PRESEASON PREVIEW: Oakland A's


Posted Feb 24, 2005


For the first time since 1999, the A’s offseason was not filled with questions about painful Game 5 playoff losses. Unfortunately, that was because the A’s fell short of the playoffs. Despite winning 91 games, the A’s missed out on the division title by one game and had to watch as other members of the AL West signed big name free agents. After a tumultuous off-season filled with the departure of big name stars, the A’s are in the familiar position of starting the season as underdogs.

ADDITIONS:

Catcher Jason Kendall (trade, Pittsburgh); reliever Juan Cruz (trade, Atlanta); outfielder Charles Thomas (trade, Atlanta); starter Dan Meyer (trade, Atlanta); reliever Kiko Calero (trade, St. Louis); starter Dan Haren (trade, St. Louis); catcher/1B Daric Barton (trade, St. Louis); infielder Keith Ginter (trade, Milwaukee); pitcher Keiichi Yabu (free agent, Hanshin); starter Seth Etherton (free agent); reliever Tim Harikkala (waiver wire acquisition, Colorado); reliever Tyler Johnson (Rule 5 draft, St. Louis).

LOSSES:

Starter Tim Hudson (trade, Atlanta); starter Mark Mulder (trade, St. Louis); starter Mark Redman (trade, Pittsburgh); reliever Arthur Rhodes (trade, Pittsburgh); reliever Jim Mecir (free agent, Florida); reliever Chris Hammond (free agent, San Diego); catcher Damian Miller (free agent, Milwaukee); outfielder Jermaine Dye (free agent, Chicago WS); outfielder Nelson Cruz (trade, Milwaukee); reliever Justin Lehr (trade, Milwaukee); utility player Mark McLemore (retired).

PROJECTED LINEUP:

1: CF Mark Kotsay

2: C Jason Kendall

3: 3B Eric Chavez

4: DH Erubiel Durazo

5: SS Bobby Crosby

6: 1B Scott Hatteberg

7: LF Eric Byrnes

8: RF Nick Swisher

9: 2B Mark Ellis/Keith Ginter

Fortified by the acquisitions of All-Star Jason Kendall and power-hitting infielder Keith Ginter, the A’s regular batting order will have a good balance of hitters who get on base and hitters who slug homeruns. While the line-up will likely only feature one legitimate 35-homer threat (Eric Chavez), the A’s will have eight regulars who could realistically hit more than 15 homeruns (everyone, essentially, but Kendall).

The major weakness in the A’s line-up is their lack of a middle-of-the-order right-handed power hitter to break-up lefties Chavez, Erubiel Durazo and Scott Hatteberg. Jermaine Dye was that right-handed hitter last season, but he departed for the Chicago White Sox. The A’s will likely begin the season with Chavez and Durazo hitting back-to-back in the 3-4 spot, with righties Bobby Crosby, Keith Ginter or Eric Byrnes hitting fifth in front of Hatteberg. However, as the season progresses, the A’s may turn to one of those right-handed hitters to man the fourth spot. Another possibility is that the righty Kendall will be moved from the number two spot to the fourth spot. While Kendall would be an unorthodox choice for a clean-up hitter because of his lack of power, he could be very successful there because he is a contact hitter who has hit for a high batting average with runners in scoring position during his career.

Rookie outfielder Nick Swisher will also have a big impact on the way the A’s configure their line-up. Swisher has the capability of being both a top of the order hitter (he had an OBP over .400 in AAA last season) or a middle of the order hitter (he hit 31 homeruns between AAA and the major leagues in 2004). If he has a strong rookie campaign, Swisher could give the A’s a tremendous amount of flexibility in their line-up because of his ability to hit from both sides of the plate. The A’s could use him to break-up Kotsay and Chavez at the top of the order or to hit fifth or sixth if he is hitting well.

Another starter the A’s will be counting on is shortstop Bobby Crosby. Crosby was the Rookie of the Year and hit an impressive 22 homeruns, but he struggled to make contact during the second half of 2004. However, Crosby got on-base at a much higher rate during his minor league career then he did last season. If he can improve his plate patience and up his on-base percentage into the mid-.300s, the A’s should score a lot more runs then they did last season.

