Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Preseason Preview: Athletics

So it's Tuesday night and I should be reading the latest dense section of John Locke's An Essay on Human Understanding in preparation for my philosophy class tomorrow, which I like because it falls on the only day of the week, aside from Monday, that I don't have to get up at 8:45, which is anathemically early to a college student such as myself who prizes sleep highly. So what am I doing instead? Two things. Working on my collection of stories for my second-semester writing project, and attempting to tackle the issue of constructing a coherent preview for the A's ala the one the Cards received the last time. I was planning to do this yesterday, but you have to be in a certain mood to crunch all the numbers, and besides, I had a lot of homework. However, seeing as I have a good two hours before I need to read more philosophy, I thought I'd get it done for the green and gold. Off we go.

The Oakland A's

PITCHING


Starters

Who's Gone?
Most importantly, Barry Zito, staff leader. The veteran of Oakland's youthful mound men, he led the team with 16 wins and a 3.83 ERA and fled cross-Bay for the richest contract for a pitcher in MLB history, a seven-year, $126 million albatross doled out by the increasingly desperate Giants. They apparently believe that two overpaid Barrys are better than one and that Zito's relative youth - 28, 29 in May - can counteract the average age of el Gigantes, which is approximately 80. Other than that, no notable departures.

Who's Here? Any question involving the A's starting rotation, of which many have been floating about this offseason with good reason, come down to one inescapable caveat emptor - will Rich Harden be healthy? Classic case of buyer beware, as A's fans really want to get excited about their young potential ace with the sweet smile and the 100-mph heat, but constant injury woes the past few seasons have besieged him and he's never topped 200 innings pitched - the closest he came was in'04, when he logged 189.2 IP with an 11-7 mark and a 3.99 ERA. Not bad, but there's room for improvement, especially for someone with as meteoric a talent as Harden. With Zito gone, he's looked to as a bona-fide ace, but will the 25-year-old Canadian be able to shake off his recent problems, ranging from a shoulder strain incurred while turning off an alarm clock to a number of back and oblique troubles? It's very important.

Backing up Harden is #2 guy Danny Haren, who I steadfastly refuse to call "Dan" ala other media outlets. Things are less settled after that, with #3 Joe Blanton and #4 Esteban Loaiza generally guaranteed starting spots unless they do some massive pooch-screwing in Spring Training. The fifth slot in the rotation, as with the Cards, is unsettled for the A's. Hefty lefty Joe Kennedy appears to be the front-runner. I'm less than tickled about this (see old post entitled: I Hate Joe Kennedy) but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. Other names being tossed around include Brad Halsey, Jason Windsor, Shane Komine, and Lenny DiNardo. Hmm. Nothing stellar. Zito's shoes won't be easily filled. Also, the rotation is entirely righty, without the benefit of a lefty to put in there to change things up... another thing that departed with Zito.

A slot-by-slot look goes:

