With a few moves, the A's may celebrate like this at the end of October in 2013
With a little bit of time to let the finality of the 2012 season sink in, the next obvious move for the Oakland A's is to pinpoint the team's biggest needs going into 2013. Losing a hard-fought five game series to the Detroit Tigers seems even more impressive in light of their evisceration of the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
But sustaining success does not come by proxy. For Oakland, the ability to sustain the success of this amazing year comes back to the ability to keep the key components (not too difficult) while adding a couple of parts that won't take away from the chemistry that was built this year.
Even though the A's will have a target on their backs, they have the right formula to win again in 2013. That begins with their stellar pitching, but there are a couple of important things that need to happen for their offense to be more consistent next year.
Here are my five keys to 2013 success for the Oakland A's.
The fiery Donaldson (on right) was catalyst to A's late season run
I appreciate what Brandon Inge did and what Scott Sizemore could have done for the A's at third base. But there are times when you can see what someone will do with his chance. Josh Donaldson was the epitome of that upon his return to the A's on August 14th.
The numbers don't lie: Before his demotion, Donaldson looked lost and harried at the plate. After 98 at-bats, he was hitting a paltry .153 with a .160 on-base percentage and slugging just .235, prompting the club to send him to Triple-A Sacramento.
Upon his return to the big club, the change was immediate and largely permanent. Over the final 176 at-bats of his 2012 campaign, Donaldson hit .290 and slugged just under .500 (.489 to be exact). More importantly, he showed a flair for clutch performances, most notably his game-tying two-run home run on the final Saturday of the regular season against Seattle.
Donaldson's defense improved as well, making him a more rounded third baseman. And it's not like he didn't hit in the playoffs, going 5-for-17 (.294) in the five game series against Detroit. The light flipped on for him and he should be rewarded as the guy going into 2013 Spring Training.
An A's killer, Polanco would be an ideal utility man in Oakland
A guy who could use a change of scenery, Placido Polanco is a big game player nearing the end of his career. He might be 37, but there is still a year or two of quality baseball left in the veteran infielder. Oakland wants to bring back Brandon Inge, but Polanco might be more of an asset to this A's ballclub.
I say that because, unlike Inge, Polanco can play three positions (3B, SS, 2B) in a pinch. With the questions surrounding the middle infield of the A's for 2013, having a professional like Polanco is a real asset.
Yes, Polanco had an off year by his standards at the plate, hitting .257 with two home runs and 19 RBI's in 90 games as he battled knee injuries. But hey, that batting average would represent a marked improvement over the options in house (Cliff Pennington and Jemile Weeks).
I'm not saying Polanco should be an immediate start. But I am saying that a guy who can still hit, makes consistent contact, and is a good teammate at a relatively cheap price is perfect for Oakland.
Getting out of the Gotham spotlight could be the tonic for Russell Martin
I like Derek Norris and I think his future is bright—I just don't think he is ready to be the A's full time catcher. The trade of Kurt Suzuki and the addition of George Kottaras signified to me that Oakland's pitching is so strong that the backstop's influence was not as big as many believed before.
And with Norris' propensity to slump at the plate (yes, part of that is due to his inexperience), I think the A's should address the position short term in 2013. That would give him more of a chance to learn and develop, but also play in a pinch and/or take the position if he proves to be ready.
What that means is the A's would have to be in the market for someone that wouldn't command an exorbitant salary. Could Oakland offer a one year deal for a player like Russell Martin?
I honestly think that is the way to go. The offense had too many holes in it through much of the 2012 season. Catcher was among the biggest, along with second base. Adding a legitimate hitting threat would help that immediately.
Who are the options then? Well, along with Martin, you have incumbent Kottaras (who I don't think is a full time catcher), Gerald Laird, Yorvit Torrealba, and Rod Barajas as the most likely guys. Detroit will most likely re-sign Laird, so Torrealba and Barajas would both be inexpensive options if the A's went this route.
It sounds extreme, but dealing Weeks could land A's real value
Many will scoff at my number two suggestion, but here it is: The A's should trade Jemile Weeks. Seems silly to deal a guy entering his prime while under club control, but there are legitimate reasons to do so.
