2011 Oakland Athletics: If you haven’t read Moneyball, this is the year to do it

2010 Record: 81-81, 2nd AL West
2010 Prediction: 82-80, 3rd AL West
Diff: 1
2011 Prediction: 1st AL West

Impact Player: 1B Daric Barton
Impact Pitcher: LHP Brett Anderson
Best Reliever: RHP Andrew Bailey
Top Prospect: SS Grant Green

General Manager: Billy Beane
Manager: Bob Geren (307-340, .474)

Significant Acquisitions:
RHP Rich Harden, LHP Brian Fuentes, RHP Grant Balfour, OF Josh Willingham, OF David DeJesus, DH Hideki Matsui, RHP Brandon McCarthy, RHP Guillermo Moscoso

Significant Departures:
OF Gabe Gross, OF Rajai Davis, DH Jack Cust, 3B Eric Chavez, RHP Vin Mazzaro, RHP Ben Sheets, RHP Justin Duchscherer, RHP Henry Rodriguez, RHP Boof Bonser

The Oakland Athletics appear to be on the praecipes of contention once again in the American League.  In 2010, they finished with the best ERA in the American League despite the fact that many of their pitchers are still very young and have yet to reach their potential.  The qualifier there is that the A’s were much further down the list in FIP and had the best batted ball average in baseball at .274; a number that will certainly go up this year and beyond.

There is, however, no denying that the future of this pitching staff is bright and they should once again be among the best in baseball this season.

The A’s hovered around the .500-mark all season last year, never being more than 4 games from it after June 30th and finished with a dead-even 81-81 record.  Their offense simply wasn’t enough to carry their terrific pitching staff.  That could change in 2011 as the A’s are the sleeper pick of many in the AL West.
Starting Rotation
Brett Anderson
and Trevor Cahill have taken their place among very good in the league.  Anderson probably has the higher ceiling of the two and the left-hander had a 2.80 ERA and 3.21 FIP in 19 starts last season.  Expect him to be among the contenders for the AL Cy Young Award in the next few years.

Cahill was being talked about in the Cy Young race last season, and although his 18 wins and 2.97 ERA were impressive, his average 1.88 K/BB ratio and 4.19 FIP were less impressive.  He still has a very high ceiling and should be a very good pitcher, but he’s not quite there yet.  Keep in mind, he’s still just 23 and could experience his real breakout year this season.

Gio Gonzalez was very good last season notching 15 wins and a 3.23 ERA, but like Cahill had an average K/BB ratio as his command was at times a problem.  If he can lower his walks even a little, he’ll be tough to beat.

Dallas Braden may be the only perfect-game thrower in history to actually be underrated, but he posted his second straight year of solid peripherals and has cemented himself as a legitimate mid-rotation talent.

The final spot in the rotation will be a spring battle between the already injured (surprise!) Rich Harden who returned to the team after a two-and-a-half-year absence, and a few other pitchers; namely Brandon McCarthy, Guillermo Moscoso, Josh Outman, and possibly Tyson Ross who’ll probably end up in the bullpen.

Bullpen
Andrew Bailey has cemented himself as one of the top relievers in baseball after posting his second straight outstanding season.  In his short career, Bailey has posted a 1.70 ERA and 2.70 FIP to go along with a 3.59 K/BB ratio.  Only Mike Adams in San Diego has a better ERA among qualified relievers in that span.

The A’s also signed two quality relievers in lefty Brian Fuentes and righty Grant Balfour.  Fuentes opened the year as the closer in Anaheim and ended it as a valuable setup man in Minnesota.  He is much better against lefties than he is against righties and so will probably be used as a late-inning LOOGY who will occasionally face a few right-handers.

Balfour is one of the more underrated relievers out there.  Since his re-emergence in 2008 with the Rays, he’s posted FIPs of 2.22, 3.77, and 2.68 and has struck more than a batter an inning with reasonable walk-rates.

Holdover righties Michael Wuertz** and Brad Ziegler will be back and are solid, although Wuertz was inconsistent last season and left-handers Craig Breslow and Jerry Blevins should also have a spot and provide the A’s with probably the deepest bullpen outside of New York in the AL.

Joey Devine has missed almost all of the last two seasons, but if he finds his formerly dominant self, he could also provide some depth.

Other guys who’ll provide depth are Bobby Cramer, Ross, and non-roster invites Fernando Cabrera, Vinnie Chulk, and Willie Eyre.

