2008 Oakland Aís
There's Something Fishy in Oakland

BaseballEvolution.com 2008 Spring Preview
by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
March 22, 2008

After the 2005 season, the Florida Marlins conducted one of the most extensive fire sales in the history of Major League Baseball. Their subsequent squad was almost universally selected to finish last in the NL East, usually with triple-digits in losses, and sometimes with a historically bad winning percentage. Instead, the Fish finished with a respectable 78 wins (only five fewer than they had won the previous season), and even remained in the hunt for the NL Wild Card until September.

This past offseason, the Oakland Athletics executed a fire sale rivaling Floridaís. While the Aís probably didnít relinquish as much overall talent as the Marlins did, those whom they traded were already signed to long-term contracts, resulting in perhaps an even greater return for Nick Swisher and Dan Haren than what the Marlins received for the likes of Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Carlos Delgado, Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, and Paul LoDuca.

Much of this new influx of talent is a year or two away from significantly impacting the big league club, which was part of the reason general manager Billy Beane was able to obtain as many top prospects as he did. This group isnít ready to compete for a playoff spot this season, but donít make the mistake of pegging them for last place or 100 losses, either.

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Emil Brown OF
Keith Foulke RHP
Mike Sweeeney DH
Carlos Gonzalez OF
Ryan Sweeney OF
Greg Smith LHP
Dana Eveland LHP
Gio Gonzalez LHP
Joey Devine RHP
Jeff Fiorentino OF
Fernando Hernandez RHP
Departed Pos.
Nick Swisher 1B/OF
Dan Haren RHP
Mike Piazza DH
Shannon Stewart LF
Mark Kotsay CF
Jeff DaVanon OF
Marco Scutaro 2B
Jose Garcia RHP
2007 Starters    Jason Kendall, Kurt Suzuki
Projected 2008 Starters   Kurt Suzuki, Rob Bowen

It didnít seem all that long ago when Jason Kendall had a .320 career batting average and was one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, as well as one of my favorite playersÖ until I realized that Kurt Suzuki represents a significant upgrade over Kendall. Suzukiís 19.4 CS% last season bested Kendallís mark of 15.3%, his league-average OPS was twice as good as what Kendall offered the Aís, and both catchers allowed too many passed balls. Suzuki had respectable minor league numbers, and should continue to solidify his status as a mediocre all-around catcher.

First Base
2007 Starters   Dan Johnson, Nick Swisher
Projected 2008 Starter   Daric Barton, Dan Johnson

The Daric Barton era has arrived in Oakland. The 22-year old sports a career .412 OBP in the minors, having accumulated 47 more walks than strikeouts there. He hadnít shown much power until his September callup, when he cranked out 13 extra base hits in just 72 at bats. At minimum, heís an upgrade over Dan Johnson. I donít know exactly how high his ceiling is, but he shouldnít approach it in 2008.

Second Base
2007 Starter   Mark Ellis
Projected 2008 Starter   Mark Ellis

Ellis appears to be one of those good-every-other-year hitters. 2008 projects to be a down year, which would actually benefit the Aís, since they are far more likely to compete in 2009. Ellisí main contributions come with the glove, however. He ranks fourth among all second basemen with 47 plays made above average over the last three seasons, according to the Fielding Bibleís +/- system. That is all the more impressive considering that Ellis has averaged only 132 games per season in that span.

Surprise Candidate
Greg Smith
This southpaw could out-perform Dan Haren all by himself over the next 3 years if given the chance
Disappointment Candidate
Travis Buck
He has played only 134 games above A-ball falter
Third Base
2007 Starter   Eric Chavez
Projected 2008 Starter   Eric Chavez

In March of 2004, Billy Beane signed the then 26-year old Eric Chavez to a six-year, $66 million deal. His offensive numbers have been declining ever since. He can still pick it at the hot corner, but as he enters his 30ís, Chavez could suffer an even more precipitous offensive fall. He may open the season on the DL with shoulder and back issues.

2007 Starters   Bobby Crosby
Projected 2008 Starter   Bobby Crosby

Carlos Gonzalez
Bobby Crosby is beginning to make Ken Hamelin and Pat Listach feel pretty good about the way their careers panned out after winning American League Rookie of the Year Awards. Crosbyís rookie numbers were even dwarfed by those of these two. Unlike the infielders that surround him, Crosby cannot compensate for his offensive inadequacies with superior defense.

2007 Starters Shannon Stewart, Nick Swisher, Mark Kotsay, Travis Buck, Jack Cust
Projected 2008 Starters Travis Buck, Jack Cust, Carlos Gonzalez, Ryan Sweeney

The Aís are generally a good team at putting the ball in play, with only Jack Cust projecting to strike out over 100 times. Unfortunately, Cust also projects to strike out over 200 times and set yet another seasonal strikeout record. The Aís can live with that, since he draws walks and obliterates the ball whenever he happens to connect.

Two of the top prospects Beane acquired this winter, Carlos Gonzalez and Ryan Sweeney, compete for the centerfield job with Kotsay having been shipped to Atlanta. Gonzalez is a phenomenal five-tool talent, but hasnít quite put everything together yet. Sweeney has a better work ethic than Gonzalez, but still hasnít developed the power that his frame would suggest. Both outfielders have incredible arms and good range, and both should develop into All-Stars at some point.

