Expectations are high for the 2011 Oakland Athletics as they get ready to report to Spring Training in Phoenix, preparing to hopefully bring the World Series trophy back across the Bay Bridge for the first time since 1989.
After finishing last season with a record of 81-81, good enough for second place in the American League West, Billy Beane and the A's front office spent the offseason adding depth to the A's lineup, starting rotation and bullpen. Starting with pitchers and catchers reporting on February 15, and position players five days later on February 20, we will get our first look at the roster many believe could be a dark horse contender for the World Series this season.
The offseason transactions began with the highly publicized courting of Japanese starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma after the A's won the bidding on his posting fee at a reported $19 million. The A's promptly traded pitchers Vin Mazzaro and Justin Marks to Kansas City for outfielder David DeJesus. DeJesus' addition to the team made fan favorite Rajai Davis expendable, and he was flipped to Toronto for minor league relievers Trystan Magnuson and Daniel Farquhar. Toronto third baseman Edwin Encarnacion was claimed off waivers, and the A's made contract offers to free agents Adrian Beltre and Lance Berkman.
Iwakuma and the A's were unable to reach a deal, and the A's posting fee was returned to the team. Beltre and Berkman both turned down the A's overtures to sign with Texas and St. Louis. Edwin Encarnacion was non-tendered and granted his free agency (along with Jack Cust and Travis Buck).
The A's responded to their failed pursuit of Iwakuma by signing former Texas free-agent starters Brandon McCarthy and Rich Harden, to compete for the fifth rotation spot with a finally healthy Josh Outman.
With Beltre and Berkman out of the mix for spots in the A's lineup, Oakland signed Hideki Matsui as the teams new designated hitter, and traded Henry Rodriguez and Corey Brown to Washington for outfielder Josh Willingham.
To wrap up their busy offseason, the A's added relievers Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes to solidify their bullpen behind their already solid rotation.
Hard to ask for much more excitement in the offseason.
The biggest question that will be answered during Spring Training is, who will emerge as the fifth spot in the rotation behind current starters Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden?
Another question that likely has already been answered is where Chris Carter fits with the 2011 A's. Blocked in the outfield by the additions of DeJesus and Willingman, with Ryan Sweeney and Conor Jackson representing the fourth and fifth outfielders, Carter looks headed back to AAA-Sacramento to start the season. Carter is a versatile athlete who also has experience at first base, arguably his best position, and can also spend time at designated hitter. If there is an injury to any of the A's starters, he could still break camp with the A's major league squad.
The A's have a few interesting side stories to follow as the season progresses with the release of Moneyball, the movie starring Brad Pitt about the Oakland A's and GM Billy Beane's approach to building a team in the early 2000's.
The signing of Hideki Matsui along with a multitude of international signings over the past few seasons will thrust the A's and their brand of baseball into the conscious of the world wide baseball community in 2011.
The A's also hope to hear news about their desired move to San Jose before the completion of Spring Training.
A's Projected Starters (By Position):
Catcher, Kurt Suzuki: Suzuki, 27 years old this season, enters his fifth season with the Athletics, and will once again handle one of the most talented rotations in all baseball. Suzuki hit .242/.303/.366 last season with 13 home runs and 71 RBI. Expect Suzuki's average to rebound back to the .270-range where he hit the previous two seasons with his home run totals to stay consistent in the 13-15 range. With an improved lineup around him, his RBI production should increase in 2011.
First Base, Daric Barton: Barton emerged as one of the best defensive first basemen in the American League in 2010. The A's committed early in the offseason to Barton as their starting first baseman in 2011, a definite boost in confidence as he enters his fourth season with the A's. Barton hit .273/.393/.405 with 10 home runs and 57 RBI. Much like with Suzuki, you can expect to see Barton hold steady in the power department, however his RBI production could improve with more batters reaching base around him. Barton should be a .270-.280 hitter, so a huge improvement seems unlikely in 2011, but with DeJesus, Willingham and Matsui hitting behind him in the lineup, he should see better pitches to give him more opportunities at the plate.
What will outcome of 2011 season be for A's?
Second Base, Mark Ellis: The A's picked up their team option on Mark Ellis in the off season, bringing the veteran back for his ninth season in the A's infield. Ellis is one of the game's elite defensive second baseman, and will provide plenty of support to the A's young rotation. Ellis is a steady hitter annually, posting a line of .291/.358/.381 with only five home runs and 49 RBI. His home run total should rebound back to double digits in 2011, and as a result his RBI total should also increase. Ellis' true value to Oakland however is his veteran leadership, and reliable defensive play.