BENCH:

C Adam Melhuse

IF Mark Ellis/Keith Ginter

IF Marco Scutaro/Dan Johnson/Jack Cust/Hiram Bocachica/Jermaine Clark

OF Bobby Kielty

OF Charles Thomas

One of the weakest aspects of the Oakland A’s roster in 2004 was their bench. Adam Melhuse did an excellent job as a back-up catcher, but the A’s were limited in their options in the back-up infield and outfield positions. This season, the A’s shouldn’t be short on talent in either area. Melhuse returns as one of the top hitting back-up catchers in the league. With starter Jason Kendall’s reputation as an extremely durable catcher, the switch-hitting Melhuse may be freed up to appear as a pinch-hitter more frequently then he did last season.

In the infield, the A’s will be fortified by the presence of the loser of the battle for the second base starting job, either Ginter or Mark Ellis. Both have complementary strengths and weaknesses. Ginter has plus power for a middle infielder, but is average with the glove. Ellis is an average hitter, but is spectacular with the glove and works the count well at the plate. Ellis will be recovering from a right shoulder injury, so it remains to be seen if he will be at full strength. If the A’s carry only 11 pitchers, then they will likely carry an additional infielder on their bench, either in the form of last year’s starting second baseman Marco Scutaro, a utility player like Hiram Bocachica or Jermaine Clark (both of whom can play the middle infield and the outfield) or a first base/DH type like AAA MVP Dan Johnson or former top minor league prospect Jack Cust. Nick Swisher will also get time as a back-up first baseman when Scott Hatteberg needs a day off.

The A’s outfield will also be deep next season. Oakland acquired Charles Thomas from the Atlanta Braves as part of the Tim Hudson trade. Thomas will give the A’s a dynamic presence off of the bench, as he combines above-average speed and a flashy glove. He can play all three outfield positions. Thomas is left-handed and should share some of the playing time with the right-handed Byrnes in leftfield. Switch-hitting Bobby Kielty could be the wildcard on the A’s bench. Kielty was the starter for the A’s at the beginning of 2004, but lost his spot due to ineffectiveness. When on his game, however, Kielty has a strong power hitting stroke, especially from the right-side of the plate. Kielty could give the A’s a boost in the power department if he can recover his previous form.

ROTATION:

LH Barry Zito

RH Rich Harden

RH Dan Haren

RH Keiichi Yabu/ LH Dan Meyer

RH Joe Blanton/ RH Seth Etherton

In a stunning development, the A’s dramatically re-shaped their starting rotation in December when they dealt Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. Earlier in the offseason, Oakland had also dealt fifth starter Mark Redman. With all of the changes the A’s have had in their rotation, it is hard to predict accurately how the A’s starting staff will perform in 2005. One thing is certain -- Oakland’s staff will still have a lot of talent, albeit some of the talent is very raw.

Despite losing two-thirds of the vaunted Big Three, the A’s still boast one of the better one-two tandems in a rotation in baseball. Barry Zito is coming off of a down year, but he is still an elite major league starter. Zito had a rough start to 2004, but his strikeout arsenal returned in the second half of the season and he appears primed for a good season in 2005. Rich Harden was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball during the second half of the season in 2004 and the sky is the limit in terms of his potential as a starter.

The latter three spots of the rotation are more unsettled. The third starter spot will likely be filled by Dan Haren, who was acquired in the Mark Mulder deal. Haren has spent parts of two seasons in the major leagues and while he isn’t long on experience, he did pitch in the playoffs this season for St. Louis. He also had a 1.77 ERA during the month of September. Haren has an impressive arsenal of pitches at his disposal and could be on the cusp of a breakout year.

The fourth and fifth starting spots will be filled by two of the following four pitchers: rookies Dan Meyer and Joe Blanton or "veterans" Keiichi Yabu and Seth Etherton. Meyer and Blanton will likely be in the A’s rotation for years to come, but Oakland may decide not to feature two rookies in the rotation at the same time. Meyer has not yet spent a full season in AAA, so he may begin the year in Sacramento to get more seasoning. Blanton, with a full year of AAA under his belt, should be ready for the major leagues. If he doesn’t make the starting rotation, he will likely pitch out of the bullpen.

Keiichi Yabu is a veteran of the Japanese League and he has extensive experience in both the starting rotation and the bullpen. Yabu is a strikeout/groundball pitcher who will have the double advantage of being a veteran pitcher who the majority of major league hitters haven’t seen pitch. Seth Etherton is a former first round draft pick of the California Angels whose career was side-tracked by arm injuries. Etherton, when healthy, has a live arm and he could be a sleeper surprise in the bottom part of the rotation. Both Etherton and Yabu were signed to major league contracts, so the A’s will have to keep them on the roster or risk losing them on waivers. There is an outside chance that reliever Juan Cruz could be given a chance to compete for a starting rotation spot, as well. Cruz was primarily a starter with the Chicago Cubs before being converted to relief by the Atlanta Braves. Cruz may have the best raw "stuff" on the A’s roster and he could be an intriguing option in the fifth starter role. However he has struggled with stamina as a starter in the past.

