The 2012 Oakland Athletics were the biggest surprise in Major League Baseball, shocking experts everywhere by winning the American League West title on the last game of the regular season.
Heading in to 2013, optimism abounds for a team that returns almost completely intact and added a few key pieces to try and take another step towards the team's fifth World Series championship since moving to Oakland in 1968.
It is amazing how a year has changed the prospects of a team many thought would lose upwards of 100 games in the spring of 2012. Now, with young talent like potential MVP candidate Yoenis Cespedes, Gold Glove slugger Josh Reddick, and pitchers Brett Anderson, Jarrod Parker, and All-Star reliever Ryan Cook, the A's try to take the next step after an incredible leap forward in 2012.
Here's a quick recap of the club's offseason activities going into this year.
2012 Record: 94-68
Key Arrivals: SS Hiroyuki Nakajima (Japanese free agent), OF Chris Young (via trade with Arizona), SS Jed Lowrie (via trade with Houston), C John Jaso (via trade with Seattle), RP Chris Resop (via trade with Pittsburgh), RP Andrew Werner (via trade with San Diego), RP Hideki Okajima (Japanese FA)
Key Departures: SS Cliff Pennington (Arizona trade), SP Brandon McCarthy (FA), SS Stephen Drew (FA), DH Jonny Gomes (FA), 3B Brandon Inge (FA), 1B Chris Carter (Houston trade), C George Kottaras (FA)
Projected 2013 Rotation (via official team website):
1. Brett Anderson (4-2, 2.57 ERA, 1.029 WHIP in 35 IP)
2. Bartolo Colon (10-9, 3.43, 1.208 in 152.1 IP)*
3. Jarrod Parker (13.8, 3.47, 1.263 in 181.1 IP)
4. Tom Milone (13-10, 3.74, 1.279 in 190 IP)
5. A.J. Griffin (7-1, 3.06, 1.130 in 82.1 IP)
6. Dan Straily (2-1, 3.89, 1.322 in 39.1 IP)
7. Andrew Werner (2.3, 5.58, 1.463 in 40.1 IP)**
*Colon will miss first five games of 2013 due to 50-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs.
**Stats with the San Diego Padres
Projected 2013 Starters:
C: John Jaso (.276, 10 HR, 50 RBI, .394 OBP, .456 SLG)
1B: Brandon Moss (.291, 21, 52, .358, .596)
2B: Adam Rosales (.222, 2, 8, .297, .333)*
SS: Hiroyuki Nakajima (.311, 13, 74, .382, .451)**
3B: Josh Donaldson (.241, 9, 33, .289, .398)
LF: Yoenis Cespedes (.292, 23, 82, .356, .505)
CF: Coco Crisp (.259, 11, 39, .325, .418)
RF: Josh Reddick (.242, 32, 85, .305, .463)
DH: Seth Smith (.240, 14, 42, .333, .420)
*It is fair to note that MLB.com reporter Jane Lee has Jemile Weeks as the favorite, while CSN Bay Area beat writer Casey Pratt stated that Scott Sizemore would head to Spring Training as the favorite at second base.
**Stats with Saitama Seibu Lions of Nippon Professional Baseball League (Japan)
Closer: Grant Balfour [R] (2.53 ERA, 24 Saves, 3-2, 0.924 WHIP)
Ryan Cook [R] (2.09 ERA, 21 Holds, 6-2, 0.941 WHIP, 80 strikeouts in 73.1 IP)
Sean Doolittle [L] (3.04 ERA, 18 Holds, 1.08 WHIP, 60 K's in 47.1 IP)
Jerry Blevins [L] (2.48 ERA, 14 Holds, 1.07 WHIP, 5-1)
Jordan Norberto [L] (2.77 ERA, 4-1, 1.13 WHIP, 46 K's in 52 IP)
Pat Neshek [R] (1.37 ERA, 4 Holes, 0.81 WHIP, 2-1)
Travis Blackley [R] (3.86 ERA, 6-4, 102.2 IP, 1.18 WHIP)
Chris Resop [R] (3.91 ERA, 1-4, 1.43 WHIP, 73.2 IP)
Pedro Figueroa [L] (3.32 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 15 walks in 21.2 IP)
Evan Scribner [R] (2.55 ERA, 2-0, 1.19 WHIP, 30 K's in 35.1 IP)
Scouting the Rotation
Despite an abundance of youth and a lot of starts missed to injury and Bartolo Colon's suspension, the A's were among baseball's best rotations in 2012. Overall, the team's starters posted a 3.80 ERA, good for No. 3 in the American League and No. 9 in the Majors.
