, which mean Fuentes is most likely going to close until he comes back. As a lefty specialist, Fuentes can be devastating for the opposing team, but as a closer, he can be devastating for him own team.  Until Bailey is able to come back at 100%, the A’s will be looking at a hole in the closer spot. Every other spot in the bullpen is looking to be handled efficiently by whomever Beane decides to pitch in whatever situation. Aside from Fuentes stinking up the closer spot, they A’s have virtually no holes in the bullpen.  All of their pitchers can strike guys out at a strong pace, keep runners off the base-paths, and keep runs off the board. That’s practically the mantra for this entire pitching staff, keeping runs off the board, which they practice to near perfection. The A’s team ERA sat at a comfortable 3.56 last year, the lowest in the AL West.

Overall, Oakland is gearing up to dethrone the Rangers as the reigning AL West Champions, and they have a great chance to do so. Even though the A’s offense is average, their pitching is going to take them to the next level. Like some crazy baseball Voltron, Oakland’s phenomenal pitching and Rangers overpowering offense are looking to come together and suffocate any chances the Angels have at a 2011 division title. Oakland is looking more and more likely to be the front-runners to win the AL West, and unless the Angels find a way to beat their pitching, Oakland is going to win it this year. The Angel’s pitching will be able to hold their own with Oakland, no question, but it’s a matter of whether the Angels offense will display the strength to beat powerful staff’s such as Oakland’s. The AL West is shaping up to be a pitchers league, and unless the Angels offense can rise to the occasion, we’re going to be seeing alot of 2010.

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