Thearon W. Henderson
Following a shocking ascension to the AL West championship in 2012, what will the 2013 A's do as an encore?
.282: The OBP put up by the combination of the A’s catcher, second base, third base, shortstop, and right field positions. The A’s had their best offense in several years last season, but the team was by no means an offensive juggernaut. The catcher, second base, and shortstop positions were particularly atrocious, and the only things saving the third base and right field spots from complete offensive ineptitude were the occasional power outbursts of Josh Donaldson and Josh Reddick.
Recognizing these flaws, the A’s imported a new catcher (John Jaso) and revamped the infield options with the additions of Jed Lowrie, Hiroyuki Nakajima, and even Scott Moore. They also brought Chris Young in to be part of the outfield mix. Clearly, the A’s are trying to aggressively combat their weak spots from last season in order to prevent a falloff after their surprise playoff run.
41.7%: The groundball percentage of the A’s pitching staff in 2012, lowest in the majors. Getting ground balls is never a bad thing, but the A’s pitchers employed a flyball-heavy strategy in 2012 to good effect. O.co Coliseum’s large dimensions and foul territory make it tough for flyballs to leave the park (9.1% HR/FB, second-best in MLB), and if they stay in the park, fly balls are usually harmless. The A’s pitching staff put up a collective .279 BABIP as a result, tied for third-best in baseball. A.J. Griffin (37.5%), Tommy Milone (38.1%), and Jarrod Parker (44.3%) will return to the rotation this year, and Dan Straily (30.0%) is likely to be around for much of the season as well. Relievers Sean Doolittle (35.1%), Pat Neshek (35.2%), Grant Balfour (35.8%), and Evan Scribner (37.7%) further tilt the 2013 staff in this direction. Don’t be surprised if this group again coaxes a high number of balls into the gloves of their strong defensive outfield.
Key Offseason Moves
Acquired C John Jaso in three-team trade, giving up minor league RHPs A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen and LHP Ian Krol: Cole, Treinen, and Krol constitute a steep price to pay for a catcher who struggles defensively and flails against lefthanded pitching, but Jaso has put up .370+ OBPs in two of the last three years while playing in tough parks, and he busted out the power bat last year with a .180 Isolated power. Given that A’s catchers hit .204/.262/.325 last year, Jaso’s fantastic approach and potent bat should significantly turn around a position that the A’s have struggled at for the past couple of seasons.
Acquired SS Jed Lowrie and RHP Fernando Rodriguez from Houston for 1B/"LF" Chris Carter, minor league RHP Brad Peacock and C Max Stassi: Rodriguez immediately succumbed to Tommy John surgery, so he’s not much of a factor in this deal, but the centerpiece is Lowrie. The switch-hitter, like Jaso, is an uncommonly strong bat for an up-the-middle position, especially in terms of his secondary skills (10.1% walk rate, .167 Isolated Power for his career). He’s had issues staying healthy, with his 97 games last year representing his career high, and it’s fair to question the wisdom of trading Carter and his 137 wRC+ for that, especially with two of Oakland’s top 15 prospects. If Lowrie is healthy, though, he’ll help turn around either second base (.228/.303/.316 last year) or shortstop (.203/.272/.313).
Signed SS Hiroyuki Nakajima to a two-year, $6.5 million deal: Nakajima hit .311/.382/.451 in Japan last year, and has been remarkably consistent over the last six seasons in the Japanese Pacific League. He’s always had averages between .297 and .331, OBPs between .354 and .410, and slugging percentages between .433 and .527, with twelve to 22 homers. The A’s got him for a fairly low-cost deal, and should certainly be able to outhit the punchless shortstop cast of 2012.
Acquired OF Chris Young in three-team trade, giving up SS Cliff Pennington and minor league SS/3B Yordy Cabrera: Young came far cheaper than Lowrie or Jaso, as Pennington was an offensive zero in 2012 and Cabrera has never made much noise in the minors. Young, on the other hand, is an excellent defensive outfielder with a good power bat (career .198 Isolated Power). With Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes, and Josh Reddick already around and plenty of Triple-A players lurking, it’s not clear what role Young will play with the 2013 A’s, but he gives the team one of the deepest collections of outfielders in baseball. At the very least, the career .271/.371/.489 hitter against left-handed pitchers should make A’s fans forget about Jonny Gomes.
Depth Chart: The A’s projected depth chart from MLB Depth Charts reflects some areas of uncertainty -- currently, Lowrie as listed as the starting third baseman, with Nakajima and Scott Sizemore in the middle infield, but Josh Donaldson could easily end up as the hot corner starter, pushing Lowrie to a middle infield spot and Nakajima or Sizemore to the bench or even Triple-A Sacramento. Young is also listed as a bench player against right-handers, but it’s possible he could push Coco Crisp if the latter slumps early in the season.
The first four spots in the rotation will go to Brett Anderson, Parker, Milone, and Griffin, with Straily and the surprisingly effective Travis Blackley in a battle for the final rotation spot. The A’s also have decisions to make regarding the out-of-options Daric Barton and Adam Rosales as well as the comeback attempt of Hideki Okajima, who some speculate may push lefty mainstay Jerry Blevins off the roster.
2013 Outlook: It’s never easy to figure out what a surprise team will do for a second act, but the A’s remain largely young and look stronger on paper than they did a year ago. There are certainly fewer glaring weaknesses on this squad than last year’s, but the AL West will likely be a very tough division to navigate. The A’s could plausibly finish anywhere but last in the West; the keys to their success this season will be avoidance of attrition and avoidance of regression. If they stay healthy and none of their young/prime-age players crater, they’ll contend into September and possibly October, but health woes and sudden downturns could prove harder to overcome for this team more significantly than most first-division squads.
Bold Prediction: Shane Peterson becomes a big part of the A’s offense down the stretch. Peterson didn’t even make the Oakland Top 30 Prospects of the offseason according to Baseball America, but all he’s done for the last twelve months is hit -- 274/.441/.420 in Double-A, .389/.484/.618 (!) in Triple-A, and now .419/.479/.674 this spring (in a relatively-high-for-spring 48 plate appearances). Josh Reddick and Seth Smith both faded for the A’s down the stretch last year, and Brandon Moss’ breakout is still fresh enough to arouse plenty of suspicion. If any of those three lefty bats falter early in 2013, Peterson could step in and keep on hitting.