The A’s Have A Mr. Potato Head Offense

Over the weekend, the Oakland A’s traded for Chris Young, paying very little for an undervalued asset that gives them a leg up on the offseason. It also gives them an interesting set of permutations with which to arrange their lineup next season, given their current roster configuration.

Now, to be certain, we are uncertain of how the A’s lineup will look next season. There is a long winter ahead of us, and anything can and will happen with general manager Billy Beane at the helm. While Young was reportedly on the block, you would have been hard pressed to name Oakland as a logical candidate, given the fact that they already had a full outfield. But, now that it has, let’s press forward, not backward.

Let’s assume a couple of things. First, that Stephen Drew returns to Oakland. With Cliff Pennington being shipped off in the deal, the options at shortstop are Brandon Hicks, Adam Rosales and Eric Sogard, and none of those are palatable. Hence, it stands to reason that Oakland knows Drew will be back, or they wouldn’t have dealt Pennington. Even if doesn’t stand to reason, let’s just say that it does, OK? And since they’re picking up Drew’s $10 million option, and with Josh Donaldson now the incumbent at third base, the team is unlikely to pick up Brandon Inge’s $6 million option for him to serve in a backup role. Finally, let’s assume the following 13-person roster:

Catcher: George Kottaras, Derek Norris
Infielders: Chris Carter, Josh Donaldson, Stephen Drew, Brandon Moss, Scott Sizemore, Jemile Weeks
Outfielders: Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Seth Smith, Chris Young

You’ll notice I didn’t list a designate hitter. That’s because with this roster, the A’s will have the luxury of rotating the DH on a nightly basis, mainly from the outfield.

But let’s step back from that for a second, and start at catcher. Judging from how Bob Melvin worked things in the postseason, Norris would appear to be the starting catcher, but Melvin will have the freedom to liberally splice in Kottaras. Kottaras doesn’t end up having great batting averages, but over the past three seasons, he is a league-average hitter from both sides of the plate (97 wRC+ in 129 PA vs. LHP, 103 wRC+ in 453 PA vs. RHP). Kottaras didn’t see much time against lefties while in Milwaukee thanks to Jonathan Lucroy, but he has handled them well enough when given an opportunity (0.83 BB/K). That’s a valuable weapon. Last season, only 21 catchers posted a wRC+ of 100 or better (min. 200 PA), and of them, only 11 posted a wRC+ of 97 or better from both sides of the plate. That the A’s have one of those 11 guys as a bench option is a boon.

In the infield, things seem fairly set as well. At first base, the platoon of Chris Carter against lefties and Brandon Moss against righties figures to continue to make beautiful music. Donaldson will be the primary starter at third, Sizemore the primary starter at second and Drew at shortstop. Mixing in will also be Weeks, who has underwhelmed in the bigs so far, but still figures to make the team in some capacity. Still, despite Weeks’ struggles this past season, if you look back three years, his splits against right-handed pitching are better than those of Donaldson, who has posted a .281 wOBA, as well as a 0.19 BB/K against righties in that time. Donaldson did much better against righties in 2012, but if he struggles against them next season, or simply needs a day off, Oakland can swing Sizemore to third and put Weeks at second. It doesn’t figure to become a regular platoon, but Weeks’ stature will demand that he gets a certain number of PAs, and this seems like the easiest avenue to get him that. In fact, the announcement of Donaldson at third and Sizemore at second could be geared to motivate Weeks. If Weeks plays to his scouting report, the A’s would be able to regularly start him at second and platoon Donaldson and Sizemore at third.

The one fly in the ointment could be shortstop, as this roster doesn’t include a capable backup for Drew. However, when from 2007 to the time Drew broke his ankle in 2011, he played in more than 90 percent of the D-backs games, including three seasons with 150 or more games played. If he maintains that level of health in 2013, Oakland can fake shortstop for the 10 or so games Drew needs a breather. Who knows, perhaps Grant Green will force his way up for some spot starts.

