Definite possibilities. If you're looking for an ultra-quick summation of what lies ahead in 2011 for the Oakland A's, those two words pretty much hit the nail on the head.
Following an 81-81 2010 campaign, there are loads of reason for optimism in Oakland this time around. But at the same time, there are red flags galore that could end up derailing this team's hopes in a hurry.
There's no question about the strength of this A's team. Oakland has powerhouse pitching, and there's every reason to believe this will be one of the elite staffs in the game this season.
The top of the rotation is tremendously talented. Trevor Cahill had a breakout campaign in 2010, limiting the opposition to zero or one earned run in more than half of his 30 starts. Brett Anderson has star potential if he can stay healthy. Gio Gonzalez had to battle occasional bouts with wildness but flashed high-end potential on a regular basis, and he figures to keep getting better.
The A's could do a lot worse than Dallas Braden as a fourth starter. The lefty is as gritty as it gets when it comes to competing, and he's a definite asset to the A's. Like most teams, the final rotation spot is a little iffy, but the A's are optimistic that Josh Outman will be able to nail down that spot after missing all of the 2010 season with injury. If not, the team can patchwork that last spot with any one of a number of veteran hurlers.
The bullpen is a major source of strength. A healthy Andrew Bailey is a cinch to snare 30 saves, and the A's picked up a tremendous insurance policy by obtaining the services of underrated Grant Balfour. Brian Fuentes can also close games, although I like him better in his more likely role of lefty setup man.
Michael Wuertz scuffled some last season, as he had trouble staying healthy, but he's a solid option, and lefty Craig Breslow is coming off a very strong campaign.
One never knows with bullpens, as there's more volatility there than anyplace else from year to year. But on paper, I don't know that there's a better pen in all of baseball than this one.
The pitching is clearly the good news for Oakland fans. The bad news is that it's tough to win titles without production, and the A's couldn't hit a lick last season. I'm sold that this year's lineup is better than last season's, but not to the extent that it will be any more than average, and perhaps not even that.
Simply stated, there isn't anyone in the projected Oakland batting order who's going to strike fear into opposing pitchers. Plus, it's a lineup that features way too many guys with injury issues, and there is not a great deal of quality depth on hand.
Coco Crisp is slated to lead off, and he posted pretty decent numbers last season...when he played, that is. And there's the rub with Crisp: He's almost guaranteed to hit the DL at some point every year, and he finished last season early with yet another finger injury, something that has plagued him for years.
Furthermore, Oakland's two new projected corner OFs also finished 2009 on the disabled list. I like both Josh Willingham and David DeJesus if they can stay on the field, but that's simply not even close to being guaranteed in either case.
The Oakland infield is a bland offering with little upside. Daric Barton doesn't offer nearly enough production at 1B. Mark Ellis is reliable at 2B, but he's yet another player on this roster who has been plagued by injuries.
Cliff Pennington is probably never going to hit for a great average, but he's got speed and seems to be at his best in clutch situations. Pennington has all kinds of range defensively, and if he can cut back the errors just a tad, he becomes one of the more underrated commodities in baseball at a premium position. 3B is a problem. Kevin Kouzmanoff has stagnated offensively with his plate aggressiveness working against him far too frequently.
The catching is in very good hands with Kurt Suzuki. He seriously slumped after a huge first half last season, but Suzuki was also banged up, and that undoubtedly impacted his numbers. But he's a rock solid guy and is, in fact, very likely the best overall position player on this team.
Hideki Matsui is slated to handle the DH duties, and I'm not sure he's a good fit for the A's. Matsui put up pedestrian numbers with the Angels last season, and that was hitting in a better lineup in a somewhat more generous ballpark. Matsui's OBP is trending downward, his K rate is rising, and at close to 37 years old, he doesn't figure to be likely to undergo a renaissance.
The hole card offensively is powerful Chris Carter. The massive 1B/OF has loads of power, and he showed some flashes after a disastrous 0-for-33 start to his big league career. Carter is penciled in as a backup for now, but with all the health questions on this team, there's little question that Carter is going to get a chance at regular ABs. If he can cut back a bit on the strikeouts, Carter could well develop into the one legit deep threat on this team.
Conor Jackson is also in the mix, but his best days may already be behind him despite the fact he's only 28 years old.
The A's have some talented prospects on the way, but Grant Green, Max Stassi and Jemille Weeks are down the road producers who don't figure to be in the mix just yet. Adrian Cardenas is probably the most big league-ready guy in the system, and he's a good bet to be up with the big club before long, if not right out of spring training.
The bottom line on this team is that it has a definite chance to be a serious contender in the AL West on the strength of an impact pitching staff. But there are way too many health risks and ordinary offensive performers to have me feeling confident that Oakland will be much more than another .500 team that falls short of getting to the playoffs once again.
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