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2011 Oakland Athletics: Dangerous If Healthy Spring Preview
by Richard Van Zandt,
March 18, 2011

For the second consecutive offseason, the Oakland Athletics were rebuffed in their overtures towards free agent third baseman Adrian Beltre, who spurned the Athletics' advances in order to sign a six-year, $96 million deal with their division rivals in Texas. Nevertheless, and perhaps because of it, the A’s had a successful off-season. Even without adding Beltre to the mix, GM Billy Beane has improved an offense that ranked 9th in the AL in runs scored in 2010 by adding outfielders Josh Willingham and David DeJesus along with veteran designated hitter Hideki Matsui. Additionally, without the added weight of Beltre’s contract, the A’s were also able to add relievers Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes to a bullpen that was sixth in the league in ERA (3.83) which should help take the weight off a young rotation that was already nearly half a run better than any other in the league in 2010.

2010 Standings - AL West
West W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Texas Rangers 90 72 .556 0 51-30 39-42 787 687 .562 62-49 28-23
Oakland Athletics 81 81 .500 9 47-34 34-47 663 626 .526 57-60 24-21
Los Angeles Angels 80 82 .494 10 43-38 37-44 681 702 .486 57-54 23-28
Seattle Mariners 61 101 .377 29 35-46 26-55 513 698 .363 47-65 14-36

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
David DeJesus OF
Josh Willingham OF
Hideki Matsui DH
Brian Fuentes RP
Grant Balfour RP
Brandon McCarthy SP
Andy LaRoche IF
Rich Harden P
Departed Pos.
Eric Chavez 3B
Ben Sheets SP
Justin Duchscherer SP
Chad Gaudin RP
Vin Mazzaro SP
Henry Rodriguez RP
Jack Cust DH
Gabe Gross OF
Rajai Davis OF
Eric Patterson OF
It’s a starting rotation, led by 27-year-old perfect game pitcher Dallas Braden, that figures to be the strength of the A’s in 2011. Braden went just 11-14 in ’10, but posted a 3.50 ERA and walked just 43 batters in over 190 innings. Given his age and 76 career starts, Braden is the de facto veteran leader of the rotation. The ace of the staff, however, may be 23-year old Trevor Cahill, who led Oakland with 18 wins while posting a 2.97 ERA and finishing 9th in the AL Cy Young Award balloting. Or it could be left-hander Gio Gonzalez, 25, who completed his first full season in the big leagues by winning 15 games and putting up a 3.23 mark 200.2 innings. 23-year old Brett Anderson posted a 2.80 ERA but was limited to just 19 starts and 112 innings pitched while dealing with elbow injuries. He finished the year strong by going 4-0 with a 2.18 ERA in his final six starts in September.

The battle for the final spot in the rotation will likely come down to left-hander Josh Outman and right-hander Brandon McCarthy, with youngsters Tyson Ross, Bobby Cramer, and Guillermo Moscoso also in the mix. Outman missed all of 2010 after undergoing Tommy John surgery following an ’09 season in which he went 4-1 with a 3.48 ERA in 14 appearances. A former top prospect of the White Sox, McCarthy went 7-4 with a 4.62 ERA in 17 starts for Texas last year, but appears to have become the frontrunner for the fifth starter’s job with a strong spring. Ross, who went 1-4 with a 5.49 ERA in 26 appearances last year for Oakland, has thrust himself into contention by opening camp with 9 2/3 shutout innings of work.

The additions of Balfour and Fuentes give the A’s potentially one of baseball's strongest bullpens, anchored by 2009 Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey. Bailey has racked up 51 saves and a recorded a 1.70 ERA in two seasons as the A’s closer and the left-hander Fuentes’ ability to close gives the Athletics insurance in case the injury-prone Bailey is unready to go following offseason surgery to clean up his elbow and a mild forearm strain this spring. A ten-year veteran, Fuentes has 187 career saves, including an AL-leading 48 in 2009. Balfour, meanwhile, was a key component of a Tampa Bay bullpen that posted the best composite ERA in the league in 2010. Those two join holdovers Brad Ziegler, Michael Wuertz, Craig Breslow, and Jerry Blevins in what should be among the top bullpens in the game. Also vying for a bullpen spot is Joey Devine. A former first round pick by the Braves, Devine went 6-1 with a 0.59 ERA in 42 relief appearances for Oakland in a breakout 2008 season, but he underwent Tommy John surgery in April of the following year and hasn’t pitched in the majors since.