It’s the outfield and DH where the genius of this lineup really comes into play. The A’s now have two center fielders (three if you count Cespedes, though we probably shouldn’t), and can platoon them pretty easily. Over the past three seasons, Crisp has a 107 wRC+ against righties, and a 92 wRC+ versus lefties. Young dovetails this beautifully, with a 93 wRC+ against righties and a 130 wRC+ versus lefties. So against righties, the normal lineup would figure to be Reddick in right, Crisp in center, Cespedes in left and Smith at DH. But while Smith has a robust 121 wRC+ against righties the past three years, his 32 wRC+ against lefties makes it all but certain that he sits against southpaws. The A’s still have a couple of options, though. If they want to run a great defensive lineup, they can run out Crisp, Young and Reddick in the pasture, with Cespedes at DH. Or, if they want a better option than Crisp at the dish, they can rest him and Smith, and play both Moss and Carter. While Carter is the better hitter of the duo against lefties, Moss has been a league average hitter in the 65 PA he’s been given against lefties the past three years. It’s obviously not a lot to go on, but the point is that the A’s have that option. And there are others still. Smith is still a good defensive outfielder, and Moss can fake it ‘til he rakes it in the corners as well.

With Young in the fold, the A’s could look to move Crisp — surely there would be a market for him given the fact that he played well last season and only has a guaranteed $8 million left on his contract. But having them both means that at full strength, the A’s can put out a lineup where it’s conceivable that they will never have a player with a wRC+ lower than 85 (assuming of course, that Norris matures). And when injuries inevitably happen, the team will be deep enough to keep punching hard. Last season, the A’s had to endure Eric Sogard’s 29 wRC+ across 100 PA, Pennington’s 65 wRC+ for 462 and Kurt Suzuki’s 47 wRC+ for 278 PA, to say nothing of the sub-.100 ISO’s posted by Daric Barton and Collin Cowgill. With all of these suboptimal contributions, the team only finished eighth in the AL in runs scored. As the offense came together throughout the course of the season, that rank improved, and a lot of the improvement was due to the outfield, which produced 41 more runs than any other unit last season. And now with Young, there are more options and more opportunities to continuously play a fearsome lineup.

Bob Melvin wasn’t afraid to mix and match with his offense last year, and with Chris Young in the fold, he may end up like a little kid rearranging his Mr. Potato Head throughout 2013. The A’s will have the chance to run out at least two quality players at each defensive position, shortstop excepted. This depth will give them a chance to not have a serious weakness whether the opposing pitcher is left- or right-handed. Obviously there is plenty of time between now and next April, and things can and will change. But given the A’s current roster, their depth will be matched by few teams in baseball. Your move, Anaheim and Texas.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times and a writer and editor for FanGraphs. He has written for the Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

35 Responses to “The A’s Have A Mr. Potato Head Offense”

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  1. Matt says:

    They will certainly need a second guy who can play short. I think if they made a 13-man today they’d leave off either Weeks or Sizemore and add Rosales or Hicks. Otherwise I think you’re right on.

    Of course, that will be nothing like the roster they send out on opening day.

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    • Timothy says:

      I think Grant Green makes the roster over Jemile Weeks, with Sizemore as the starting 2B.

      Green isn’t ideal at SS, but I don’t think it’d kill you to have him there once every 2 weeks or so. Maybe whenever Milone (flyball guy) starts, and a LHP goes for the other team (since Green is a RHB and Drew is a LHB).

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  2. Pirates Hurdles says:

    I think you’re overvaluing a lot of fluky and career years from some very under talented players. The A’s infield in more likely to be train wreck terrible than to repeat 2012.

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    • BX says:

      The A’s infield was mostly train wreck terrible in 2012, with the exception of 1B and part of the 3B season.

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    • Sam says:

      The A’s infield in more likely to be train wreck terrible than to repeat 2012.

      The A’s infield was “train wreck terrible” in 2012. They hit .221/.292/.361 last year–worst in the AL. The outfield will likely regress, even with the addition of Young, but the infield should be improved.

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  3. Old School says:

    2012 was a fluke year for Oakland.

    Back to the AL West basement in 2013.

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    • Astros and Mariners says:

      Hey guys!! Don’t forget us!

      +27 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Flukey's Fluke-O-Rama says:

        It’s the M’s turn to have a completely unsustainable weird-ass year next year. The A’s will settle back to closer to their true talent level, the Rangers will be the Angels of this year (do well in FA, just miss in the season), the Angels will continue their slow deflation, and the Astros will join the division and do what everyone expects.

        So I think the AL West in 2013 will finish Mariners, Rangers (by only a couple), A’s, Angels, Astros.

        Rangers might grab 2nd WC, but as we saw from this year’s 2nd WC, who the hell knows what that means for playoff advancement. Mariners will probably be knocked out in the first round by the Tigers or Jays. (Yes, Jays – the O’s are also a fluke, and the Yankees and Red Sox are their own unique kinds of mess.)

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      • Matt says:

        I wouldn’t predict the A’s to win 94 games again next year (not impossible, but not the likeliest outcome), but that’s as far as I’d go in calling their season a “fluke” and “unsustainable.”

