5 Oakland A's Players Who Will Determine If They're a 2015 Contender
With five All-Stars now missing and a sixth on the shelf to start the season, the Oakland A's will need five guys in particular to step up and carry the team.
The A's lost three key pieces to the heart of the batting order when they traded Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss. Jeff Samardzija was Oakland's second-half workhorse in 2014, accounting for a 1.8 WAR, best of the pitching group.
Those four and Derek Norris (the fifth All-Star) will not be easy to replace.
Still, while the current group may not fully compensate for the losses, they're very much capable of effectively keeping the A's in position to contend.
Certain guys must step up, though.
If one of these guys has a down year, the consequences could be dire.
Any team would want its new starting shortstop to succeed. But Marcus Semien is in a position where he has some wiggle room, and if he disappoints, it's not as if the entire team goes down in flames with him.
It would be fantastic if Ike Davis put up Brandon Moss numbers or better. But coming off bouts with valley fever that hindered his 2013 and portions of his 2014 season, I'm not sure many are expecting Davis to lead the team in offensive categories.
In speaking with fans on Twitter, Brett Lawrie came up as one of the most popular answers for one guy Oakland's success depends on. However, Oakland's new third baseman has huge shoes to fill. Before we place lofty expectations on him, though, let's see him stay healthy for an entire season. A year down the road, he should be one of the guys doing most of the damage, but give him a year to adjust and prove he's healthy on non-turf.
The Gold Glove right fielder was close to making the actual list. He misses for now because he's yet to be that guy we say, "How Reddick goes, so too the team goes." However, with the turnover, 2015 would be the perfect time for Reddick to put the team on his shoulders and become the man, become a leader.
The 2015 season will be important for Vogt to show the A's that they didn't make a mistake in dealing Norris and John Jaso. For the last season and a half, the three-headed monster has split up duties behind the plate. Vogt is now the guy. To see his short burst of talent be a fluke would be devastating, but it wouldn't ruin the team's chances of making playoffs.
5. (tie) Coco Crisp and Scott Kazmir
Unlike Reddick, Coco Crisp does have a bit of a reputation for driving the team. As Crisp goes, so too does Oakland, or so it seems. Or so it seemed, past tense.
Crisp is a 35-year-old center fielder with lingering neck issues. Since joining the A's, 136 games is the most he has appeared in in one season.
But he is the veteran of the lineup, and with that comes responsibility.
It's up to Crisp to lead the way—even literally, from the leadoff position in the lineup.
The 31-year-old pitcher is to the pitching staff as Crisp is to the offense.
Scott Kazmir seems like the old man on campus compared to the youngsters. He's really not, but he is the veteran presence nonetheless. When a guy like Kazmir struggles, it has more of an affect than when and if a guy like Jesse Hahn were to do the same.
With the new guy, it's somewhat expected. With the veteran, there's worry.
Additionally, Kaz had the most wins on the team. Granted, wins are certainly not the end-all-be-all stat. But he was also a workhorse, starting the second-most games while holding onto a 3.59 xFIP.
Steamer (linked above) projects Kazmir to do nearly identical damage in 2015. That's going to be needed if the team wishes to go to the postseason again.
4. A 3rd Effective Starting Pitcher (Multiple Candidates)
First, the organization and fans obviously want all five starting pitchers to do well. But should two do well (in which case I would assume those two would be Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir) and two struggle (most presumably the fourth and fifth places in the rotation), the other pitcher must throw well.
If—and it's a big if with so many variables—two are effective and two aren't, the remaining pitcher can make or break the rotation.
There are multiple options for rotation spots, including Jesse Chavez, Drew Pomeranz, Barry Zito, Hahn, Kendall Graveman and others. By midseason, it could be Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin or a new arrival too.
There are so many options.
But whoever it is, a third effective starting pitcher is a swingman. Again, assuming two do well and two don't, the remaining guy decides if 60 percent of the rotation is solid or 60 percent of the rotation struggles.
How many teams make it to playoffs with only two good pitchers?
Look at it like this: Had Gray and Kazmir pitched well while Chavez and Dan Straily struggled, how important would Tommy Milone have been to keep the rotation together?
(Note: You can interchange the names and say, "What if Milone and Straily struggled, how important would Chavez be?" The point remains: The team needs three strong starting pitchers to play in October.)
3. Billy Butler
Donaldson's 29 home runs are gone. Moss' 25 home runs are gone. Cespedes' 22 home runs are gone.
The next most is 12 from Reddick.
To say the A's lost a ton of power in the lineup is a massive understatement.
Butler has power. We know this. His .379 slugging percentage in 2014 was the first time it has ever dropped below .400 in his entire career. Last year, he only hit nine dingers; the year before, he hit 15. The year before that, he hit 29.
Oakland needs the 29. I imagine they'll take 15. It's not all about the home run, but they sure are nice. Doubles off the walls that move runners over and deep fly balls that score runs from third are also quite lovely. Besides, having power makes a guy scary to face no matter what he ends up doing.
2. Ben Zobrist
Just like Butler, it's up to the new guys to replace production lost by the traded All-Stars.
In the first slide, I took pressure off Lawrie, hoping to see him remain healthy before expecting him to be the second coming of Donaldson. Because of that, Ben Zobrist becomes a guy who must do well in order for the A's to contend.
If you recall, before Oakland acquired Zobrist, many looked at the A's as rebuilding. The team brought him and Tyler Clippard in, and many of the doubters suddenly believed once again.
That should speak to what fans and analysts think of Zobrist's talents.
Zobrist is typically healthy, he's consistent, he's a two-time All-Star, and he's been in the top 20 for MVP considerations three times.
The A's definitely need that Zobrist to contend.
1. Sonny Gray
You could argue Gray is the most important player on the A's.
He's the team's ace, and it all starts with him. An unsuccessful year will hurt not just in losses but mentally as well. Just imagine for a moment what it would be like to watch Gray inexplicably get rocked for 10 straight starts.
It'd be tough to watch.
He's not old enough to be considered a veteran. He's probably not even old enough to be considered a leader. Looking at him, you might even doubt he's old enough to drink legally. (He is, by the way.) But this team could very well go how Gray goes.
The team needs him to start things off with a bang. They need him to put them in a position to win every fifth day. They need opposing batters to be nervous when he has the ball, to fear him.
Gray flailing would be like letting the air out of your front left tire. Sure, there's three others, but that one is so important.