Two-for-One MLB Previews: Oakland and Houston

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Two-for-One MLB Previews: Oakland and Houston

Oakland is another one of those teams that could screw up the scheduling, but I’ve had enough time to digest the Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra signings.

I don’t know if Bobby Crosby will still be around, but that doesn’t impact their overall outlook much. Houston on the other hand, I really wouldn’t change much if I did their preview two weeks later.

Past Previews: TB/SD, TEX/CIN, MIN/PIT, TOR/STL, BAL/LAD

Current Standings

ALE: 1, Tampa Bay*, 3, Baltimore, Toronto

ALC: 1, Minnesota, 3, 4, 5

ALW: 1, 2, Texas, 4

NLE: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

NLC: 1, St. Louis, Cincinnati, 4, 5, Pittsburgh

NLW: 1, Los Angeles, 3, 4, San Diego

* Wild Card

Oakland Athletics – AL West

Last Year: Finished Third in AL West

Notable Additions: IF Nomar Garciaparra, IF Jason Giambi, OF Matt Holliday, RP Russ Springer, RP Michael Wuertz

Notable Subtractions: DH Frank Thomas, OF Emil Brown, OF Carlos Gonzalez, SP Greg Smith, RP Huston Street, RP Alan Embree, RP Keith Foulke

Underrated addition: Jason Giambi

He’ll be missed: Greg Smith

Giambi comes on the cheap and a return to Oakland might empower him. Smith could really be used in a rotation searching for arms.

 

Biggest Key to Success: Pitching Growth

Surprise, Surprise, Oakland went ahead and traded their starting pitching once again.

It started midseason with the trade of Joe Blanton to Philadelphia and Rich Harden to Chicago, which were two moves that were probably a bit overdue considering they traded Dan Haren this past offseason.

Yet Billy Beane wasn’t done; he traded the little less-established Greg Smith to Colorado in the offseason. However the difference between this deal and all the others is that Beane traded young to get instant impact, but more on that later.

Justin Duchscherer had a breakout season and was one of the best pitchers in the AL when healthy, but the Athletics will need more than him.

Dana Eveland showed flashes of dependability last year and Dallas Braden should slide into the rotation full-time. Both are still young and entering that age when things should start to click.

On the younger side is Sean Gallagher, who came over in the Rich Harden deal and didn’t exactly take the switch easy on the field. Gallagher made 11 starts for Oakland last year and his performance was actually a little worse than when he was with Chicago.

The good news is he was only 22, so there is plenty of room to grow.

Joining him in that realm is Gio Gonzalez, who made seven starts of his own with Oakland. Gonzalez was 22 as well and he actually struggled a bit more than Gallagher did.

If Gonzalez makes the rotation, he too will have to grow.

Duchscherer is a given, or so one would hope, but the rest of the rotation has to take that step, or at least part of that step, or else Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, and possibly Vin Mazzaro will be ready to step up themselves.

 

Biggest Concern: Closer by Committee

Huston Street was as good as gone for this team, especially after they placed him on waivers after the non-waiver trade deadline had passed. Then the added bonus for Street of having Brad Ziegler takes his closers spot wasn’t much help either.

Now there is a bit of wonderment in terms of who’s going to be closing games this year for the Athletics. As good as Ziegler was last year, Joey Devine was just as good, if not better in his relief appearances.

But can Devine close?

Closer-by-committee situations almost never work out. If you have two guys, you have no guys, because confidence is the name of the game and you don’t get confidence if you don’t know when you are coming into a game.

This is going to be a problem for Oakland if they can’t decide on one pitcher, or even worse, if neither guy works out as a closer.

 

Biggest Change: Making a Run?

Things in Oakland are always changing, that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

But the way things changed this offseason, they were a bit of a surprise, because Billy Beane altered his thinking.

It seems as if Oakland is making a run at things, because all their moves indicate they’d rather acquire established talent, rather than talent that was right on the brink of contributing.

Matt Holliday was the first chip to fall when he was acquired from Colorado in exchange for young and talented outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, former closer Huston Street, and starting pitcher Greg Smith.

The difference with Holliday and some of the other moves is he can be flipped midseason if things go bad.

But the Athletics didn’t stop with Holliday. They re-signed their own in Mark Ellis, after it was thought they’d let him walk. Then they went out and brought back their former MVP in Jason Giambi to play first base.

