2013 Opponent Preview: The Oakland A's might actually be as good as they were last year

USA TODAY Sports

It's easy to point at the Oakland Athletics' 94 wins last year and think "overachievers," but the numbers suggest that they weren't too far off. Add in a couple upgrades at key positions and you have the makings of a contender.

The A's fanbase threw around words like "amazing," "magical," and "unforgettable" to describe their 2012 season, words that are often used to describe the Tigers' 2006 run. While they used different means to the same end, the circumstances are very similar. Could this be the start of a successful run for the A's, or was 2012 just a flash in the pan for a 3rd place team in 2013?

Manager: Bob Melvin (3rd year)

2012 record: 94-68, 1st in AL West

SB Nation blog: Athletics Nation

First series vs. Tigers: April 12-14 @ O.Co Coliseum

Lineup

The A's were one of the poorest hitting teams in baseball last season, ranking 28th in the entire MLB with a .238 team batting average. However, they made up for it by hitting 195 home runs, the seventh-highest total in baseball and ended up ranking in the middle of the pack with 713 runs scored. They have a chance to be even better this season thanks to a couple of solid offseason moves to shore up their two weakest offensive positions.

The first move was to pry on-base machine John Jaso away from the Seattle Mariners. They may have given up a lot -- including top pitching prospect A.J. Cole -- but Jaso's career .354 on-base percentage will be a big plus for the A's, who may struggle to repeat their power output from last year. Derek Norris isn't much of a hitter, but is a very capable backup. They also acquired shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, a veteran shortstop from the Japanese Pacific League. Nakajima was a .310/.381/.474 hitter on the other side of the Pacific. History is not in his favor, but it will take a huge nosedive for him to not be an upgrade over the .203/.272/.313 trainwreck that was the shortstop position for the A's in 2012.

...the upgrades made at key positions turn a team that slightly overperformed last season into a legitimate contender in 2013.

The only two positions that had an OPS above .800 for the A's last season were left field and first base. Left field, as you may have heard, is where Cuban sensation Yoenis Cespedes resides. The A's were a ridiculous 82-47 with him in the lineup last season and his .292/.356/.505 effort would have won him the Rookie of the Year award if not for Mike Trout going off in record fashion. Some think that Cespedes' .326 BABIP is a sign of regression, but I'm not convinced. Like Miguel Cabrera, Cespedes hits the ball hard every time he makes contact. Unlike Cabrera, Cespedes also has excellent speed, which helped him leg out a team-high 12 infield singles last season. He also got better as the season went on last year, which is just plain scary. At first base, Seth Smith had a ridiculous 1.066 OPS against right-handed pitchers. His platoon counterpart, Chris Carter, is now in Houston, but Moss' career numbers against lefties aren't that bad.

Jed Lowrie will be an offensive upgrade to the infield no matter where he plays, but it looks like he will be spending most of his time at second base. Former Tiger Scott Sizemore will get playing time as well, but he was hit in the hand by a pitch earlier this week. Jemile Weeks has also been battling injuries this spring, but has been tearing it up when he plays. Through nine games, he is hitting .409/.444/.636. Josh Donaldson will likely round out the infield as the starting third baseman.

Contrary to what people thought when the A's traded for outfielder Chris Young, he will not be taking anyone's job this spring. Coco Crisp has already been named the starting centerfielder by manager Bob Melvin, while Young will play just about everywhere else. Crisp doesn't have the best arm from the outfield, but his speed and bat control are both still excellent. You would think that he would walk more given that he only strikes out in about 12% of his plate appearances. Josh Reddick will play right field once again after a power-filled 2012 season. He might not hit 32 bombs again this season, but his .221 ISO from last season is in line with his career minor league numbers and Fenway Park -- where Reddick called home prior to 2012 -- isn't particularly kind to left-handed hitters.

