Status: Division contender
The A's didn't have an easy time scoring runs in 2008, finishing with the worst offense in baseball. They set about addressing this weakness by essentially replacing Daric Barton with Jason Giambi, Frank Thomas with Matt Holliday, and Bobby Crosby with Orlando Cabrera. All of a sudden, a unit that so recently didn't even strike fear in the heart of Steve Trachsel looks pretty solid from top to bottom, with a lineup core that promises to give the 6 and 7 hitters a lot of at bats with men on base.
"But what about injuries?" you ask. It's a valid question - Mark Ellis, Eric Chavez, Ryan Sweeney, and Travis Buck have all had problems staying on the field, while Giambi is 38. Ordinarily it's tough to build a lineup around that much uncertainty and remain optimistic.
But here's the neat thing about the A's. Ellis gets hurt? Up comes Cliff Pennington. Chavez gets hurt? Hello Nomar, or Crosby, or Jack Hannahan. Sweeney? Rajai Davis. Buck? Chris Denorfia or Aaron Cunningham. Giambi? Barton (who, disastrous season aside, projects to be about average). No matter who gets hurt, the A's have a legitimate answer, a guy they can plug into the lineup and expect to hold his own, if not succeed. Not that they could replace Holliday's bat or anything, but still. This is the sort of depth a lot of teams don't have, and you have to give credit to Billy Beane for putting this all together. Beane may not make that many major moves that cause you to stop in your tracks and think "that guy's a genius," but it's little things like this that, when you notice them, make you think "oh yeah, of course he planned for that." He's a thorough man, that Billy. The kind of man who probably could've made a successful career out of robbing banks.
This is a pretty good lineup. Not amazing, but decent, and likely a fair bit above-average if nothing horrible goes wrong. Given all the depth, how it turns out will probably rest on the shoulders of Holiday, Cust, and Giambi in the middle. If Giambi ages or Holliday has a tough transition, that's going to make things hard, but if they don't, then look out. This is no longer an offense to take lightly.
Projected Pitching Staff:
No, I don't blame you. Trevor Cahill is 21, and has never pitched above AA. Brett Anderson is 21, and has never pitched above AA. And Josh Outman - who's beginning the year in the rotation with Duchscherer unavailable - has but 41 innings of experience above AA. Because of Oakland's tight budget and rebuilding/reloading program, it's a group of relative unknowns that, together, make up probably the most unpredictable pitching staff in the Majors. Without a lot of previous big league experience, we're left having to pick out bits of information from more distant sources.
Duchscherer's probably the best of the starters, with a 3.90 2008 tRA and enough strikes to offset the hittability. He's also the one who just got cut open. That leaves Dallas Braden as the Opening Day starter, which can't possibly be considered good news. Braden's okay and all, but that's kind of like starting your season with Ryan Rowland-Smith. It just doesn't set the best tone. After Braden come the kids and Dana Eveland, the latter of whom isn't the least bit interesting.
As far as those kids are concerned, Outman's got a power fastball and a full repertoire, but also spotty command that saw him throw strikes on just 60% of his pitches over six starts between AAA and the Majors. Anderson's a strike-throwing lefty with the secondary pitches you'd expect from a lefty without a blazing heater, and he's coming off a season that saw him open a lot of eyes. And Cahill has a low-90s fastball, useful curve/change secondaries, and a tendency to keep the ball on the ground (63% GB rate last year), which helps offset his his come-and-go location. All three are inexperienced, but all three have the potential to succeed right now. This is definitely going to test the idea that, while young hitters generally need a lot of experience, young pitchers with good enough stuff can succeed against anyone.
It's an...unfamiliar group, but it's not a group without talent, and it's worth remembering that Sean Gallagher and Gio Gonzalez are also hanging around in case somebody falters or another starter gets hurt. So it's not like the A's need to live and die by the rotation they'll have going next week. Overall, I'm going to project the rotation to be somewhat below-average, since there are bound to be growing pains and nobody stands out as a potential immediate ace, but there is a lot of upside here that may just be realized. Just because you might not know who (m)any of them are doesn't mean they're bad. It just means you could be surprised. (Alternatively they could suck a lot.)
Working in the rotation's favor are two things: (1) the defense, which I'll talk about below, and (2) the bullpen. Russ Springer, Joey Devine, Santiago Casilla, and Michael Wuertz all routinely post swinging strike rates above the reliever league average, and while Brad Ziegler doesn't miss as many bats, he's an extreme groundballer against whom it's difficult to do major damage. Devine's the best of the group, so it's going to be important for Oakland that his elbow checks out. He's going to see Dr. Andrews next week, but until we hear otherwise, I'm going to err on the side of "mostly healthy". Obviously it does them a lot of harm if Devine has to miss significant time, but still, on paper right now, this is a good unit. I know those five guys are all righties, but Jerry Blevins and/or Gio Gonzalez should be perfectly capable of handling the LOOGY role.
Get past the whole Jason-Giambi-first-baseman thing and this defense is solid. Mark Ellis and Orlando Cabrera are a middle infield to be envied, at least as far as glovework is concerned. Chavez has a long track record of defensive aptitude, and should be a bit of a plus as long as he's healthy. And the Holliday/Sweeney/Buck outfield is above-average across the board, with Davis serving as an excellent A-level defensive backup. The A's are intending to field a strong defense capable of reducing the strain and stress on their inexperienced pitching staff, and the only potential injury that could really take away from that is one to Ellis, since he's one of the best defenders of his generation. Everywhere else, they're covered. Losing Cabrera would hurt, but it would hurt a lot less than losing Ellis.
Right now, the A's are being projected as a ~.500 ballclub. The Diamond-Mind Projection Blowout linked to the other day put them at an average of 81-81, with 768 runs scored and 755 runs against. I think that's fair - the offense is good but not great, and the pitching staff is just littered with question marks, from the health of the top arms to the inexperience of the group as a whole. What should concern fans of other teams in the AL West is that this roster seems to have a lot more upside than downside. Given all the uncertainty surrounding the rotation, it'll only take one or two guys taking a step forward to turn that uncertainty on its head, and with the starting depth, the team's likely to find four or five guys who can pitch a little bit before too long. And that's when it's time to worry, because a 2009 A's team with average to above-average run prevention is a 2009 A's team that's going to push for the playoffs.
We've talked all winter about how the Mariners have a somewhat reasonable chance of surprising everyone and taking the West, but the A's are closer to achieving that goal than we are. They're a better team than us with better depth, and the longer the Angels go without their big three, the greater the opportunity for the A's to sneak by. You can look at their unfamiliar roster and try to ignore them if you like, but odds are they're going to make you notice. It's only a matter of time.