Complete Oakland A's 2014 Season Preview

Nick HouserCorrespondent IIMarch 27, 2014

Complete Oakland A's 2014 Season Preview

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    Josh Donaldson is one of the keys to the A's continued success.
    Josh Donaldson is one of the keys to the A's continued success.Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

    Spring training is over and after a three-game exhibition against the San Francisco Giants, the Oakland A's officially begin the 2014 regular season. The wait is nearly over, A's fans.

    Spring training was interesting to say the least.

    A couple of guys looked strong but still didn't make the 25-man roster. One superstar had a terrible spring. The lineup is nearly what was expected. It's the injuries that captured most of the headlines. One key injury will alter the starting pitching rotation, and because of that, the bullpen, too, will be adjusted.

    Key players will have to step up big for the A's to capture a third-consecutive pennant.

    Then there are the breakout candidates.

    No prospects made the big league roster, yet, but keep an eye on them while they progress their way through the minor league system. A few have a good shot at getting called up in September. Others, though not prospects, are already on the A's but aren't as well known. This season could easily be the year a guy or two cements his name as a fan favorite.

    With just days until the A's season opener, here's one final look ahead.

Spring Training Recap: Standouts

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    Jesse Chavez has been the biggest surprise of spring training, and Derek Norris isn't far behind.
    Jesse Chavez has been the biggest surprise of spring training, and Derek Norris isn't far behind.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Record: 13-13

    Of course before we move ahead, we have to take the time for one final look back. After all, the reason the Opening Day roster looks the way it does is thanks in large part to the events that took place in spring training.

    Let's break this down into three categories: standouts, poor performers and surprise cuts.

     

    Standouts

    A's catchers sure made it hard on management to choose who would make the roster and who would not. All three men—John Jaso, Derek Norris and Stephen Vogt—did particularly well.

    Norris led the trio with a .425 average in 40 at-bats which included five doubles, three home runs, 12 RBI and a stolen base. Vogt matched that home run and RBI total in 43 at-bats, finishing with a .349 average. Jaso hit a decent .267 in 45 at-bats, plating 12 runs as well in his first month of baseball after finishing 2013 on the disabled list.

    Though Vogt hit well, he's the odd man out and seems to know it. Via Susan Slusser of the San Franciso Chronicle, Vogt said:

    I definitely want to be in Oakland, but I understand how these things work, and I want to do whatever they think is best to win. I'm confident whenever they need me I will be ready to help.

    A few prospects shined as well.

    They'll get their own segment shortly, but at a glance, both Billy McKinney and Billy Burns hit over .300 total in a dozen games or more. Addison Russell hit .280 in 25 games.

    And lastly, of the standout hitters, Michael Taylor made a few fans clamor for his bat to be featured at the big league level. Hitting .274 with five doubles, three home runs and 10 RBI plausibly garnered him consideration for a ticket to Oakland, albeit short consideration. Taylor more than likely will be designated for assignment and claimed on waivers sooner than later.

    As for pitchers, none stood out more than Jesse Chavez.

    Before injuries (we'll get there too) sidelined two starters, Chavez made a serious case for himself to be included on the pitching staff, if not the starting rotation itself. Chavez finished with a 2.74 ERA in 23 innings pitched.

    Arnold Leon isn't a well-known name, but also stood out.

    With the sixth-most innings pitched on the team, Leon kept a tidy 2.13 ERA, striking out 11 and walking four.

    Drew Pomeranz only pitched in 11 innings, but impressively struck out 18 batters, only walking two. Though he walked seven, Joe Savery struck out 12 and allowed just two runs in 8.2 innings of work. Lastly, Fernando Abad may have found himself a role by striking out 11, walking zero batters and allowing only four runs in 10.1 innings. Slusser stated that six of seven bullpen spots looked filled, listing Abad as one of the six.

Spring Training Recap: Poor Performers and Surprise Cuts

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    Cespedes has looked lost at the plate, likely due to a new swing.
    Cespedes has looked lost at the plate, likely due to a new swing.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Quite a few standouts; Not as many poor performers and surprise cuts. That's a good thing. The bad news is that a superstar makes the list of poor performers.

     

    Poor Performers

    Dan Straily didn't necessarily perform poorly, but with the expectations on him currently, he will have to do better in the regular season. A 4.73 ERA and seven earned runs allowed in 13.1 innings is not great.

    Worse, A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker, also expected in the starting rotation, finished their spring with a 10.38 and 10.61 ERA, respectively. Then they both fell to the injury bug.