One of the major reasons for their success was Oakland's ability to keep teams in the ballpark. Their 102 home runs allowed were good for sixth fewest in the Majors. Despite having the third lowest strikeout ratio per nine innings (just 6.27), the A's managed a very respectable No. 13 overall in strikeout to walk ratio (2.64).
This leads to the biggest key of their 2012 success in my opinion: Oakland's starters made teams put the ball in play. Its 253 walks allowed were third fewest in baseball and enabled the team to take advantage of a favorable home park in the Oakland (O.co) Coliseum.
That can be seen in the splits: The A's had an ERA of 3.05 at home against 3.90 on the road. While the young arms will need to improve away from the Coliseum, there are reasons to believe the starting pitching will actually get better in 2013.
For starters, the numbers are slightly skewed by some horrific starts by former A's pitchers Tyson Ross and Graham Godfrey. Together, the duo combined to go 2-13 for the A's in 2012 with a total ERA of 6.50 in 94.1 innings. If you take away their starting numbers (87.1 IP, 62 earned runs allowed), Oakland's starting ERA shrinks to 3.55, good for fourth in baseball.
A huge factor in sustained success is going to be health.
This starts and ends with Brett Anderson.
The unquestioned ace of this staff when healthy, Oakland hopes Anderson can finally give the club a season's worth of quality starts. Possessing one of the best curves in baseball, Anderson was largely baffling to hitters upon returning from Tommy John surgery last summer. That success carried into his first postseason start as he completely dominated the Detroit Tigers in Game 3 of the ALDS.
Anderson's talent has never been questioned. His ability to remain healthy for a full season has. Just 25, the lefty has not thrown more than 114 innings since his rookie year of 2009. For the A's to duplicate that success, they will need more starts out of their ace.
Another question mark will be embattled veteran Bartolo Colon. Colon was in the midst of a renaissance in Oakland when his season abruptly ended in August due to a failed drug test. While he has been embraced by his teammates at spring training, the question rightfully remains: How much of Colon's success was due to performance-enhancing drugs?
To be fair, PED usage does not make you throw strikes with a greater proficiency, and Colon did that about as well as anyone has seen in the East Bay recently.
In 152.1 innings, Colon allowed only 23 walks. At times he was a strike-throwing machine, most notably in a game in Anaheim against the Los Angeles Angels, where Colon threw 38 straight strikes, the longest streak since 1988.
At this phase of his career, Colon's fastballs clock in the low 90s, and he depends more on pinpoint location than velocity to get hitters out. To contribute to this team, he will need to duplicate the efforts from early in 2012 when he was the best starter on the club.
Here is where the rotation gets interesting.
The two best overall starters for the A's were rookies in 2012. Both won 13 games and pitched well in the postseason. One is a right-handed changeup master who can reach the mid 90s with a heavy fastball. The other reminds some people of a young Tom Glavine and is a classic lefty who gets outs with guile as much as pure stuff.
The right-hander, of course, is Jarrod Parker, he of the highly touted changeup and plus fastball. Parker lived up to his billing as the A's top prospect by winning 13 games and being de facto ace of the staff down the stretch in 2012. Keeping the ball in the park was his strong suit, allowing just 11 home runs in 181.1 innings.
Like others on the staff, it will be interesting to see how Parker improves away from Oakland in 2013. He posted a 4.54 ERA on the road compared to a sparkling 2.61 at home. Parker will also need to add a quality third pitch as he struggled with his slider at times in 2012. This led to 10 wild pitches, most on the club.
All that said, prospects for a better year seem there for Parker.
The surprise of the rotation had to be his lefty counterpart, Tom Milone. Acquired in the trade that sent Gio Gonzalez to the Washington Nationals, expectations were modest for Milone. All he did was win 13 games and serve as a steadying element in the A's rotation all year long.
Like Parker, Milone possesses a quality changeup.
While not quite as good as Parker's, it is definitely an out pitch and compliments Milone's other pitches well. Milone also struggled away from the Coliseum, posting a 4.84 ERA on the road. That is something that has to be improved for Milone to take the next step in his career.
Right now, the fifth starter's spot is up for grabs and likely going to come down to two more second-year pitchers: A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily. Griffin was a revelation upon his call up, going 7-1 and serving as a catalyst to Oakland's second-half surge. He has no one great pitch but controls all four (cut fastball, slider, changeup, curve).
More importantly, Griffin is not afraid to throw any pitch in any count. He struggled a bit down the stretch but appears primed to settle in the A's rotation.
Straily rode a meteoric rise through the A's farm system to make seven starts in 2012. Possessing a slider that is at times unhittable, Straily struggled to locate his pitches. As a result, he allowed 11 home runs in 39.1 innings. That's the same as Jarrod Parker in 142 less innings pitched.
