Expectations are running high for the 2014 Oakland A's. After two straight AL West championships, the A's are favored by many to get back to the post-season. But with two-fifths of their projected starting rotation already out with injury, the A's are facing early challenges as they look to three-peat in the AL West.
The 2012 Oakland A's surprised everyone in winning the AL West title on the final day of the regular season. While many experts anticipated the A's would fall back to the pack in 2013, the A's once again defied expectations by cruising to another division title. Oakland won 96 games and finished with the second-best record in the American League. With two straight season of more than 90 wins, the A's won't be able to sneak up on anyone this season.
Despite their regular season success, the A's have been unable to advance past the first round of the playoffs. In each of the past two seasons, the A's ran into a talented Detroit Tigers' squad and fell in two tightly contested five-game series.
The A's were busy in the off-season. While the core of their 2013 squad mostly remains intact, the A's made several changes to the roster with the intent of improving the team's depth. Veteran bench players Nick Punto and Craig Gentry were added to give the A's viable options against left-handed pitchers and as late-game defensive replacements. The A's also replaced veteran starter Bartolo Colon, closer Grant Balfour and reliever Jerry Blevins with veterans Scott Kazmir, Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson.
Parker is out for the season.
Going into spring training, the A's had the look of a team with very few weaknesses. However, injuries to starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin have left the A's vulnerable in their starting rotation. The A's will also be without set-up man Ryan Cook and fourth outfielder Gentry on Opening Day, although both are expected back within the next week.
The AL West has had two post-season teams in each of the past two seasons, and the division figures to be strong once again. Although plagued by injury troubles of their own, the Texas Rangers have improved their offense and still have a formidable pitching staff once healthy. The Los Angeles Angels are hoping for the healthy versions of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton – and they still have the best player in baseball in Mike Trout. The Seattle Mariners have improved their roster with the addition of superstar Robinson Cano and several veteran acquisitions, while the Houston Astros are starting to incorporate talent from their deep farm system.
The A's begin their 2014 season at home against the Cleveland Indians on Monday night. That will be the start of a seven-game homestand. All but six of the A's first month of games will be against their AL West foes, so Oakland will have a good idea of where they stand vis a vis the rest of the division by the end of April.
The A's roster is one of the most flexible in all of baseball, and that is by design, as manager Bob Melvin has used platoons and match-up-based line-ups extensively since he took over as the Oakland manager in 2011. Of the position players on the A's 25-man roster, only catchers Derek Norris and John Jaso and first-baseman Daric Barton are limited to only one position defensively. While starters Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, Jed Lowrie and Josh Donaldson are likely to get most of their playing time at one set position, all of them are capable of playing elsewhere if the A's have a need.
Crisp could run more in 2014.
The A's have several utility players that will give Melvin plenty of opportunities to create different looks for the starting line-up throughout the season. Infielders Nick Punto, Eric Sogard and Alberto Callaspo can play all over the infield. Sogard and Punto are expected to be the A's second base platoon, but Punto and Sogard should also see time at shortstop, while Callaspo will get time at third base, second base and first base this season.
Brandon Moss should start a number of games at first base, but he could also get some innings in left field this season. Sam Fuld will begin the season as the team's fourth outfielder, and both he and eventual fourth outfielder Craig Gentry give the A's a second legitimately above-average defensive centerfielder behind Crisp, as well as a threat to steal off of the bench.
The A's flexibility extends beyond their defense. Oakland's 25-man roster features four switch-hitters.
The A's everyday line-up should feature Coco Crisp in center, Josh Donaldson at third, Yoenis Cespedes in left, Jed Lowrie at shortstop and Josh Reddick in right. The rest of the line-up will have plenty of variation depending on that day's pitching match-up. Moss, who led the team in homeruns last season, will play regularly against right-handed pitchers and could see some time versus lefties. Whether that time comes mostly at first base or in the DH spot (with a little left field mixed in) remains to be seen.
At the outset of the season, Jaso and Barton are slated to be the everyday catcher and first baseman against right-handed pitchers. Jaso's playing time behind the plate will be monitored closely after he missed most of the second half of last season battling the after-effects of a concussion. Derek Norris will get the starts behind the plate when there is a left-handed starter on the mound, and Norris could see increased time against right-handed pitchers if he continues to hit as well as he did during spring training. Jaso will likely get some time at DH when he isn't catching. Stephen Vogt, who took over for Jaso after his injury last season, will begin the year in Triple-A, but he should join the A's at some point this season.
Barton is the best defensive first baseman on the roster, but he will be sharing his playing time there with Moss and Callaspo. Callaspo, a switch-hitter, figures to get a lot of playing time at first when there is a left-hander on the mound, at least at the outset of the season. This is Callaspo's first year playing first base, but he acquitted himself well at the position this spring. If he plays well defensively at first, he will see regular time there. If he struggles, the A's could go back to last year's right-handed hitting first baseman – Nate Freiman, who will begin the year in Triple-A.
