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Team Preview: Oakland Athletics

Oakland may have surprised a few people last season by being more competitive than was expected, but they should not sneak up on anyone this year. Is the young pitching shaping up into a potential competitive window again? That’s where most of the focus is drawn to, but the rest of Oakland’s roster could wear teams down in unexpected ways. The lineup has pop, the gloves can catch and the bullpen has been bolstered. In short, Oakland lost little talent this winter and padded their depth in needed areas. Will it be enough?

THE STARTING NINE

CF Coco Crisp^
1B Daric Barton*
RF David DeJesus*
LF Josh Willingham
DH Hideki Matsui*
C Kurt Suzuki
3B Kevin Kouzmanoff
2B Mark Ellis
SS Cliff Pennington^

Oakland runs the risk of boring onlookers into complacency, where it’s especially true in the offense where they seem to have an inexhaustible supply of like-valued players. There are no dregs in the lineup, but neither is there a player that a lay fan would be likely to consider exciting or a bona fide star. They field a balanced mix of handedness both in the projected starting lineup and in the bench and have ample depth behind them. It’s not exciting, but it’s serviceable and the group of position players can also field well which is where they’re lacking in credit.

THE ROTATION

RHP Trevor Cahill
LHP Brett Anderson
LHP Gio Gonzalez
LHP Dallas Braden
RHP Brandon McCarthy

The starting rotation is good, but perhaps a touch overrated. There’s a lot of health risk in here and a general disconnect between their stellar 2010 ERA and the likely 2011 projection, for whom Trevor Cahill is probably the poster boy. He made a name for himself with the 2.97 ERA but every one of his luck and defensively adjusted pitching metrics graded him at just over four runs per nine. That is a big improvement over his rookie season, but not the ace that some people have in mind.

Across the board, the returning Athletics rotation is full of guys who posted ERAs almost a full run below their xFIPs last season. Part of that is the park and another part was some good defense behind them, but it’s important to give proper credit where it’s due and the rotation has been getting too much of it.

THE BULLPEN

CL RHP Andrew Bailey
LHP Brian Fuentes
RHP Grant Balfour
RHP Michael Wuertz
LHP Craig Breslow
RHP Brad Ziegler
RHP Rich Harden

Fuentes and Balfour are the important new guys this season, brought into a pen that was middle of the pack last season, but has lost nobody important. Rich Harden is also a new addition and could work his way back into the rotation in the dream scenario where he is both healthy and productive, but should not be counted on for even solid relief work after his complete disaster of a 2010 season.

THE KEY PLAYER

If the Athletics make a play on the AL West crown, it’s likely to be led by their run prevention and the most important single person in that unit is probably Brett Anderson. He made just 19 starts last year after a stellar 2009 debut and saw his strikeout rate dip by quite a significant amount. Was that due to the lingering effects of multiple elbow problems? It is hard to say, but they did not go away toward the end of the season as Anderson got further away from the elbow-related DL stints.

Anderson could shake those concerns off and return to his 2009 form and it would not be a surprise. He clearly has the talent to do so and we have seen young pitchers blossom after getting through rough patches early in their careers before. Objectively, however, an already present injury history in his arm coupled with a now below average strikeout rate has to raise a caution flag in the hype machine.

Fans are currently projecting Anderson for 174 innings of 3.34 FIP baseball, which would be a significant improvement on both his 2009 and 2010 xFIPs. If Anderson can deliver that then he would provide Oakland with a significant boon in the rotation. I would, however, feel anxious about expecting that level and duration of performance from him. It might be setting the bar at his 75th percentile for instance.

SUMMARY

Oakland flirted with a big offseason. They were linked to names like Adrian Beltre and won the posting fee for Hishashi Iwakuma, but failed to land either in contracts. They did bring Balfour and Fuentes in on sizable two-year deals and got Rich Harden with a low-risk signing. Overall, Oakland did what Oakland often does. They addressed most of their holes without making a splashy move and will rely on maturation and young players to grow the team into a contender if possible.

Texas is the class of the AL West headed into the season, but Oakland is not far behind and has a good team profile to step in should Texas’ riskier investments blow up.