BULLPEN:

Closer Octavio Dotel

MR Chad Bradford

MR Kiko Calero

MR Juan Cruz

MR Ricardo Rincon

LR Justin Duchscherer/Seth Etherton/Keiichi Yabu/Joe Blanton/Tyler Johnson/Tim Harikkala

Oakland’s bullpen took the brunt of the blame for their failure to make the playoffs for the first time this century. Early in the season, the A’s bullpen was directly responsible for a number of heart-breaking defeats. The group improved dramatically after the acquisition of new closer Octavio Dotel in late June, but the bullpen was still responsible for blowing two late leads during the last two weeks of the season, costing the A’s the division title. Oakland made improving their bullpen a priority this off-season, and they did just that.

The bullpen will be anchored by Dotel, who will be entering his second season as a closer. Although Dotel struggled at times as a closer last season, he did save over 30 games and struck out hitters at a remarkable rate. He struggled with tendonitis in his elbow at the end of last season, which hampered his effectiveness. When healthy, Dotel should be an above-average closer.

The middle and set-up relief roles should be held by two new faces and two familiar faces. The new faces will be righties Kiko Calero and Juan Cruz, both of whom were extremely effective in the National League last season. The other two spots will be filled by holdovers Chad Bradford and Ricardo Rincon. Both Bradford and Rincon struggled at times last season because they were forced to pitch out of their normal roles at times. Rincon is one of the top lefty specialists in baseball and he should be more effective this season if is able to pitch exclusively in the lefty specialist role. Bradford is a mirror image of Rincon in that he is much more effective against righties then he is lefties. He should be able to fill more of a specialist role this season in the A’s new, deeper bullpen.

The final bullpen spot will be the most highly contested roster spots during spring training. Unless the A’s choose to carry 12 pitchers, as many as eight pitchers could be competing for the one spot. Justin Duchscherer should have the inside track on this spot, as he was a very effective long reliever for Oakland last season and is out of options. However, Yabu and Etherton may also be intriguing long-man options and Blanton could take the spot if he doesn’t grab a starting slot. The wild card in this equation is lefty Tyler Johnson, the very talented Rule V pick from the St. Louis organization. The A’s would risk losing him if they don’t keep him on the rotation and he could be too talented not to keep. Rookies Jairo Garcia, Chris Mabeus and Huston Street and waiver wire pick-up Tim Harikkala will likely have to wait their turn and start the season in Sacramento.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK:

The new starting rotation

The A’s have lived and died by their starting rotation over the past few seasons, but they will likely have to look to their offense and bullpen to lead the charge this season. That being said, the A’s will still need a strong showing from their rebuilt rotation to have a chance at a playoff spot. Zito and Harden will have to pitch like aces and Oakland will need to get quality innings from at least two of the group of five pitchers competing for the last three rotation spots. There is no question that the talent level in the Oakland rotation is high, but the collective inexperience of the group makes it a question mark heading into the season.

BREAKOUT PLAYER:

Rich Harden

Harden made a miraculous turn-around right at mid-season in 2004. A simple mechanical adjustment (not dropping his head when throwing a pitch) led to a dominating second half. Harden has the talent to compete for the Cy Young Award. With one and a half seasons under his belt, Harden seems poised to make a move into the list of elite pitchers in the American League.

PROJECTION:

It is easy to look at the players the A’s have lost this off-season and write off their chances to compete for a division title. While it is likely the A’s will struggle to match their 91-win total from last season, it is also possible that the A’s could surprise everyone and win even more. The A’s have downgraded their starting rotation, but they have upgraded their bullpen and offense. If the A’s stay healthy and get a decent showing from their starting pitching, Oakland could find themselves in contention at the trading deadline. And with the strength of the A’s farm system, Oakland could make a big push at the deadline with a trade if they are still in the race.



Related Stories
Q&A with Andrea Mallis, Oakland A's Astrologer
 -by OaklandClubhouse.com  Mar 2, 2005
Clubhouse Chatter: A’s Off-Season Report Card
 -by OaklandClubhouse.com  Feb 7, 2005
A's Camp Notes: Two Lefties; Opposite Results
 -by OaklandClubhouse.com  Mar 10, 2005

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