2014 Team Preview: Yes, the Oakland Athletics really are this good

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Even with injuries running rampant, it is hard to find many weaknesses with the A's these days.

Billy Beane is stockpiling relievers, and I don’t like it. The A’s GM, inspiration for Moneyball and godfather of the use of analytics in baseball front offices, spent $18.5 million on three relievers this offseason in order to bolster a bullpen that had the third-best ERA in the American League in 2013. Meanwhile, the only significant pieces they lost from last year’s pen were closer Grant Balfour and left-hander Jerry Blevins. The first question is obvious: where are all of these guys going to play? The second, though more complicated, is a bit easier to answer: why?

Because Billy Beane is a genius, and for that the A’s are favorites to win their third consecutive AL West title.

Manager: Bob Melvin (4th year)

2013 record: 96-66, 1st in AL West

SB Nation blog: Athletics Nation

Other Athletics coverage: San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune

First series vs. Tigers: May 26-29 @ O.Co Coliseum

Lineup

If you thought Nick Punto was finally done haunting the Tigers in his career, think again. Punto will see the short side of a platoon at second base with Eric Sogard, who is more known for wearing glasses and looking like Harry Potter. Sogard was nothing special at the plate last year, sporting a .686 OPS in 410 plate appearances with 10 stolen bases. Defensively, he played a solid second base while providing decent depth at both shortstop and third base. With Bob Melvin's penchant for mixing his lineups, Sogard's versatility is a big asset. Advanced metrics liked Punto's glove last season, attributing him a solid 1.8 fWAR in 116 games despite a .296 wOBA.

On the left side of the infield, Jed Lowrie and Josh Donaldson will look to replicate the 11.3 fWAR they contributed to the cause last year. Most of that came from Donaldson, who had a monster season after a modest rookie year in 2012. Mohwak in tow, he hit .301/.384/.499 with 24 home runs and 93 RBI, all the while playing spectacular defense at third base. He was not named an All-Star -- due to the tremendous depth at the position more than anything -- but finished fourth in the AL MVP voting. His glove helped make up for Lowrie's shortcomings, which were admittedly marginal. Where Lowrie made up ground is at the plate, hitting .290/.344/.446 with 15 home runs. His .345 wOBA was third among MLB shortstops with at least 400 plate appearances last year, and the two guys above him are both in the National League now.

Brandon Moss will get the majority of the reps at the designated hitter slot after leading the team with 30 home runs and a .552 slugging average in 2013. He sported a .906 OPS against right-handers last year, which he spent as the club's primary first baseman. His numbers against lefties leave something to be desired, so expect Melvin to use the DH slot to rest starters against southpaws. Moss' spot at first base will be filled by a platoon of Daric Barton and Alberto Callaspo. Callaspo is learning the position on the fly after spending time elsewhere throughout the infield during his career. Barton is a fan favorite who has not played in 80 games since the 2010 season, but he impressed with a .350 on-base percentage in 120 plate appearances last year.

Like several other positions, the A's will use a platoon at catcher. John Jaso will likely get the majority of plate appearances to start the year, but Derek Norris is beating down the door for more playing time after putting up a .754 OPS in 308 plate appearances as a 24 year old last season. Norris mashes left-handed pitching, and is currently the least expendable player on the A's roster according to their newest analytic trend. Jaso draws rave reviews because of his ability to get on base, which he did frequently again in 2013. His .387 on-base percentage didn't quite match 2012's career high, but it still ranked second among MLB catchers last year behind some guy named Joe Mauer.

The starting outfield will remain unchanged from the last two seasons, but new fourth outfielder Craig Gentry provides a massive lift off the bench. Last season, left fielder Yoenis Cespedes was the only other outfielder besides Coco Crisp who could be relied upon to provide some semblance of value in center field. With Gentry, the A's now have a right-handed outfielder to platoon with either Crisp or Josh Reddick, or serve as a super sub. Gentry's career .355 on-base percentage is solid, but his .376 OBP against lefties -- combined with his base stealing ability and above average defense in all three outfield positions -- was enticing enough for Billy Beane to part with top outfield prospect Michael Choice during the offseason. Elsewhere, Crisp will continue to be a pest in the batter's box and on the bases while Reddick further trends towards becoming a three true outcomes hitter. Cespedes' subpar 2013 season wasn't a surprise given his plate discipline issues, but he will need to improve in 2014.

