Winter report card: Oakland Athletics
With just a couple weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
For all previously published report cards, click here.
2012 Results: 94-69, 1st place in AL West (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: LHP Dallas Braden, OF Colin Cowgill, SS Stephen Drew, RHP Graham Godfrey, OF Jonny Gomes, IF Brandon Hicks, IF Brandon Inge, C George Kottaras, RHP Brandon McCarthy, RHP Jim Miller, SS Cliff Pennington, RHP Tyson Ross
Key arrivals: C John Jaso, SS Hiroyuki Nakajima, IF Andy Parrino, RHP Chris Resop, LHP Andrew Werner, OF Chris Young
The Oakland A’s surprised baseball as much as any team did in 2012, improving by 20 wins over the year before, more than any other team besides the Orioles. In doing so, the A’s not only posted their first winning season and first playoff appearance since 2006, they beat out the Rangers for the AL West flag, thus forcing Texas, which may have been the league’s strongest team, into the wild-card game, where it was eliminated. Oakland reached the postseason thanks in large part to general manager Billy Beane drawing upon the central principles of Moneyball — not an oft-misunderstood emphasis on on-base percentage but on acquiring undervalued players that could fit into the team’s low-budget means.
The encore won’t be easy, even given that most of the players the A’s have shed this winter were relatively minor cogs in last year’s machine. The most valuable of them were McCarthy and Gomes. The former was limited to 18 starts and 111 innings due to shoulder woes and a fractured skull that required emergency surgery and cost him the final four weeks of the season, and still managed to net a two-year, $15.5 million deal from the Diamondbacks. The latter hit a potent .262/.377/.491 with 18 homers in 333 plate appearances, strong production that would have been tough to repeat, particularly at the cost of $1 million; he drew a two-year, $10 million deal from the Red Sox.
The newcomers do offer some hope of upgrades. Jaso, who was acquired from the Mariners in a three-way trade that sent away pitching prospects A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen and a player to be named later, is coming off a strong year in which he hit .276/.394/.456 with 10 homers in 361 plate appearances; he has three years of club control remaining and will make just $1.8 million in 2013. The 29-year-old lefty is vulnerable against lefthanded pitchers and has his limitations as a defender, but he should help Oakland get better production than the .204/.262/.325 it received from its catchers, including Derek Norris, the since-traded Kurt Suzuki and Kottaras. Given the number of teams hungry for catching, it rated as a minor surprise that Beane couldn’t get anything in exchange for the latter, who has above-average pop and patience for a backstop (.211/.351/.415 in 209 PA); instead, he was lost on waivers to the Royals.
Young, 29, has been the regular centerfielder for the Diamondbacks for the past six seasons, an often-frustrating player whose contact woes hold down his batting average, but whose strong secondary skills generally make up for it. Last year, he hit just .231/.311/.434 with 14 homers and was limited to 101 games due to an early-season shoulder separation and a late-season quad strain. How exactly he’ll fit into an outfield still crowded even after the departure of Gomes remains to be seen; with Yoenis Cespedes in left and Josh Reddick in right, it appears he’ll battle centerfielder Coco Crisp and designated hitter Seth Smith for time, and could be limited to a platoon role given his .272/.377/.482 line against lefties over the past three years, compared to .233/.313/.419 against righties. The switch-hitting Crisp has been stronger against righties in recent years (.274/.333/.413 since 2010, compared to .248/.306/.391 against lefties), and likewise for the lefty Smith (.275/.352/.500, compared to .182/.244/.271 against lefties).
The infield is in a greater state of flux. Chris Carter and Brandon Moss (the only one of the A’s seemingly endless supply of Brandons still on the roster) will platoon at first base, and Jemile Weeks will battle Scott Sizemore at second. The former hit .221/.305/.304 and lost his job late last year, while the latter missed all of the season with a knee injury (more on him and the third base situation below).
At shortstop, Beane traded Pennington to the Diamondbacks in the deal that brought back Young, and lost his late-season replacement, Drew, via free agency. He’s taken a chance by signing Nakajima, a 30-year-old veteran of the Japanese Pacific League’s Seibu Lions, to a two-year, $6.5 million del. A three-time Gold Glove winner, Nakajima hit .311/.382/.451 with 13 homers for the Lions last year, but as Christina Kahrl pointed out, his projections suggest he’s more likely to put up an OPS around .700. The track record of Japanese infielders’ skills translating stateside — think Tsuyoshi Nishioka, or Kaz Matsui — isn’t so hot, but then again, the A’s got just a .203/.272/.313 performance from Pennington, Drew and company at the position. Utilitymen Adam Rosales and Eric Sogard are still on hand as alternatives, as is the newly acquired Parrino, a 27-year-old who hit just .207/.316/.276 in 138 PA for the Padres last year before being acquired in a swap for Ross.
