Oakland A's Biggest Storylines to Follow at the Start of 2015

Nick HouserCorrespondent IIApril 6, 2015

Oakland A's Biggest Storylines to Follow at the Start of 2015

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    The A's new infield includes Brett Lawrie, Ben Zobrist and Marcus Semien. Can they keep the A's as contenders?
    The A's new infield includes Brett Lawrie, Ben Zobrist and Marcus Semien. Can they keep the A's as contenders?Norm Hall/Getty Images

    The Oakland A's are always filled with entertaining storylines, and 2015 is no different.

    The team is fun. From the white cleats to the famed right field bleacher crew, the A's are exciting and unique. 

    They made a big splash this offseason with a ton of moves, and many worried the A's took a step backward. But then they moved on to spring training, where they finished with the best record of any team.

    But is it all a facade?

    The A's have four major storylines to follow with another four that should be fun to watch early on, ranked from least important to most for your convenience. 

What Happens to Ryan Cook?

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    Will Ryan Cook ever see the A's bullpen again?
    Will Ryan Cook ever see the A's bullpen again?Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

    Three things could happen to Ryan Cook.

    He could rebound and make his way back to the Oakland bullpen. This is ideal to anyone who doesn't want to see a player on his team fail.

    He could also never recover and dwindle to the minor leagues or get cut, never to be seen or heard from again.

    Or, he could be traded.

    That third option has two versions as well. The team could simply trade Cook flat out, not even allowing him to attempt a rebound within Oakland's organization. Of course, he could do well with another team. Or the A's don't listen to offers at first, Cook does not pitch well enough to return, and he is eventually designated.

    He's been in the A's system awhile and has come up through Oakland's Triple-A team. He's also earned an All-Star nod. Because of that, it'll be interesting to see what happens to him.

Is Marcus Semien the Future?

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    Marcus Semien has turned a few heads and opened some eyes this spring.
    Marcus Semien has turned a few heads and opened some eyes this spring.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Marcus Semien went from fighting for an every-day role to wowing many with quality spring training numbers.

    The shortstop hit .300, had an on-base percentage of .400 and had a slugging percentage of over .500.

    He must hate the San Francisco Giants for some reason. Semien began spring training by going 5-for-5 with seven RBI against the Giants, including home runs off Madison Bumgarner and Cody Hall. He then opened the Bay Bridge Series going 2-for-3 with a solo home run.

    He's hit, he's shown power, and he's flashed leather.

    So will he be as good as Billy Beane—who traded Jeff Samardzija for Semien—clearly expects him to be?

    Here's a bold prediction: Semien will be the best shortstop Oakland has had since the Bobby Crosby days.

Which Prospect Gets Called Up Next?

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    Chris Bassitt delivers a pitch during an early-March spring training game.
    Chris Bassitt delivers a pitch during an early-March spring training game.Darron Cummings/Associated Press/Associated Press

    The Oakland A's have so much depth and so much young talent, it's interesting and fun to see who comes up and when.

    Jesse Hahn and Kendall Graveman earned roles in the rotation. Billy Burns and Tyler Ladendorf are on the roster for now. But Burns and Ladendorf are unlikely to have a lengthy first stint unless they play quite a bit and hit the seams off the ball. R.J. Alvarez is also in the bullpen with Ryan Cook having been sent down.

    Beyond those players, guys such as Sean Nolin and Chris Bassitt could certainly make a splash this season. Or could it be another hidden gem from Double-A (think A.J. Griffin in 2012)?

    Who gets called up next and how he responds may be one of the most exciting storylines to watch this year.

What's Next for Barry Zito?

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    Barry Zito pitched well, just not well enough to start for the A's yet.
    Barry Zito pitched well, just not well enough to start for the A's yet.Ben Margot/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Barry Zito has officially been sent to Triple-A Nashville after accepting his assignment.

    But how long does he stay in Triple-A?

    There are a few scenarios that could play out. First, the A's could find they need the lefty and call him up. Barring injury, it's not too likely, but it could happen.

    More realistically, another team gets Billy Beane on the line to discuss a trade.

    If no one in Major League Baseball needs his services, though, then Zito could pitch in the minors for the duration of the year or simply retire. So far, there's little indication that he'll hang up his cleats.

    "I’m going to take it. I’m going to just continue to go have some fun pitching," Zito said, as captured by Matt Kawahara of the Sacramento Bee. "That’s been my goal all along—I was going to take a year off and then I was going to come back. I’ve been having a lot of fun this spring, so I just want to keep doing that."

    Following Zito at this point is like watching a movie. You can't take your eyes away; you really want to root for the guy and hope to avoid any devastating plot twists.

Can Kendall Graveman and Jesse Hahn Hack It in the Bigs?