ROY Candidate
Carlos Gonzalez
He came to the right organization to develop plate patience
Comeback Candidate
Rich Harden
Unfortunately for Oakland, he'll probably be a comeback candidate next year as well
Travis Buck performed admirably last season, but figures to suffer a sophomore slump with a PrOPS 10% lower than his .850 OPS. Overall, the Aís outfield looks surprisingly crowded considering that they lost their three primary outfielders from 2007.

2007 Crew   Jack Hannahan, Donnie Murphy, Marco Scutaro
Projected 2008 Bench   Jack Hannahan, Donnie Murphy, Chris Denorfia, Emil Brown

Chris Denorfia and Back-to-Back Brown give further depth to that outfield. Denorfia boasts good minor league numbers, while Brown only has the arm to play left field, limiting his usefulness unless he can re-capture the magic of 2005-2006. Jack Hannahan makes a better starter than Chavez at this point; we could say the same about Donnie Murphy over Chavez, except that Murphy appears to be more comfortable at second base.

Designated Hitter
2007 Starters   Mike Piazza, Jack Cust
Projected 2008 Starters   Mike Sweeney, Dan Johnson

Athletics Fun Fact
Even though Joe Kennedy produced a respectable 4.37 ERA last year, the A's went
3-13 in his starts, accounting for the team's 10-games-under-.500 finish all by himself
Mike Sweeney was a great pickup. He should provide at least what Mike Piazza did for about $8 million lessÖ at least for a few months. When back problems inevitably sideline him in June, Sweeney will then give way to Jack Cust, who really has no business manning a defensive position, which will open up an outfield spot for one of Oaklandís exciting, young outfielders. Or at least Emil Brown.

Starting Pitchers
2007 Starters Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, Chad Gaudin, Lenny DiNardo, Joe Kennedy, Dallas Braden
Projected 2008 Starters Joe Blanton, Rich Harden, Chad Gaudin, Justin Duchscherer, Dana Eveland, Lenny DiNardo, Dallas Braden

Is this finally the year that Rich Harden stays healthy? Of course not. But in the roughly 2% likelihood of that occurrence, Harden would neatly replace Dan Harenís production from last year. That would be paramount, because although Joe Blanton is a solid innings-eater for the middle of the rotation, heís no ace of the staff.

Joe Blanton
The Aís made some odd decisions towards the back of their rotation. Chad Gaudin returns despite terrible peripheral numbers and a near Mark Redman Award. Justin Duchscherer solidifies 2008 as the Year of the Reliever Converted into Starter. Since Duchscherer couldnít stay healthy as a reliever, itís hard to see him lasting in the rotation. Dana Eveland and Dallas Braden are quadruple-A pitcher until they prove otherwise. Eveland probably should get his feet wet in the bullpen rather than lock up the fifth starterís spot as he has done.

Oakland actually has several options far better than Gaudin, Duchscherer, an Lenny DiNardo at least. Greg Smith came over along with Eveland in the Haren deal, and brings a .630 winning percentage, 3.27 ERA, and 3:1 K/BB ratio from some hitter-friendly minor leagues. He is a sleeper ROY candidate in a pitcher-friendly environment if he gets a shot this year. Gio Gonzalez, obtained in the Swisher deal, has one of the best power curves in the minor leagues, and could be ready for the show by June. After two disappointing years with the Athleticsí Triple-A affiliate, Dan Meyer finally put together a good season, and appears poised to finally give the Aís some value back for Billy Beaneís ignominious trade of Tim Hudson.

Relief Pitchers
2007 Relievers Huston Street, Alan Embree, Kiko Calero, Santiago Casilla, Jay Marshall, Andrew Brown
Projected 2008 Relievers Huston Street, Alan Embree, Kiko Calero, Santiago Casilla, Keith Foulke, Andrew Brown, Fernando Hernandez

Oakland ranked 21st in relieverís ERA last year, which is more damning given their extreme pitcherís park and excellent defense. They did very little to remedy the situation in the offseason, although a healthy Huston Street would certainly help. Keith Foulke was worth a flyer, but hardly guarantees improvement, and newly-acquired Joey Devine will begin the year in Triple-A. Rule V pick Fernando Hernandez Jr. will likely hurt the team this year, but might be worth the roster spot for future retention if Beane indeed deems 2008 a purely developmental season.

Outlook for the Season

If Rich Harden miraculously stays healthy all year, Beane resists the temptation to trade Harden or Blanton, the young talent develops more quickly than anticipated, Wheelhouse Geren does an excellent job of talent evaluation, and the Angels continue to suffer injuries to their pitching staff, these Aís could actually compete for a playoff spot into September.

But clearly, the Athletics are working towards a plan for 2009 and beyond. Billy Beane has an unusually high level of security for a baseball GM Ė a contract that runs through 2014. He could therefore afford to look towards the future more than most, and that future looks very bright indeed.

As for the present, expect a mirror season to the 2006 Marlins: upper-70s in wins and well out of last place.

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