Oakland A's: 10 Reasons They Will Regress in 2013
In the home stretch of one of the most surprising seasons in franchise history, perhaps I may be accused of throwing a wet blanket on Oakland A's fans by speaking ill about 2013.
But this piece is not meant to slight anything that has happened in this remarkable year, which still has a chance to be historic in the East Bay.
No, this is more about seeing things in the bigger picture. While the A's have over shot even the most optimistic expectations already in 2012, there are more than a few signs that what we are seeing is an illusion instead of a harbinger for future years.
Between you and me though, I will be fine with a World Series title and a few years of futility if that is what it meant.
But the A's are not even in October, so let's not get ahead of ourselves this year. Instead, what I hope to present is a realistic look at why Oakland's fortunes may not be so great next season. In a sense, I want to present this as a means to appreciate just how great this team has been to this point.
So, let's dig in. Here are the 10 biggest reasons to expect a regression from Oakland in 2013.
Losses in Free Agency
There are only four unrestricted free agents after the 2012 season in Oakland, but all four represent tangible value to this club.
The one expected to be gone is Bartolo Colon. Getting suspended for violating baseball's policy on performance-enhancing drugs is a one-way ticket out of town, but let us not forget that Colon won 10 games by August and had the team's second-best ERA (3.43) among starting pitchers. That is a lot of production.
The most intriguing free agent is Stephen Drew. In 17 games with the green and gold, Drew has hit .254 and brought more of a threat to the shortstop position. Under most circumstances, I'd be inclined to say general manager Billy Beane would certainly want to bring him back.
The problem is Drew is due $10 million, making his return highly unlikely unless there is a September and October explosion. Even then, it seems unlikely given Oakland's payroll constraints.
A player I would like to see return, but may not ultimately is de facto ace Brandon McCarthy. His frightening skull injury thanks to Los Angeles' Erick Aybar may have hastened his 2012 season's ending, but there is a sense day by day that he will return to a capacity that will allow him to pitch going forward.
But with all of the depth in Oakland's farm system, chances are McCarthy will not be pitching with the A's.
Lastly, there is Jonny Gomes. A true team leader, Gomes has been a right-handed God send for the A's. In just 83 games, Gomes has slammed 16 home runs. My sense may be that Gomes has played himself into a better deal with more playing time elsewhere. A's fans know Gomes is the pride of nearby Petaluma, but the business aspects of Major League baseball might force Gomes away from the East Bay—much like Josh Willingham after the 2011 season.
Four players don't seem like much, especially when you have the ability to retool. But McCarthy and Colon combined for 18 wins and an ERA of 3.37 in about 65 percent of the time they pitched. Those are numbers that will be hard to duplicate. Gomes not only provided power and patience, but has been clutch consistently and is truly admired in the clubhouse.
As for Drew, the fact that Oakland's shortstop position is no longer a black hole offensively speaks volumes alone. If Cliff Pennington returns to that spot, the realization is that a .220-.230 hitter returns with it. Finding this type of production in a thin free-agent crop simply will not be easy.
Josh Reddick Returns to Earth
Back in 2008, author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called Outliers: The Story of Success about the idea that success depends on not only talent and drive but where we come from and what we do about it.
On the surface, Josh Reddick's 2012 season appears to be a perfect example of putting all of your talent together when given the opportunity.
As of this writing, Reddick has slammed 28 home runs and driven in 75 RBI—both career-highs for a player who never played more than 87 games in his first three MLB seasons.
The term "outlier" is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience. Reddick had 10 home runs in 143 career games before arriving in Oakland. In 133 games with the A's, he has 28.
The obvious idea is that one of two things must be involved: One, Reddick is a prodigious talent who never quite got the opportunity to play consistently in Boston. Or two, Reddick has put up a career year that he might not be able to duplicate going forward. The numbers suggest the latter might be more realistic.
I say that because going into the first-half break, Reddick had 20 home runs and hit .268 on the year. In the second half, with pitchers keying in on him, Reddick has hit eight home runs, but is only batting .228 overall.
While I think he could be a solid 15-to 20-home run guy in future years, I don't see Reddick having many more Mays like he did this year, slamming 10 home runs and providing Oakland's only threat as Yoenis Cespedes was out with injury.
The A's Will Be Hard Pressed to Sustain Great Starting Pitching
I am not of the opinion that the A's starting pitching, or the pitching overall has been a fluke. I have always thought the only thing preventing Oakland's move from mediocre to contention was a few more hitters. But this level of excellence (third overall ERA in baseball) might be too difficult to sustain considering how young the staff will be.