Catchers
Kurt Suzuki was a pretty solid offensive catcher in 2008-2009 even though he never really fit the mould of an A’s player with a less-than patient approach at the plate.  Last season, Suzuki’s batting average tanked and so too did his on-base percentage.  He was a below-average fielder for the second straight year as well.  He’s still plenty good enough to be a starter and although he spent some time on the DL last year, has become one of the more durable catchers in baseball.

The backup job will be a spring battle between Landon Powell and Josh Donaldson.  Both are capable enough, but Donaldson hits for more power and has the higher ceiling at only 25.  Many think he’s eventually going to start in the bigs.  He certainly has the patient approach that the A’s front office demands and he hit 18 homeruns at AAA in 2010 in only 86 games.

Infielders
Daric Barton went from bust prospect to first baseman of the future in Oakland last year after finishing with a .273/.393/.405 slash line and leading the majors in walk rate at 16.0%.  He’s never going to hit for a lot of power, but his patience and fielding more than make up for it.  He’s got a Lyle Overbay skill-set with far more potential.

Mark Ellis is one of the more underrated second baseman in the AL and proved why again last season with a solid .291/.358/.381 slash line and 9.9 UZR rating.  He’s getting up there in years at age 34, but seems to be holding steady.  He’s the perfect number-two hitter in this lineup.

Cliff Pennington will start at short despite coming off of surgery on his left shoulder.  His solid defensive skills alleviate his so-so bat.

At third base will be Kevin Kouzmanoff, at least to start the year.  Kouzmanoff was a weird acquisition for GM Billy Beane who normally stays away from the aggressive swing-at-everything-type hitters.  His .283 OBP last season was terrible, but he was one of the better fielding third baseman in the league according to his 16.1 UZR rating and was ultimately still a 2.6 WAR player.  With no real imminent replacements coming up through the system (besides maybe Yordy Cabrera who’s currently a shortstop) the A’s may consider trading Kouzmanoff for a more suitable option long term.  They did try hard to sign Adrian Beltre to a 5-year deal, but they couldn’t convince him.

Adam Rosales is an excellent defender at all infield positions and can also hit, but he will be out until May with a foot injury.  When he returns he may challenge Kouzmanoff for the third base job.  For now the extra infielder job will go to either Eric Sogard or Steve Tolleson who’s in on a minor-league deal.  Tolleson probably has the inside track as he’s more adept at handling short and has more experience.  Adrian Cardenas may also be an option as the utility infielder if he has a terrific spring.

Outfielders
The A’s shored up their corner outfield situation in the offseason by acquiring Josh Willingham from the Nationals and David DeJesus from the Royals.  Willingham will play left and is a typical A’s hitter with a keen eye at the plate and some pop in the bat.  He’s exactly the type of player who can have a career year in Oakland.

DeJesus, on other hand, is the third outfielder Beane has acquired in a trade from the Royals in his tenure as A’s GM; the first two being Jermaine Dye and Johnny Damon.  DeJesus consistently posts decent, although not spectacular walk rates and has a solid .360 career on-base percentage.  He’s still a very good fielder and accumulated a 2.6 WAR in KC last year in only 91 games due to injury; he was on his way to a career-season before he was shut down.  At only 31, he could easily pick up where he left off in 2010.

In centerfield, the A’s return Coco Crisp who may have the best name in baseball, but may also be the biggest asshole.  His repeated homophobic remarks and recent Craig’s List entry asking for a “personal maid” have made me lose all respect for him, but the fact is, he’s still a useful baseball player.  Crisp had a .279/.342/.438 slash line in 2010 and had an 8.0 UZR rating in centerfield.

Ryan Sweeney deserves a spot on this team and may end up splitting time in leftfield with Willingham.  He was hitting .294 with a .342 on-base percentage last year when he suffered a season-ending injury.  Conor Jackson is also still around after being acquired from Arizona last season and figures to be an extra outfielder and first baseman.

Designated Hitter
The A’s signed veteran Hideki Matsui to a one-year deal in the offseason and he will be the DH in 2011.  Many think he’s in full decline, but he still put up a .274/.361/.459 slash line in Anaheim last year and he also hit 21 homeruns.  He’s the classic undervalued veteran pickup for the A’s.

Charty, chart, chart, chart.

Overview
The A’s are about to surprise a lot of people.  Their unbelievable pitching staff and much improved offense with Matsui, Willingham and DeJesus are poised to lift this team back to the playoffs for the first time in five years.  People have forgotten how effective Beane’s Moneyball-style was for a decade and he can’t be faulted for suffering through the same swoons as every other franchise.  This is the year Moneyball comes back to the forefront.
Final Prediction: 92-70, 1st AL West

** – Wuertz left his bullpen session early yesterday with a “shoulder issue” although it’s not thought to be serious.

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