    Philip Humber is trying to rebound and make a big league team. A 15.00 ERA and 10 earned runs allowed in six innings won't help him. Two pitching prospects—Michael Ynoa and Nolan Sanburn—had small opportunities, but failed to make the most of them. Both men allowed three runs in three innings or less.

    Poor hitting performances were kept minimal.

    Unfortunately, the one guy who surprised with a terrible spring showing was Yoenis Cespedes. He hit .154 with one home run and struck out 11 times. Cespedes is the backbone of the lineup, so he has to hit.

    John Hickey of San Jose Mercury News may have an answer as to what's going on:

    As has been written here before, he's trying to shorten his swing at the A's suggestion to become more of a line-drive hitter, the club figuring that he's strong enough his power won't suffer any. During the changeover, however, everything is suffering.

     

    Surprise Cuts

    Surprise! There were no major, shocking cuts made by the Oakland Athletics to report.

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    Jarrod Parker will miss all of 2014.
    Jarrod Parker will miss all of 2014.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The A's have five players listed on the injury report:

     

    Ryan Cook

    Cook began to throw late into spring training and felt OK. But he won't quite be ready for Opening Day, instead starting on a back-dated DL stint. According to Jane Lee of MLB.com, Cook is eligible for return on April 4.

     

    Craig Gentry

    Gentry is in the exact same boat. According to Lee, he is also eligible for return on April 4. Gentry, the Athletics' fourth outfielder, suffered a strained back.

     

    A.J. Griffin

    Griffin left camp with concerns over his right arm, but initial testing showed no major concerns. Griffin is listed as expected to be back in three weeks as of March 15, which would be April 5. Although, reports as of March 26 show that Griffin has yet to resume throwing, so expect him to be out longer.

     

    Eric O'Flaherty

    O'Flaherty has not pitched since early 2013. He underwent Tommy John surgery last May and is expected to become available midseason of 2014. Because of the type of injury, the player himself wants to avoid any timetable guarantee. According to Jane Lee, O'Flaherty said:

    We're not putting a timetable on anything, just so there's not a tendency to rush too much. I think we're just going day by day, and that's the best way to do it, because you start setting a date for yourself and if you have a setback it's way more frustrating. We're just trying to do it right. It's just less pressure that way.

     

    Jarrod Parker

    Parker, however, received terrible news. His elbow injury turned out to be severe and required Tommy John surgery. Parker will miss the entire 2014 season. This is his second procedure of this kind, so he may even require more rehab time than normal Tommy John surgery requires.

    Parker tweeted a post-surgery picture to let fans know things were "all good."

Lineup Preview

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    Josh Donaldson rose to stardom in 2013 and now will bat second because of it.
    Josh Donaldson rose to stardom in 2013 and now will bat second because of it.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Starting Lineup

    Coco Crisp, CF

    Josh Donaldson, 3B

    Jed Lowrie, SS

    Yoenis Cespedes, LF

    Brandon Moss, 1B

    Josh Reddick, RF

    John Jaso, DH

    Derek Norris, C

    Eric Sogard, 2B

     

    Bench

    Daric Barton, 1B

    Sam Fuld, OF

    Nick Punto, IF

    Alberto Callaspo, IF

     

    Analysis

    Coco Crisp is a proven leadoff hitter, so nothing changes at the top of the order.

    John Hickey of the San Jose Mercury News reports the team will bat Josh Donaldson second and Jed Lowrie third:

    He [manager Bob Melvin] likes the thought of his switch hitters spread throughout the lineup, so putting the right-handed hitting Donaldson between switch-hitters Crisp and Lowrie works for him.

    In the fourth spot, you'll have 2013 Home Run Derby winner Yoenis Cespedes. Power-hitting first baseman Brandon Moss will follow. Hickey's report lists Josh Reddick batting sixth, a notion RotoChamp predicts as well.

    While RotoChamp sees Alberto Callaspo, John Jaso and Derek Norris rounding out the lineup, it makes more sense to have whomever plays second base bat ninth. Whether that is Callaspo, Eric Sogard or Nick Punto, all three men are much faster than Norris. Following Norris up with Crisp is a waste of Crisp's speed. Hence, a second baseman in the final spot makes more sense.

    Sogard, though he didn't wow anyone this spring, has a much higher career average against righties (.274) than both Punto (.228) and Callaspo (.253). He may be given the benefit of the doubt on Opening Day. If Sogard falters, it's an easy switch to either guy.

