How the West will be Won – By the A’s
Last year the Oakland Athletics quietly managed to finish .500 to snap their losing-season streak at three and have just as quietly been making additions across the board to bolster the team all off-season – and they aren’t done. If these players hold up (a big “if”), this team will be playing ball in the post-season – and with their rotation, they could be the team to beat.
Let’s start with the initial product: The 2010 Oakland Athletics, who finished a respectable 81-81, second in the AL West, 9 games behind Texas.
Based on the number of runs they gave up versus the number of runs they scored, they were actually a little unlucky, as their expected Win-Loss record was 85-77. Now, wins are earned on the field, not in the stat-book, but I just wanted to counter any idea that the A’s were a poor team that stumbled onto a .500 record like the 2005 Washington Nationals who, the very next season, did predictably poorly. Now let’s take a look at the biggest pieces that they’re going to be missing from the year before:
Ben Sheets, SP – Sheets was signed to a 1 year, 10 million dollar deal before the 2010 season. Presumably, Oakland GM Billy Beane’s plan was to trade him for prospects, but in typical Ben Sheets fashion, he got hurt and missed the last two and a half months of the season. While he was with the team, he was far from the ace he was signed to be, going 4-9 in 20 starts with a 4.53 ERA (92 ERA+), 1.391 WHIP, and over a strikeout less per nine innings than his career average. He didn’t even average 6 innings per start. Baseball Reference lists him as being worth about 0.4 Wins Above Replacement. I think that’s generous. By any account he is virtually the definition of “replaceable.”
Jack Cust, DH – After being non-tendered the previous off-season, Jack Cust ended up signing a 1-year, 2.6 million deal with the A’s anyway. Cust strikes me as the prototypical Billy Beane player: has deficiencies (slow, no glove, low batting average, lots of strikeouts) that undervalue his assets (power, walks) and make him an affordable player for Oakland’s limited payroll. That’s why I was surprised that he was non-tendered last year, and allowed to walk this year for a deal smaller than what he made in Oakland.
That said, Beane easily replaced him, which brings us to the additions that the A’s have made:
Hideki Matsui, DH – Billy Beane paid a little extra for an upgrade at DH by going out and signing Hideki Matsui. It’s not entirely clear by an immediate glance at the numbers that this is an upgrade; Cust actually has a slightly higher OPS+ since 2007 (125 to 121, in about as many games). But Matsui’s lower strikeout total could definitely prove to be a key factor in improving the A’s chances; he’s got a pitcher-friendly park and an offense that scored just 663 runs in 2010, so you know he’ll be involved in quite a few 1-run games, and that’s when strikeouts hurt the most. In addition, Cust’s higher OPS+ could just be a result of rarely playing against southpaws, against whom he hits just .225, with a .371 slugging percentage. Matsui has much more consistent lefty/righty splits.
Josh Willingham and David Dejesus, OF – Don’t look for either of these gentlemen’s names among the MVP finalists next year; you won’t see them there. It doesn’t matter. They could very well be the difference maker that propels the A’s to the top of their division. Don’t worry about how they compare to Josh Hamilton or Nelson Cruz. Instead, look at how they compare to the gentlemen that they’ll be replacing. Last year, the conglomerate of gentlemen patrolling the corner outfield positions (Gabe Gross, Ryan Sweeney, Eric Patterson, Conor Jackson, and company) hit .257/.325/.394 and .247/.287/.342 for leftfield and rightfield respectively. Compare that to Willingham (.260/.373/.476 since 2008) and Dejesus (.300/.363/.443 since 2008).
Rich Harden, SP – Ok, I know what you’re thinking: John, how on Earth will this end up helping the A’s? We’ve seen this movie before. This is the guy that’s going to lead the A’s rotation to victory? The guy hasn’t had a full season since 2004. That’s just it though – he doesn’t have to be the guy. Beane signed Harden to a low-risk, 1.5 million dollar deal with a major potential upside, as we’ve seen in some of his flashes of brilliance. And if not? He’s currently in line to be the number 5 starter, behind Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Brett Anderson. Losing him wouldn’t change the bottom of the rotation any more than last year, but having him pitch to that potential we’ve heard so much about could produce a lot of extra wins.
Now, the A’s look like they’re out of the Adrian Beltre sweepstakes, but that’s probably for the best. Scott Boras was looking for a deal in the range of five years, 90 million dollars, which is an absurd price to pay for a small market team for a guy who has had just two great years, especially considering how he performed the last time he signed a 5-year deal to play in a pitcher’s park. Personally, I think Beane was irrational in offering as much as he did (5 years, 64 million).
Meanwhile, the Angels and Rangers missed out on the big free agents that they were going for, and have done very little to improve their rosters; even if Beltre does end up signing with one of them, the impact will be more felt in their pocketbooks than on the field. Seattle isn’t competing next year; not even close.
The biggest question mark – and the thing that could derail Billy Beane’s latest plan: injuries. Willingham, Dejesus, Harden, Brett Anderson, and Coco Crisp all spent time on the DL last year. Hideki Matsui has been healthy for the last two years, but he’s not getting younger and who knows how long his knees will hold out for him. If all these gentlemen go down with injuries, the A’s are going to be in trouble. But that was part of Beane’s plan from the start. He would love to sign a durable, high-performing stud, but with his limited resources, he had to take risks on less expensive players with deficiencies – in this case, brittleness.
If enough of these guys remain healthy, the Athletics are my pick to win the American League West. They were an 81-81 team last year behind the best pitching staff in the American League; I predict that the latest additions, along with a little more luck than last year will put this team at about 90 wins, which is exactly what the Rangers put up in 2010. And once a team gets to the post-season, the tremendous pitching could put the boys in green over the top.