Ross was one of seven A’s to make at least 13 starts last year, but he wasn’t likely to be part of their 2013 rotation, which shapes up as Brett Anderson, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone and A.J. Griffin, with Dan Straily, Travis Blackley and Bartolo Colon as the fifth starter options and inevitable injury replacements. The 40-year-old Colon gave the A’s a 3.43 ERA in 152 1/3 innings last year before being suspended in late August for testing positive for testosterone. Though he still has five games to serve on his 50-game suspension, Beane didn’t hesitate to re-sign him at the low price of $3 million plus incentives because he believes Colon’s zone-pounding style — which yielded a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.0 — is a good influence on the team’s other pitchers, even if his personal training regimen is not.
Resop, 30, is a solid reliever who put up a 3.91 ERA in 73 2/3 innings for the Pirates last year. His strikeout rate dipped from 10.2 per nine in 2011 to 5.6, but that was part of a conscious change via which he boosted his groundball rate from 37 percent to 52 percent, trimming his home run rate in the process. He’ll fit in as a middleman in front of Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and Pat Neshek.
Unfinished business: If at third… The A’s entered last season planning to play Sizemore at third base, where he held his own after being acquired in mid-2011, hitting a respectable .249/.345/.433 with 11 homers in 355 PA to offset subpar defense. Alas, he tore his left ACL in early March, so Oakland turned to Josh Donaldson, a converted catcher who hit .241/.289/.398 in 294 PA while trying to stave off a challenge from scrapheap pickup Inge. Donaldson played above-average defense according to most metrics, so the job going into the season appears to be his to lose.
In returning to his natural position, Sizemore has been forced into competition with Weeks, who batted a promising .303/.340/.421 as a rookie in 2011 before falling off last year. Weeks does have the skills to be an above-average major leaguer, and should eventually emerge with the job. It’s not wrong for the A’s to make him battle for it, but they may be better off keeping Sizemore in the mix at the hot corner, particularly since it’s another position where they received terrible production in 2012 (.227/.280/.391).
Preliminary grade: C. In typical Beane fashion, the A’s have bought low on most of the players they’ve acquired this winter, and let go some that are getting more expensive. The Jaso deal provides a nice upgrade at a position where they could use it, and the Young acquisition provides a shot at another potent platoon. That said, there hasn’t been a big move to suggest the A’s will do more than hope that lightning strikes twice to keep them in the thick of an AL West race with the Rangers and Angels, both of whom have far more resources to draw upon.
Update: JuA few hours after this went to press, the A’s swung a five-player deal with the Astros on Monday that sent Carter, righty pitcher Brad Peacock, and catcher Max Stasi to Houston in exchange for infielder Jed Lowrie and righty pitcher Fernando Rodriguez.
Peacock, a 25-year-old who was acquired from the Nationals in the Gio Gonzalez trade, made three big league appearances in 2011 and figured to get a shot for a bigger role in 2012, but instead he was lit for a 6.01 ERA while dealing with high walk and homer rates (4.4 and 1.1 per nine, respectively) at Triple-A Sacramento. Stassi, 21, is a fourth-round 2009 pick who hit .268/.331/.468 with 15 homers in 84 games for High-A Stockton; the power numbers may have been helped by the hitter-friendly environment, but Baseball America called him the system’s best defensive catcher. Both Peacock and Stasi would have ranked among the A’s top 15 prospects on Baseball Prospectus’ forthcoming list, according to prospect guru Jason Parks.
The one the A’s need to replace in 2013 lineup is Carter, a former top prospect who finally delivered on his promise last year by hitting .239/.350/.514 with 16 homers in just 67 games as the righthanded portion of a first base platoon with Brandon Moss. None of the aforementioned players in the A’s outfield/DH logjam have any big league experience at first base, and the other first baseman on the roster, Daric Barton, is also a lefty, but the switch-hitting Lowrie could provide an option given his career .292/.362/.486 line in 414 PA against lefties and his ability to play all four infield positons. Lowrie, 29, spent last year as the Astros’ regular shortstop and hit .244/.331/.438 with 16 homers in 97 games, but he missed nearly two months with an ankle sprain. Those 97 games were a career high; he hasn’t made it through one of the past four years without spending at least 32 days on the disabled list. Beane plans to use him at multiple positions, which means he could give the third base situation a boost or fit with Moss.
As for Rodriguez, he’s a 28-year-old reliever with a mid-90s fastball who struck out 10.0 per nine in 70 1/3 innings last year, albeit with high walk and homer rates (4.4 and 1.3 per nine, respectively) en route to a 5.37 ERA. If his control improves, he’ll work his way up the ladder in Oakland’s bullpen.