Yoenis Cespedes (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

A.L. West Preview: Oakland Athletics

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Can the Oakland Athletics do it again? The A’s have won back-to-back A.L. West titles — thanks in part to the shrewd and frugal roster construction techniques of General Manager Billy Beane. On paper, it would appear as though the team lost more than it gained this winter, making a 3-peat unlikely.

The Oakland pitching staff allowed the fewest walks per 9 innings (265) while posting the lowest HR/FB percentage (9.2%) in the A.L. last year. That is a great combination. But the 2013 A’s also had the lowest ground ball rate (39.5%) and BABIP (.276). To some, that might suggest that Oakland was lucky. Will their fortunes turn in 2014?

Two of the staff’s biggest contributors, Bartolo Colon and Grant Balfour, are gone — replaced by Scott Kazmir and Jim Johnson. Seth Smith, Chris Young, and Brett Anderson have also moved on. Prospects Michael Choice and Jemile Weeks were also jettisoned during the offseason. Luke Gregerson should be a nice addition to the bullpen, the rest of Oakland’s newcomers appear to be little more than role players.

While outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick had disappointing 2013 campaigns, corner infielders Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss delivered career years. Steady contributor Coco Crisp rounds out the outfield with Craig Gentry ready to fill in when needed.

Former Astro Jed Lowrie was finally able to stay healthy for an entire season. Lowrie brings his .290/.344/.446 slash line back to the shortstop position, teaming up with up-and-coming 2B Eric Sogard. Derek Norris and Stephen Vogt share the catching duties.

Youngsters Jarrod Parker, Sonny Gray, Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin join Kazmir to form an intriguing starting rotation. Workhorses Parker and Griffin combined to throw 397 innings last season while keeping their ERAs under 4.00. A wicked curveball helped Gray post video game type numbers in 64 innings after being called up from AAA. Oakland fans are hoping that it wasn’t just a case of small sample size and that the 24-year old righty can build on his success.

Ryan Cook and lefty Sean Doolittle return to help form the nucleus of a deep and solid bullpen.

For a closer look at the Athletics, I enlisted the help of Swinging A’s writer Jason Burke. Jason was kind enough to answer a few questions for us. Here we go.

CTH: Last winter the A’s acquired John Jaso and, in a separate transaction, sent Max Stassi to Houston. Both players ended up missing considerable time due to concussions. How is Jaso doing and what do you expect from him in 2014?

JB: According to A’s beat writers, Jaso is fully recovered from the concussion that sidelined him for the final two months of the season. He is ready to start catching again, but it has been rumored that Bob Melvin will utilize him in the DH role when he sees fit. Jaso is a great contributor to the team with his high OBP, and A’s fans just want him healthy for a run at the playoffs. If the A’s get in, he could be key in propelling the team to victory in October.

Nate Freiman (Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports)

CTH: After getting waived by the Astros, Rule 5 selection Nate Freiman was picked up by Oakland and stayed on the big league roster all season. How much of a role do you expect the big first-baseman to play for the Athletics this year?

JB: A’s fans love Nate Freiman, or Big Nate as we call him. Freiman endeared himself to the fans when he got the game-winning hit off of Mariano Rivera in an 18-inning game last June. As for the upcoming season, it depends on how comfortable Bob Melvin is with Alberto Callaspo playing first base. Unless Callaspo is utterly terrible at the position during Spring Training, he will be seeing some time there when Brandon Moss needs a day off, or Oakland is facing a southpaw. Due to the platoon implementation at many positions, roster spots are limited, and Freiman will most likely start the season in AAA Sacramento. He is a prime candidate for a call-up if anyone gets injured though, and if called upon, I trust that Freiman will deliver.

CTH: Were you surprised that the A’s were willing to commit $22 million for two years worth of Scott Kazmir?