- Rich Harden (now regarded as Oakland's #1 guy, Harden, as mentioned, has a lot to prove. When he's on, he's absolutely unhittable, and sports a fastball that can top 100 mph even late in the game, plus a "ghost pitch" that is impossible to hit. He took a perfect game into the eighth inning in 2005, and racks up high K numbers. But again... the health factor is troubling, and the state of the A's rotation could go from "above average" to "pretty shitty" if he goes down again).
- Danny Haren (a legit #2, he also sports a high-90s fastball, a sinking cut fastball, a devastating splitter, and an above-average changeup, all of which he can use effectively, and mixes up well. He's also a workhorse, logging well over 200 IP the past two seasons. The 6'5" righty is regarded as the prime score from the Mulder trade, but still scuffles with unpredictability - he has the raw talent to be as good as any in the game, but can sometimes hit prolonged ruts in which he can't locate to save his life and consistently leaves the ball up in the zone).
- Joe Blanton (another weighty matter, literally, as the Kentuckian tips the scales at 255 pounds. He wins a lot of games, but tends to get lucky by relying on fortutious run support, and a decent - but not stellar - 16-12 record was made a little bit more bitter by the fact that he posted a 4.82 ERA to go with it. Not the stuff you'd want consistently out of your #3 guy - the Cards look better in comparison if you consider that Reyes or Wainwright will be taking this slot. Hopefully Blanton, not a power pitcher who relies on fine control and hitting his spots, will be improved this year. He could also stand to lose some weight).
- Esteban Loaiza (he started off terribly last year, posting an 0-3 mark and an 8+ ERA that caused much, much unhappiness in A's Nation, but was revealed to be injured, and went on the DL a day after allowing five runs in the first inning to the fricking Royals, a game which was fortunately washed out of the standings by rain. Upon his return, Loaiza was serviceable, still prone to the odd turkey, but fortunately with far less regularity. He was brilliant in August, earning Pitcher of the Month honors. He started Game 2 of the ALDS in Minnesota and only permitted 2 runs through six innings, so there is some hope for him, despite a bel0w-average 11-9/4.89 final record).
- Joe Kennedy/Brad Halsey/Jason Windsor/Shane Komine/Lenny DiNardo (as with the Cards, absolutely nobody has a lock on the final spot, although A's management seems to indicate that Kennedy is the frontrunner. A chancy reliever who comes by his numbers a bit dishonestly - he tends to let the inherited runners of other pitchers score, instead of his own - Kennedy is known as "Bazooka Joe" among the A's faithful, and nobody feels quite comfortable with him out there. Let him get one or two runners on, and he turns into a veritable horror show. Perhaps being stretched out as a starter from the get-go will help. As for Halsey, he's worse - an ex-Yankee prospect whose nickname is the Gas Can, for good reason, and not a guy I want to see starting for my team every fifth day. Windsor and Komine are the highly touted arms of the future, who each had one good start and one bad start last year before being sent back to Triple-A Sacramento. DiNardo is a 27-year-old lefty snagged off the waiver wire from the Red Sox, who had a 7.85 ERA as a reliever last year, but this could be due to persistent neck problems. Healthy, he could possibly find a role in the bullpen as a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY)

Best-Case Scenario: Harden stays healthy for the entire year, finally achieves his potential, and crafts the breakout season that the A's have been waiting for. He wins 15+ games, easily racks up 200 K, a 2-something ERA, and 200 IP. Haren matches him, posting another ERA in the high 3's with his loss total cut back by some run support. Blanton harnesses his suspect command and lowers his ERA while still winning a high number of games. Loaiza continues his round of newfound success and is a decent to good back-end starter, while Kennedy proves to be not terrible and stabilizes the fifth spot. The A's prove that their pitching, once again, carries the day for them, and they nab a second straight AL West title.

Worst-Case Scenario: It shouldn't be this easy... there's too many question marks in the rotation. Harden is injured by May and useless afterwards, logging perhaps 50 IP while the burden of making up for his absence falls largely on the incompetent shoulders of patchwork replacements. Haren continues to be steady, but gets tagged with too many losses since the bats can't help him out. Blanton posts an ERA north of 5 while his win total declines due to spotty control, and Loaiza regains April '06 form, resulting in an ignominious departure by the break, at which point the A's are steadily sinking in the AL West. Kennedy, Halsey, and everyone else give up runs like a sieve. The Elephants are unequivocally doomed.

