The Oakland A's have a reputation, and it goes beyond drawing lots of walks before it was cool. Athletics Nation, SB Nation's excellent A's blog, titled their season preview "Same island, new misfit toys." However, the franchise is nowhere near as dysfunctional as the distant land Rudolph visits. The A's are coming off their third consecutive postseason berth, though they still have yet to advance a round. In fact, under GM Billy Beane, the A's have won just one postseason series in eight playoff appearances.
As Athletics Nation alludes to, however, we might as well be talking about a different franchise at this point. Beane went back to the lab this offseason, tearing apart the roster that has won 278 games over the past three seasons. Baseball's version of Dr. Frankenstein traded away Josh Donaldson, Jeff Samardzija, Derek Norris, John Jaso, and Brandon Moss, who combined for 15.2 WAR last season. Add in the departures of Jon Lester, Yoenis Cespedes, Jed Lowrie, and Luke Gregerson, and you're watching 20 wins walk out the door.
The cupboard isn't bare, though. Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, and Josh Reddick are still around, and will be joined by newcomers Billy Butler, Ben Zobrist, Brett Lawrie, and Tyler Clippard. The A's arguably have more proven talent on their roster now than they did in 2012, when they started their most recent run of success. Will it be enough? It's difficult to say, and the AL West is as loaded as ever, but it's tough to bet against Billy Beane after he's proven us wrong so many times before.
The A's roster has seen plenty of turnover this offseason, but the outfield returns mostly intact. Rightfielder Josh Reddick will begin the season on the disabled list, but doesn't seem to be too far away from returning to action. He hit .264/.316/.446 in 2014, but only totaled 396 plate appearances due to a pair of stints on the disabled list. Coco Crisp will move to left field after a five-year run patrolling O.Co Coliseum's spacious center field gaps. Crisp had a cortisone injection in his right elbow on Tuesday. He hit just .246/.336/.363 in 2014, his worst offensive performance since 2011. Taking over for Crisp in center field will be Sam Fuld and Craig Gentry, both of whom represent a sizable defensive upgrade. Fuld stole 21 bases in 25 attempts last year, but only got on base at a .275 clip in 60 games with the A's. Gentry hit .266 with a .331 on-base percentage against left-handed pitchers in 2014, numbers that look much more promising than his .645 OPS against lefties. In short, he has almost zero power, but also has 20-steal potential as a part-time player.
Super utility player Ben Zobrist will also see time in the outfield -- he has already been named the rightfielder while Reddick is out -- but he should spend most of his time at second base this season. He was worth 5.6 WAR last season, his fifth five-win season in the last six years. He hit .272/.354/.395 in 654 plate appearances while playing five different positions. Baseball's WAR darling is almost 34, but should age gracefully given his diverse skill set. Eric Sogard will play second while Zobrist patrols the outfield. Sogard only struck out 37 times last season, which is probably the nicest thing you can say about his hitting ability. Former White Sox infielder Marcus Semien is expected to be the starting shortstop, a position he spent all of six games at in two seasons with the Sox. He doesn't have to be excellent defensively to adequately replace the departed Jed Lowrie, but the A's are hoping his excellent offensive numbers from Triple-A start to translate to the big leagues this year.
Third baseman Brett Lawrie has the unenviable job of replacing Josh Donaldson, the MVP candidate he was traded for this offseason. Lawrie received plenty of media attention in his home country -- Canadians sure love their own, eh? -- but has also had to deal with a plethora of injuries over the last three years. If the A's can keep him upright, he could be poised for a breakout season. First baseman Ike Davis is now on his third pitcher's park in two years, but he was able to cut his strikeout rate and up his power in 427 plate appearances last season. Designated hitter Billy Butler might see more time at first base this year than he did in his days in Kansas City, but he didn't get a $30 million contract because of his glove. Butler hit a disappointing .271/.323/.379 with the Royals last season, but has a career .808 OPS and a boatload of doubles on his résumé as well.
Stephen Vogt hit an impressive .279/.321/.431 in a utility role last season, but will shoulder a lot more defensive responsibility this year as the team's starting catcher. While he likely won't replicate that .752 OPS, he is a much better receiver and defender than either John Jaso or Derek Norris, both of whom are gone this year. He has thrown out 39 percent of attempted base stealers in his career, including all three that tested him last season. Backup Josh Phegley is also a capable defender, but his .522 OPS in 213 plate appearances in 2013 isn't promising. He does have a career .798 OPS against left-handed pitchers in the minor leagues, though.
Sonny Gray was excellent for the A's down the stretch in his MLB debut in 2013, but his national coming-out party came in the postseason when he out-dueled a not-yet-broken Justin Verlander in Game 2 of the ALDS. That momentum carried into the 2014 season, where Gray was among the best pitchers in baseball. He pitched 219 innings (seventh in the American League), allowed a 3.08 ERA (eighth), and was worth 3.1 WAR (15th). Oh, and he was only 24 years old. He is one of the best young pitchers in the game and should only improve in 2015. Lefthander Scott Kazmir proved that his 2013 resurgence with the Cleveland Indians was no fluke, throwing 190 1/3 innings with a 3.55 ERA in 2014. Kazmir made the AL All-Star team, his first appearance since 2008, and led the A's pitching staff with 3.2 WAR. With one more year left on his contract, the 31-year-old could be an intriguing option in an offseason loaded with free agent starting pitching.