    There's also a chance Barton actually starts at first and bumps Moss to DH. This would of course push Jaso out of the starting lineup.

    As for Fuld, he'll remain with the A's until Craig Gentry returns from injury. Once that happens, Fuld should be optioned to Sacramento.

Rotation Preview

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    Sonny Gray is now the Opening Day starter.
    Sonny Gray is now the Opening Day starter.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Starting Rotation

    Sonny Gray, R

    Scott Kazmir, L

    Jesse Chavez, R

    Dan Straily, R

    Tommy Milone, L

     

    Heading into spring training, there was much debate over whether Sonny Gray should be used in the No. 2 spot of the starting rotation or reserved for the No. 3 spot. If he pitched third, it would be behind veteran Scott Kazmir at No. 2.

    Well, debate no more. Gray has been named the Opening Day starter.

    Per Jane Lee, Gray is clearly stoked:

    There's a lot of excitement. I've had a big smile on my face. It's something that I've worked really hard for, not to be the guy on Opening Day, but just to be in the big leagues. Going out there on the first day, that makes it even more exciting. It was something I hoped to one day get the opportunity to do, but to do it so early is special. Every starter kind of wants to have that opportunity.

    With Jarrod Parker out, there is no question that Gray and Kazmir start the rotation.

    Jesse Chavez not only pitched well enough to earn a spot in the rotation, but he'll pitch third according to Lee. Dan Straily moves up one spot, in place of A.J. Griffin, and Tommy Milone takes the final spot in the rotation.

    Because of injuries, not much thought had to go into this decision by the A's.

    Gray has more upside than Kazmir. Kazmir has the most experience. Of the final three options, Chavez pitched better than anyone in spring. Straily remains as a back-end guy and Milone was an emergency option filling in in an emergency situation.

    The A's are lucky to have such quality depth on their side in the face of adversity. That depth could be their saving grace.

Bullpen Preview

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    Sean Doolittle may be the, quite literally, face of the bullpen.
    Sean Doolittle may be the, quite literally, face of the bullpen.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Bullpen

    Jim Johnson, R

    Luke Gregerson, R

    Ryan Cook (injured to start the season), R

    Sean Doolittle, L

    Fernando Abad, L

    Dan Otero, R

    Evan Scribner, R

    Joe Savery, L

     

    Analysis

    Certain aspects of the bullpen are clear. Jim Johnson is the closer. For now, Luke Gregerson is the setup man. Going to Sean Doolittle in mid-relief is a no-brainer.

    After that, it's not quite as clear.

    Dan Otero makes the squad after a fine showing in 2013. His spring was quite "meh." Using the word "poor" is too strong to describe Scribner's spring, but it wasn't great, that's a definite. Still, he had flashes. RotoWorld lists Scribner as the long reliever, which makes sense being as though Jesse Chavez—last year's long reliever—is now in the rotation.

    Like Scribner, Fernando Abad is out of options. That means that if they don't make the 25-man roster, they're placed on waivers. So it makes perfect sense to see them start with the A's.

    John Hickey of the Bay Area News Group predicts the final spot to be taken by Joe Savery or Drew Pomeranz. However, Jane Lee of MLB.com's A's insider says it'll be Savery, with Pomeranz headed to Sacramento:

    With Cook unavailable on Opening Day, the A's are likely to carry lefty Joe Savery... Offseason acquisitions Josh Lindblom and Drew Pomeranz are technically still in the mix, but they're more likely to begin the season at Triple-A Sacramento to be stretched out and provide starting depth, which is even more significant for a club that is without injured pitchers Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin.

    With so much depth in the bullpen and All-Star talent throughout, this is one of the most dangerous bullpens in the league.

Prospects to Watch

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    Russell may start in Double-A, but he will finish in Triple-A.
    Russell may start in Double-A, but he will finish in Triple-A.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Top Prospects:

    Addison Russell, SS

    Billy Burns, OF

    Billy McKinney, OF

     

    Analysis

    Addison Russell is the top prospect in the organization, so naturally he'll be the guy fans are most concerned about. He skipped Double-A, so it wouldn't be surprising to see him start there. However, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see him finish in Triple-A with the Sacramento River Cats. Especially if he's slated to be Oakland's starting shortstop in 2015, he'll need time in Triple-A.

    In fact, if injuries were severe enough to the middle infield (Jed Lowrie, Eric Sogard, Nick Punto), Russell could get an even earlier call up than September when rosters expand.