Bullpen

- Kiko Calero (another piece of the Mulder deal, Calero is as close to automatic as a 7th-inning guy can be. He's prone to the odd misstep, of course, but for the most part, he's an exceptional late-game reliever who relies almost exclusively on his hard, biting slider. He's never really done anything to disillusion me, and when I see him coming in after a pitching change, I feel confident that we'll get to the next inning with the lead intact).
- Justin Duchscherer (known fondly as The Duke, Duchscherer(rererererer...) is a vastly underrated gem. He was Oakland's All-Star representative in 2005, possibly by default, possibly because Duke is one of the absolute best relievers in the game today. He has put strangleholds and padlocks on the eighth inning, posted a 2.91 ERA in '06, and is one of the very few guys on either of my teams at which I breathe a sigh of relief to see him coming in. Absolute trust).
- Huston Street (the final piece of the Unholy Troika which compromises Calero, Duchscherer, and himself, Street can nonetheless sometimes look the most fallible of the lot. Chosen in the 2004 draft from UT Austin, he made it to the big leagues in '05 and kept the Rookie of the Year crown in Oakland after Bobby Crosby had won it the previous year. However, he was prone to that troublesome sophomore slump, blowing a total of 11 saves and not always looking entirely comfortable on the mound. However, he has admitted that he was injured, didn't feel quite right, and is completely healthy now, which leads Oakland fans to expect a repeat of his stellar freshman compaign. Hopefully - good closers are a rare breed).
- Santiago Casilla (the masked man, who used to be known as Jairo Garcia, he's decent and killed everyone in Triple-A, but hasn't shown true major-league talent yet. Mainly used as a mopup guy last year, it's possible he could see action in more meaningful games this year. Not sure how I feel about that).
-Ron Flores (the younger brother of Randy Flores of the Cardinals; I suppose every team needs one. A soft-tossing, wily junkballer, who either utterly baffles hitters or gets his butt kicked, Flores is inscrutable, and can either pull off a great save or blow it all to hell. Even if he does do the former, it usually involves wiggling out of some baserunning jams, so, uh, nothing's certain).
- Jay Witasick (is a punchline for A's fans. I have fond memories of him due to conversing briefly with him while the A's were in Denver, and found him a personable and funny guy. None of my fond memories, however, have to do with his pitching).
- Alan Embree (journeyman, with the Red Sox, the Yankees, and the Padres among his recent employers, he nonetheless posted a fair 3.27 ERA last year, but in Oakland, with the late innings locked down between Calero/Duchscherer/Street, I foresee him being used only to get the ball to one of the three).
-Chad Gaudin (terrific K numbers, but equally shocking B/B numbers, as he walks as many people as he strikes out. When he pounds the strike zone, he can display flashes of brilliance, but all those walks keep coming back to bite him).

Best-Case Scenario: Calero, Duchscherer, and Street dominate. Fortunately, this is very likely to happen, as Oakland's bullpen revolves entirely around the three and everyone else is supporting cast in order to give the big men the most innings. This is as it should be. However, the building is as only strong as its infrastructure, and if the fill-in guys can't get the game to the Troika with the lead intact, trouble will ensue.

Worst-Case Scenario: Calero and/or Duchscherer and/or Street go down, leaving the A's to patch the absences with pick-and-choose junk. The game becomes a very dicey proposition after the sixth or seventh inning, or whenever the starter leaves, and because of this absence, the A's can never pull out late-game victories. Their record suffers, leaving them to drop in the standings accordingly.

The Nonexpert Nostradamus Predicts:
(again, starters/relievers listed under overall numbers)

Starters
Rich Harden, RHP, 15-6, 2.87 ERA, 195 IP, 220 K, 25 starts
Danny Haren, RHP, 15-8, 3.76 ERA, 220 IP, 200 K, 34 starts
Joe Blanton, RHP, 16-10, 4.55 ERA, 185 IP, 125 K, 33 starts
Esteban Loaiza, RHP, 14-10, 4.35 ERA, 175 IP, 100 K, 30 starts
Joe Kennedy, RHP, 10-9, 4.45 ERA, 160 IP, 90 K, 25 starts
Brad Halsey, RHP, 2-5, 4.77 ERA, 75 IP, 55 K, 7 starts
Shane Komine, RHP, 2-3, 4.66 ERA, 50 IP, 20 K, 3 starts
Jason Windsor, RHP, 2-3, 4.50 ERA, 27 IP, 15 K, 2 starts
Chad Gaudin, RHP, 3-3, 3.89 ERA, 43 IP, 20 K, 2 starts

