Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Guide Preview: Oakland Athletics

Continuing our look at the American League West, we come next to the Oakland A's. It's been a few years now since Michael Lewis' Moneyball was published, but it's still hard not to see them as anything but "the Moneyball team". The funny thing about that actually - and I'm not the first one to bring this up - is that the book wasn't actually about Billy Beane and his fascination with OBP. Instead, it was Beane recognizing the inefficiencies in the market, and exploiting them. Of course, now that everyone seems to know about the secrets of OBP, it's no longer a market inefficiency. It makes you wonder what exactly he's trying to exploit these days.

In the meantime, of course, the A's still have to play their games, and they didn't do a fantastic job of that last year, finishing 11-games under .500 and in third place. The A's have to be hoping that the moves they made this offseason and last will finally start to pay off.

As before, this preview is meant to be a summary of what the three main baseball preview magazines are saying about the team's 2009 season. I've included quotes and other information from each of the them - Sporting News, Athlon, and Lindy's. I've also included some statistics about each magazines' success at predictions over the last ten years. Be sure to check out the Team-by-Team Season Preview index for other guide previews over the next few weeks.

My original intention was to completely refrain from providing any opinion. I was afraid that I would have too much to say about some teams and too little about others. But, after doing a few of these now, I feel like there's room for some personal commentary. I think it'll add a little bit of personality to the preview. But I don't want to make my opinion the focus of the post, so I'll put it near the end. Please feel free to ignore it; I've never claimed to be the most knowledgeable person when it comes to all 30 teams. With that said, on with the "combined" team preview for the...

Oakland Athletics
Last Year: 75 - 86, 3rd Place, AL West

Since 1999

This YearLast Year
Avg Pred.Avg Finish
Sporting News2



* Sporting News average includes preview guides from these years: 1999 - 2001, 2003 - 2004, 2006 - 2008
** Athlon average includes preview guides from these years: 1999 - 2003, 2006 - 2008

Team Notes

It's been a fast-moving and exciting couple of years for the A's, as long as you look away from the won-loss record. Since making it to the ALCS versus Detroit back in 2006, the A's have traded away seven major big league contributors to get back 20 others. It's a process that many believed signaled a commitment to youth. The November trade for Matt Holliday really made people second-guess that assumption, though.
"Billy Beane loves his reputation as a maverick general manager. He always seems to be a year or two ahead of conventional methodology. 'Billy's very good at knowing when to buy and when to sell,' one major league executive said over the winter. 'And he's never afraid.' But will Beane's latest round of wheeling and dealing once again make Oakland a playoff contender? There are cynics who believe Beane may have gone too far, trading starting pitchers Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and Rich Harden long before they were eligible for free agency. Outfielders Mark Kotsay and Nick Swisher (who had been signed to a five-year contract a year earlier) were also traded last offseason. It was all part of the team's latest round of cost-cutting. And it may take a couple of seasons to discover whether Beane's moves were beneficial or detrimental. Until then, it appears the A's will be mired in the second division of the American League West, which means watching the Los Angeles Angels win another title. (Athlon)"
The big news involving the A's this season revolves around their acquisition of Colorado slugger Matt Holliday. Holliday has been a mainstay of the Rockies' lineups for the past five seasons, and finished second in MVP voting in 2007. Critics of the deal say that Holliday is merely a product of Coors Field, and point to his home/away splits (such as his 1.068 home OPS and his .803 away OPS) as evidence. The A's are betting that he'll still be a valuable player playing half his games in Oakland - at least for the one season that they have control of him.
"The rep is that he's not good away from Coors Field, but with his approach, he should be able to continue to put up good numbers away from Colorado. He can hit wherever he plays. He has tremendous power to the middle of the field and right center, and good plate coverage - he just crushes mistakes, and he can hit pitchers' pitches, too. He's so strong and dangerous I don't see any reason why he shouldn't be very productive. I've seen him in big stadiums and he's gone off. But if he doesn't have any protection, pitchers will just pitch around him. That's going to be a bigger problem than the ballpark unless they can add another bat or avoid the kinds of injuries they've had recently... (TSN)"
The Holliday trade came, in part, as a result of the Dan Haren trade from last season. Two of the three players the A's sent over to Colorado for Holliday were part of the Haren trade, who was only the first Oakland pitcher to be shipped out for excess talent. Blanton and Harden soon followed. Clearly, Beane thinks his pitching staff will hold up to the rigors of a full season as-is. If he's wrong, Oakland has little chance to compete.
"Oakland's rotation accounted for 48 victories last year, after Joe Blanton and Rich Harden were traded away and Justin Duchscherer missed roughly two months with injuries. Young lefthanders Greg Smith (since traded) and Dana Eveland made big impacts after arriving from Arizona, finishing 1-2 on the staff in innings and combining for a 4.24 ERA. This year's rotation should include Duchscherer, Eveland and righthander Sean Gallagher, with the remaining spots to be decided among Dallas Braden, Josh Outman and Gio Gonzalez. The rotation could improve in a hurry: Top prospects Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill, who project as top-end starters, should arrive soon. The bullpen is deep, even after Huston Street's departure in the Holliday trade. The A's have two possible closers, with righthanders Brad Ziegler and Joey Devine coming off sensational 2008 seasons. Ziegler opened his career with 39 scoreless innings, a modern record, while Devine's 0.59 ERA was even lower than Ziegler's 1.06. (Lindy's)"
Spotlight Quote

Lindy's offers some commentary on the A's management and their hopes for a new ballpark:
"In the near term, Oakland is the greatest threat to the Angels' recent dominance in the American League West. If enough of their young players emerge into bona fide big leaguers this year, the A's could return to contention right away. The acquisition of Matt Holliday looks like a one-year gamble, but it will be worthwhile if he carries the team with a reprise of his 2007 performance in Colorado (.340, 36 home runs, 137 RBIs). The A's may be criticized by some in the industry for their approach, but it's no accident that two AL West rivals recently hired Oakland coaches to manage their teams: Ron Washington in Texas and Don Wakamatsu in Seattle. But it appears that a new ballpark is the only way the A's will contend annually without rebooting the system each time the big league roster becomes expensive."

The A's finished in third place last year for the second consecutive year. It was the first time the A's have finished below second place in back-to-back years since 1997-98, Billy Beane's first two years as GM. It may be a calculated move by the A's, though: they did trade their best (healthy) pitcher before the start of last season for a number of not-necessarily-ready-for-the-majors players, making it's hard to believe that they were expecting to win the division right away. The trade of Rich Harden in July certainly didn't help them in the chase for the 2008 division crown.

But now they've added Matt Holliday in an offseason trade and signed a 38-year-old Jason Giambi, and they feel that they can compete. Considering the added offense that these guys bring, their young bullpen studs, the young pitching prospects in their system like Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson, and the Angels' expected decline this season, Oakland probably does have a chance. I'm not sold on them, though. Even considering Anaheim's expected decline, I just don't think this new talent will be enough to bridge the gap. They are competing in a weak division, which is to their benefit, but, with the way the AL East looks these days, it seems that a division crown is the only way to the postseason. That will probably be tough.

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