To beat out Griffin for the fifth spot, Straily has to show the stuff that had many excited about his call up last summer.
Scouting the Bullpen
The bullpen was the strength of the Oakland A's in 2012. If I had told you that was the case in mid-June, you probably would have laughed in my face. At that time then-A's closer Brian Fuentes was in full meltdown mode, blowing saves and eventually losing his job.
But in one fell swoop, things got flipped.
GM Billy Beane and Manager Bob Melvin inserted converted position player Sean Doolittle in the bullpen, made rookie Ryan Cook the closer and put veteran Grant Balfour in the set-up role. The A's would take off like a bottle rocket.
Understand, more than a few of those 14 regular-season walk-off wins were enabled by the bullpen allowing Oakland's often stagnant offense time to generate a winning rally.
The numbers simply don't lie: The bullpen's 2.94 ERA was fourth best in baseball, its .209 opponents batting average second. Contributions came from everywhere, but there were three core players who carried much of the load.
First, was Grant Balfour. Oakland's fiery closer lost his closer's job early but came back with a vengeance in the second half of the year to regain it. All told, he posted 24 saves and 15 holds. Despite some white-knuckle moments, Balfour only had two blown saves in the regular season.
Best of all, the burly Australian keeps it simple: He throws a high-90s fastball and a good curve ball. He's not afraid to challenge hitters and typically does best when being aggressive and not nibbling.
Second was the A's lone All-Star, Ryan Cook. Seen as a throw-in of the trade that brought Jarrod Parker to Oakland for Trevor Cahill, Cook was largely unhittable in 2012. Throwing a fastball upwards of 97 MPH, Cook blew away American League hitters as the A's primary set-up man.
Cook will likely assume the closer's role out of the gate in 2013 as a torn meniscus will probably keep Balfour sidelined at the beginning of the regular season.
The third man of the bullpen from 2012 is a forgotten arm in Jerry Blevins. While he doesn't throw heat like Balfour, Cook or Doolittle, Blevins got outs and got them consistently for Oakland last year.
A rare four-pitch reliever, Blevins throws an 88-92 MPH fastball, good curveball, changeup and slider. He was the unsung hero of the bullpen, going from a situational reliever to someone Bob Melvin leaned on as the season went along.
This area of the team is largely set, with the battle for the last spot likely to come down to a battle between Hideki Okajima, Pat Neshek and Evan Scribner. Though Okajima signed a minor-league contract, I truly believe he has a good chance of sticking with the team.
Scouting the Hitting
The element of the A's team that could stand to improve is the Oakland hitting.
While there were positives (195 home runs and 32 triples), by and large the team struggled to come up with timely hits and play situational baseball. Even with a power surge in the second half of 2012, the A's still managed to hit a meager .238. That was No. 28 in baseball.
In spite of that, the team scored 713 runs, good for No. 14 overall. Because it might not be reasonable to expect similar power numbers, the A's will likely have to improve the simple things to generate more consistent offense in 2013.
That starts with fan favorite Coco Crisp. Projected to again be the A's leadoff hitter, Crisp has to start faster than he did in 2012 (.236 average in the first half).
Crisp is definitely one of the harbingers to the Oakland offense.
In A's wins he played in, Crisp hit .303 with a .542 slugging percentage and 27 stolen bases. In A's losses, he hit .187 with a .211 slugging percentage and stole 12 bases. His presence is not that of the typical leadoff hitter in that Crisp is not a high on-base percentage player. But his production is vital because he is one of the few A's who can generate offense on the base paths.
As much as the A's need a healthy Crisp, their entire offense revolves around the immense talent of Yoenis Cespedes.
For all of his gaudy rookie numbers (23 home runs, 82 RBI's, .861 OPS), the most important thing A's fans need to know is this: The A's were 82-47 with "The Cuban Missile" and 12-21 without Cespedes in the lineup.
If the A's want to entertain a deeper run in October, Cespedes will likely have to take the leap towards superstar status. He definitely has the talent. His batting approach is one part Vlad Guerrero and one part Kirby Puckett in his ability to hit bad balls hard.
The impressive thing about Cespedes improving was how he quickly adjusted to Major League off-speed pitching. A 35 home run, 110 RBI season is not out of the question for the Oakland left fielder if he can stay healthy.
Two interesting players to return are Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick.
For Moss, the question is simple: Was 2012's breakout year a fluke or a sign of his ascension as a true Major League power hitter? He hit over .290 against left-handed and right-handed pitching, which bodes well for this year.