    Speaking of Sacramento, if you're not a fan of Oakland's farm league team already, now is a great time to start. This year is going to be a fun year to be a River Cats fan with prospects like Billy Burns on the roster. Add in the potential of Russell and others such as Drew Pomeranz, Kent Matthes, Arnold Leon and Nate Freiman and they'll make a serious run at the Pacific Coast League championship.

    Any of those guys can easily finish 2014 on the Oakland A's roster.

    Elsewhere, Billy McKinney will progress to Low-A while Daniel Robertson, Renato Nunez, Matt Olson and Raul Alcantara should move out of Low-A and into Single-A (Stockton Ports).

     

Breakout Candidates

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    If you said "who's that guy" then Fernando Abad makes the perfect candidate for breakout star.
    If you said "who's that guy" then Fernando Abad makes the perfect candidate for breakout star.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Athletics don't have too many "breakout" candidates. All three starting outfielders have had their breakout moments. Josh Donaldson was that guy in 2013. Brandon Moss should be exactly who we expect him to be. The same can be said for Eric Sogard.

    You'd think Alberto Callaspo or Nick Punto would have broken out already in their career.

    As for pitching, Scott Kazmir is looking to rebound rather than breakout. Sonny Gray started his last season and hopes to simply carry that over into 2014. That does still leave a couple of candidates.

     

    Craig Gentry

    It'll be hard to really "break out" as a fourth outfielder, but Craig Gentry plays his role extremely well. For example, this part-time player hit .280 and stole 24 bases in 106 games in 2013. He hit .304 in 122 games the year before.

    With speed and the ability to hit for contact, combined with the A's oft-injured outfielders, Gentry could not only see quality time, but he could also really thrive in Oakland. In 13 career games, he owns a .310 average at O.Co Coliseum.

     

    Jesse Chavez

    There's a chance that Jesse Chavez's spring isn't a fluke.

    After struggling for most of his career, Chavez finished 2013 with a 3.92 ERA in 57.1 innings pitched. Though his second half wasn't nearly as strong as his first half, there's reason to believe Chavez is currently embarking on a huge turnaround in his career.

    Looking over his stats, you'll see that his strikeout-to-walk ratio has spiked positively from 2011 to 2012. He also cut down his home runs allowed and lowered his ERA drastically. Now he's carrying 2013 over into one of the strongest spring training performances of any Oakland Athletic.

    Chavez is currently trending in the right direction.

     

    Fernando Abad

    It feels like the A's always have a surprise bullpen guy. Hardly anyone knew of Ryan Cook when he became an All-Star. Sean Doolittle rapidly became a fan-favorite. Last year, Dan Otero began building his resume.

    This year it could be Fernando Abad.

    He finished 2013 with admirable stats: a 3.35 ERA, 32 K, 10 BB, 14 ER.

    Then he built on that this spring, which allowed him to acquire a spot in the bullpen. Abad's spring stats include a 3.48 ERA, 11 strikeouts, zero walks and four runs allowed. 

    2013 was strong. Spring was strong. The next step in the sequence is a strong 2014.

Top Keys to Success

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    Start strong, stay healthy and get hot to finish.
    Start strong, stay healthy and get hot to finish.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    To capture the three-peat, the A's must do several things. For instance, they must:

     

    Beat Injuries

    This is two-fold. First, they can't afford any more injuries. One more injury could be devastating. Imagine if Yoenis Cespedes goes down for the year, or Scott Kazmir misses three months. The A's are in a tough spot as is, but one more straw could potentially break the elephant's (in this case) back.

    On top of avoiding injuries, they must beat the current injuries by overcoming.

    Sure, that's easy to say. But Jesse Chavez has the potential to stay hot. And Tommy Milone deserves to be in the starting rotation. This is exactly why the A's have so much depth.

     

    The Top of the Rotation Must Carry the Load

    Obvious, right?

    Expectations for Kazmir likely varied. That expectation may very well have been a hope that he'd pitch well once again. But now, with Parker sidelined, he must pitch even better than his 4.04 ERA in 2013. With his experience, he's the leader of the rotation now.

    Then there's Sonny Gray.

    Seeing him struggle might have been disappointing, but we should remember how young he is. Because of his age, struggles wouldn't have been all that damning. However, as the No. 1 guy, now is no time for a sophomore slump or nervous butterflies. Gray has a ton of pressure on him now. In order for the A's to have a legit shot at winning the West, he must persevere.

     

    The Lineup Must Click Throughout the Season

    2013 was an interesting year.