Outside of Gray and Kazmir, the A's rotation is still in flux. Jesse Hahn is a relatively safe bet to pencil in as the team's No. 3 starter after a solid rookie season with the San Diego Padres. Hahn, a 25-year-old righthander, allowed a 3.07 ERA and 3.40 FIP in 73 1/3 innings. He struck out 70 hitters, but walked nearly four batters per nine innings. This walk rate was well above his minor league track record, but the real command troubles started at the end of the year, when Hahn wore down due to a major increase in workload from 2013. Lefthander Drew Pomeranz offers arguably the highest upside among the group of starters vying for the last three rotation spots, but he had some hip tightness during his last start and only worked 2 2/3 innings. Pomeranz made 10 starts for the A's last season, allowing a 2.58 ERA and 2.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 52 1/3 innings.
Both Pomeranz and righthander Jesse Chavez spent time in the bullpen last season, which automatically makes them more likely to miss out on a rotation spot in April. Chavez was relegated to 'pen duty after making 21 starts due to concerns about his workload. He allowed a 3.44 ERA and 2.90 strikeout-to-walk ratio as a starter, and was ultimately shut down in September. If he lands a rotation spot this season, the kid gloves will come off. Righthander Kendall Graveman was a dark horse to make the rotation before spring training, but the 24-year-old has been superb in four Cactus League starts, allowing just one run and a 0.73 WHIP in 15 innings. He had a Buck Farmer-like ascension through the minors last season, but with even better numbers. Sean Nolin is recovering from sports hernia surgery, Chris Bassitt is struggling this spring, and Barry Zito is not on the 40-man roster, but all three have also been mentioned as rotation candidates at some point. The Zito idea seems somewhat ludicrous, but he is getting a fair number of innings and is coming off three consecutive scoreless outings.
Save for one bad inning at Comerica Park in late June, closer Sean Doolittle was a revelation for the A's after dealing with the first part of the 2014 Jim Johnson saga. Doolittle allowed a 2.73 ERA and 1.71 FIP in 62 2/3 innings, and struck out 11 batters to every walk he issued. Unfortunately, Doolittle will begin the season on the disabled list, opening the door for former Washington Nationals setup man Tyler Clippard. Clippard has been one of the best and most consistent relievers in baseball over the past six years, throwing at least 60 innings per season with a 2.64 ERA and 3.40 FIP. He has experience working the ninth inning, having saved 32 of 36 games for the Nats in 2012. Dan Otero and R.J. Alvarez are a pair of likely right-handed options, while Eric O'Flaherty and Fernando Abad are capable lefthanders with strong track records. O'Flaherty only pitched 20 innings last season after coming off of Tommy John, so he may not get a full 60-inning reliever workload in 2015.
Down on the farm
The A's have systematically depleted their farm system with Tigers-like efficiency over the past two years. Since the start of 2013, the A's have parted ways with top prospects Addison Russell, Michael Choice, Daniel Robertson, Grant Green, Dan Straily, Billy McKinney, and Michael Ynoa in order to bring in proven big league talent. It comes as no surprise, then, that the A's have one of the lowest-ranked farm systems in baseball. Kendall Graveman, Franklin Barreto, and Sean Nolins were all acquired in the Donaldson deal, and rank among the top five prospects in the system. Matt Olson and Renauto Nunez are homegrown talents, but neither has reached Double-A yet. Raul Alcantara was a potential sleeper prospect after a stellar 2013 season, but he missed most of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery.
Player to watch: Brett Lawrie
Fair or not, Lawrie is the player that will determine whether Billy Beane's wild offseason plan was a success. The centerpiece of the shocking Josh Donaldson trade, Lawrie has similar potential. Still only 25 years old, Lawrie is a career .265/.323/.426 hitter who has shown flashes of more. Expectations in Toronto skyrocketed when Lawrie, a native Canadian, hit .293/.373/.580 in a brief call-up in 2009. Injuries have limited him to just 1260 plate appearances over the last three years, and he only has a .721 OPS and 97 OPS+ to show for it. An above average defender, Lawrie has the raw skill to match Donaldson's production if he stays healthy. He won't need to -- especially if Barreto pans out -- but a four-win season would be a nice return in year one for the A's.
How in the world do you predict what this team is going to do? The A's still don't even have three-fifths of their starting rotation set, and there has been so much roster turnover it's actually easier to describe who is still around from 2014. That said, it's difficult to pick this team any higher than third in the AL West. Donaldson, Cespedes, and Moss are big losses for the offense, and the bevy of back-end rotation arms won't make up for the departures of Samardzija and Lester. The Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels are more talented than these A's, and should both push for 90 wins or more. Billy Beane has done his best to avoid a full-blown rebuild in 2017 or later, but in turn has weakened his team just enough to make them an also-ran in 2015.