Callaspo will also get some time at third base, where he saw most of his playing time when he was in the Angels' organization. Donaldson will be the A's everyday third baseman, but he could get some starts at DH to limit his wear-and-tear during the long season. Punto could also play some third for the A's, if needed.
Punto should see most of his starts at second base against left-handed pitchers. The switch-hitter is a much better hitter from the right-side, making him a good platoon partner with the left-handed hitting Sogard. Punto is an excellent defensive player with a lot of experience at shortstop, as well as second base. He figures to be a late-game defensive replacement at short for Lowrie from time-to-time. Punto will also start at short when Lowrie needs a day off, although Sogard could get some starts there, as well, especially versus tough right-handed starters.
Moss could log the most time at DH this season.
The A's will rotate a number of players through the DH spot, although Moss is likely to get the bulk of those at-bats. Oakland likes the flexibility of being able to give their starters "half-days" off by DHing them from time-to-time, so players ranging from Donaldson to Crisp to Cespedes to Reddick to Jaso should log time at the DH spot.
The A's scored 767 runs last season, making them the third-highest scoring team in the American League. As always, the A's were a patient squad, finishing third in the league in walks and fifth in OBP. Oakland was third in the AL in homeruns. Most of the team's biggest homerun threats will be returning in 2014, although the team will be looking to replace Seth Smith (eight homers) and Chris Young (12 homers) this year.
Oakland's team speed should be improved in 2014. The A's stole only 74 bases last season, but the additions of Punto and Gentry (as well as Fuld until Gentry is healthy) should increase the A's bench speed. Oakland also has a couple of speedy players waiting in the minor leagues, including outfielder Billy Burns, who led the Cactus League in stolen bases this spring.
Gentry begins the season as the only A's position player on the disabled list, and he isn't expected to miss much time. What happens when he returns remains a little bit up in the air. The two players who are most vulnerable to losing their 25-man roster spots are Fuld and Barton. However, both are out-of-options and will need to be exposed to waivers should the A's try to send them down to the minor leagues. It is most likely that the A's will remove Fuld from the roster when Gentry returns, but that could change in the ensuing days based on the health of the rest of the roster when Gentry is ready to return.
The A's have several position players in the minors who could see time with the big league team this season. Vogt and Freiman were major contributors to the A's success in 2013 and both will be on the short-list for a recall to Oakland should injuries arise or current A's players under-perform. Infielder Jake Elmore also gives the A's depth in the middle infield and he impressed with his glove after being acquired off waivers this spring. Burns will begin the year in Double-A, but given his defensive abilities and his speed, he could make a leap right from Midland to Oakland should the A's need a bench asset at some point this season. Outfielder Kent Matthes and catcher Luke Montz both have powerful right-handed bats, while Shane Peterson and Jake Goebbert are both solid left-handed hitters who can play all over the outfield, as well as first base.
Going into spring training, the A's had one of the deepest starting pitching staffs in the American League. At the outset of spring, it looked like the A's would have at least one, if not two, major contributors from their starting staff in 2013 beginning the year in Triple-A. Instead, injuries hit the A's camp hard and Oakland's depth is already being tested.
Griffin will miss at least six weeks of the regular season.
Right-hander Jarrod Parker was supposed to be the team's Opening Day starter, but he experienced pain in his pitching elbow during camp and ended up needing Tommy John surgery. It is the second such surgery for Parker, who will miss the entire 2014 season. Fellow A's right-handed starter A.J. Griffin also battled elbow pain this spring. Right now his injury is not considered to be season-ending. The A's anticipate having Griffin back on the mound by late May, but his rehab will need to proceed without setbacks for that to happen. Between Parker and Griffin, the A's are looking to replace 397 innings from their 2013 rotation, at least at the outset of the season.
The A's will also be replacing their number one starter from 2013, Bartolo Colon, who signed with the New York Mets this off-season as a free agent. Colon pitched 190.1 innings last season and posted a 2.65 ERA. The A's signed free agent Scott Kazmir to take Colon's place. Kazmir has a checkered injury history, but he is coming off of a strong spring and a good 2013 season with the Cleveland Indians. Oakland also parted ways this off-season with Brett Anderson, who entered 2013 as the team's top starter, although injuries limited him to just 44.2 innings.
Kazmir will slot second in the A's rotation to start the season behind Opening Day starter Sonny Gray. Gray spent only a few months with the A's last season, but he was brilliant, posting a 2.67 ERA in 64 regular season innings. He also pitched well in the post-season versus Detroit. Gray was the A's top pick in 2011 and he will be just 24 when he gets the nod on Opening Day.
