With Young Arms and Big Bats, Can the Oakland A's Take the AL West?

Dave MilzContributor IMarch 19, 2009

PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 08:  Eric Chavez #3 of the Oakland Athletics bats against the Cleveland Indians during the spring training game at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on March 8, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

After Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings concluded, two things were obvious.  The economy is hurting free agency and the Oakland A's are trying to go for it all this season. 

With the assumed one-year rental of star Outfielder Matt Holliday coming in from a deal with the Colorado Rockies, it became clear that Athletics' management had finally wised up and tried to shore up their poor run production by making a huge splash. 

Beating out many other teams, much larger market teams, the A's sent a package of SP Greg Smith, CP Huston Street, and OF Carlos Gonzalez to the Rockies for the one-year use of Matt Holliday and his $13+ million contract. 

Along with that, the A's have made many short-term veteran moves to help bolster a team that was one of the league's youngest last season. 

Thanks to team General Manager Billy Beane, the A's have made many moves to try and secure offense while their young pitching staff gains some experience on the mound at the Major League level.

Let's take a look at some of the key additions and subtractions made since last season ended.

Oakland Athletics – AL West
Last Year: Finished Third in AL West
Notable Additions: IF Nomar Garciaparra, IF Orlando Cabrera, 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

Projected Lineup:
1. Travis Buck RF
2. Ryan Sweeney CF
3. Matt Holliday LF
4. Jason Giambi 1B
5. Jack Cust DH
6. Eric Chavez 3B
7. Kurt Suzuki C
8. Mark Ellis 2B
9. Orlando Cabrera SS

Projected Rotation:
1. Sean Gallagher
2. Gio Gonzalez
3. Edgar Gonzalez
4. Dana Eveland
5. Dallas Braden

(With everyone moving down a slot when No. 1 SP Justin Duchscherer returns in mid-April)

As the A's enter the upcoming season, they have put a few band-aids on some previous problems, hoping that it will be enough for the team to compete for the duration of the 2009 season.
In 2008, GM Billy Beane figured his young players would tire out late in the season, and gave some much needed depth to a depleted farm system by making some mid-season trades, despite being only 4.5 games behind the AL West-leading Angels. 
This season can be different, but if all doesn't go according to plan, The A's may be sellers at the trade deadline once again.
However, with a suddenly intimidating middle-of-the-order featuring stud hitter Matt Holliday and a still very productive Jason Giambi, the A's can now hang with the Angels offensively, who themselves have lost some key components from a year ago. 

As usual, the A's will concentrate on working the count, drawing walks, and scoring in bunches while their young and talented pitching staff limits their opponents' opportunities.
With the additions of everyday players Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, and Orlando Cabrera, the A's have managed to improve defensively as well as offensively.  They have a strong heart of the order that should put up some runs, something the team has been sorely lacking for the last few years. 
The A's also have a considerable amount of depth now with their recent offseason additions.  Disappointing SS Bobby Crosby has been seeing some time at Third Base to give Eric Chavez some rest, which could prove very valuable late in the season, and with an abundance of Outfielders and bats, the A's can have fresh legs out in the field all year long, while giving a different guy the chance to find a niche at DH. 
If the team can remain healthy, which has been a problem in the past, they can hang atop the division for a good part of the season and into the playoffs.

Not really a weakness that the A's can help, but youth may hurt them at least early in the season.  With staff ace Justin Duchscherer sidelined while he recovers from his most recent hip surgery, the A's will be throwing a lot of fresh faces out on the mound in April and May. 
Whether or not the young arms capitalize on the opportunity or fold under the pressure will play a huge role in where Oakland is by the All-Star break.
Also, the closer-by-committee approach that will be tinkered with could hurt the team if one guy doesn't emerge as the starter. 
While Brad Ziegler was phenomenal last season, Joey Devine was just as good, but if a team has two guys, they don't really have any. 
The quicker this situation gets figured out, the better, as confidence is probably the biggest factor in being an effective and even dominant closer.  If the rotation grows successfully over the first half of the season, the Athletics can expect to be in the playoff race all season long.

Players to Watch:

Kurt Suzuki (C): While not the flashiest of players, Hawaiian-born Catcher Kurt Suzuki is among the most consistent and solid players on the team.  He's a good catcher defensively, with an average fielding percentage of .995 over his first season and a half in the major leagues. 
He's also caught better than 30 percent of the runners who have attempted to steal on him, helping to limit opponents' scoring chances.

As a hitter, Suzuki is very patient, registering 44 walks compared to 69 strikeouts.  He also is decent on the base path when the A's do send him, and he was among team leaders with a .279 batting average.  Look for continued improvement and big things from Suzuki this season.

Joey Devine (CP): Devine emerged late last season after some struggles early in his career which arose from him being rushed to the big league's. 
In 2008, Devine found his comfort zone, working late in games and setting himself up to be the closer for Oakland in 2009.
With an ERA of .59, a WHIP of .83, and 49 K's in 45.2 innings of work, Devine devoured batters with his mid-90's fastball and a wicked slider.  If he is able to stay healthy, he can emerge as another Oakland Athletics' closer to join the 40-save club.

Projected Finish:
While the AL West may be in for a down year as a result of the balancing out of talent throughout the division, it is safe to assume that it could only take 92-94 wins to win the division. 
If Oakland hangs around atop or near the top of the AL West, they may make some small moves in hopes of adding a veteran arm to their very young pitching staff. 
With the A's on the rise and the Angels on the decline, the A's should finish in first place, with the final series against the Angels as the deciding factor.