Third Base, Kevin Kouzmanoff: No one had a more frustrating offseason than Kouzmanoff. While he returns for his second season with the A's, he was forced to sit and watch as the A's pursued Adrian Beltre throughout the offseason. Kouzmanoff is a defensive specialist who produced one of his best showings last season with the A's. Many consider his 2010 offensive statistics to be disappointing, however they were in line with his career averages. In 2010 he hit .247/.283/.396 while leading the A's with 16 home runs, and 71 RBI. Both Kouzmanoff and the A's would like to see his batting average and on-base percentage and power numbers to improve in 2010. He will be pushed to a position in the lineup with less pressure than his regular placement in the 3-4 slots in 2010, this should help him to improve on his 2010 statistics.
Shortstop, Cliff Pennington: Pennington enters his fourth season with the A's, and second season as the full-time starting shortstop. Pennington has good range at shortstop although he commits too many errors (he would commit less errors if he was not able to get to as many balls as he does). Pennington hit a respectable .250/.319/.368 with six home runs and 46 RBI. Pennington adds speed to the A's lineup, stealing twenty-nine bases in 2010 while only being caught stealing five times.
Who was the most important offseason acquisition?
Left Field, Josh Willingham: Willingham comes over to Oakland for his first season with the A's. Injuries cut his 2010 season short, however he still managed a line of .268/.389/.459 with 16 home runs and 56 RBI. Willingham will hope to stay healthy in 2011 and return to his career average of 20-plus home runs per season. Willingham is an upgrade to an A's offense that lacked power throughout 2010, and he will be counted on in the middle of the A's lineup.
Center Field, Coco Crisp: Crisp returns for his second season with the A's after they picked up his club-option during the offseason. Crisp had a very respectable season last year, although injuries only allowed him to play in about half of the A's games. Crisp is a solid defender in center field, and hit for a line of .279/.342/.438 with eight home runs and 38 RBI in only 75 games. Crisp also managed 32 stolen bases while only being caught three times. Crisp will bat leadoff for the A's in 2011 and count on better health to keep him on the field for the entire season.
Right Field, David DeJesus: DeJesus, like Willingham, comes to Oakland for his first season with the A's. DeJesus also had his campaign cut short by injuries in 2010, but appears fully healthy entering spring training. He brings with him a streak of 241 consecutive games without committing an error. The A's will count on DeJesus' excellent defense in right field in 2011. DeJesus hit .318/.384/.443 with five home runs, and 37 RBI in 2010. Improved health, and a lineup considerably better than the one he was a part of in Kansas City should improve his opportunities in 2011.
Designated Hitter, Hideki Matsui: Matsui comes to Oakland after a brief one year stint in Anaheim after several seasons with the Yankees. The longtime Yankee is no longer a real option in the outfield, and will be primarily responsible for manning the designated hitter position. He is a professional hitter who can be counted on come through in the clutch and spread hits around the field with more regularity than his predecessor, Jack Cust. Matsui hit for a line of .274/.361/.459 with 21 home runs and 84 RBI last season. Matsui will likely hit fifth in the A's lineup this season, and solidify a much improved lineup.
Brett Anderson: The talented lefty has arguably some of the best stuff on the A's pitching staff. Injuries plagued his 2010 season, but he was still able to compile a record of 7-6 with a 2.80 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP. Anderson will look to stay healthy in 2011 and take over as the ace of this talented rotation.
Trevor Cahill: Pushing Anderson for ace status in the rotation is last year's break out pitcher Trevor Cahill. Cahill put together a very impressive 18-8 record with a 2.97 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. Cahill will look to maintain his level of success in 2011 and prove that 2010 was not a fluke.
Gio Gonzalez: Rounding out Oakland's new "Big Three" is Gio Gonzalez. Gonzales had a break out season in 2010 where he compiled a record of 15-9 with a 3.23 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP. Gonzalez showed giant leaps in maturity in 2010, and will continue to improve in 2011 rounding out a dominant 1-2-3 punch with Anderson and Cahill to match up with other teams top pitchers.
Dallas Braden: "Mr. Perfect" returns to the A's rotation in 2011 after posting an 11-14 record with a 3.50 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP with the A's last season. Braden was the victim of poor run support for much of the season, and will benefit from the A's improved lineup this season.
Bullpen: New comers Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes will join Craig Breslow, Brad Ziegler, Michael Wuertz, Jerry Blevins, and closer Andrew Bailey in a very deep bullpen. Joey Devine, returning from Tommy John surgery, will also compete for a spot in the rotation, along with the losers of the fifth starter competition (Rich Harden, Brandon McCarthy and Josh Outman).
Pitchers and catchers report: Feb. 15.
Full squad reports: Feb. 20.
First Spring Training game: Away vs. Chicago Cubs, Feb. 27, 12:05 p.m.
Opening Day: Home vs. Seattle Mariners, April 1, 7:05 p.m.