As I stated earlier, the chances that Bartolo Colon and Brandon McCarthy are gone are pretty high. That leaves Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker and Brett Anderson with the top three spots in the rotation. The final two spots will most likely be filled by Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin. Only Anderson will have more than one year of full MLB experience.
Why does that matter? Well, there is the reality that new pitchers have a chance for success because there simply is not enough data available to scout them. Secondly, the hitters adjust accordingly.
I doubt any of the five produce Graham Godfrey and Tyson Ross numbers from early in the season. But to think that all five starting pitchers will have ERAs less than 4 is probably not realistic, especially in a division where the Rangers and Angels will have their biggest guns for a full year.
Can Straily and Griffin offset the 18 wins and 3.37 ERA that McCarthy and Colon provided? Possibly. Will they actually do it? Probably not. Beyond that, the A's are asking Milone to sustain his lights out production in the Coliseum. With Sunday's start notwithstanding, he has been pedestrian on the road with a 5.13 ERA. You could say he's bound to get better, or it could be a harbinger of things to come (think Kenny Rogers with the A's).
The Sophomore Jinx
What do Chris Carter, Yoenis Cespedes, Ryan Cook, A.J. Griffin, Tom Milone and Jarrod Parker all have in common? Technically, they are all rookies. While all except Cespedes have MLB experience, this is their first real extended forays into big league baseball.
And you know what? They have all delivered. Carter provided the prodigious power and a vastly improved eye at the plate not seen in his first couple of stints with Oakland.
Cespedes has been the five-tool phenom most expected he could be. Cook, with the exception of one rough patch, has been one of the best relievers in the American League and worthy of an All-Star appearance. Griffin, Milone and Parker have combined to win 26 games for the A's and will have to finish strong for Oakland to reach the postseason.
So why the reason for pessimism? Well, recent history has shown that many talented players have struggled recreating brilliant rookie campaigns. Examples include Jason Heyward, Eric Hosmer and Oakland's own Jemile Weeks. Success is often hard to duplicate with expectation. All six players mentioned above will have increased expectations, which are due to their merit in a surprising season.
Whether they can reach these new standards will play a direct part in what Oakland does as a team in 2013. My belief is that expecting six second-year players to match or exceed their output in a year with little pressure is not bound to happen. That is why most young teams take a step back.
2012 Power Numbers May Be Aberration
In 2011, the Oakland A's hit 114 home runs. In 2010, they hit 109 and in 2009, they hit 135 to finish dead last in the league. This year, they already have slammed 162—good for seventh.
Granted, that is the product of a lot of new faces with greater power capacity. But again, there is a real possibility this production was an outlier and not a portent of things to come.
For example, the 1996 A's hit 243 home runs. But the 1997 team hit 46 fewer home runs with 197. In 1998, they hit only 149.. For all of this success, Oakland's O.co Coliseum is still a pitcher's park. With the team on pace to hit 189 home runs—most since 2006—there are many A's fans who have visions of the Bash Brothers or the Moneyball A's in their heads.
But not so fast.
After that underrated 2006 team's 175 home runs, they came back in 2007 and hit 171. Since then, the team didn't hit more than 135 until this season. With Jonny Gomes potentially departing and the jury still out on Josh Reddick long term, 2013 has an air of uncertainty because Oakland was a mediocre team this year until it received some sustained offense.
Even if the team pitches well without the long ball, Oakland's success could be fleeting.
The Looming Hole at Shortstop
Not to beat on a dead horse, but the fact that the A's have won 79 games at this point with the production they have received at shortstop is pretty amazing. Prior to the acquisition of Stephen Drew, Oakland had a major-league worst .187 batting average and .545 OPS out of the shortstop position this season.
While that may have been simply an off year, Drew's rental brings the same question in 2013: Who will play the position? Cliff Pennington is not the player Drew is, but is probably not a .215 hitter either. But you don't get as much offensively from him as you would from Drew.
That makes Grant Green more intriguing. Green was expected to get a look in September, but it has not materialized. Hitting .295 in Sacramento has got fans expecting his arrival, but by all accounts, his defense is not big-league ready. A designated hitter is not what the A's need going forward.
The A's Bullpen May Not Really Be This Good
The A's relief pitching has been excellent. Their 2.82 ERA is third in baseball behind only the Cincinnati Reds and Tampa Bay Rays. The job done by Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook, Jerry Blevins and Jordan Norberto have the A's in prime playoff position.
But there are signs that some of the effectiveness have come from players maximizing their performance, meaning it may not be as good next season.
