Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane is not concerned over the team's offensive woes to start the season—woes that mirror last year's struggles when they arguably had the worst lineup in baseball.
I am concerned, though. I was before the season began, even before pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in February.
Despite improving the team with three veteran hitters, what I had suspected has come to fruition in the early going: these mid-major additions have only taken the lineup from flagrantly dreadful to no longer the worst in the league.
The 2010 A's featured—at times—a hashed together lineup littered with marginal major league hitters (e.g., Travis Buck, Gabe Gross, Jake Fox) and minor-league journeymen (e.g., Jeff Larish, Eric Patterson, Matt Carson, Matt Watson).
This collection of hitters rounded out a lineup that was conspicuously impotent last year, finishing in the bottom five in MLB in batting average (.256), batting average w/RISP (.241), runs scored (663) and home runs (109).
With one of the best pitching staffs returning, the A's were a trendy pick to win the AL West after settling for free-agent Hideki Matsui and outfielders Josh Willingham from the Nationals and David Dejesus from the Royals. The A's were shunned by their primary target, Adrian Beltre, for the second straight winter.
It is too easy—and often misleading—to over-emphasize early season stats, but together with the team's observable lack of quality at-bats, the numbers are all too familiar and do not inspire confidence. Entering Wednesday's action, the A's rank 20th in batting average (.241), 29th in batting average w/RISP (.202) and 28th in runs (103) and home runs (16).
And the new additions have struggled at the plate as well.
"It's a concern only if it goes on the whole year," Beane told Joe Stiglich of the Mercury News last week.
This is not surprising. If Beane wasn't concerned that his offseason additions were inadequate going into spring training, then there is no reason one month of baseball would change his mind.
"These guys have a track record," Beane added. "I don't think you press any panic button in April. If you were asking me this question in June, I might have a different answer."
Indeed, it is far too early to push the panic button—i.e., bold roster upheavals—but the genuine perception that the A's offense was vastly improved was, in my view, a bit premature and perhaps ill-conceived.
It is not my intention to make it seem like their three key additions are not upgrades—they are.
It should be noted, however, that Willingham and Dejesus have relegated Ryan Sweeney and Conor Jackson to the bench, which has made them deeper; but it doesn't upgrade their more glaring holes—3B, SS and 2B. Sweeney and Jackson are both serviceable starters and were strengths amidst many glaring liabilities in the lineup last year. Sweeney and Jackson are career .285 and .275 hitters, respectively.
By not filling their positions of need, the A's pushed out two of their already existing strengths, which will continue to minimize the value of whatever production you get out of Willingham and Dejesus.
And the track records Beane speaks of are not that impressive.
In a season cut short by a ligament tear in his thumb, Dejesus batted a career high .318 in 2010. He is a career .287 hitter with no power (61 home runs in seven-plus seasons) and is not a stolen base threat (47 career steals). These numbers might not be any better—possibly even worse—than what Sweeney or Jackson could provide. This season, Dejesus is batting just .226 and slugging an outrageously awful .257 as the teams no. 3 hitter.
Willingham's track record suggests that he's a cinch for 25-30 home runs should he stay healthy for a full season (something he has never done). He has a career .264 BA and .365 OBP, but he is changing leagues and playing home games in the spacious confines of the Coliseum, where foul balls go to become outs. And he will have to match or exceed his track record to compensate for his poor-contact rate. Willingham is also off to a poor start, batting just .247 as the A's cleanup hitter.
Matsui's age (36) is going in the wrong direction, so expectations should be something short of his recent track record. When you combine his age, home park and lack of lineup protection, A's fans should be thrilled if he matches his 2010 stat line (.273/.361/.458, 21 HR, 84 RBI) with the Angels. Matsui is batting .252 in the fifth hole to start the year.
How much will this current lineup improve over the course of the season?
More importantly, these players—with the exception of Willingham—are not helping the team improve where it matters most—batting with runners in scoring position. Last year they were second worst in MLB in BA w/RISP (.241), compared to this year's .204, also good for second worst in MLB.
It is still very likely that these players, and the team generally, will improve their numbers as the season wears on. If the team's current stat line sustained itself throughout the year, it would be historically terrible. There is nowhere to go but up, which is the lone bright spot.
How many wins this possible improvement translates to is anybody's guess. I just don't see it improving enough to where we are no longer talking about how the A's offense is holding back a formidable young pitching staff—in part because I don't even see them matching their track records or getting that much better.
It was easy to believe that the A's were going to be good if you forgot the caliber of lineup these additions were being added to. The A's failed to get a marquee, middle-of-the-lineup bat and had to reach for veterans through trades, a consequence of failing to home grow quality position players in recent years.
The A's lack of organizational depth, along with their lack of financial resources, makes any substantial roster shakeup unlikely. In other words, whenever Beane finds it necessary to be concerned, there is not a whole lot he can do about it this year.