Relievers
Huston Street, RHP, 3-2, 3.01 ERA, 34 SV/40 SVO
Justin Duchscherer, RHP, 2-1, 2.83 ERA, 3 SV/3 SVO
Kiko Calero, RHP, 3-1, 3.22 ERA, 2 SV/2 SVO
Ron Flores, LHP, 1-2, 4.86 ERA, 1 SV/2 SVO
Jay Witasick, RHP, 0-3, 5.95 ERA, 0 SV/0 SVO
Santiago Casilla, RHP, 1-3, 4.26 ERA, 1 SV/2 SVO
Lenny DiNardo, LHP, 1-0, 4.22 ERA, 1 SV/1 SVO


HITTING

Projected Lineup (positional, not batting, order)

1B Nick Swisher (a genuine power threat, who slugged 35 HR and knocked in 95, Swish nonetheless posted a surprisingly low average, .254. He's the homer-or-nothing type of guy - he's admitted freely in the past that he swings for the fences in key situations - and while that certainly has its merits, I'd like to see Swish continue to mature as a hitter and develop some more plate discipline and pitch selection).
2B Mark Ellis (the finest defensive second baseman in the AL, Ellis was gypped out of a Gold Glove last year despite posting a league-best .997 fielding percentage. There's nobody smoother with the glove, which discounts his lower offensive contributions. He hit only.249 last year, albeit with 11 HR, following a breakout year in '05 in which he hit .316).
SS Bobby Crosby (the lineup's version of Rich Harden, Crosby has good, raw talent combined with an almost preternatural ability to hurt himself. If it wasn't his finger, it was his back. If it wasn't his back, it was his rib. Ad nauseam. A number of A's fans, myself included, are growing impatient with the constant parade of injuries, and are ready to see him play up to the image of the superstar he was projected to be when Tejada left Oakland. By now, we've realized that he'll never live up to that, but if he was ever healthy, he should be good for 20+ HR. Big for a shortstop at 6'3" and 215 lb, Crosby is a smooth fielder, which is his redeeming value. Speaking of pitch selection... if you throw a slider outside in the dirt, you can bet your life that Crosby will swing at it and strike out flailing. He desperately needs to move closer to home plate and close his stance).
SSa Marco Scutaro (Oakland's magical little man, the small Venezuelan second-stringer shortstop has a knack for delivering key hits whenever the club most needs them, seven of the game-winning persuasion since he joined the club after being dropped by the Mets in 2003. He saw extensive action last year when Crosby was out of commission, but is a natural second baseman and his range can suffer a bit if he's playing deep in the hole at shortstop. Still, he's invaluable for his ability to come through in the clutch).
3B Eric Chavez (Oakland's only player with a claim to stardom, Chavy is another mercurial character who has already proven something. He's won six straight Gold Glove awards at the hot corner and is an orgasmic pleasure to watch play in the field, handling even the toughest hops with stunning ease. He's also good for 30 HR and 100 RBI most seasons, but his '06 campaign was crippled by a string of debilitating injuries that clipped his power numbers and left his average at a miserly .241. If he's in full fettle, however, he should return to his established career norms).
RF Milton Bradley (the man with the board-game name and a volatile temper, who has seemed much mollified since his transition to Oakland's frat-house atmosphere, he's a five-tool player, has decent speed and good power, and is also capable of slugging 20+ HR when healthy... alas, he's another guy with an all-too-recent injury history. Keeping him healthy with the others will be key).
CF Mark Kotsay (another Gold-Glove worthy fielder, another injury risk. Kotz has made his name catching the uncatchable, usually with Torii Hunter-style leaps at the outfield fence and never losing balls, even deep in the gap, but he also had back problems for most of '06 and his offensive numbers are slowly starting to decline).
LF Shannon Stewart (acquired from the Twins, he hits for a good average but low power numbers - the last time he cracked in excess of 20 HR was in 2000, for the Blue Jays, where he hit 21. He has some speed and can possibly re-introduce the running game to Oakland).
C Jason Kendall (an absolute iron man who's famous for refusing to take days off, Kendall hit .299 last year, but it's a running joke as to how long it'll be before he hits another homer. He managed to tally one last year, an occasion which set off mass celebrations in A's Nation. However, he's a decent top-of-the order hitter who can be pesky about getting on by slapping singles and stealing bases - he has speed, unusually for a catcher).
DH Mike Piazza (he has some big shoes to fill, literally, after Frank Thomas, 6'5", 275 lb, with 39 HR and 114 RBI, departed for the Blue Jays after they offered him more money. The A's are hoping he can decently replicate his 2006 production, as he's still a good hitter, posting numbers of the tune of a .283 average, 22 HR, and 68 RBI. While they're nowhere near Thomas's numbers, the A's are hoping that a healthy Chavez and Bradley can provide the extra punch. He won't see much action as a catcher, mainly because his defense has degenerated to the point where he caught only 13 of 97 base thieves for an epically lousy 13% success rate, and also because Kendall just won't get out of there).