Rotation

I'm a bit surprised that the A's didn't make any changes to their rotation after last season, but as the saying goes, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The A's starters were third in the American League in both ERA (3.80) and FIP (3.97) last season. They have only used six starting pitchers during Spring Training, all of whom started at least six games for the A's last year. Brandon McCarthy is now with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Travis Blackley has moved across the San Francisco Bay to the Giants, but the other four primary starters remain.

Bartolo Colon will serve the rest of his 50-game suspension at the start of this season. He was a revelation for the A's last season, going 10-9 with a 3.43 ERA before having his season end early due to the suspension. The former Cy Yougn winner hasn't been as great thus far this spring, though, surrendering nine earned runs in 11 innings. Right-hander Dan Straily looks to be Colon's main competition in the rotation, though his 10 earned runs in 13 2/3 innings this spring aren't giving him much of an edge.

Tommy Milone will once again rely on his pinpoint command to get outs in 2013. His minuscule 1.71 walks per 9 innings was the sixth-best rate among qualified pitchers last season. He doesn't strike out many guys, but should probably post similar numbers in 2013, especially if that .310 BABIP regresses slightly.

A.J. Griffin was the biggest surprise of the rotation last season, winning seven games in 15 starts down the stretch for the A's. He came from relative obscurity -- a 34th round pick who has never been on anyone's top-anything lists -- but Griffin was absolutely lights out in his first 11 starts before falling back to earth in his last four regular season starts. It will be interesting to see whether Griffin builds upon those early starts or whether teams have caught up to him.

Jarrod Parker was on an innings count last season, but still ended up with great numbers: 13-8 with a 3.47 ERA in 181 2/3 innings. Now that the kid gloves are off, he will look to replicate those numbers across 20-30 more innings. He was on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list for five (!) consecutive years before breaking through in 2012. Parker went toe-to-toe with Justin Verlander twice in the postseason last year, showing excellent poise in both appearances.

Brett Anderson returned from Tommy John in 2011 to give the A's 35 big innings down the stretch and another six stellar innings in Game 2 of the ALDS. Anderson is a big lefty -- he's listed at 6'4", 235 lbs. -- but his fastball rests in the low 90s and, like the other A's starters, relies on movement and location to get hitters out. He has been injury prone, but is probably the starter with the biggest upside on this staff.

The bullpen is the same unit that was able to send flamethrower after flamethrower after flamethrower at teams in the late innings last season. Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook, Jerry Blevins, and Sean Doolittle all had ERAs under 3.05 last season. Balfour had offseason knee surgery, but should be good to go for the start of the regular season.

Spring Training storylines

For a team that had as little roster turnover as the A's, there weren't going to be many position battles in Spring Training. The only real contest was going to be for second base, but it looks like Josh Donaldson's emergence as the third baseman has all but ended any hope of either Scott Sizemore or Jemile Weeks getting serious playing time with Jed Lowrie shifting to that side of the infield. Hiroyuki Nakajima will get more than a spring's worth of time to prove he belongs in the MLB, so extra time at shortstop will be limited as well.

Player to watch: Yoenis Cespedes

I know that hindsight is 20/20, but watching this guy play in 2012 really made me wish that the Tigers had pulled the trigger on offering him some sort of mega-contract. He hits towering home runs...

...and he runs extremely well.

He is already one of the most exciting players in the game, and unlike another talented young left fielder in his division, there's no reason to believe that he won't improve in 2013.

Outlook

I started this post thinking that there was no way that the A's could repeat the 94 win season that they had in 2012, but the numbers are telling me otherwise. Yes, Yoenis Cespedes' BABIP could actually fall and Josh Reddick's power could drop off and the pitching staff could turn out to be just so-so, but the upgrades made at key positions turn a team that slightly overperformed last season into a legitimate contender in 2013. The A's might not make the playoffs -- they did have a ton of walk-off wins last season, a stat that doesn't tend to repeat itself -- but they will be right in the hunt throughout the entire year.

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