With Reddick, the question is, are the A's getting a high-power, low-average corner outfielder, or are his 2012 stats outliers of who he really is as a hitter? Reddick flashed some power in the minor leagues, but seemed more of a gap hitter (.278 average) than a skinny, left-handed Jose Canseco.
One of these hitters is going to be protection for Cespedes in the lineup, so having them somewhere near their levels of 2012 is vital.
Otherwise, the A's made moves to upgrade their worst positions at the plates (second base, shortstop, and catcher). John Jaso gives the A's a professional hitter and definitely someone who can be used in situations that require contact. Coming off a career year in an even more pitcher-friendly home park (Safeco Field), I expect him to post similar numbers with the A's.
Like many others that follow Oakland, I will be awfully curious to see how Hiroyuki Nakajima does against Major League pitching. He is a true star in the Japanese leagues, and there is a decidedly uneven track record of Japanese infielders in America. However, Nakajima will be hard-pressed to be worse than what the A's got at shortstop in 2012: a .203/.272/.313 slash line that was the worst in baseball.
And oh yes, no team in the history of baseball struck out more than the 2012 A's.
If you are expecting that to radically change, prepare for disappointment. This team will whiff a lot again. The key is how long it will take for the production they got in July and August to return in early 2013.
Pitching Stud for 2013
I'm not exactly going out on a limb here, but I think Brett Anderson will have a big year in 2013. His health seems to be good for the first time in over two years. Now it is time to produce on the bump.
While Anderson is not in the class of Felix Hernandez, David Price and Justin Verlander in terms of pure stuff, his has shown himself at times to be every bit the pitcher.
That is what Oakland needs from opening night through start 32 of 2013. A healthy, productive Anderson could be the difference between a nice year and a banner year.
Hitting Stud for 2013
Yoenis Cespedes. By now, I am sure you're shocked. But snark aside, I really think Cespedes will be talked about as an MVP candidate this year. He has all of the tools and an improved lineup with which to produce more in 2013.
Just like the A's ace, the A's best hitter needs to stay healthy. Cespedes missed 33 games with an assortment of injuries, and the A's were nine games under .500 without him. This is a team of depth, but you can never be good long-term without your best player in the lineup.
While I would like to see Cespedes display a tad more patience, his power is so absurd that a decent swing typically drops for a hit.
His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .326 last year. The league average is .297. Typically a good BABIP average is about .345-.350, meaning there is some room for Cespedes to actually improve based on metrics.
But if you're not an egghead and simply gauge what you see on the field, Cespedes is a five-tool player. The power is natural. What came and stayed was his ability to hit bad pitches. Unless there is a sophomore jinx, which would be an awful thing for this particular A's team, I can't see Cespedes regressing.
Jed Lowrie. Another easy call. Lowrie's acquisition gives the A's another legitimate hitter to serve as the ultimate utility man in 2013. Lowrie could play at second. He could play at third. He could even play at first. Heck, there will likely be games he starts at his natural shortstop for Hiroyuki Nakajima.
But beyond his versatility, it is his talent that makes him someone that could nudge the A's forward.
With all due respect to Adam Rosales, Daric Barton and Eric Sogard, they are all borderline Major League players. None has recently shown the production that warrants anything more than spot duty at best. And both had chunks of time on the field because, frankly, the A's didn't have other options.
That is definitely no longer the case.
Lowrie enables Bob Melvin to basically play the hot hand. If Josh Donaldson is scuffling, Lowrie can play there. If whoever emerges as the second baseman (and who's to say it won't be Lowrie himself) is slumping, he can slide over.
The only drawback to this potentially is if Lowrie himself doesn't play up to his ability. But like Nakajima, he will be hard pressed to be worse than his predecessors, and the ceiling for his production is vastly greater.
In spite of everything I have written, the fan in me is still only cautiously optimistic about 2013. My rationale isn't as much about the players or the coaches or the management in Oakland. It is more about the expectations.
Everything that happened last year was essentially found money after Oakland's record month of July. If they fell back and faded, it wasn't that much of a blow because they weren't supposed to be any good.
But they kept winning, and soon the whole country got a glimpse of the exciting ball this team provided its fans most of the year, culminating in the most exhilarating win I have seen as a 27-year A's fan (Game 4 of the ALDS).
Now, instead of minimal expectation, the A's are expected to be good.
It will be interesting to see how this team handles being the hunted as opposed to the proverbial hunters in the AL West. But with a high-quality manager like Melvin and a roster full of quality arms, they will be in their share of games.
If this team hits more like the club from late-June to October and not the one from early-April to late-June, the East Bay will be leaning like Bernie in October again.
Projected record: 97-65, first in the AL West