During the last week of March, most Major League Baseball teams are still ironing out their rosters, evaluating players and determining key position battles in preparation for Opening Day. Lineups are brainstormed and pitching rotations are beginning to fall in order.
For the Oakland Athletics, however, all personnel housekeeping is already set in stone, as the team prepares for its season opener next Wednesday, March 28th, against the Seattle Mariners, in Tokyo, Japan.
While the rest of the MLB has a bit more leeway to begin their seasons, the A’s—and Mariners—must ramp up their preparedness for Opening Day. Earlier this week, Oakland announced its roster for the team’s trip to Japan. Because the season opener is earlier than all other teams, both Seattle and Oakland are allowed to bring 27 players instead of the 25 that is the normal maximum.
Within the next couple of days, the A’s will look to solidify their starting lineup and batting order, not just for Opening Day, but also (hopefully) for the rest of the season.
As the Athletics’ season opener rapidly approaches, let’s forecast how the team’s offense will look for the 2012 campaign.
The Oakland Athletics had a very busy offseason, with regards to both players and the coaching staff. One of the major coaching changes was the hiring of Chili Davis as the Athletics’ new hitting coach last November. The 19-year MLB veteran takes on his first assignment at the big-league level, after spending last season as the hitting coach for Boston’s Triple-A Pawtucket squad.
It’s no secret that the A’s have been a team that struggles to hit for a high average. Given the spacious confines of the pitcher-friendly Oakland Coliseum, no Athletics player has hit above .300 since 2004 (Erubiel Durazo?), and the A’s as a team have languished toward the bottom of the league in batting average.
In fact, since the 2000 season, Oakland has been only higher than ninth in the American League in team batting average once (2004); four times they have finished 13th (2011, 2007, 2006, 2003); once they have finished last (2008.)
Needless to say, the A’s have been anxious to find their hitting stroke as a team. The Athletics have employed four different batting coaches since 2003. One of them, Gerald Perry, held the position twice, and he was fired last offseason and replaced by Davis.
It’s not an easy task for Davis, as the A’s have few bona fide hitters on their current roster. The former switch-hitter will look to impose some wisdom on current switch-hitters Coco Crisp, Cliff Pennington and Jemile Weeks, probably the team’s best three hitters. Weeks already demonstrated some unforeseen power, smacking a home run from both sides of the plate in a game earlier this spring.
Unfortunately, aside from Crisp, Pennington and Weeks, the rest of the projected A’s lineup has yet to display any hitting prowess. And that’s not saying much, as Pennington led the team in 2011 with a .264 batting average. Icky.
Veterans Kurt Suzuki and Daric Barton both have had up-and-down careers, and they are unexpected to provide much this season. Both could have tragic slumps and also get hot for irrelevantly short periods. Expect them to hover around .250 for the season.
Additionally, whoever starts in the outfield, Jonny Gomes or Seth Smith, isn’t likely to smack the cover off the ball. And expectations are probably not high (yet) for Cuban acquisition Yoenis Cespedes. Who knows exactly how he’ll do? Can he hit for a high average in the MLB? He could either rake the ball a ton or flail mightily.
2012 Forecast: Cold. There will be times when the Athletics will look like they couldn’t hit a raindrop in a thunderstorm. But the A’s will have a frigid time hitting for a high average—and by high, we’re talking about approaching .260. Look for the team as a whole to struggle to a mediocre .250 average. It’s going to be cold at times. Freezing cold.
Remember when the Oakland Athletics were a power-hitting team? Ahhh, steroids. Those were the days.
Since performance-enhancing drugs are now seemingly frowned upon, the A’s have had to do things the old-fashioned way for the past several seasons, trying to lure washed-up sluggers to field some kind of power-hitting threat in their lineup. Not since Nick Swisher has a position player within the A’s farm system been promoted to the big leagues and hit more than 30 home runs. And that was in 2006.
Since then, the A’s as a team have been quite punchless, lacking any production in the power department. Last season’s 114 home runs ranked 12th in the American League. As atrocious as that was, in 2010, the A’s clobbered a measly 109, good for 13th in the AL. Worse, in each of the past four seasons, the Athletics have fallen in the bottom three in the league in slugging percentage, ranking last in both 2008 and 2009.
Oakland does not have any sluggers in this lineup. Manny Ramirez is way past his prime, and, given the fact he’ll be serving out his 50-game suspension to start the season, it’s uncertain if he’ll even be relevant as a full-time designated hitter. With so many other options, who knows exactly how Ramirez will fare for the entire year?