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    After dominating spring training, Graveman gave up a three-run home run to Buster Posey in an exhibition.
    After dominating spring training, Graveman gave up a three-run home run to Buster Posey in an exhibition.Eric Risberg/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Jesse Hahn and Kendall Graveman earned spots in the rotation after solid spring training outings. But many of those lineups contained minor league players. Can they sustain success against rosters filled with big league superstars?

    Both have been to the show before. Both have had success.

    Graveman appeared in 4.2 innings with the Toronto Blue Jays last season. He faced 18 batters, striking out four and walking none. Nine of those were ground-ball outs. Five were flyouts. He gave up two runs on four hits.

    It's worth noting that those four-plus innings came in relief roles.

    Hahn spent quite a bit more time in the major leagues last season. He appeared in 14 games with the San Diego Padres, 12 as a starter.

    Throw out his first professional start (it was shaky) and his appearances as a reliever, and Hahn averaged about six innings per start. He kept a 2.58 ERA in that span, holding opposing teams to a combined .188 batting average. Lastly, he totaled 60 strikeouts to 27 walks in those 14 games.

    Can they do it? Sure.

    Hahn did it in 2014. Graveman flat out dominated in spring training. Both should make fans feel pretty good.

Can Brett Lawrie Stay Healthy, Replace Josh Donaldson?

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    Brett Lawrie, attitude-wise, seems to be rejuvenated.
    Brett Lawrie, attitude-wise, seems to be rejuvenated.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Many eyes will be on Brett Lawrie all season. While prospects are always an exciting storyline, Lawrie's health will be an important one.

    First and foremost, can he stay healthy?

    In 2011, he was called up on August 5 and did not miss a game. In 2012, he started the season with the Blue Jays but only appeared in 125 games. An oblique strain sidelined him for 30 games. The following season, he missed time due to a ribcage strain and an ankle sprain. He played 107 games.

    Last season, he played in 70 games.

    A hamstring bothered him for a week. A fractured finger put him out for 36 games. And another oblique strain took him out of 48 games.

    Toronto's turf may have caused some of those injuries. Others might have been freak accidents. In 2015, we should find out if Lawrie can stay healthy.

    To produce close to Josh Donaldson-type numbers, Lawrie will need to be healthy for at least 155 games.

    ZiPS and Steamer (via Fangraphs) project Lawrie to play in 108 and 110 games, respectively. Both projects have him hitting under 20 home runs and around 50 RBI with an average (between the two) BABIP of .284.

    The good news is that those numbers work out to about 18 home runs and 70 RBI in 155 games.

    So which is it: 110 games, 12 home runs and 50 RBI, or 155 games, 18 home runs and 70 RBI? Or will it be even better with full health? Hopefully, it won't be less due to injuries once again.

How Many Games Will Coco Crisp Play?

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    Coco Crisp, routinely hurt, is on the DL to start the season already.
    Coco Crisp, routinely hurt, is on the DL to start the season already.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Throw out his first season in which he appeared in 32 games, and Coco Crisp averages 116 games per season. That's about 72 percent of the season. Looking at Crisp's injury history (h/t Jeremy Koo, Athletics Nation), it's hard to find something he hasn't injured already.

    Coming off a pretty nasty neck injury in 2014, Crisp has been moved to left field with intentions of keeping him healthier.

    It hasn't worked yet.

    The team placed Crisp on the disabled list. He'll be out two to three months after surgery on his elbow.

    There are all kinds of debates about Crisp's value to the team and his ability to play center field or in the outfield at all anymore. The A's have guys who can cover the outfield. But Crisp is important in terms of leading off in the lineup, speed on the bases and leadership.

    How many games will he play? Will he suffer any more injuries? Might his career be over sooner than we think? How important is Crisp to the team's success?

    The recent injury, his age and the history make him a guy to watch.

Where Does the Offense Come From?

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    Billy Butler is expected to produce the power in the heart of the lineup.
    Billy Butler is expected to produce the power in the heart of the lineup.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The biggest storyline is the offense.

    Most fans and analysts feel good about the pitching staff. The rotation is deep, so if one person struggles, there's another man behind him and another two guys behind the backup. The bullpen is full of high-quality arms and, on paper, should be one of the best in the game.

    But the offense is another story.

    The team put up big numbers a season ago with Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Yoenis Cespedes, Jed Lowrie and Derek Norris in tow. All five men are gone now, and Josh Reddick and Coco Crisp will begin on the disabled list.

    The offense depends on Ike Davis, who has struggled with hay fever; Brett Lawrie, who has battled injuries throughout his career; Billy Butler, coming off a down year for him; and Ben Zobrist.

    I've written before that the A's may have the most 12 to 15 home run hitters of any lineup in baseball. It'll be interesting to see if that theory is true—or even close.

    Team chemistry may be another issue, albeit minor.

    Of nine spots in the lineup, five are filled by new acquisitions. That's not including the new faces who aren't just new to Oakland but to the majors.

    On paper and in projections, they look fine. The potential is there, but they still need to prove they can score runs and do so consistently throughout the year.