It seemed as if they were done until spring rolled around and they got themselves something from the bargain bin. Tired of Bobby Crosby’s constant injuries, the Athletics signed up Orlando Cabrera to play short and solidify the infield.

All these moves, including the signings of veterans like Russ Springer and Nomar Garciaparra indicate that Oakland is rather serious about winning and winning now.

Sure, if things go bad, Holliday can be flipped and Oakland can replenish their talent once again, but you have to imagine a team with this many upgrades is going to make some strides.

 

Team MVP: Justin Duchscherer, SP

Yes, Justin Duchscherer was an All-Star before 2008 rolled around, but that was as a relief pitcher. How did he get from that to one of the best starting pitchers in the American League?

I really don’t have much of an answer, but I’m going to buy into it.

The rotation is very young and Duchscherer has weathered the trade rumors to become the elder statesman of the group.

With that title, comes responsibility.

He’ll need to continue what he did last year and carry the rotation. He’ll get some help from a rebuilt offense, but if Oakland is going to stay alive until they figure out the rest of their rotation, Duchscherer must be the man.

And hopefully for Oakland, last year wasn’t a fluke, or else they’ll be scrambling in a big way.

 

On the Rise: Kurt Suzuki, C

The world was made aware of one Hawaiian in Shane Victorino during the World Series.

Get ready to meet the second best player from Hawaii playing in the major leagues right now. Kurt Suzuki, the Hawaiian born catcher for the Oakland Athletics.

Suzuki has some great makeup as a hitter. While he hit just as many home runs last year in a full season as he did in his 68 game 2007, he’s got great plate discipline, walking 44 times compared to just 69 strikeouts.

He may not be very flashy, but he’s a sound hitter and he’s the one young guy from the Oakland team that showed the most last year.

That’s probably why he’s still the starting catcher and Beane didn’t feel a need to get a veteran alternative as he did with first base.

 

Overview

Oakland is an interesting team when you sit back and look at what they did this offseason. Completely off the charts of what you usually expect for their typical management.

But that doesn’t automatically mean bad in anyway. The Jason Giambi addition to me is one that is really going to pay dividends both on the field and off. Young Daric Barton has potential, but he needs to earn back some playing time.

Giambi might be able to impact him in the aspect of hitting, just as a veteran presence.

Matt Holliday will impact this lineup. He may not put up the same numbers as he did with the Rockies, but he won’t have to. The one thing that Oakland lacked last year was a true superstar in the middle of their order, which they now have in Holliday.

Pitching wise they need some answers to their questions, but their offense should be able to keep things afloat long enough to find them. Eric Chavez also has to stay healthy, but if Bobby Crosby is around he might want to try and pick up the position.

Overall, there is talent here. The thing that separates them from the rest of the AL West, excluding the Angels, is the willingness to go for it and the young depth they have at pitching. But it won’t be enough to make it where they want to go.

Prediction: Finish Second in the AL West

Houston Astros – NL Central

Last Year: Finished Third in NL Central

Notable Additions: C, Ivan Rodriguez, C Lou Palmisano, IF Matt Kata, IF Aaron Boone, OF Jason Michaels, SP Mike Hampton, SP Clay Hensley, RP Jose Capellan

Notable Subtractions: C Brad Ausmus, IF Ty Wigginton, IF Mark Loretta, SP Randy Wolf, RP Jack Cassel

Underrated addition: Jason Michaels

He’ll be missed: Brad Ausmus

Michaels can be a good fourth outfielder. Ausmus, a long time Astro, would be useful now that Toby Hall got hurt.

Biggest Key to Success: Top of the Line Production

Start it off with oft-injured Kaz Matsui. It isn’t that Matsui isn’t talented, he can play ball and he’s a capable leadoff hitter.

However, the guy just needs to stay healthy for an entire year. He was able to produce in his first year with the Astros, but he played in just 96 games.

The other part of the equation is Hunter Pence, the compact, but powerful outfielder that we thought could hit.

Hunter Pence certainly has the power, displaying 25 home runs is no small feat, but is it in his game?

As a rookie, Pence hit for a high average and had an on-base percentage in the .360’s. Last year he took a vast regression in both of those departments, but beefed up his doubles and home-run numbers.