        They are loaded with young talent. Some will regress (likely candidates include Griffin, Moss, Carter) and some will improve (Anderson, Cespedes, Norris, Straily, Donaldson).

        Their pythag actually supported their record this year, and their year-end roster was *miles* better than their opening day roster. I see a team with a true talent of high-80s wins that has a definite shot to challenge in 2013.

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    • spamelot says:

      even if you get regressioon from “career year” players.

      they’llk get a full seasons worth of anderson (pending health) rather than the 6 starts he had in 2012

      their catcher, ss, 3b, and 2b positions was mostly terrible most of the year

      tyson ross and graham godfrey as fill in starting pitchers had 15 losing decisions between them. thankfully neither will be in the A”s projected 2013 rotation

      obviously 14 walkoff wins is hard to repeat but what looks to be a deeper and now a bit more experienced roster, with payroll flexibility, we’ll see what happens

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      • Chris says:

        I’ll take the under on Anderson having 30 starts in 2013.

        Additionally, I’m not sold that their current options at C, SS, 3B, or 2B for 2013 are any more likely to produce than they did in 2012.

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  4. Chris says:

    This team is all about platoon splits and positional flexibility, I’m trying to think of another team that even comes close to the A’s in this department and the only one I can come up with is the Rockies. Between guys like CarGo, Rutledge, EY Jr, Colvin, Pachecco, Herrera, Nelson, and LeMahieu there is a lot of built in redundancy and flexibility.

    Perhaps platoon hitters with positional flexibility are the new market inefficiency?

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  5. Dave says:

    Kottaras is strictly a LHH, so he doesn’t hit from both sides of the plate, and he didn’t see equal at bats against lefties because he generally hasn’t been able to hit the good ones his whole career. 1/11 vs. Bumgarner, 0/7 vs. Lilly, 0/5 vs. Cliff, 0/4 vs. Dontrelle Willis, 0/3 vs. CC, etc. Small samples, I know, but his league average production vs. LHP is mainly coming off below average LHP. He gets set up to succeed, in other words, and would be over-exposed in a role facing significantly more lefthanders.

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    • Paul Swydan says:

      While you may right about Kottaras not being good enough to tackle above-average lefties, I don’t know that I see that as a major problem. Him being able to do damage against even 50% of left-handed starters — to me — is a major plus. And if he gets lucky once or twice the times he faces Sabathia or Bumgarner, then that’s gravy. All a moot point of course if Norris becomes the player he is expected to become, but again, Kottaras is a mighty fine safety net.

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  6. Nick Doyle says:

    I think the new market inefficiency is depth and flexibility, w/o having to sacrifice an aspect of baserunning/defense/offense in the process due to underperformance or injury. Every team has someone underperform or get injured, and they must resort many AB’s to replacement level players, the A’s look as if to be conceding that their will be injuries and underperformance but wont have to play a replacement level talent for a majority of the season or mortgage the farm to aqcuire said talent. Depth looks like the new market inefficeincy.

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  7. Brian says:

    Wow. Those writing off the A’s to mediocrity are missing perhaps the most key point of all in 2013. The will play 19 games against horrific Houston. That’s basically 15-4 by sheer accident, right?

    Consider a full season from Brett Anderson and internal improvement and development by other young cogs in the wheel, and I see them at .500, worst case. Then again, the whole AL West non-Houston portion of the division might be .500 after finishing 65-11 against the Astros.

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    • Flukey's Fluke-O-Rama says:

      Yep. Your last sentence kind of cancels out the first one – every AL West fan who is salivating over the chance to beat up on Houston is forgetting that everyone else gets that same chance. So it all cancels each other out. Rising tide lifts all boats, and all that.

      I think the net effect will make each team in the West 2 or 3 games better than they would be otherwise, perhaps 4 or 5 for Ms’ and A’s from not having to face the other AL West teams quite as much.

      If anything it might increase the chances of both WCs coming out of the West next year.

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      • Kurtis says:

        Not exactly true, as last year the Rangers already played the Astros 6 times, so they will only be playing them 10 times more than normal, while the other three teams play them 16 times more. (Im pretty sure they play the ‘stros 16 times next season)

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  8. Chris from Bothell says:

    So based on this article, it sounds like the A’s should go all-out to try to get the best available shortstop, in free agency or trade.

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  9. FF says:

    Wasn’t Grant Green moved to the outfield last year?