Take Blevins for example. His 2.56 ERA is nearly a full run lower than his career performance. "Everyday Jerry" has sparkled and delivered in most clutch situations. If he had met his career averages, the A's would be projected to lose three games as a result.
Across the board from Cook to Evan Scribner to Jim Miller, the A's bullpen has gotten outs. Even the acquisition of Pat Neshek has gone brilliantly, with Neshek posting a microscopic .66 ERA thus far.
The likelihood of every major contributor exceeding their career marks simply is not going to happen. It further goes to show how amazing this year has been.
2013 A's Won't Get 14 (and Counting) Walk-off Wins
Perhaps the most charmed part of the A's season has been the team's consistent ability to win and come from behind late in games. No team has come close to matching Oakland's 14 walk-off wins in 2012. The major league record is 18 by the 1959 Pittsburgh Pirates, which means Oakland has been on a historic path to success this year.
In a theme I don't like repeating, chances are success will not be duplicated in this fashion next year. If Oakland had won half of its walk-off games, it would be 72-67. While it would still be a positive story, it would not be a real playoff contender.
That is how slim the razor's edge is for Oakland. Sadly, it is another logical rationale for why next year may not bear the same success.
The Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels May Be Even Better Next Year
Here is a point that thankfully does not poke holes in the A's franchise. Simply put, Oakland was supposed to be an also ran this year. Going forward, the baseball world fully expects the A's, Mariners and Astros to be bit players in the Rangers vs. Angels rivalry, baseball's Western version of the Hatfields and the McCoys.
While Oakland has definitely wedged itself between those two teams this year, there are signs that point to making it much difficult to continue that for the next couple of years.
First and foremost is Mike Trout. Trout has thrust himself to the forefront of the American League Rookie of the Year and MVP races at 21 years old. After outperforming Miguel Cabrera over the weekend, I think it is his award to lose right now.
If Los Angeles received his production from Opening Day, the Angels may have been the team hot on Texas' heels. Instead, they have been hoping to duplicate their performance in Oakland last week and gain ground on the surprising A's.
Meanwhile, the Rangers may lose Josh Hamilton in free agency, but they still don't lack talent with Adrian Beltre and company, as well as young prospect Jurickson Profar. They will have an adjusted Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and a great bullpen. Expect them to be players in free agency as well.
The point is, Oakland has a hot iron and 2012 is the year to strike because going forward, baseball economics might not allow the A's this same chance.
Jemile Weeks Is More Second-Year Dud Than Rookie Stud
Going into spring training, excitement for the A's was mostly surrounding a full year of Jemile Weeks and a continuance of his brilliant rookie season. Having hit .303 with eight triples and 22 stolen bases in just 97 games, the sky was the limit.
But Weeks struggled from the jump, only hitting .184 through April and never better than .250 in any month. His propensity to hit the ball in the air instead of utilizing his great speed only exacerbated the problems. Hitting just .214 after the All-Star break and .220 on the year, Weeks was sent to Triple-A Sacramento on August 21.
Having just been promoted, it will be interesting to see how much Weeks plays down the stretch and how he handles himself. Going forward, he could still be a centerpiece. Or he could put himself into a position where he's traded. But if the last six weeks have been any indication, the .303 hitter seen in 2011 may have been a mirage.
What if I had presented this scenario to you: Your team is expected to lose upwards of 100 games, win 75 games one year and then 90 the next? It would probably be an exciting scenario, right? But what if the numbers were reversed? Expected to win no more than 70 games, you win 90 and then regress to 75 the following year.
Suddenly, the reaction is more severe. Even though the totals are exactly the same, the order dictates the expectation. Oakland has crashed the party in 2012. No matter how this season ends, the fanbase will have greater expectations for the club in 2013 and beyond. The problem is for all the magic the A's have given their loyal fans, there has been a bit of kismet at play.
My point in all this: The A's were supposed to be rebuilding. And no matter how this finishes, the restraints placed upon Billy Beane by owner Lew Wolff will not change much. His ultimate destination is pretty much anywhere out of Oakland and paradoxically, I think winning there hurts his bottom line more than it helps.
As a result, you can't be surprised if all of the breaks the A's got this year start evening out. As a result, so does the win-loss record. There have been great performances, career-best performances and breakout performances. And yet, there was a reason why this team was 26-35 at one point and hitting .210 total as a team.
Ultimately, everything that happens from this point on is a bonus for anyone who follows the A's, myself included. While we all want to see October baseball, it should come with the realization that this team was expected to be Sacramento West by this time, playing prospects and spoiler.
Instead, here we are, 23 games from the postseason for the first time since 2006. Let that be the definition of the franchise right now—not what should be after the games are finished being played this year.