JB: At first I was, but only because of the dollar amount. After the rest of the offseason unfolded, you could see that money wasn’t as that big of an issue for the A’s this winter and the signing made a lot more sense. At 30 years old, he is the grizzly veteran. I feel that this was a smart move by Billy Beane because option 2 was re-signing Bartolo Colon, who has been fantastic for us, but I am just not sure that he would be worth the money moving forward. Beane doesn’t like to pay for past success and this is a prime example. We wish Colon the best with the Mets!

CTH: Billy Beane always seems to make one surprise move each year that ends up paying off. Is there a surprise player or prospect in the organization that most people may not know about?

JB: I would say that Drew Pomeranz is a name the casual fan hasn’t heard of. He was acquired from the Rockies for oft-injured Brett Anderson this offseason. His numbers in Colorado aren’t going to wow you, but he was the #5 overall pick just 4 years ago. Pitching in Coors field can be a headache for pitchers, and when you are battling mechanical issues as well it becomes a nightmare. It is presumed he lost some confidence, and as reported by MLB.com, he feels that the change of scenery will do him good and that the mechanical issues are behind him. Pomeranz becomes a guy for the A’s that can either be the long-man out of the bullpen, a spot-starter, trade bait or just extra insurance assuming he pitches as well as he feels. The other player I would keep an eye on is A’s prospect Addison Russell. He will be up in September when the rosters expand, at the very latest.

CTH: The A’s bullpen appears to be a strength again this season. Is there any chance that former Astros Fernando Abad or Philip Humber make the team?

JB: Of the two, Abad has a better shot at making the team out of Spring Training because he is a lefty and I believe he is also out of options. The A’s need another lefty in the bullpen until Eric O’Flaherty is ready to come off of the DL. It will be between Abad and recently-acquired Joe Savery this spring. I will go out on a limb and say that Humber has a better chance to impact the club long-term though. Billy Beane usually doesn’t add players for the heck out it. Everything is very calculated. I assume that the A’s saw something mechanical that they feel they can fix with Humber, and in time will get him back up to the bigs. If Abad makes the team he will most likely be sent down to AAA when O’Flaherty is set to return.

CTH: Is there any news regarding the efforts to get a new stadium for the A’s?

JB: Ouch, Greg. There are a lot of pieces in play in this situation. The main issue is that Lew Wolff wants to move the team away from Oakland to about an hour South where he can also build other attractions (restaurants, etc.) around the park, therefore making more money for himself. He bought the land, and the only reason ground wasn’t broken there was because the Giants are holding firm to their territorial rights. There is also a lot of backstory on how they originally got rights from the A’s because the A’s were being generous, but I digress. Most recently there has been a group talking about building a ballpark at the Port of Oakland, which, you guessed it, is on the water. Waterfront ballparks are very popular these days, but this one would stand out because it would be directly across from AT&T Park where the Giants play. Visually this sounds beautiful, but there is still a lot of politicking to be done before anything is made official. It could be a pipe dream, but the A’s deserve a new ballpark and MLB should make it happen. In summary, owner wants them to move, everyone else wants them to stay and we are at a standstill. To answer your question Greg, no.

Thanks Jason. It sure would be nice to see the A’s get out of the Coliseum and that waterfront park sounds great. As for this year’s team, I think the starting rotation is going to be the key. If the young guys pitch as well as they did last season, the postseason is a definite possibility. If a couple of the starters regress, then the A’s might be on the outside looking in this October.

That being said, I can’t count Billy Beane’s club out. If things start to look bleak, I would expect the G.M. to pull the right strings to get the club headed back in the right direction. Also, the 19 games against the Astros should be beneficial to the A’s win/loss record. So, I’m predicting a 90-72 record for the A’s. That should be good enough for a second place finish and a wildcard spot.

Thanks again to Jason Burke for Climbing the Hill with us and helping out with the A’s preview.

 

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Tags: A. L. West Billy Beane Houston Astros Nate Freiman Scott Kazmir

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