The A’s lost their two power hitters from a season ago—Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui. In their places are not-so-heavy-hitting outfielders Seth Smith and Yoenis Cespedes. To find any respectable power, Oakland picked up Jonny Gomes and Ramirez. With the high probability of a platooning outfield between Gomes and Smith, it’s likely that the A’s outfielders will find it hard to hit a fare share of home runs. But anything is an improvement from Ryan Sweeney’s one home run. Look for Gomes and Cespedes to each hit close to 15 homers—decent, but not great.
The only true strongman on the Athletics’ roster is first baseman Brandon Allen. Last season, Allen displayed some ridiculous raw strength, launching a pair of moonshots at Yankee Stadium. However, Allen fought hard to hit consistently, and he wound up with only three homers in an Oakland uniform. He will continue to have a hard time in 2012. He hasn’t been given the green light as the starting first baseman, but he’ll find some time at DH until Ramirez completes his suspension. Hopefully for Oakland, Allen will have regained his power stroke, because the A’s are certainly going to need it.
2012 Forecast: Strong winds toward...home plate. The Athletics have preached a strategy of distributing their power throughout the entire lineup and roster. Instead of having one or two 30-home-run hitters, the A’s would rather have five 12-home-run hitters. Not likely.
Once again, the Oakland will cling to the bottom of the home run category. They might find some decent numbers from surprising sources, but all in all, they should be lucky to top last season’s total of 114.
It’s a little known fact that if your team can’t hit for a decent average and doesn’t hit many home runs, it’s going to struggle to score. It’s a crazy complex formula, I know. But somehow, the Oakland Athletics have proved this science to be true, year in and year out. And it seems to have been getting worse, if that’s possible.
In 2011, the A’s ranked 12th in the AL in runs scored, with 645, for an average of just a hair under four runs per game. In 2010, Oakland chipped in 663 runs, and in 2009, they scored—a whopping—759! How did that happen?
Obviously, there has been something of a downward trend over the past couple of seasons. That is largely due to the absence of power, and the inability to hit for high average. Without home run hitters, the A’s have lacked an easy source of run scoring. Home run hitters are like a jukebox at a bar—easy income. You may not have a ton of customers or sell a lot of high-end whiskey, but the jukebox is a guaranteed money maker. The Athletics have not had any easy money in a long time. As a result, they’ve had to reshape their entire roster and adjust their philosophy on how to organize a team.
Instead of acquiring clogging sluggers, Oakland has gone back to the days of BillyBall, as in Billy Martin. The run-and-gun offense is back in the East Bay, and the Athletics have used speed as their primary weapon of choice.
Over the past three seasons, the A’s have averaged 135.3 stolen bases per season. That’s a far cry from their Moneyball days between 2000-2005, when they averaged 46.7 stolen bags. In 2005, they finished with a shocking 31.
The A’s roster in 2012 is full of speedsters. Last season’s AL stolen base leader, Coco Crisp, is back, and he’s healthier. Sophomore Jemile Weeks swiped 22 bags in his rookie campaign. He’ll look to improve upon that number as he embarks on this first full season in the bigs. With Weeks and Crisp forming a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the order, Oakland looks to wreak havoc on the bases instead of trotting around them.
Aside from speed, though, the Athletics will struggle to produce run scoring opportunities. After all, Weeks and Crisp can’t get on base all the time, and they won’t come around and touch home plate if the hitters behind them can’t drive them in. Without much power, the A’s will have to do everything they can to generate run-scoring chances. And they’ll have to capitalize on those obvious situational-hitting moments, i.e., runner at third with less than two outs, runner at second with no outs, etc.
It’s going to be tough, however, as the A’s return only four starters from last season’s lineup. Furthermore, the departures of Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui signal a loss of 41 home runs, 127 runs scored and 170 runs batted in. That’s a lot for a team that ranked in the bottom three in each of those departments.
2012 Forecast: Dry. Extended drought. Look for manager Bob Melvin to draw upon and enforce his National League style of play. There will be a lot of hit-and-run opportunities with Weeks and Crisp at the top of the order. But without any true hitting machines in the lineup, and with Manny Ramirez out until at least the end of May, the Athletics’ ability to score runs will be extremely parched. Expect more of the same from last season—or maybe even less.