Overview: The new variety of the Oakland Athletics promises to be a bit more interesting to watch for A's fans than the team that Oakland produced in 2008. Billy Beane had a very agressive start to his offseason, acquiring Matt Holliday from the Colorado Rockies. Then Beane made some excellent maneuvers to bring in some of the best bargains of the winter. Jason Giambi (1 year, 5.25M w/2010 club option), Orlando Cabrera (1 year, 4M) and Nomar Garciaparra (1 year, 1M) all came in at very reasonable prices and provide the A's with leadership that they needed. It is going to be particularly fun watching to see if Giambi or Garciaparra still have another season left in their bats. Those four moves certainly do change the way that teams will look at the A's, but there are still plenty of holes to fill on this team and plenty of new faces that fans will have to acquaint ourselves with over the summer. One thing is for certain, the 2009 A's are going to be interesting to watch as a potential contender for the balanced AL West crown.
After all-star Justin Duchscherer, the A's have four starting pitchers that are not household names yet, but all talented, young and competitive. With the rich history that the A's have for developing quality arms, it would not surprise me at all to see one or two of this group develop into top end of the rotation starters, with 25 being the oldest . The group currently consists of: Dana Eveland, Sean Gallagher, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden. On their extended roster, just one starting pitcher is over the age of 30, Justin Duchscherer. Watch out for the A's pitching staff this season because any one of those four could develop into top-two starters. I am going to say that I believe in Dallas Braden to make a big contribution to the team this season. For now, the starting rotation is a weakness because of its overall inexperience, but it could end up a strength. Particularly if Duchscherer stays healthy for the entire season.
What other team do you know of that has had two relief pitchers with respective ERA's of 1.06 and 0.59 in more than 45innings of work for each pitcher. I can't think of any teams in my time watching baseball where this has happened and the 2008 A's had Joey Devine and Brad Zeigler hoist those gaudy numbers. This is exactly why Huston Street became expendable in the offseason trade for Matt Holliday. Before the A's get to Zeigler and Devine in the late innings, the A's have Jerry Blevins, Russ Springer, Santiago Casilla and Mike Wuertz. Blevins is the only lefty in the bullpen, but he is young and can battle. Springer was brought in this offseason and at 40 he posted a 2.52 ERA in 50.1 innings with the Cardinals last season. He is going to provide the veteran leadership in the bullpen for the rest of the group, who are relatively inexperienced. Casilla and Wuertz round out the bullpen and will be good in the middle relief role. While none of these names are going to be nationally known, I would expect the A's bullpen to be among the best in baseball in 2009. If you look at their numbers from 2008, the highest ERA of the bunch was 3.92 (Casilla). If Zeigler and Devine can continue their dominance at the end of games, this is going to keep the A's close throughout the season.
The A's lineup projects to be heavy on the lefties, built around a very powerful righty, Matt Holliday. If all goes according to play the lineup for the A's will look something like this:
Ryan Sweeney, CF (L)
Orlando Cabrera, SS (R)
Jason Giambi, 1B (L)
Matt Holliday, LF (R)
Jack Cust, DH (L)
Eric Chavez, 3B (L)
Kurt Suzuki, C (R)
Mark Ellis, 2B (R)
Travis Buck, RF (L)
That lineup is fairly well distributed, and they should really match up well against average right-handed starters, but could struggle against lefties with around 300 strikeouts coming from Giambi and Cust alone. Ryan Sweeny is not your typical leadoff hitter, but he showed the ability to get on base and make contact. Orlando Cabrera also will make contact, but he is not as good of an OBP guy as the typical Beane product. Bringing Giambi back to Oakland was a great move by my estimation because it gives the A's another legitimate power option and a fan favorite, but he is not the MVP winner from years ago. I also worry about Matt Holliday because he is moving from one of the most hitter friendly parks in baseball to one of the least. I do not expect to see him hitting .340 this season, but he is too good at making contact and putting the ball in play to drop far below .300. I do not expect to see his power numbers be much higher than 30 homers, which could make him a good #3 hitter, if it did not put three lefties in a row (Giambi, Cust, Chavez). Jack Cust and Eric Chavez will not hit for a high average. Cust will strike out a ton, but still get on base enough to keep his job. Chavez has been injured too much in the last five seasons to make me think that he will be around for more than 200 at-bats, but if he is, he plays excellent defense and has power. Mark Ellis has been an average second-baseman in his career, with decent power for his position. Last season, his batting average hit a low .233, which makes him one of the weaker second-basemen. I do not expect that Oakland will wait too long on him and a replacement could be coming from within in the form of Bobby Crosby, Nomar Garciaparra or Jack Hannahan. The other two guys in the lineup are still developing. Kurt Suzuki and Travis Buck. Suzuki posted solid contact numbers in 2008 and could become a Bengie Molina-type hitter without 100 pounds in taquito's. I will be interested in watching Suzuki hit in 2009, because it is obvious that he can make solid contact, but if he can add some power to his bat, he would become a top-10 catcher. Buck had a good 2007 debut, hitting .288 in around 250 at-bats, but in 2008 his average dipped to .226. He strikes out a ton for a guy without much power. He also gets on base, which will earn him another shot to make this an everyday job for him. Like Ellis, if that does not happen, there could be a solution from within the organization. Rajai Davis has lightning quick speed and could add a different dynamic to a slow lineup. Chris Denorfia is 28, doesn't have much power, but can get on base and could plug a hole temporarily. Finally Aaron Cunningham is coming from the minors and could be a perfect replacement for Buck come May after some further seasoning at AAA Sacremento.
Projections: This is going to be an average team in an average division. The Angels appear to have the advantage over the other three teams, at least today, but the A's have a ton of upside with a young starting rotation and some mature bats in their lineup this season. The A's have closed the gap, and in what will be a division that could be decided by 5 games or less for the first three spots, I predict the A's to finish 3rd right around .500. There will be issues as to whether or not Billy Beane can keep Matt Holliday under contract or trade him, which will be talked about frequently come July. Watch out for Kurt Suzuki and Dallas Braden to develop this season.