    Jed Lowrie and Josh Donaldson hit all season. Yoenis Cespedes produced runs but didn't hit particularly well, at least not consistently. Josh Reddick just wasn't right for most of the year. The rest did enough to get the team a pennant, but no performances in particular (of Eric Sogard, Brandon Moss, Derek Norris and Seth Smith) stood out.

    If Oakland wishes to not only take a third AL West title, but also go further than the ALDS in playoffs, multiple guys have to hit at the same time.

    Crisp has to be healthy. Lowrie has to maintain 2013 production. Donaldson must build on his year. Reddick has to return from wrist issues. Cespedes has to find his swing. And the rest cannot afford to have down years.

    Any lineup can make it through one guy hitting poorly.

    This lineup can't let it be one of their superstars, and can't let it happen at key moments (like down the stretch, against rivals and in playoffs).

     

    Begin and Finish Strong

    Looking at the schedule, April is a soft month. The A's have all of their AL West rivals in addition to the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians. There's no better opportunity to sprint out ahead of everyone else than April, against the direct competition.

    August may be even easier.

    Oakland battles the Kansas City Royals, Tampa Bay Rays, Twins, Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, Los Angeles Angels and Houston Astros. Just like they can start the season strong, they can start the second half strong.

    Then they have to drive it home in September.

    That's when they'll play the Angels and Astros again, in addition to the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies.

    Ride out the bumps early, maintain through the midway point and dominate in the late-goings with everyone healthy and hot.

Previewing Oakland A's Opening Series

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    Photo from an A's and Indians matchup in 2013.
    Photo from an A's and Indians matchup in 2013.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Last season, the A's went 2-5 against the Cleveland Indians. Now they begin the season against Terry Francona's squad.

    Justin Masterson takes the hill for Cleveland. He finished spring 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA. He also struck out 25 batters in the 24.2 innings he pitched. A's fans may have given a sigh of relief when they found out the team will not open against Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, however, Masterson won't be any easier.

    After him, though, the Indians depth chart lists Corey Kluber who went 11-5 with a 3.85 ERA and Zach McAlister who went 9-9 with a 3.75 ERA in 2013. Neither will be a "gimme," but neither had strong springs either.

    According to Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter, Cleveland has its typical ups and downs in the lineup with Michael Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera looking sharp and Carlos Santana and David Murphy looking, ahem, the opposite.

    The only key injury for Cleveland is outfielder Michael Bourn, so the team also appears to be quite healthy.

    The A's could very well take two of three here to start the season.

    They'll face three right-handed pitchers, which is good news for guys like Brandon Moss, John Jaso and Eric Sogard who struggle against lefties. After Masterson, it gets easier.

2014 Oakland A's Season Outlook

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    Will it be celebration time in Oakland yet again in 2014?
    Will it be celebration time in Oakland yet again in 2014?Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Despite injuries to Jarrod Parker, the A's aren't in terrible shape.

    The bullpen is incredibly strong and on paper, the unit is one of the best in the game. If the starting rotation gets in trouble, they are supported by quality arms out of the pen. The lineup has tons of potential with guys like Cespedes, Lowrie, Donaldson, Crisp, Moss and Reddick in tow. So it's really up to the starting rotation.

    Sonny Gray has to pitch like an ace. That's a lot to ask of a guy with less than a dozen major league starts. Jesse Chavez has to fill in so nicely that people forget he wasn't meant to be there. Again, a lot to ask. And Scott Kazmir has to be the Jekyll version, not the Hyde.

    If all of this happens, the A's have the schedule to capture that third title.

    Looking at the schedule, a safe scenario sees the A's winning 87 games. That's a ton of games for a "safe" projection. High would be well into the 90s and worst-case would be something like 83 games.

    In their favor, the Texas Rangers—arguably their No. 1 rival for the pennant—have as many, if not more injuries to their roster and less depth for support. The Angels are a bit of a wild card. Although, they only won 78 games last season, so an improvement of 10 wins is still only 88. That number is beatable.

    Can the A's win the AL West? Absolutely. Will they? They should.

    The bigger question is: can they get past Game 5 of the ALDS?

    We're getting ahead of ourselves here (especially since things can change at the All-Star break and trade deadline), but because the A's have suffered a bit while the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox—two AL powerhouses—haven't gotten any worse, it's going to be harder to advance in 2014 than it was in 2013.

    That's not to say it can't happen.

    The depth the A's have can hold strong in the regular season. But over a five-game span against a powerhouse foe in the playoffs? That's where missing a star pitcher like Jarrod Parker is going to hurt.