Both Pence and Matsui are talented and they are the under the radar hitters of this lineup. Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, and Miguel Tejada will get plenty of the attention, but it's Pence and Matsui that really help propel the lineup.

Berkman can get the hits, but who’s going to be on base to score on them?

 

Biggest Concern: Pitching Minus Two

I don’t like this pitching staff.

Aside from Roy Oswalt and Jose Valverde, this staff, both the rotation and the bullpen, is very skeptical to me.

Start it off with Mike Hampton, the king of all skeptical pitchers in the world. It isn’t that I don’t like Hampton, it’s more about the simple fact that the guy just can’t be counted on.

It was a smart move to sign him to a deal that was anything less than $100 million, that’s for sure, but to count on him to be your second guy behind Roy Oswalt, I’m not sure about that.

Wandy Rodriguez has shown steady improvement year by year, but he’ll need to take one last big step for the Astros in 2009.

Then you have guys like Brandon Backe, who once showed potential but have just not been able to put it all together and Brian Moehler, a journeyman who put together a decent year in 2008, but will be hard-pressed to repeat it in 2009.

In the 'pen, Doug Brocail is a decent setup guy, and I can get behind some of their other arms like Geoff Geary. But can a guy like LaTroy Hawkins prove what he did with Houston was the real Hawkins and the one we saw with the Yankees wasn’t?

This division is going to be a dogfight and I don’t believe that this team has the horses to compete with the rest of the dogs. There are just too many questions and not enough past the decent level of talent.

 

Biggest Change: Scale Back

The Astros were forced to scale back due to the economy, letting Ty Wigginton become a free agent when they could have brought him back with arbitration. They also said good-bye to Randy Wolf, who was puzzling acquired at the trade deadline last year, but very successful, and they lost veterans Mark Loretta and Brad Ausmus.

They didn’t really have much room to work with in replacing what they lost. They are attempting to piece together the third base spot with the likes of Aaron Boone, and you’ve already seen their plans for the rotation.

The good news is both Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman are still around.

However, it is rather weird seeing Ausmus no longer an Astro, even though they've found themselves a rather capable replacement in Ivan Rodriguez late in spring training.

 

Team MVP: Lance Berkman, 1B

Lance Berkman just keeps hitting, doesn’t he?

“The Big Puma” was a man for much of the first half for Houston. He was single-handedly putting his team up on his back and carrying them around for two months. In April and May, Berkman hit 17 home runs and knocked in 47 runs.

The rest of the year, four months of the season, he only hit 12 home runs total and he knocked in 59 runs.

He was that good in April and May and he has the capability to take over a game with his bat. When his numbers started to go down, one number, his walks, increased to the point that it was evident pitchers simply feared the guy.

He ended up being fifth in MVP voting in the NL last year, but he definitely is the MVP of the Houston Astros, and should be this year.

 

On the Rise: Hunter Pence, OF

He was the subject of the key to success and he’s also the subject of on the rise. The numbers I noted earlier really make Hunter Pence an intriguing player. His rookie year, which saw considerably less games than 2008, was outstanding.

Pence hit for the high average, he was getting on base, he could steal some bases, he hit the home run, and of course provided good defense.

The huge drop off in both average and on-base percentage worries me. But I’m chalking that up to adjustments.

Maybe Pence’s answer to the adjustments was to increase his power numbers, I’m not sure, but if he can display that power and add it to some of the stuff he did as a pure hitter in 2007, I think Pence has the makings of a superstar.

 

Overview

There are some things you can like about Houston, but there are things about other teams that I like more.

Roy Oswalt is the only guy in that rotation that I’d trust and even he struggled last year out of the gate.

Offensively, there isn’t much to hate with guys like Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, but the inability to find themselves a replacement for Ty Wigginton. If Ivan Rodriguez can fill the void at catcher then they might have some hope as well.

As good as they are in the second half of the season, for whatever reason, I think this is a year that they not only get off to bad start, but stay bad and end up in the bottom two of the division.

They just have too many weaknesses around the diamond without capable answers. They’ll need to find a few pleasant surprises and some guys to really step it up when they aren’t expected to.

I don’t see that happening though and I think Houston is destined to finish fifth in the NL Central.

Prediction: Finish Fifth in the NL Central

On deck for Wednesday, Mar. 18: Chicago White Sox and Florida

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