Even as the Oakland A's fight for their second consecutive American West League Championship over the last six weeks of the Major League Baseball season, there is a truth that should hearten fans in the East Bay and everywhere else: This team is built to last. They are young and—although inconsistent at times—this team's core is full of talent.
With that said, even as this team fights to secure a spot in the postseason, they will likely be underdogs to capture the team's first title in 24 years. However, with the nucleus likely in tact, it isn't too early to project how the team's starting lineup might look in 2014. Here is my highly unofficial look at that lineup, but first and just for fun, here was a projection NBC Sports baseball writer Matthew Pouliot had in February 2012.
Obviously Pouliot could not account for trades and other factors but look at that lineup. Two players are no longer with the club (Green and Pennington), two have fallen so far that they can't get playing time in Oakland (Weeks and Barton), and two lost their jobs due to either injury (Sizemore) or lack of production (Norris).
As a matter of fact, the only player you can say will be on this team in 2014 is Yoenis Cespedes. And you know what?
That is not a bad thing.
Billy Beane converted a middling roster on the fly into a potential back to back division champion. So anyone who projected Oakland's lineup for next year would be inaccurate.
So, what will that lineup look like in 2014? Here is my take:
2B Jed Lowrie
Lowrie is not a conventional lead-off hitter, but with Coco Crisp turning 34 and hitting free agency, I have a feeling the A's will need a new bat at the top of the lineup. Lowrie has been steady, if not spectacular, at the plate and that is the kind of player the A's need leading off.
DH Seth Smith
I have a feeling that 2013 was more of a fluke for Smith even though, for the second year in a row, his batting average has paled in comparison to his production in Colorado. Who doesn't struggle when compared to time spent at Coors Field? I expect to see the power return and Smith is a solid number two guy initially.
CF Yoenis Cespedes
Cespedes will move to his natural centerfield with the departure of Crisp. My lofty predictions might have to wait a year, but I think Cespedes will have a big year in 2014.
RF Josh Reddick
Much like fellow neo-Bash Brother Cespedes, Reddick has had a largely underwhelming 2013. Is he as bad as he has been this year? No. Is he as good as he was in his 32 home run, Gold-Glove-winning 2012? Maybe not. But something in between would be a nice improvement for the A's at this spot.
3B Josh Donaldson
Donaldson's year has not been a fluke. While ultimately this position will be filled by phenom Addison Russell, for now Donaldson is entrenched at the hot corner for the A's.
1B Brandon Moss
Moss was destined for a fall off after a pretty remarkable burst in 2012 (.291/.358/.596 splits) which saw him smash 21 home runs in 84 games. So even though he is hitting under .240 and has few home runs after 110+ games than he did in all of 2012, Moss is still the man at this spot. He may alternate time with—
LF Michael Choice
The curveball comes with prospect Michael Choice. Scouted as an all-or-nothing type power-hitter, Choice has displayed an improved eye in 2013 and, while his power numbers have dipped, he looks like a better hitter. Choice impressed in the spring and probably would have been the first guy from Triple-A in the outfield if the A's weren't so deep at that spot. He gets his chance in 2014.
C Derek Norris
If John Jaso were to 'win' the battle at catcher (imagine them likely platooning next year again), you could swap Jaso and Smith at the number two and eight spots. But I think Norris gets a chance to finally put a solid season together. Ultimately, whoever is behind the plate must improve defensively as the A's catchers have struggled in 2013.
SS Hiroyuki Nakajima
Nakajima has a giant INC for a grade next to his 2013 as his spring injury and the play of Lowrie and Eric Sogard kept him from getting up to Oakland. But the contract plus the talent (he is up to .293 at Triple-A Sacramento) will merit an opportunity for the Japanese star. At least initially.
So there you have it. I think the A's might try to bring Chris Young back at a discounted price, but he will likely draw attention on the free agent market. Alberto Callaspo should step in for Adam Rosales as the A's utility player du jour in 2014. That is a marked improvement. I look at Eric Sogard backing up Nakajima more in terms of money than production because quite simply, we don't know what the Japanese star has yet.
Ultimately, some of the major components to upgrade the roster are likely a couple years away still. This includes Russell, Renato Nunez, and not Michael Taylor. Sorry, I couldn't help myself. Taylor reminds me of that line from the X-Files: I want to believe. But after all this time, it is pretty clear that in Oakland, he is a AAAA player and not the potential stud he appeared to be when acquired.
Oakland's offense will improve as key components improve. I'm not saying that there might not be a trade or two as well as a couple of signings. But these will likely add to depth and not supplant the core players currently on the roster. What you see is what you get. And, even though the little things drive you crazy as an A's fan (situational hitting!), there is still enough talent to win again next year.