After a busy offseason saw a complete transformation of the roster, the refurbished Oakland A's will begin their 2012 regular season in foreign territory on March 28th when they take on the Seattle Mariners in Tokyo, Japan, for a two-game set.
In the first game, A's Manager Bob Melvin will trot out his new ace Brandon McCarthy, who will be making the first Opening Day start of his six-year career. He faces 2010 Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez, who has dominated the A's during his seven years in the American League West.
Hernandez is 12-4 with a 2.54 ERA lifetime against Oakland. His power fastball paired with a late-breaking curve have stifled the A's light-hitting clubs, holding hitters to just a .223 batting average with 119 hits in 145.1 innings in his seven seasons.
In four career starts (including three complete games), McCarthy has done well against the Mariners, but doesn't have the record to show for it. He's thrown 31.2 innings, with just a 1.99 ERA, 0.69 WHIP and .171 batting average against. Yet he's only 1-3.
McCarthy is coming off the best year of his career, by far. After not pitching in the major leagues in 2010 because of a stress fracture in his right shoulder, the 6'7'' right-hander posted a career-low of 1.32 walks per nine innings and FIP 2.86 while setting a new career mark for innings thrown with 170.2.
The A's are coming off a very successful spring with a 14-5-2 record. But during the winning, key position battles remained cloudy. After Monday's exhibition loss to Japan's Hanshin Tigers, Melvin said he was leaning towards starting Brandon Allen at first base over Kila Ka'aihue. Meanwhile, the third base job remains unsettled between rookie Josh Donaldson and utility man Eric Sogard.
It's likely both Donaldson and Sogard will make the A's roster and spend the early portion of the year platooning at the hot-corner until one is able to separate himself. The left-handed hitting Sogard has struggled against left-handed pitching throughout his career and is still looking for his first hit against a lefty in the majors. That could put Donaldson in line to start against southpaws while Adam Rosales might be the odd-man out. Rosales is useful because of his versatility, but Sogard can also play short and second, and Donaldson has gotten some time at first base in minors, as well as significant time behind the plate.
The only notable competition that Melvin did firmly decide on was closer, with Grant Balfour getting the nod. The right-handed Australian is coming off two solid seasons at a setup-man, but only has 10-career saves to his credit. Should his 2011 numbers of 2.47 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 24.4 percent strikeout rate carry over, he shouldn't have any problem preserving wins for Oakland.
Melvin's decision to name Balfour the closer and not Brian Fuentes did raise some eyebrows, however. Fuentes has four All-Star appearances as a closer to his credit, including three-straight from 2005-07. But calling on Fuentes to close would leave Oakland without a late-inning, left-handed set-up man. Jerry Blevins did a nice job in his 26 appearances in 2011, but still hasn't done enough to be trusted in high-tension situations, yet. While it could be argued that Fuentes might be the better option at closer, Melvin believes his bullpen is effective with Balfour in that role.
Oakland will send newcomer Bartolo Colon to start Thursday's game, and he will take on lefty Jason Vargas. While Colon didn't throw in the majors in 2010, last season's first half with the Yankees was somewhat of a revelation for the 2005 Cy Young winner. Prior to the All-Star break, Colon allowed 81 hits in 90 innings, struck out 79 hitters and had a 1.14 WHIP. Things changed pretty drastically after the break however, and he went 2-6, allowing a .298 average against and 1.47 WHIP. His career numbers against the Mariners are modest: 14-11 with a 4.13 ERA and 1.26 WHIP.
Like McCarthy against Seattle, Vargas had good numbers against the A's without the record to show for it. Last year he went 1-3 against Oakland while giving up just 27 hits in 32.2 innings. His 3.86 ERA was decent, but his 1.10 WHIP and .218 average against were very solid. Both his and McCarthy's records reflect how tight and low scoring games between the two clubs were last year.
Melvin intimated that Sunday's lineup against Yomiuri of Weeks 2B, Pennington SS, Crisp LF, Smith DH, Cespedes CF, Reddick RF, Suzuki C, Allen 1B, Donaldson 3B could be how things look opening night versus Hernandez. That would give the A's three switch-hitters atop the order, followed by left-handed and right-handed hitters alternating the rest of the way through. Against left-handed starters, righties Jonny Gomes and Collin Cowgill could be penciled in.
Much like the A's, the Mariners will have some intriguing young players playing key positions for 2012.
Catcher Jesus Montero will bring his celebrated bat over from the Yankees after the team acquired him in the Michael Pineda trade in January. Seattle is hoping Montero is the power hitter the team can build around for the future after being rated as a top-five prospect in all of baseball for the last three seasons. But it's unclear if Montero will remain a catcher or become a full-time designated hitter.
Former top-prospect Justin Smoak looks to break out in 2012 after some struggles during his first two years in the show. The power numbers are there for the talented, switch-hitting first basemen – he combined to hit 28 home runs and 38 doubles in those two years. But his lackluster on-base and slugging numbers have led to just a 701 career OPS thus far.
Former No. 2-overall selection of the 2009 draft, Dustin Ackley, will be the team's every-day second baseman after putting up decent numbers in 90 games last year. Ackley will look to improve upon his 766 OPS, likely hitting second in the order.
Mike Carp will get the call in left field after playing a career-high 79 games in the majors last year, and he had a 791 OPS with 12 home runs and 46 RBIs from the left side of the plate.
Another notable change for Seattle will be having Ichiro Suzuki hit third in the lineup, not leadoff. For the first time during his 11-year career, Suzuki failed to reach 200 hits in 2011 and had a career-low OPS of 645. The move makes sense, considering the Japanese star is now 38 and less reliant on his speed than ever. The move could help protect some of the young hitters in the middle of the order while moving Chone Figgins back into the leadoff spot.
After the two-game, regular season set, the A's return to the states and go back to spring training-mode for a week until the conventional regular season starts April 6, also against the Mariners. On Saturday, the A's will play their Triple-A affiliate, the Sacramento River Cats, at Raley Field, followed by three exhibition games against their cross-Bay rivals, the San Francisco Giants, starting the following Monday.