Oakland A’s Opening Day Outlook

Opening Day is finally here!

After an entire offseason of anticipation, the Oakland A’s will kick off their 2014 campaign tonight against the Cleveland Indians at 7:05PM at the O.co Coliseum. They will be defending their back-to-back American League West Division Championships and looking to make another run at the postseason for a third consecutive season.

All of that is still another 162 games away though. There will certainly be ups and downs throughout the course of the next six months. The A’s already have suffered a couple setbacks with the loss of Jarrod Parker for the season, and A.J. Griffin for the beginning of the season. There will likely be a few more injuries along the way, but there will also be players that will step up and fill those voids. You know, the fun part of watching a Billy Beane built roster. There is almost always a surprise player that comes through.

Not to discount the excitement of potentially reaching another American League Divisional Series, but the true test this season will be emerging with another AL West Division title. The Rangers got stronger with additions of Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo and former A’s top prospect Michael Choice. The Mariners added Robinson Cano, Logan Morrison and Corey Hart. And let’s not look past the Angels. You can never discount a lineup that includes Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, even if the latter two have had a pair of down seasons in a row.

The positive take away — once you get to the post season as the division winner (which hopefully they are able to accomplish again), the Tigers are not necessarily stronger now that they have shipped Fielder out to bring in Ian Kinsler. Boston added Grady Sizemore but lost Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran both joined the Yankees, but they lost Cano. The favorite out of these contenders is still the Tigers, who the A’s took to a game five each of the past two seasons.

Of course, the entire landscape can change between now and October, but if the A’s get back to the post season, you have to like their chances.

Let’s take a look at what it is going to take to get back to October this season and a few predictions for the season.

 Health

The common theme over the past few seasons has been depth. That is no different this season than it has been in the past. Beane built this team with a deep bench. Nick Punto, Alberto Callaspo and Daric Barton add depth to the infield while Sam Fuld and Craig Gentry add depth in the outfield. The starting rotation has Drew Pomeranz, Josh Lindblom and Philip Humber behind Tommy Milone and Jesse Chavez, who have both already been moved into the starting rotation to replace Parker and Griffin. Steven Vogt will be the first man up should there be any need behind the plate.

Still though, the A’s will need their big bats to stay healthy. There is no one on the bench or in the minors that can come up and replace the production that would be lost with an injury to Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp or Brandon Moss. Likewise, the A’s don’t want to be tested to see if they can sustain any more losses to their starting rotation.

The key guys to watch here are Cespedes, Crisp and Josh Reddick in the starting lineup. In the rotation, Scott Kazmir and Griffin will be the pitchers to watch most in regards to their health throughout the season.

Let’s face it though, the A’s need health from their entire rotation at this point. Sonny Gray needs to stay healthy and step into the ace role. It’s a tall task to ask of the youngster in his first full season, but if his performance in the ALDS is any indication, he just may be up for the task. Kazmir returning to his former dominance would be great, but in reality the A’s are just looking for him to be on the same level he was last season. That will be enough of a 1-2 punch to replicate what they got from Bartolo Colon and Parker last season, even if there is a bit of a drop off.

Regardless, expect to see Jake Elmore, Freiman and likely Lindblom at points throughout the season. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Shane Peterson seeing some time at some point this season either.

Bounce Back Years

Both Reddick and Cespedes will be keys to the A’s success in 2014.

Reddick is recovered from a wrist injury that plagued him throughout the 2013 season and has looked good during spring training. A return to his 32-homer season of 2012 seems unlikely, but if he can connect for 20-25 homers, boost his average and still provide Gold Glove defense in right field, he will wind up playing a huge role in the A’s success.

