2008 MLB Preview: Oakland Athletics

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2008 MLB Preview: Oakland Athletics

Editor's note: I realize this preview is out of my usual order, but the A's open the season in less than 12 hours, so I had to get it done before then.

Manager: Bob Geren
Arrivals: OF Emil Brown, P Joey Devine, SP Dana Eveland, RP Keith Foulke, SP Gio Gonzalez, OF Todd Linden, RP Kirk Saarloos, SP Greg Smith, OF Ryan Sweeney, DH Mike Sweeney
Departures: SP Dan Haren, OF Mark Kotsay, C Adam Melhuse, DH Mike Piazza*, IF Marco Scutaro, OF Shannon Stewart, OF Nick Swisher 

Offseason grade: C

 

Starting rotation

With Dan Haren gone to Arizona, Joe Blanton takes over as the ace of this Oakland staff after going 14-10 with a 3.95 ERA last year for the A's. 

Don't be surprised, however, if Blanton is traded before July 31. There were rumors flying around over the winter that the A's were shopping Blanton, with Cincinnati being a top suitor.  

There almost certainly will be a contending team looking for a starting pitcher come June or July, so it might be a pretty good bet that Billy Beane will pull the trigger on a Blanton-for-prospects trade.

Rich Harden appears to be healthy–for now. Harden has always been one of the best pitchers in the American League, but he's only started 30 games once in his five-year career, that being in 2004. An injury-free Harden would give the A's a dominant starter, but that's just not something that they can count on.

Before the All-Star game last year, Chad Gaudin was a nice little surprise for Oakland, going 8-3 with a 2.88 ERA in 18 starts before the Midsummer Classic. However, in 16 starts after the All-Star game, Gaudin went 3-10 with a 6.30 ERA.

There's a good chance that Gaudin's massive dropoff was due to his innings load. Gaudin threw 199 innings in 2007, but had never thrown more than 64 innings or started more than five games in a season before last year.

While he's been in the majors since 2003, Gaudin is just 25. If his arm can hold up through a whole season, he could be a pretty solid starter for Oakland this year. He's expected to return from hip surgery and make his season debut on April 12th in Cleveland.

It seems like an oddity to have two of your starting pitchers undergo hip surgery in the last year, but that's exactly what the A's have with Gaudin and Justin Duchscherer. Duchscherer is slated to be in Oakland's starting rotation and start his first major-league game since 2003.

Duchsherer appeared in just 17 games with the A's last year because of issues with his hip. A move to the rotation is supposed to put less stress on his hip, as he'll only have to pitch every five days rather than three times in five days.

He's always been an excellent relief pitcher for the A's, never seeing his ERA climb above 3.30 in a full season. It remains to be seen how well he pitches out of the starting rotation, but he has a good enough repotoire of pitches to have success as a starter.

Rounding out Oakland's rotation appears to be Dana Eveland, acquired from Arizona in the Haren trade. Eveland won the job over Lenny DiNardo by posting a spring ERA of 1.20, although DiNardo's was 1.29. Eveland has more upside as a starter and DiNardo has more value as a reliever, so that's why Oakland made this decision.

There are a few young starters who could be called up if Oakland makes a trade or sees one of their starters go down with an injury (looking at you, Rich Harden).

First, there's Gio Gonzalez, picked up from the White Sox as part of the Nick Swisher trade. Gonzalez is just 22, but already he's been shipped from the Sox to the Phillies, back to the Sox, and now to the A's.

Gonzalez is a lefty with electric stuff, striking out 163, 166, and 185 (leading all minor-league pitchers) batters in his three full seasons in the minor leagues. His popping fastball and devastating curveball have also led to a career 3.54 minor league ERA.

Ranked No. 26 in Baseball America's top 100 prospects, Gonzalez should get at least a few starts in the majors if he pitches well at AAA this year.

Greg Smith, a 23-year-old starter acquired in the Haren trade, could also see a few starts at the MLB level this year. Smith was very impressive in spring training, allowing just two runs over 13 innings. He has a solid minor-league track record, going 9-5 with a 3.54 ERA and just 32 walks between AA Mobile and AAA Tucson last year.

Dan Meyer, who was brought over from Atlanta for Tim Hudson three years ago, is getting on in years for a prospect, but still may see some time in the majors. Meyer, 26, was 8-2 with a 3.28 ERA for AAA Sacramento last year. He'll have more competition this year, but still could be a decent callup if he pitches well in the minors.

The rebuilding A's have a very young rotation that could get even younger if Gonzalez and Smith take over for a traded Blanton and an injured Harden. It's hard to dispute Beane's strategy—he definitely has this rotation going in the right direction. For 2008, though, this rotation will take its fair share of lumps, but shouldn't be all that terrible, either.

Starting rotation grade: C+

 

Bullpen

Like Blanton, don't be surprised if the A's move 24-year-old closer Huston Street sometime before the trade deadline.

The A's and Street appear to be exploring a long-term deal, but if Beane gets an offer he can't refuse like he did for Swisher, he could pull the trigger on a trade that sends Street to another address.

A non-structural elbow injury cost Street two months last year, leading to him getting just 21 save opportunities. Over 45 or so save opportunities, Street should be able to convert no less than 38 or 39 of them if things go right.

Alan Embree has revitalized his career after seeing his ERA soar above seven in 2004 and 2005, pitching very well with San Diego (ERA of 3.27 in 2006) and Oakland (ERA of 3.97 last year). Embree even saved 17/21 games last year while filling in for Street. 

Barring something unexpected, Embree should be a pretty solid setup man for Oakland in 2008.

