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Oakland Athletics: Contender or Pretender?
Oakland Athletics 2015
A moneyball re-tooling effort
The Oakland Athletics have had a very interesting offseason that originally appeared to be headed in the direction of a fire sale. By accumulating a group of new players to put in place, and turning to depth options, Oakland now appears to be in position to contend for a playoff spot in the 2015 season. When Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin went down with injuries early in 2014, the Athletics decided to turn to the trade market to add to their pitching staff. With those two pitchers now returning from injury, the Athletics are now fully prepared to move forward after trading Jeff Samardzija and watching Jon Lester sign elsewhere as a free agent. When Oakland traded all star first basemen Brandon Moss to the Cleveland Indians, it appeared they were ready to start over completely in an effort to rebuild their farm system. Billy Beane had already set things in motion to avoid a long rebuilding effort though, and it started when the Athletics were able to acquire first basemen Ike Davis from the Pirates. There have been some confusing moves made along the way for the Athletics this offseason, but Beane's strategies have often defied conventional wisdom when attempting to put a contender on the field for the coming season. The Athletics recent trade for Ben Zobrist, indicates that they have not given up on the 2015 season and are now ready to join the pennant race for a fourth straight season.
A young ace leading the staff
With both Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester now gone from the Oakland rotation, 25 year old Sonny Gray now takes over the role of staff ace for the Athletics. After pitching 219 strong innings for the Athletics last season, Sonny Gray is ready to take on this new challenge at the top of the rotation. Behind him will be left handed starter Scott Kazmir who was also one of the Athletics better starting pitchers last season. The 31 year old left hander posted similar numbers to teammate Sonny Gray, in 190 and one third innings pitched for the 2014 season. Behind these two starting pitchers however, is where the Oakland pitching staff starts to get interesting. Oakland has plenty of pitching depth with A.J. Griffin likely to be available sometime after the start of the regular season, but Jesse Hahn and Drew Pomeranz profile more as middle of the rotation type starting pitchers. The Athletics are not expecting Jarrod Parker to return to their rotation until at least the middle of July, with him coming off the second Tommy John surgery of his young career. This leaves Oakland in an interesting spot as the look to round out their rotation behind their top two starters before opening day 2015.
The most likely scenario for Oakland to start the season, will be for them to have Jesse Hahn and Drew Pomeranz as their third and fourth starters. The health of A.J. Griffin will determine if they turn to Sean Nolin as their fifth starter early in the season, or if they are able to start the season with Griffin on the back end of their starting rotation. This presents Oakland with an interesting situation as Jesse Hahn was quite effective in 12 starts for the Padres last season. Hahn averaged over five and two-thirds innings pitched in the 12 starts that he made, along with striking out nearly a batter for every inning he pitched. While Hahn's walk rate was on high side at 3.93 walks per nine innings pitched, a good sinker allowed him to induce double play balls when the opposition made contact with base runners on against him. Pomeranz was able to show some of these same positive attributes from the left side in his innings of work for Oakland last season. This leaves just Sean Nolin as the pitcher in the Oakland rotation surrounded with the most question marks to begin the season. With both A.J. Griffin and Sean Nolin as options for the fifth starter's role in Oakland, there are not many concerns about the Oakland pitching staff carrying the load on a competitive team in 2015.
A new group of misfits on offense
Billy Beane has done it again in constructing the 2015 offense for the Oakland Athletics. Taking players who were castaways from other teams, and putting them into starting roles for an Oakland squad that has playoff aspirations for the coming season. It all started this offseason when the Athletics traded their international bonus pool money to Pittsburgh for Ike Davis, following him being designated for assignment by the Pirates. This would then allow them to trade Brandon Moss for a top prospect, while turning to Ike Davis at first base. Davis being a player who is a player that is adept at drawing walks was a great fit for Oakland as soon as the Pirates decided to move on. With the Athletics needing upgrades at both middle infield positions, they got one of the players they needed in return for Jeff Samardzija in a trade with the White Sox. Marcus Semien is now in position to win the Athletics starting second base job to start the 2015 season. The Athletics would make two more big trades to add the depth necessary around the infield and the pitching staff for the coming season.
The Athletics trade with the Rays for Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar, signaled that Oakland was not going to give up on the 2015 season. Zobrist as another player who is adept at drawing walks, now takes over the huge void in left field that was vacated when Yoenis Cespedes was trade for Jon Lester at last season's trade deadline. Yunel Escobar provides Oakland with a stopgap shortstop while they wait for top prospect Joe Wendle to join the big league club at second base, pushing Semien to the starting shortstop position. As part of the trade that sent Josh Donaldson to Toronto, Oakland received their 2015 starting third basemen in Brett Lawrie. While Lawrie has not produced at the level that Donaldson has the past two seasons, he does have plenty of upside as a player who has yet to reach his full potential. Both the Josh Donaldson trade and the Derek Norris trade brought back the necessary starting pitching depth for Oakland to compete in 2015, all the while opening up the starting catcher's job for Stephen Vogt to share with John Jaso. After getting Josh Phegley in return from the White Sox, the Athletics could also turn to him at catcher if necessary. The Athletics now move forward with a younger starting lineup to go along with the addition of some veteran players who are adept at drawing walks.
Does Oakland have enough to contend?
While Oakland has talent at the top of their rotation, and they could turn to veteran Jesse Chavez to round out that rotation, there are still some question marks. Oakland has enough to contend if their injured starting pitchers can make an impact upon their returns. This offense is different than the offense's assembled for the most recent competitive Athletics teams. With castaway Ike Davis now batting in the middle of the lineup along with designated hitter Billy Butler, this Oakland team resembles some of teams that Billy Beane assembled early on last decade. Ben Zobrist and Brett Lawrie could be impact hitters for Oakland in 2015, with contributions welcome from players like Josh Reddick. Coco Crisp will continue to lead the way from the Athletics leadoff spot this season, with younger hitters learning how to manage situations at the top of the lineup. Overall Oakland appears to be the third best team in the American League West to start the season, but with strong defensive play they can never be counted out. After their recent offseason moves, this Oakland squad believes they can be a contender. It will be up to the Mariners and Angels to let them know if they are not.