Winter Report Card: Oakland Athletics
With less than two weeks remaining until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, 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 2013. To see the report cards already published, click here.
2013 results: 96-66 (.593), 1st place AL West (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: LHP Brett Anderson, CL Grant Balfour, LHP Jerry Blevins, OF Michael Choice, RHP Bartolo Colon, RHP Pat Neshek, IF Scott Sizemore, OF Seth Smith, C Kurt Suzuki, 2B Jemile Weeks, OF Chris Young
Key arrivals: LHP Fernando Abad, CF Craig Gentry, C RHP Luke Gregerson, RHP Jim Johnson, LHP Scott Kazmir, RHP Josh Lindblom, LHP Eric O’Flaherty, LHP Drew Pomeranz, IF Nick Punto
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Despite one of the game’s smallest payrolls, a decrepit ballpark, mediocre attendance and a team light on starpower, the A’s outdid their big-spending rivals and took home another AL West flag before falling in a five-game Division Series. This time around, despite the handicap of a $62.0 million payroll — not only the game’s fourth-lowest but less than half of those of division foes Texas ($125.3 million) and Los Angeles ($141.0 million) — general manager Billy Beane’s team finished the regular season with the American League’s second-best record, matching its highest win total in 11 seasons before falling to the Tigers in the ALDS for the second straight year.
That’s a tough act to follow even if Oakland has got a pretty good chance of doing so. While Beane has been busy this winter, it’s not as though his team will have a radically different look in 2014. That said, both ends of the pitching staff will see a fair bit of turnover. Gone is one symbol of Beane’s resourcefulness, Bartolo Colon; coming off his best season since 2005, the rotund and resilient 40-year-old righty signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Mets. In his place will be 30-year-old southpaw Scott Kazmir, who after pitching just one major league game in 2011 and ’12 combined, returned to the major league scene and made 29 starts for the Indians, putting up a 4.04 ERA (3.79 after April) while whiffing 9.2 per nine. Kazmir signed a two-year, $22 million contract, the largest the A’s have ever given to a starter, and a deal that’s backloaded such that he’ll receive $9 million in 2014 and $13 million in 2015.
Also gone is oft-injured lefty Brett Anderson, who was sent to the Rockies in a challenge trade for the less expensive (but not necessarily healthier) Drew Pomeranz. The fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft, Pomeranz was limited to 20 starts (16 in the minors, four in the majors ) and missed a month and a half of 2013 due to biceps tendonitis. Overall in his big league career, the 25-year-old lefty has a 5.20 ERA with 7.6 strikeouts per nine in 136 2/3 innings. He’ll battle for a rotation spot behind Jarrod Parker, Kazmir and Sonny Gray (in his first full major league season), with A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone also in the mix — an enviable surplus of starters.
Yet another newcomer who could join the fray is Josh Lindblom, who was acquired from the Rangers in a trade that cost Oakland 2010 first-round pick Michael Choice and A-ball second baseman Chris Bostick. A 2008 second-round pick by the Dodgers, Lindblom was traded to the Phillies in mid-2012, then to Texas in December of that year; he has 104 major league appearances out of the bullpen, but in 2013 the Rangers tried him as a starter, a role in which he was rocked for a 6.33 ERA in five turns.
More likely, Lindblom will be in the middle of a remade bullpen where Beane’s line of thinking isn’t entirely clear. He let Grant Balfour depart as a free agent, then traded out-of-favor second baseman Jemile Weeks to the Orioles in exchange for Jim Johnson, thereby acquiring a closer who misses considerably fewer bats than his predecessor but will make $10 million, twice what the Rays are paying Balfour once his $1 million signing bonus is included with his $4 million 2014 salary. Beane also added former Padres setup man Luke Gregerson via a trade for outfielder/DH Seth Smith; the heavily-used righty topped 72 appearances for the fourth year out of five, pitching to a 2.71 ERA with 8.7 strikeouts per nine in 2013.
Also gone from the bullpen is lefty Jerry Blevins, who was traded to the Nationals in exchange for minor league outfielder Billy Burns. Taking over for him will be Fernando Abad, acquired in a separate deal with Washington, and Eric O’Flaherty, whom the A’s signed last week to a two-year, $7 million contract. Abad put up a 3.35 ERA in 37 2/3 innings with the Nationals, though he has never had particularly strong success against lefty hitters; they own a .271/.310/.417 line against him in 213 plate appearances over his four big league seasons. O’Flaherty has been much better than that (.200/.262/.269 in 542 PA), but he was limited to 18 innings in 2013 due to May 21 Tommy John surgery and will likely need until at least May to return to the majors.
As for the lineup, it will be largely unchanged from last year, with manager Bob Melvin expected to employ several platoons. New to the mix is fleet-footed centerfielder Craig Gentry, who was acquired from Texas in the Choice deal. He hit .280/.373/.386 in 287 PA last year while stealing 24 bases in 27 attempts. A righty swinger, Gentry owns a career line of .288/.376/.399 in 382 PA against lefties and could be more than just a back up at any of the outfield positions. He could figure in a multi-position platoon with lefty John Jaso, with Yoenis Cespedes or even Coco Crisp moving to DH while Jaso sits.
Meanwhile, the addition of utilityman Nick Punto (.255/.328/.327 in 335 PA with the Dodgers) via a one-year, $3 million deal gives Melvin yet another switch-hitting middle infielder to go with Jed Lowrie and Alberto Callaspo.
Unfinished Business: Rotation surplus
You can never have too much pitching, but given the number of rotation options that the A’s have, it might make sense for Beane to deal from strength. That’s particularly true here given that all of the team’s starters aside from Kazmir are inexpensive and have years of club control remaining, making them the type of commodity that other teams covet. It’s not tough to imagine that Oakland could fill another area of need — a better fielding shortstop than Jed Lowrie (-18 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013), perhaps, allowing him to shift to second base — by dealing, for example, Griffin or Straily; in doing so, the team would still have enough internal options to fill the inevitable opening created by a DL stint.
Preliminary Grade: B
The A’s don’t have any glaring weaknesses, though it’s fair to question whether the major decisions Beane has made — Kazmir over Colon, Johnson over Balfour and Gentry over Choice, in particular — have actually moved the team forward, either for 2014 or down the road. Particularly given the state of the club’s pitching, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Oakland GM still has something else up his sleeve before the season starts.