The biggest reason is that Weeks' biggest value is that of a speedy lead-off catalyst that can steal bases and wreak havoc at the top of the lineup. Only problem is, Oakland already has a better version of that in Coco Crisp. This isn't a knee jerk reaction to the sophomore slump Weeks suffered in 2012.
No, this is a more long range view. Much of what Weeks did in 2011 was attributed to some generous things going his way. Notably, his .303 batting average was built on the strength of a .350 BABIP (batting average of balls in play) in 2011. That was almost 60 points above the league average and almost universally deemed unsustainable.
In 2012, Weeks' BABIP plummeted to .258 and so did his average and ability to reach base. He doesn't draw many walks and far too often tries to elevate the ball instead of slashing it to all fields.
Now, this would be offset if he was a premium defender at second base. But the stats reveal that Weeks is 17th among second basemen in UZR (ultimate zone rating) with a -.7.2 rating. In essence, that means his defense cost the A's 7.2 runs over the course of the season.
So why do you attempt to trade a guy like that and expect to receive something of value in return? Simple. Baseball is still a game of potential and prospects. Weeks would be coveted for his age (26 in January), contract (pre-arbitration eligible, 1 yr/$483,000), and potential. A young, energetic second baseman is still a valuable asset. Oakland could try to address other needs by dealing Weeks or improve their farm system.
Most of all, it would allow Cliff Pennington to move to second base full time. That sets up my number one key to sustained success in 2013. Well, sort of.
A healthy Drew would vastly improve Oakland's middle infield
The number one key is all about continuity. One of the biggest, though often misunderstood, complaints about the A's under Billy Beane has been the perceived constant turnover of players. Some guys seemed to stay too long (Bobby Crosby, Daric Barton) while others never got a chance to stick around (Carlos Gonzalez).
But even though Billy Beane has made it clear he wants to keep the gang largely intact, and while there's a chance this team could lose a player or two—notably Brandon Inge—doing it is imperative.
For me, this starts with re-signing Jonny Gomes. The "Pride of Petaluma" was a leader in every sense of the word for this team. His 18 home runs in just 333 at-bats provided on-field production and his fun-but-fierce attitude set the tone for the rest of the team. Keeping him in-house and enabling the fantastic platoon at DH along with Seth Smith is big.
The player the A's are going to have the toughest time re-signing is Stephen Drew. After a bit of a slow start, Drew proved to be exactly what Oakland hoped for short term. Hitting .250 and providing solid defense, Drew was also a perfect number two hitter behind Crisp. He has a mutual option of a cool $10 million with the club, but there's a good chance he may test free agency. If he does, that probably signifies the end of his time in Oakland. Let's hope that isn't the case.
Finally, the A's should and probably will re-sign Brandon McCarthy. The lanky veteran had a mercurial season, posting a 3.24 ERA in 111 innings before being lost to the scary skull fracture suffered when Erick Aybar's screaming line drive ricocheted off his head September 5th. Once a life-threatening situation, McCarthy's health has improved so much it is all but a formality that he will be able to pitch in 2013.
His presence will greatly benefit a very green (pun intended) staff that got experienced in a hurry down the stretch. McCarthy, along with Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, and Dan Straily represent what should be once again a tremendous rotation.
Melvin (along with hitting coach Chili Davis) deserve a ton of credit
Bottom line is, the A's don't have that much to do in order to stay competitive on paper. Trust me though, paper never ceases to lie about the situation. It can't account for a change in status (hunter vs. hunted), expectation, and flat out kismet. The A's had plenty of that to go around in 2012.
2013 may be about winning with talent.
To do that, it is important that the guys they could stand to lose come back. But more than that, adding a piece or two to fill out a line-up that was big on bash, but often short on consistency matters. No matter how it shakes out, we are not likely to forget the run the 2012 team took all A's fans on. It was truly a special season for those who saw it start to finish.
However, the way a team stands out is if it doesn't wind up being a one-year wonder. That means it's likely Executive of the Year Billy Beane has a couple of moves to make. If he comes close to duplicating what he did in 2012, the A's may very well be the last team standing in 2013. If he fails, they may look like the team(s) from 2007-2011. That's the razor's edge he walks.