Rotation

Jarrod Parker tallied 4.8 fWAR in 2012 and 2013, but will miss the entire 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery. He was diagnosed with a UCL tear last week and went under the knife today, leaving a sizable hole in the rotation now that he and Bartolo Colon -- the top two WAR-getters on the A's staff over the past two seasons -- are not in the 2014 rotation. If that were not enough, A.J. Griffin will be on the shelf for about a month with an elbow injury. Taking Griffin's place in the rotation will be Jesse Chavez, who spent all of 2013 in the bullpen. Chavez is no prospect; he debuted with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008 and will be 31 years old in August. However, his strong spring and excellent command out of the pen last year led the A's to give him another shot as a starter.

In news that should surprise no one -- if you watched last year's ALDS, that is -- Sonny Gray will be the A's starter on Opening Day. He was excellent down the stretch in 2013, allowing a 2.67 ERA and 2.70 FIP in 64 innings during the regular season. Unlike some strong debuts that end up being smoke and mirrors, Gray struck out a batter per inning and induced ground balls at a 52.9% clip. If that were not enough for the then-23 year old phenom, he outdueled Justin Verlander in Game 2 of the ALDS, tossing eight shutout innings with nine strikeouts. Gray and the A's were bested in a decisive Game 5, but the message had already been delivered: Sonny Gray is legit.

Left-hander Scott Kazmir resurrected his career with the Cleveland Indians last season, allowing a 3.51 FIP and 3.36 xFIP in 158 innings. Kazmir did not pitch at all in 2012, and only tallied 17 innings between the majors and minors in 2011. The most impressive part of his season (other than the durability) was that he struck out over a batter per inning, something he had not done since his heyday with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 and before. And if you're running out of things to be incredulous about in regards to Scott Kazmir, keep in mind that he's only 30 years old.

Fellow left-hander Tommy Milone will look to regain his 2012 form at the back of the rotation. Milone's ERA was only a tick higher in 2013, but his peripherals were worse across the board -- except for a slight increase in strikeout rate -- resulting in a 1.6 fWAR drop from 2012 to 2013. Dan Straily provided similar numbers to Milone in 152 1/3 innings last year, allowing a 3.96 ERA in 27 starts. Straily is the more highly touted of the two, earning a nod on Baseball Prospectus' top 101 prospects list in 2013. He has shown an impressive mastery of the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, allowing a 1.74 ERA in 98 1/3 innings across two seasons.

The main question about the A's rotation is where the innings will come from. The only returning starter who logged more than 160 innings last year is Griffin, and he is already slated to begin the season on the disabled list. The real answer is that this may be a trick question. With the aforementioned additions to the bullpen, the A's may be looking to play more late inning matchups in order to level out the playing field against teams that can afford a $20 million starter or two -- you know, like the guy that has ended their season the last two years.

Taking Grant Balfour's place as the closer will be Jim Johnson, who is coming off consecutive 50-save seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA for the Baltimore Orioles. Johnson's peripherals are not pretty, but he pounds the strike zone and induces a ton of ground balls. Setup man Ryan Cook will begin the season on the disabled list, but Luke Gregerson should be able to slot in nicely after filling the same role for the San Diego Padres last year. Sean Doolittle, Dan Otero, Fernando Abad, and Evan Scribner will also be in the mix, with Eric O'Flaherty set to return from Tommy John surgery at some point this summer.

Player to watch: Josh Donaldson

Donaldson is intriguing because his 2013 season was so unexpected. He was never rated as a top prospect, yet outproduced the game's elite (Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria) and top up-and-comer (Manny Machado). His spectacular season was reflected in his top-five MVP finish, but any preseason hype for 2014 has not yet reached outside the Bay Area. Steamer, ZiPS, and PECOTA all peg him to regress significantly, though being a 3-5 WAR third baseman is nothing to be ashamed of. Whether he can manage a repeat performance or not -- his peripherals have me leaning toward "sure, why not?" -- he is one worth keeping tabs on in 2014.

Outlook

Once again, the A's lack the star power of their divisional counterparts, and probably won't be selected by many as a playoff contender this season. Once again, that probably will not matter one iota. In this second coming of the Moneyball era, Beane and company seem to have found a more sustainable method of putting together a talented roster on a budget. While they have had the misfortune of running into a more talented Tigers team in the past couple years, the gap is closer than many think. Postseason aside, they seem to have the regular season figured out and should compete for a third consecutive division title in 2014.

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