Behind Gray and Kazmir will be Jesse Chavez, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone. Chavez began spring training fighting for a spot as the A's long reliever, a role he pitched well in during much of the 2013 season. However, he was so good during spring training that when the A's injuries hit, Chavez was in position to move into the rotation. He finished spring training with 5.1 innings of one-hit baseball against the San Francisco Giants on Friday night. Chavez has mostly been a reliever during his major-league career, but he has extensive experience as a starter in the minor leagues. Last season, Chavez began the year in the Sacramento River Cats' rotation and he had a 2.70 ERA and a 26:5 K:BB in 30 innings.
Straily split the 2013 season between Sacramento and Oakland. He struggled early in the season in the big leagues, but he finished the year pitching well out of the A's rotation. Straily was 10-8 with a 3.96 ERA in 27 starts with the A's last season, which was his rookie year. He also had a 1.14 ERA in five starts with Sacramento.
Milone looked to be the odd-man out coming into spring training, and he will have to pitch well to keep his spot in the rotation when Griffin returns. Ironically, of all of the pitchers in the A's current rotation, the left-hander has made the most starts for the A's over the past two seasons. Milone had an up-and-down sophomore season with the A's in 2013. His ERA was 4.14 in 28 appearances (26 starts).
Milone won 12 games and had the second K:BB of any of the A's top-five starters last season. But he allowed 1.4 homeruns per nine innings (second-worst on the A's behind Griffin) and he allowed more than a hit per inning pitched. Milone lost his rotation spot late in the season, but he had to make a few spot starts in September and pitched well in pressure situations. He worked on a two-seam fastball this spring that he hopes will induce more groundballs in 2014.
The A's bullpen has a different look in 2014, but Oakland is counting on the unit performing at the same level – or even better – than it did in 2013. Oakland relievers posted a 3.22 ERA and had a 2.80 K:BB in 475.1 innings last season.
Johnson will get the call in the ninth inning this season.
Grant Balfour had 38 of the A's 46 saves last season. Oakland let the All-Star closer walk via free agency and will turn to veteran Jim Johnson in the ninth inning in 2014. Acquired from the Baltimore Orioles during the off-season, Johnson comes to the A's after back-to-back 50-save seasons, although he also led the American League in blown saves last season. Johnson, like Balfour, is a hard-thrower, but unlike Balfour, Johnson is a groundball pitcher.
Melvin will have plenty of options to turn to during the seventh and eighth innings in 2014. Last year, the A's used left-hander Sean Doolittle and right-hander Ryan Cook most frequently in those innings. Both pitchers will return (although Cook is currently on the DL), but they should have more help. New acquisition Luke Gregerson has been one of the best right-handed set-up men in the National League for the past few seasons. He will be making his AL debut in 2014. Melvin may also turn to right-hander Dan Otero in the late innings. Otero had a break-through 2013 season, posting a 1.38 ERA in 39 innings for the A's.
The A's traded left-hander Jerry Blevins during the off-season, and his position as the situational lefty will be taken by Fernando Abad, who spent last season with the Washington Nationals. Abad has been a bit of a late-bloomer, but he throws hard, has a plus breaking ball and good command.
Right-hander Evan Scribner and left-hander Drew Pomeranz have the final two spots in the A's bullpen, although they will have to fight to keep their spots when currently DL'd relievers Cook and Fernando Rodriguez return. Scribner, who is out-of-options, had an up-and-down 2013 season. He was lights-out for Sacramento, but he had a 4.39 ERA in 26.2 innings for the A's. Pomeranz, acquired for Brett Anderson this off-season, has been a starter for most of his career, but he had an outstanding spring training and will be the A's long reliever coming out of camp. If he is sent back to Sacramento, Pomeranz is likely to return to the starting rotation.
Cook should return to the A's within a week, while Rodriguez could join the A's bullpen as soon as sometime in May. Rodriguez had Tommy John surgery at the end of last spring training. He is already throwing in games, having appeared in two minor league spring training games last week. He will likely go on a rehab assignment in the coming days. Rodriguez is out-of-options, as well.
The A's could receive a mid-season boost from free agent signee Eric O'Flaherty. The left-hander had Tommy John surgery last May and is hoping to return to the big leagues in July or August. O'Flaherty was one of the best lefty relievers in the National League over the past three seasons and he could give the A's a big weapon down-the-stretch.
Should the A's need to dip further into their depth chart either in the rotation or the bullpen, they will have some talented arms to choose from in Sacramento. Prospect Arnold Leon had an excellent spring and he could fill a spot either in the A's rotation or their bullpen if needed, as could right-hander Josh Lindblom. Lefty Joe Savery and right-hander Philip Humber both have major league experience and could fill roles in the A's bullpen.