As the San Francisco Giants across the Bay showed in 2010, that kind of pitching can carry a team a long way, even without a ton of offense. Nevertheless, the A’s should be able to score more runs in 2011, health permitting. One key to the Athletics' season will be how healthy they can keep Matsui’s knees and Willingham’s back. Willingham has hit 15 or more home runs in each of the past five seasons, including 20 or more three times, but has surpassed 140 games played just twice in that span. Matsui has belted 49 long balls over the past two years, but his surgically repaired knees have reduced him to a full-time DH role. If those two players can stay upright, they ought to provide a much needed boost in the power department as last season's home run leader, third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, went deep just 16 times.

Cy Young Candidate
Gio Gonzalez
Former 1st-rounder for Chicago (2004) has harnessed his control and is primed for a big year
 Disappointment Candidate
Josh Willingham
His troublesome back and the spacious Coliseum outfield could make the Hammer's year in Oakland one to forget
At the top of the order, and rounding out Oakland's starting outfield, DeJesus and Coco Crisp ought to give those two sluggers plenty of opportunities to drive in runs. His spring DUI aside, Crisp has had a fantastic camp, batting near .500 and slugging more than twice his career average. He stole 32 bases last year in 35 attempts while playing in just 75 games and displayed his usual stellar defense. When healthy, he gives the A’s a legitimate leadoff hitter and centerfielder, allowing the team to use DeJesus in right field, to which he’s better suited at this point in his career. DeJesus, who went down for the year last July with a torn tendon in his thumb, gives the A’s a dynamic offensive player to fill the three-hole while first baseman Daric Barton, who led the team with 110 walks in 2010, bats second.

The 25-year old Barton, once a key component in the deal that sent Mark Mulder to St. Louis, may never meet the lofty expectations A’s fans once had of him, but nevertheless he gets on base at a good rate (.369 career OBP, .393 in 2010) and has become one of the best defensive first basemen in the league (+/- rating of +27 in ’10 with 20 defensive runs saved). He and shortstop Cliff Pennington were the most dependable everyday players for Oakland last season, with Barton playing in a team-high 159 games and Pennington 156, although Pennington himself is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

Cliff Pennington
Pennington and second baseman Mark Ellis combine to give the A’s a strong defensive middle infield combo. The often overlooked and underrated Ellis is one of the best in the game with the leather, though he too has proven to be injury prone throughout his career. Only twice in his career has he played in at least 150 games, and he has surpassed 124 games played only once since 2003.

Completing the A’s solid defense up the middle is catcher Kurt Suzuki. Suzuki had a bit of a down year at the plate, batting just .242 with a .669 OPS, yet he still tied with Kouzmanoff for the team lead in RBI with 71 and he is a respected leader both in the clubhouse and behind the plate.

Providing some competition at third for Kouzmanoff is one-time Dodger and Pirate prospect Andy LaRoche, who is in camp as a non-roster invitee. A career .224 hitter in parts of four big league seasons, LaRoche is having a strong spring in his attempt to unseat the incumbent Kouzmanoff, though Kouz, a stronger defensive third baseman, is responding with a strong camp of his own. LaRoche has the added benefit of being able to play first and second base as well as third.

With a team this fragile, having depth will be vital. To that end, the club is likely to fill out its roster with versatile utility players such as Ryan Sweeney, who can play all three outfield positions, Conor Jackson, who will see time as the fifth outfielder and backup first baseman, and Adam Rosales, who saw time at all four infield positions in 2010 as well as in left field. Those players all come with their own injury concerns, however, with Sweeney having missed the final 2 ˝ months of 2010 after undergoing surgery on his knee, Jackson having season ending surgery in September for a sports hernia, and Rosales undergoing ankle surgery in December that is expected to keep him out of the lineup until May. With Rosales out, rookie Eric Sogard becomes a prime candidate to win the utility infield job. Sogard, a second-round pick of the Padres in 2007, was acquired in the same deal that brought Kouzmanoff to Oakland.

Athletics Team Capsule

3/18/11: Hardly Surprising News for Rich Harden - The A’s brought Rich Harden back to Oakland in December, two-and-a-half years after dealing him to the Cubs, with the idea of giving him a shot at the fifth starter’s role, but the oft-injured pitcher was eliminated from the competition without having thrown a single pitch. Harden suffered a lat strain in his back in mid-February and has yet to pitch in a spring game.

Final Word

If they can stay healthy, the A’s should be able to go toe-to-toe with any team in the league, including Beltre’s Rangers. They have strong young pitching, solid defense (particularly up the middle), and an improved offense. They also have their fair share of injury concerns as well, and with a bad break here and there, things could quickly begin to spiral out of control.

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