From their divisional championship in 2000 through of their last playoff appearance 2006, the Oakland Athletics had the second best regular season winning percentage and run differential in the major leagues, behind only the Yankees. Expanding the scope to include the non-winning seasons of 2007-2009, they still have the third best winning percentage and run differential in the American league for the Decade of the Aughts, behind only New York and Boston. Are the As prepared to return from their exile from contention after three years of mediocrity?
While Oakland’s current team doesn’t feature standouts like its excellent teams of the early 00s (although Zombie Eric Chavez lingers on as perhaps the highest paid backup 1B/3B in baseball history), like the 2006 team, the team has an even distribution of average and above-average starters. The only projected weak spot around the diamond is at shortstop, but even there, neither Cliff Pennington nor Adam Rosales is a replacement level scrub. The longstanding 3B problem (due to Chavez’s injuries) has been resolved for the moment with Kevin Kouzmanoff, who isn’t anything special with the bat or glove, but is a league average player or perhaps a bit better. Injuries and age have taken their toll on second baseman Mark Ellis, but his excellent glove makes him valuable. At first base, Daric Barton may have disappointed in the past, but he’s still only 24, the projection systems still like his offense, and he’s a slick fielder. The underrated Kurt Suzuki is a real asset at catcher. Despite Jack Cust‘s down year in 2009, both ZiPS and CHONE still have confidence in his ability to produce at the plate, and should he or Barton fail, the As’ #1 prospect, power-hitting 1B/DH Chris Carter, might be ready to step in. Along with the Mariners, the As sport one of the most obvious “three center fielder” outfields in baseball. Coco Crisp, Rajai Davis, and Ryan Sweeney would each probably be above-average in center field; despite less-than-intimidating bats, the gloves are good enough that all three project as above-average players. Injuries are a concern with all three, but reserves Gabe Gross (yet another defensive standout) and Travis Buck could start for many teams. Moreover, the As’ #2 prospect, outfielder Michael Taylor, is just about ready for the big leagues.
Although the offense should be better in 2010, the strength of this team still lies (and will need to lie) in run prevention. The fielding should be excellent, but the pitching has to do its part. Free agent signee Ben Sheets is a wild card, given his injury history and (if one puts weight in such things) his Spring Training performance, but even if he isn’t the #2 pitcher the projection systems see, the As aren’t totally reliant on him. 22-year old Brett Anderson is likely their best starter, and Dallas Braden and Justin Duchsherer also projecting as above-average. Relief pitching is a major strength; Brad Ziegler, Andrew Bailey, and Michael Wuertz are all good relievers, and if Joey Devine can come back from his injury, this could be one of the best bullpens in baseball.
The As are far from perfect, but few teams outside of the AL East come close. The As’ starters may not be able to match up with Seattle’s Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee, but their offense is probably a bit better than the Mariners’. They don’t have the offense of the Angels or the Rangers, but they will field better than the Angels and pitch better than the Rangers. The As have a lot of young players, so there is a lot of volatility in their projections — perhaps they’ll only win 70, or perhaps youngsters like Anderson, Carter, and Taylor will carry them to 90 wins. I’m probably higher on the As’ current chances than other FanGraphers, and I’m not saying they’re the best team in the AL West, the most evenly matched division in baseball. But from this pre-season vantage point, it’s a four-team race that the As have a non-trivial chance of winning.