Best-Case Scenario: Chavez, Crosby, Bradley, and Swisher are all healthy and productive, hitting 20-30 HR apiece and driving in 90-100 runs to accompany it. With that fearsome foursome in the center of the lineup, the A's could finally generate some buzz for having the one thing they've always notably lacked - offense. The supporting cast provides extra perks, even Piazza, who contributes another good season with the bat. The A's established bats overrule the Angels' prospects, and Oakland clinches the West title with breathing room.

Worst-Case Scenario: Nobody stays healthy, and even the valiant few who tough it out, such as Chavez, can't bring much to the table. The A's notoriously doddering offense gets even weaker, unable to support the rotation, and filling Thomas's place proves just too daunting to Piazza, who can't adjust to the AL. With horrid hitting and patchwork pitching, this is a club destined for the doldrums.

The Nonexpert Nostradamus Predicts:

Nick Swisher, S/L, 1B/OF: .275 AVG, 38 HR, 100 RBI, .385 OBP, .500 SLG, .885 OPS
Dan Johnson, R/R, 1B: .261 AVG, 7 HR, 34 RBI, .315 OBP, .360 SLG, .675 OPS, I predict he gets cut around or before the break as he's becoming something of a fifth wheel.
Mark Ellis, R/R, 2B: .267 AVG, 12 HR, 54 RBI, .325 OBP, .300 SLG, .625 OPS
Bobby Crosby, R/R, SS: .265 AVG, 14 HR, 48 RBI, .300 OBP, .340 SLG, .640 OPS
Marco Scutaro, R/R, SS: .268 AVG, 6 HR, 47 RBI, .340 OBP, .380 SLG, .720 OPS
Eric Chavez, L/L, 3B: .270 AVG, 29 HR, 97 RBI, .366 OBP, .450 SLG, .816 OPS
Antonio Perez, R/R, 3B, .201 AVG, 2 HR, 10 RBI, .200 OBP, .215 SLG, .415 OPS
Milton Bradley, S/R, RF: .280 AVG, 20 HR, 86 RBI, .380 OBP, .455 SLG, .835 OPS
Mark Kotsay, L/L, CF: .277 AVG, 16 HR, 70 RBI, .327 OBP, .375 SLG, .702 OPS
Shannon Stewart, R/R, LF: .275 AVG, 9 HR, 40 RBI, .320 OBP, .350 SLG, .670 OPS
Bobby Kielty, S/R, OF: .266 AVG, 6 HR, 27 RBI, .320 OBP, .404 SLG, .724 OPS
Jason Kendall, R/R, C: .287 AVG, 1 HR, 52 RBI, .350 OBP, .335 SLG, .685 OPS
Adam Melhuse, S/R, C: .220 AVG, 3 HR, 18 RBI, .270 OBP, .351 SLG, .621 OPS
Mike Piazza, R/R, DH: .269 AVG, 20 HR, 65 RBI, .340 OBP, .489 SLG, .829 OPS

