We have now hit that time of year. Pitchers and catchers have already reported.
Though opening day is a little ways away, baseball has started in the eyes of the die-hard fans. The off-season has come to a conclusion, and the focus is on what to expect out of the upcoming series of baseball months. It also means the return of www.johnpielli.com‘s 30-1 MLB countdown previews, the more controversial series of team baseball previews.
On most sites, the predictions are all alike. The teams that made the postseason last year are rewarded in the minds of the pickers and are picked to finish in the top of their respective leagues/divisions. The teams that did not do so well in 2014 are all predicted to finish at the bottom of the division, unless they had a big off-season, where in some cases, they get expectations that they cannot fulfill. I take as many variables into account as I can in predicting a team’s season. As in past years, I am always up for the debate, so I look forward to hearing from you. As always, thanks and “I’ll see you on the other side.”
The Athletics did a lot of dealing this winter. It started with the trade of 3B Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays for 3B Brett Lawrie and pitchers Sean Nolin and Kendall Graveman. They then sent 1B Brandon Moss to Cleveland for a minor leaguer.
They followed that up with the trade of RHP Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox for SS Marcus Semien, C Josh Phegley, and RHP Chris Bassitt. Outside of the Moss trade, which was a giveaway, the Athletics restocked their farm system with younger players, most of whom will be playing in the major leagues this season. However, if you add the downgrades at each individual position they traded away to the loss of free agents Jon Lester, Jed Lowrie and Jason Hammel, the team does not have the overall talent it had in 2013 and 2014.
Even with the uncertainty of closer Sean Doolittle (2-4, 2.73, 22 saves, 61 games, 89 Ks in just under 63 IP) coming back from an injury that will likely delay his start to the season, the Athletics’ one strength is their bullpen. Luke Gregerson (5-5, 2.12, 72 games) was good for them last season, but he will be easily replaced.
Tyler Clippard (7-4, 2.18, 75 games, 82 Ks in just over 70 IP) comes over from Washington as part of the deal that sent SS Yunel Escobar to the Nationals, and in my opinion, is a clear upgrade as an 8th inning guy. LHP Eric O’Flaherty (1-0, 2.25, 21 games) should be back to full strength following his full recovery from Tommy John surgery. He will team with Fernando Abad (2-4, 1.57, 69 games) to be as formidable 1-2 punch from the left side as there is. RHP Ryan Cook (1-3, 3.42, 54 games) had a down 2014 but has an outstanding arm and should have a good rebound season. It is easy to forget about the most trusted reliever in the pen, RHP Dan Otero (8-2, 2.28, 72 games.) Even though both pitcher were acquired to be starters, I also would not rule out either RHP Graveman or LHP Nolin having a prominent role in this pen.
When your starting pitchers were headlined by Lester and Samardzija, with Sonny Gray (14-10, 3.08) as your projected number 3, it is hard to say the starting rotation can be on the same level as it was last season, even with Gray leading the staff. LHP Scott Kazmir (15-9, 3.55, 32 starts) was very good for them last season, but after that is where I think the rotation falls off. RHP Jesse Hahn (7-4, 3.07, 12 starts) comes over in the trade for starting catcher Derek Norris. The hope is that former number one draft pick LHP Drew Pomeranz (5-4, 2.35, 20 games, 10 starts) has finally found himself. If Pomeranz and Hahn become horses, the rotation looks a lot different. RHP Jesse Chavez was a great story last season, doing a more than serviceable job as a 5th starter until he tired out later in the season. That also coincided with the Athletics acquisition of Lester, Samardijia and Hammel. Nolin, Bassit and Graveman are looking to land rotation spots, but only will if Hahn or Pomeranz struggle considerably in spring training. Barry Zito is also back on a minor league contract to take a shot at the back-end, as is LHP Brad Mills, who looked good in a couple of appearances last season.
The Athletics offense will look completely different than it did in 2013. Among the nine regular players who played the most games at each position, only Coco Crisp (.246, 9, 47) and Josh Reddick (who played in just 109 games in 2014) return to the lineup.
Eric Sogard (.223, 1, 22) did play more games at 2B than any other Athletics player, but is headed to the bench in 2015 in favor of Ben Zobrist (.272, 10, 52), who was acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. DH Billy Butler (.271, 9, 66) comes over from the AL Champion Royals, where he spent the past 8 seasons. However, 2014 was his least productive season and that is a bad sign for a player who cannot be put in the field. They may need Butler to play some first base though, as Ike Davis comes in with more questions than Butler. Davis hit .233, 11, 51 with the Mets and Pirates last season, and was DFA’d by Pittsburgh when it became evident Pedro Alvarez was going to be moving to 1B. If Ike can find his power, he may be a poor man’s alternative to Moss, which is exactly what the Athletics were thinking.
Crisp leads the team’s OF, though he did not have a solid 2014 season. The same can be said about Reddick, who after a 32 HR season in 2012, has finished with 12 home runs each of the past two seasons. Ironically, almost the same can be said about Davis, who hit 32 HR in 2012 for the Mets, and has hit 9 and 11 HR in the past two seasons. Reddick has to find a way to stay on the field, as he has not played more than 114 games the past two seasons, and only once in his 6 MLB seasons. Sam Fuld (.239, 4, 36 for Minnesota and Oakland) is below average, and Craig Gentry is also only known for his defense. Semien (.234, 6, 28 in 64 games for Chicago after .257, 15, 52 for AAA Charlotte) may be the real deal. He certainly is the player acquired by the Athletics this past off-season that can have the biggest impact in 2015.
Stephen Vogt (.275, 9, 35) will platoon with Phegley (8-38, 3, 7 after .274, 23, 75 for Charlotte). On the positive side, the two position players brought over from Chicago in the Samardzija deal hit for 21, 80 and 26, 82 between AAA and the majors.
The Athletics best lineup looks like this: Crisp CF, Zobrist 2B, Reddick RF, Butler DH, Davis 1B, Semien SS, Lawrie 3B, Vogt/ Phegley C, Fuld LF. The optimist will look at what Reddick and Davis can do (because they have done it before- albeit once each) and what Semien and Phegley can do (because they have done it before in the minors). Add Butler and Crisp’s down 2014, and I have some serious questions. Maybe the key is Zobrist, who I keep hearing is the best player in the game.
I understand the thinking of Billy Beane. He doesn’t have the ability to commit to long-term contacts, so he has to try another way. However, this thought that you can downgrade your talent with younger, and in some cases, just inferior players, and expect the same results, is nonsense. The Athletics bullpen is great, but their rotation is average at best, and only considered average because both AJ Griffin and Jarrod Parker are due to return from Tommy John surgery this year. I cannot trust the offense the way it is constructed. I can’t see Davis and Reddick all of a sudden coming back and being the bash brothers. I cannot see Crisp and Butler both going back to 2013 form. They also need Semien and Phegley to be as good offensive players in the big leagues as they were in the minors, which is probably a better bet than the first two.
Vegas has the Athletics over/under at 80 1/2. I am factoring how the Athletics always seem to get more out of their players than other teams when I say I think they can win 77 games. A 77-85 season is not terrible considering how much better they should be in 2016. Contrary to what I have said about the 2015 Athletics, I think they look great long term, they always do. And I do appreciate how they didn’t have a complete garage sale, and have done more of a retool than a rebuild.