Cespedes was a presence in the lineup even during a down campaign last year. His ability to connect on any given swing of the bat and send a laser deep into the stands commands pitchers to show him respect regardless of how bad he may be slumping. The adjustments he attempted this spring were designed to help him shorten swing and use the whole field. Shortening his swing also should allow him to raise his average by spraying a few more line drives over the infield. The power is there and the home runs will come, but getting on base more and becoming more of an all around threat will only elevate his game. He showed it during his rookie campaign and is certainly capable of bouncing back to become a .280-.300 hitter and still knock 30 homers and 100 RBI in a season.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Cespedes will make the adjustments and become a MVP candidate down the stretch as he plays for that extension he publicly stated he wanted early this spring.

Sustainability

A good amount of attention has been given to the A’s corner infielders, Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss.

Donaldson finished fourth in MVP voting last season and Moss hit a team high 30 homers. It would be understandable if both players took steps backwards this season. In the case of Moss, I could see that happening perhaps a bit, but any drop off would probably be pretty minor. He accomplished his 30 homers in just 446 at-bats while playing in a platoon most of the season with Nate Freiman. With Freiman now down in Sacramento and Daric Barton on the active roster, Moss has likely earned the bulk share of at-bats this season.

While his HR/AB ratio may suffer a bit, it’s pretty reasonable that he’ll be able to sustain the overall production that he and Freiman combined for in 2013 on his own. Should he suffer, the A’s also have Alberto Callaspo who can take some at-bats while manning first base.

As for Donaldson, if there is anything I have learned about him in covering him the past two seasons, there is no single player that works harder at his craft and no single player that wants to shine brighter than Josh Donaldson. I’m not sure where the majority opinion lies on this, but I am actually expecting Donaldson to perform better in 2014. That’s not to say he finished in the top four in MVP voting again, but overall I believe his production will be even better, especially if some of the other hitters heat up and offer him some protection in the lineup.

Another player who fits this category would be Crisp. Let’s face it, Coco is not going to hit another 22 homers this season, but a return to his normal role as a table-setter in the leadoff spot and an antagonist on the base paths is all the A’s need from their veteran leader.

Consistency

Oakland did not have a losing month during the 2013 season. As the old cliche goes, the MLB season is a marathon, not a sprint. As nice as it would be to go out and dominate the opponent every night, no team has ever gone 162-0, and no team ever will. Averaging 15 wins a month will equal out to 90 wins on the season. Adding just one more win per month is a 96 win season.

Seems simple enough, right? Win more than you lose. The A’s are built to maintain their level of play even when one of their pieces is lost to injury. If they can keep that up again for another season, they will be in a good spot (hey, like I said, seems simple — too bad we all know it’s not as easy it reads on paper).

Predictions

– Addison Russell, starting the season with the AA Midland Rockhounds, will make his Major League Debut as a September call-up.

– Sonny Gray wins 15 games and sets a new rookie record for wins with the organization.

– Josh Reddick bounces back and puts together a line of .265, 25 HR, 75 RBI, wins his second Gold Glove

– Josh Donaldson maintains his 2013 success and bats .305, 27 HR, 100 RBI, wins his first Gold Glove.

– Donaldson is named to the American League All-Star team, as is Yoenis Cespedes. Donaldson is a starter. For the first time in a long time, the A’s will have a position player voted in.

– For the first time in several seasons, an impact player will be added at the trade deadline, likely dealing from our rotation and bullpen depth (rotation portion is subject to any other major injuries to front-line starters. In other words, if Gray and Kazmir are healthy, then a deal will be made).

– Oakland will finish with a 90-72 record, although I reserve the right to boost this to 95-67 depending on how long A.J. Griffin is out of the rotation and other starting pitching woes. The quicker the return and less time on the DL by Gray, Kazmir, Griffin and Straily, the better the record gets. But I do only see the time out as a difference of five games in the final standing. If Gray or Kazmir go down for an extended period of time, all bets are off and the record could dip as low as 85-77.

– A’s make the playoffs as either a Wild Card Team or as the Division Champs. Regardless, they win the ALDS and advance to the ALCS for the first time since 2006.

 

I won’t make any predictions beyond that. As Billy Beane has been credited with saying many times, the playoffs are a crap shoot.

Your thoughts? What can we expect from the A’s in 2014? Let me know in the comments.