This just isn't a team of heavy hitters - you'll notice that despite the high HR totals I predicted for several players, I didn't tab a single one to break .300, and the likeliest candidate to do so is scrappy single-punching Jason Kendall, who I also expect to hit (maybe) one HR all year. The A's are famous for not running and disdaining the sacrifice bunt, all part of the highly mythologized and much-copied "Moneyball" style of play for which they're famous, but new skipper Bob Geren says that he may be more inclined to give the A's the green light to steal more often, so perhaps this could translate into more runners advanced on the base paths and more runs scored because of it. The A's are also (in)famous for leaving the "ducks on the pond," and hopefully the runners being moved up can help put them in.

OVERALL PREDICTION

It looks to be another close and tight season in the AL West - whatever else, this race is never boring, and there's never really one team poised to run away with it all. The A's entered the season as the favorites last year, and managed to live up to their billing by capturing their first divisional flag since 2003. I've got them marked for a 90-72 record, three games off the pace from last year, and in a race that's normally so close, I'm not entirely sure if that'll be enough to bump them over the hump. As much as it kills me to make this call, since I hate, hate, HATE the Los Angeles Angels of Whereverville California USA, I may have to slide them in by one game ahead of the A's. The Angels have only two weaknesses. Fortunately for A's fans, these are known as: Offense and Defense. Despite this, however, this A's team is built of china men, and if any injuries wreck an already precarious picture, the green and gold could be in for a long summer. If they're healthy, they'll be in it until the end; if not, this one could be over pretty quickly in Mudville.

The Angels have one of the better starting rotations in baseball, but Bartolo Colon has health problems and patches of atrocity, and it remains to be seen if Jered Weaver can follow up his sterling rookie campaign. They also have as bad of an offense as the A's, although that could change if the LAA prospects begin to hit (and the A's veterans do the same). And while the A's infield is watertight, the Angels have a little trouble with basic things like catching and fielding. Defense could prove to be a late-season key.

The Rangers are primed for a fall - even with new manager, and former A's coach, Ron Washington, their hitters' numbers are artifically inflated by playing at the launching pad known as Ameriquest Field, and their pitching still isn't any better. That lineup, with Blalock, Young, and Teixeira, is still admittedly fairly scary, but as long as the rotation can't hold up their end of the bargain, they're going to be treading water, yet again, in a tight division. They aren't the pushovers that they were a few years ago, but I just don't see them managing to upset both the A's and Angels.

The Mariners had one of the more dismal offseasons in recent memory, and their rotation consists of Felix Hernandez/Jarrod Washburn/Jeff Weaver/Miguel Batista/Horacio Ramirez, none of whom are very awe-inspiring. If Hernandez turns it on and lives up to his promise, he could become a solidifed ace, but his backup corps are a bit... well, perhaps underwhelming would be the word. They have Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, and Raul Ibanez on the offensive half of things, all of whom are capable of providing decent-to-excellent seasons, but have struggled to do so with any consistency during their tenure in Seattle. Aside from the omnipresent, and still very talented, Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners also have "Princess Willie," (utilityman Willie Bloomquist) a running joke among their fanbase, who is kept around by the management despite displaying baseball skills that could charitably be rated mediocre. He's like the Seattle version of Scutaro, without the clutchness. The Mariners have experienced a meteoric and painful fall from grace since their otherworldly 116-win campaign in 2001, and it just doesn't look as if the pieces are there to turn it around this season. They're still headed by Mike Hargrove and their general manager is still Bill Bavasi.

As you can see, I think that the A's and Angels will be duking it out for first place, and the Rangers and Mariners will be duking it out for the cellar. If the A's manage to unseat the Angels, I will cheerily and happily eat all the crow dished out to me, but I'm too dubious of the team's overall health to make an outright championship call, however much I would like to.

AL WEST
1. Angels, 91-71
2. A's, 90-72
3. Rangers, 75-87
4. Mariners, 74-88

Now that I've wasted a good two hours on writing this preview, I shall head off to read some philosophy. The Rockies preview should come in the next few days.

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