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Major League Baseball 2014 Team Preview: The Oakland Athletics
On the Bubble
Before the regular season even started; before March exhibition games even began; the A's had already made a splash on the sports pages and the highlight reels. In their first exhibition game on Wednesday, February 26, right fielder Josh Reddick made two outstanding catches against the Giants' Mike Morse. Both balls were potential home runs that Reddick scaled the wall to pull back in. Catch of the year!, and it wasn't even March yet. Reddick has only added to the intrigue by hitting .462 so far this Spring.
The A's have won back-to-back American League West titles, despite the fact that their payroll has been in the bottom 25-30 in the league. Manager Bob Melvin hopes that will continue this season. Melvin's method to success is to mix and match young players for a timeshare at several positions. He says that this timeshare can result in a young player's ticket to the Big Leagues and their success once they make it there.
Melvin's system may be unorthodox, but it has apparently worked the past couple of seasons. His team finished 96-66 last season and hopes to build off of that. The question now is: can the system work again?
A Young Pitching Staff
Righthander Jarrod Parker is expected to start Opening Day and lead the pitching staff, despite the fact that he has only two full seasons of Major League experience. He is a combined 25-16 with a 3.68 ERA in 61 starts for the A's. The team will hope to get more experienced help from lefthander Scott Kazmir, 76-70 with a 4.16 ERA in 208 career starts over nine seasons.
Kazmir threw three scoreless innings in his Cactus League debut on Friday. He got 33 of 40 pitches over for strikes and held the Diamondbacks to three hits. Kazmir signed a two-year, $22 million deal with the A's over the offseason. His best season was 2007 with Tampa, when he led the American League with 34 starts and 239 strikeouts.
Another new face on the team, relief pitcher Eric O'Flaherty is still recovering from Tommy John Surgery. The left-hander signed a two-year, $7 million deal with the A's, 10 months after undergoing the surgery. The 29-year old is steadily progressing. He went 13-7 with a 1.99 ERA over five seasons with Atlanta. Relief pitcher Ryan Cook has been battling shoulder inflammation, but finally threw his first bullpen session Thursday morning.
Youngsters Sonny Gray (5-3, 2.67 ERA last year), A.J. Griffin (21-11, 3.60 over two seasons) and Dan Straily (12-9, 3.96 over two seasons) are expected to round out the rotation. Griffin's 1.13 WHIP in 2013 was sixth in the AL.
Longtime reliever Jim Johnson has joined the team after pitching eight seasons with Baltimore and collecting 122 saves. His 51 and 50 saves in 2012 and '13 led the AL.
A Reversal of Fortune?
- The A's have a recent history of winning and making it to the postseason despite a low payroll and a lack of star players.
- The American League West should be much stronger this season with the Angels healthy and improved, the Rangers still a strong team, and the Mariners making improvements.
- The A's will likely struggle to compete this year with a young, in-experienced pitching staff and similar lineup.
- Manager Bob Melvin is vastly underrated and could surprise the baseball world yet again with another division title.
A Carousel of New Faces, New Roles
Alberto Callaspo is learning a new position for the A's: first base. He debuted at the position Friday, without a hitch. He took part in five plays in five innings. Callaspo has played five different positions in the Major Leagues, but never first base. He has started 485 games at third, 230 at second, 21 at shortstop and nine in the outfield. The 30-year old agreed to the position change to help his team again advance to the postseason. Regular first baseman Brandon Moss is left-handed, and Melvin wanted to complement that with a righty. Callaspo is a switch-hitter.
Prospect Michael Taylor is in his fifth Big League camp, never making an Opening-Day roster. He has only 59 days of Major League service under his belt. The 28-year old was once touted as the organization's top prospect and a key future contributor. But he has yet to impress enough in camp to start the season in Oakland. He is now out of options and currently is sixth on the A's outfield depth chart. The team may well have seen the last of their "future".
New outfielder Craig Gentry has been sidelined with a lower back strain for two weeks and has yet to play in a Cactus League game. Catcher Derek Norris will miss a few games with back spasms, but should return healthy. Catcher John Jaso was rumored to be the team's leading designated hitter this season, but Melvin has verified that Jaso will maintain his role behind the plate.
Reddick's defensive dominance combined with his .462 average is certainly good news for the team. The 27-year old missed significant time last season after suffering a sprained wrist just seven games into the season. After hitting 32 home runs in his debut season, he hit just 12 last season. He also batted just .226 in 2013. He had surgery on the wrist in October and appears to be back in form.
The Depth Chart
Top Position Players
Jim Johnson (closer)
Yoenis Cespedes (LF)
Coco Crisp (CF)
Josh Reddick (RF)
Derek Norris (C)
John Jaso (C/DH)
What place do yo think the A's will finish in the American League West? (I am going with third.)
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this; despite the fact that the A's are perennial contenders and seem to always surprise the baseball world with their ability to compete, their chances of sustaining their place among the top of the American League West are likely at a close.
Barring yet more, serious health issues, the LA Angels should be the team to beat in the division. The Texas Rangers are still tough, although they would seem to have missed their chance at a World Title, and the Mariners are at least slightly improved with the addition of Robinson Cano.
However, Bob Melvin, perhaps the most underrated manager in baseball, could surprise us yet again with a winning season and a trip to the postseason.