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    • Danmay says:

      He’s really not a shortstop anymore, but if anything, his main position has become second base. The reality is that his defense isn’t great anywhere right now.

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      • Kurtis says:

        True, but they played him all over the diamond. While he may never be a starter at SS, he would probably be a perfectly fine replacement for 10 games a season.

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  10. Kris says:

    Fluke over a 162 game sample size…? Yeah, ok

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  11. bjoak says:

    The A’s will save around 25 runs on defense by using Reddick, Crisp, and Young and then DHing Cespedes. 2.5 wins just on defense is huge so I expect them to employ that set-up as often as possible, with Smith spelling people against righties.

    FYI, after the trade, Beane said he would not trade Crisp or any outfielder.

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    • jsolid says:

      and no GM ever trades a player he says he is going to keep.

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      • bjoak says:

        Though stated sarcastically, it is a fair point, but I wasn’t saying his word is gospel. I was stating an FYI as in some extra “information.” I think if he said, “Well, we’ll have to see about Coco,” the negative inference there would be worthy of inclusion in this discussion, just as “I know how important he is to this team” and “He is a personal favorite of mine” are worthy of inclusion.

        His comment that the trade “will impact” Johnny Gomes seems a clear hint that Gomes is on the way out. I certainly think that would be a worthwhile blurb in any discussion about Gomes’ future regardless of whether GM’s always do what they say. See how this works.

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  12. Ben Kolina says:

    great read; very optimistic about the A’s chances next season (more so than 1 year ago, for sure). One note in regards to the OF abundance and lack of a clear back up SS. might Yoenis be a possible part time SS? A’s raved about his arm/range after taking ground balls there earlier in the season during BP. and if were already shifting him to DH and looking to fill 10-20 games at SS it might be an option. Obviously if it were an option ST would be the time for the A’s to feel it out.

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    • Kurtis says:

      I highly doubt they would let him play shortstop, while he may have the tools to play there, I doubt the team would risk injury playing their best hitter out of position.

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  13. Madoff Withurmoni says:

    Wondering if Oakland and the Mets would match up on a deal for Crisp that would make sense for both teams. I’d assume that talk would take place at some point if nothing else, just considering the relationship I assume the front offices have with a lot of the “Moneyball” guys now working for the Mets.

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  14. damon389 says:

    Very interesting read. I look at the growth of platoon players as perhaps the new ‘Moneyball’ that more and more teams will start to approach. To me, it’s the natural progression of all of the pitching specailists morphing into situational hitting specialists. All teams do it to some extent, but not to the degree of Oakland.
    What many forgot was that during the first two months of the season, the A’s didn’t know who they were lineup-wise, and endured a 9 game losing streak to boot! You don’t climb out of that hole unless you do have some great talent on your roster. Yes, there may be some guys who slip, and Moss/Carter, Griffin are probably the most logical candidates. But I think it’s just as likely that guys like Cespy, Drew, Reddick (maybe less HRs, but a higher OBS), Parker, Anderson, Young, etc. have as good or better years in ’13.
    I really don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that the A’s win 100 games in ’13. They have young talent, depth and a softer schedule w/the inclusion of Houston; who’s bound to lost 100+ games. I don’t see the A’s digging an early-season hole and lost 9 games in a row like they did back in May.

    To me, the wildcard in all of this is Seattle. I hear some people say that the M’s will be the ’13 version of this year’s Athletics, but I’ve yet to hear someone come out and say why it will all of a sudden come together for them. Until I see it, I see the M’s as the same 10-game below .500 team that they’ve been for the last five years.

    Agree that TX and LAA will also be there, and that if I was a betting man, both wildcards will come from the AL West.

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  15. Kurtis says:

    Why do you think we shouldnt count Cespedes as a Center Fielder? In the short amount of time that he played there he looked better than he did in Left, I wouldnt take his CF defense over Young’s or Crisp’s, but I think Cespedes could play a solid CF.

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    • Dave says:

      Give me a reason why you’d put Cespedes in center over Crisp or Young. Take offense completely out of the equation. Exactly.

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      • B says:

        Cespedes has displayed excellent range in OF and his arm is very strong where Coco’s is one of the weakest in MLB. The knock on Cespedes is that he gets poor reads and takes bad routes to the ball. With more time, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect him to improve that aspect of his game.

        And I don’t know why you would take offense out of the equation. If Cespedes is only slightly worse than Coco on defense but infinitely better on offense, then it would make sense to play him instead of Coco if you wanted to get Seth Smith or Brandon Moss in at LF.

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