It'll be interesting to see how DiNardo responds to being relegated back to the bullpen, where his presence is desperately needed. In 34.2 innings out of the A's bullpen, DiNardo had an ERA of 1.82 last year. If DiNardo can pitch like that as a long and/or middle reliever, the A's bullpen will get a huge boost. If he returns to his 2006 form when he finished the year with a 7.85 ERA, the A's bullpen will have a massive lack of depth and will struggle. 

Santiago Casilla was mediocre in 50.2 innings out of the Oakland bullpen last year, posting an ERA of 4.44. Casilla's major-league stats were consistent with his ERA at AAA, which was 4.47 in 2005, 3.27 in 2006 (an aberration), and 4.12 in limited time in 2007. 

Kiko Calero endured the worst season of his career in 2007, likely because he pitched with a torn rotator cuff that was discovered over the winter. The 33-year-old Calero opted for rehab over surgery and should enter the A's bullpen in mid-to-late April, but by not having surgery on his rotator cuff, Calero could be headed down the same path as 2007—poor performance and multiple stints on the disabled list.

Update, 5:40 AM: According to ESPN's Gary Thorne, Calero has been put on the 60-day DL because of his rotator cuff injury. Guess we won't be seeing him for a while.

Rounding out Oakland's bullpen will be none other than Keith Foulke, attempting to make a comeback after "retiring" and dropping out of camp with the Indians last year. 

Foulke hasn't been a premier reliever since 2004 when he was Boston's closer. Don't be surprised if Foulke ends up being bumped from Oakland's bullpen sometime this year.

This is an A's bullpen that really lacks depth. While Street, Embree, and DiNardo may all turn in good years, three good pitchers do not make a bullpen.

Bullpen grade: C-

Lineup

Without Nick Swisher, Oakland's lineup lacks a bona fide offensive presence.

Eric Chavez certainly isn't one. He only played in 90 games last year and likely will miss at least the first month of the 2008 season. Even then, Chavez hasn't driven in over 100 runs since 2005. A healthy Chavez may be a productive piece of a lineup for another team, but he shouldn't be counted on to lead the A's offense.

Jack Cust would make another fine part of a contending lineup, but he's not a guy who you want to center your lineup around. While Cust may be a dream player for Billy Beane after posting an on-base percentage of .409 last year, he doesn't have an impressive track record and was drawing offers from Japanese League teams before starting the year in the Athletics farm system.

If Cust can duplicate his 2007 production over a full season in 2008, he could hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs. However, Cust was almost exclusively a DH last year, a spot that will be filled by Mike Sweeney this year. So, Cust will play outfield this year, and if he struggles in the field, there's no telling if that'll carry over to his at-bats. Or, Cust may be just a flash in the pan. Only time will tell.

Speaking of Sweeney, the 34-year-old DH left the Royals–the only organization he ever played for–to sign with the A's as a non-roster invitee. Sweeney won the DH job out of spring training but has been riddled with injuries over the last two years, seeing his batting average drop to .260 and .258 in injury-shortened 2006 and 2007 seasons.

If healthy, Sweeney could return to his career average of a .300 batting average and about 20-25 home runs. However, Sweeney staying off the disabled list a big "if."

It's been about five years since Bobby Crosby was billed as the next great shortstop of the American League. Over the last four years, Crosby has played in less than 100 games in three of the four seasons and has only hit over .240 once. Maybe, just maybe, if Crosby can stay off the disabled list, he'll fulfill that potential, but that's more of a pipe dream than a realistic prediction.

Mark Ellis is a solid offensive second baseman, but he's another candidate to be traded sometime before August.  

Chris Denorfia will see a lot of playing time in center after missing all of 2007 following Tommy John surgery. Denorfia was acquired from Cincinnati last April and was projected to be a fourth outfielder for Oakland before the Mark Kotsay trade. He's been a halfway decent hitter in limited time in the majors, so it'll be interesting to see how he does given that and the Tommy John surgery.

The A's do have a few exciting young hitters in this lineup, starting with Travis Buck. 

Buck reminds me a lot of Eric Byrnes in that he seems to play "like his hair is on fire." He played about half of 2007 and posted an on-base percentage of .377, which, if it carries over to a full season, will give Oakland a very good leadoff hitter. 

Kurt Suzuki, a College World Series hero with Cal State Fullerton, has been regarded as one of the best offensive catching prospects in the minors since joining the Athletics organization in 2004. Suzuki hit .283 with an on-base percentage of .376 over his four-year minor league career and should get all the opportunity to succeed at the major-league level this year.

Daric Barton, who was brought over from St. Louis along with Haren in the Mark Mulder trade after the 2004 season, has a ridiculous on-base percentage of .412 over his five-year minor league career. Barton is an excellent hitter, but did not drive out too many home runs while in the minors. However, power usually develops in good hitters, so don't be surprised if Barton hits 20+ home runs this year.

Like the rest of this team, the A's lineup is being rebuilt. Buck, Suzuki, and Barton all appear to have pretty bright futures as major leaguers, but they certainly can't save this lineup from mediocrity in 2008.

Lineup grade: C

Bench

With Cust playing the outfield, Emil Brown and Ryan Sweeney will both be relegated to backup outfield duty. Brown is an excellent fourth outfielder while Sweeney, once a top prospect in the White Sox organization, could see some significant playing time if he lives up to that potential—something he never did with the White Sox.

Jack Hanahan will see a lot of time at third base with Chavez on the shelf, but once Chavez returns, he'll be a pretty good backup in case Chavez needs a rest or gets injured again.

Rob Bowen or Adam Melhuse are both capable backup catchers to give Suzuki a day off or two. 

Dan Johnson provides some decent power and Donnie Murphy some slick defense to round out the A's bench. 

Bench grade: B

It looks to be a long season of rebuilding for the A's, but there are a number of good, young talents that could mean a bright future for Oakland. 

 

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