It was a big day in Major League Baseball today, and it indirectly affects the team I'm writing about. The top free agent in the game (Josh Hamilton, if you didn't know) signed a five year, $125 million contract to join the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
What this does is increase the rivalry between the power teams of the American League West: The Angels and Hamilton's former team, the Texas Rangers. This stokes the fire for what should be a compelling 2013 race...uh wait?
The only problem with this sweeping narrative is that neither the Rangers nor the Angels won the American League West in 2012. Oh yeah, the team that emerged from a six-year slumber to take down both superpowers was the Bay Area's ultimate David, the Oakland A's. I'm still not sure if the mainstream media recognizes that yet.
So while all this talk heats up about which of these juggernaut teams will survive 2013 to take their place among the favorites in the AL, the actual champion of the division is poised to be just as strong, if not stronger, in 2013. Oh let me count the ways...
First and foremost, no team in the division has the pitching top to bottom that Oakland does. The projected rotation of Brett Anderson, Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, A.J. Griffin and perhaps Bartolo Colon is hands down the best in the AL West. And that's after free agent Brandon McCarthy signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks last week.
Starters aside, the A's finished second in the league in ERA not just because they have quality starters but because their largely anonymous relief staff finished with a 2.94 ERA, second in the AL in 2012.
And guess what? They're all likely to be back. Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, Jerry Blevins, Jordan Norberto and Mr. Rage himself, Grant Balfour, make up the core of a team that turned a weakness into a strength and dominated in the second half of the season.
Pitching is obviously the strength of this team. There is no two ways about that. But Oakland is certainly not punchless by any stretch. Their offense will be led by a guy I believe will contend for an MVP in his second year in Yoenis Cespedes. In any other season in the last dozen years except for 2001, Cespedes would've likely been the Rookie of the Year. But his .292 batting average with 23 home runs and 82 RBI's just weren't enough to reel in a Trout. Mike Trout, that is.
That said, Cespedes is in his prime and showed the ability to do the one thing scouts feared most about the Cuban slugger upon his defection: hit big league off-speed pitching. Mission accomplished. Now, Cespedes returns with slugging partner-in-crime Josh Reddick to form the core of a patient but powerful offense that hit 195 home runs last season.
Oakland still hopes to re-sign late season acquisition Stephen Drew to shore up their hole at shortstop. Beyond that, the A's are poised to build on the finish they had to a magical 2012 season. Players like Derek Norris, Josh Donaldson and Chris Carter will have to show they are able to sustain production.
But the beauty of this team is in its depth. If Carter falters, Brandon Moss is there with his 21 home runs in under 90 games. If Donaldson's very good second half turns out to be a mirage, the incumbent from 2012, Scott Sizemore, is poised to return for 2013. The A's have solid MLB talent everywhere and improved their defense and power potential with the October acquisition of Arizona outfielder Chris Young. Along with Cespedes, Reddick and the clutch Coco Crisp, Oakland has one of the best defensive outfield quartets in the game.
If it were just about on-field ability, well maybe the A's would look up at the sheer talent LA and Texas can put on the field. However, the A's greatest strength might just be their quiet but fierce skipper Bob Melvin. You know, the 2012 AL Manager of the Year? After enduring Bob Geren for 4 1/2 years, a cadaver would have been an improvement.
Melvin turned out to be more than a push button manager. He was a leader. Someone that fostered hard work, effort and kept a rocky ship on course as the A's languished at 26-35 during the late spring months. Melvin proved to be his own man, which made this A's team much more unique than the ones of the early 2000s and even the surprising 2006 squad.
In the end, what you have is a club that overcame injuries, low expectations, youth and a 13-game deficit to win one of the most unlikely division titles in baseball history. And because they were built with a long term view of success, the team will be back in a position to win again. And again. It won't be easy and they might not come out of the gate first, but I honestly think they will win in 2013. Not just enough to stay competitive, but to repeat as champions again.