I'm totally late with this Oakland preview. I was originally going to write it up like... it's hard to explain. But it would have been funny if I could have made it work. Now, though, I'll just be happy if I can put the analysis together in some kind of coherent way.
I think Head said it best when he said, "QQQQQQQQ! Is having Billy Beane! Oakland Athletics or death!"
At first glance it sort of looks like the Athletics are in trouble this year. Yes, they won the division in 2006, but look at how they did it. Their won-lost record was 93-69, but their Pythagorean record only 85-77 (worse than the real-life record of the second-place Angels, worse than the Pythagorean record of the third-place Rangers). If Oakland wants to repeat in '07, therefore, they must improve. And how did they improve? They lost Barry Zito, replaced Frank Thomas with Mike Piazza, replaced Jay Payton with Shannon Stewart, and brought in Alan Embree. Any improving the A's do is going to have to come from somewhere else.
Which is not to say any of these moves are dumb. Let's look at the two significant ones... Obviously Oakland would like to have Zito back, all other things being equal, but a) [rubs thumb against first two fingers] and b) people keep mumbling about how maybe Zito isn't the guy you want to count on as your ace, maybe he's losing his stuff a little bit. But he was still a big contributor to the rotation, and hasn't been replaced from outside. Piazza and Thomas... well, who knows? At their ages, you can't count on either Piazza or Thomas to hit like Thomas did last year, but which one is more likely to approach it? Got me, man. So I don't fault Oakland for these transactions, but then again the Athletics aren't better off for either of them.
No, it seems that the Athletics and Blue Jays have yet one more thing in common: they're counting on the guys they already have getting better to push their team forward. In Toronto, that means (sigh) Russ Adams and the young pitchers; in Oakland it means Rich Harden and Bobby Crosby and Eric Chavez. Harden and Crosby and Chavez are all young, or youngish, players with the potential to be very good, but who are coming off disappointing and/or injury-filled seasons. Chavez looked like a budding superstar a couple of years ago; last year his power dropped for the third year in a row and he didn't hit .250. Crosby had a brutal year, posting an OPS+ of 68 before injuries wrestled him to the ground. And Harden, well, Harden wasn't too bad, but he was hurt and only made nine starts. Purely based on age, I'd give Harden and Crosby a better chance of bouncing back than Chavez; Chavez is going to be 29 (not too old to turn it around! Don't get me wrong) and is working on a pattern of decline. It's reasonable for Oakland to be relying on these three, but we can't forget that this is a trio who didn't help much last year.
Oakland's hitting last year was strictly average (OPS+ of 98, where 100 is exactly average), which was a lot better than it looked. They were ninth in the league in runs scored, which is okay if you recall that they're in a pitcher's park. The hitting seemed a lot worse than it was, though, because the Athletics were next to last in the league in both batting average and slugging. The obvious question is, how did they manage an average offense if they couldn't hit for average or power? And the obvious (this being Oakland) answer is, they were second in the league in walks. It's like a magic trick. Remember when Moneyball first came out and everybody was talking about OBP and how important it was or wasn't? Then, after that, there was a phase where we all decided that too many teams were hip to OBP and plate discipline, and Oakland had lost their advantage and would have to find a different edge in the marketplace. Defense, we said; the Athletics would stay ahead of the pack by building a good team defense on the cheap. But look what happened here: Oakland has a season in which only two of their hitters (Frank Thomas and Nick Swisher) are actually good (and most of the rest are significantly short of average), a season in which their hitters are 13th in the AL in hits, doubles, batting average and slugging percentage... but they walk like crazy and fight the league's pitching to a standstill! I thought they weren't supposed to be able to do that anymore! You take your eyes off these guys for a second...
Where did all these walks come from? Frank Thomas was the big guy, with 114 of them. But look at catcher Jason Kendall, whose OBP (a fine .367) was actually higher than his SLG (.342). Look at Chavez, who only hit .241 but walked 84 times to bring his OBP up to .351. Nick Swisher had 97 walks. Milton Bradley's OBP was .370. Even look at D'Angelo Jiminez, whose contributions were negligible but indicative--in 14 at bats he hit only .071, but had an OBP of .350 thanks to his six walks.
Anyway, that was last year. This year Thomas and his 114 walks have eased on down the road, and the Athletics have Piazza, who's not much of a walkin guy, but who ought to contribute some power. And it's tempting here to try and break down the walk total, and see how Oakland could try to come up with walks out of this year's lineup, and maybe they'll have more power to cover any shortfalls, and... But you can't do that kind of thing without going way out on a limb. Or several.
I like to look at a team like this. Assume that your basic baseball team is a .500 team. Now look at the important players on your team and ask yourself, who is good enough to push these guys up from .500? Who is bad enough to pull them down below? It's not rigorous analysis, but it'll give you the big picture.
What pushes the Oakland offense forward? Nick Swisher, definitely, and Milton Bradley too. Crosby and Chavez, they hope. Piazza, they hope. Kendall and Dan Johnson, probably not. Mark Ellis and Mark Kotsay, probably not. Well, that's okay; last year it was mostly just Thomas and Swisher, and Crosby was holding everyone back. If he can improve all the way to average (or better! Why not?), if Chavez or someone else can step forward a bit, they ought to be about as well off as last year. Which isn't great, but it's about all you can hope for when you subtract a 2006 Frank Thomas and don't have a lot of money to throw around.
What pushes the Oakland pitching-and-defense forward? Really I'm just going to worry about the pitching; my impression of the defense is that it's good enough but not so much that it's going to make a difference to an analysis on this level. The Athletics had, and have, a very valuable commodity here: young starting pitchers. Last year, over half of their starts came from pitchers 25 years old or younger, and they're relying on that same group (Joe Blanton, Danny Haren and Rich Harden, mostly, but maybe also a bit of Brad Halsey) to fill the rotation this year (with veterans Esteban Loaiza and... did I hear that right? Joe Kennedy? Loaiza and Kennedy; I guess I'm going to be cheering against Oakland this year). Their numbers last year were quite respectable, and if they repeat their collective performance, Oakland doesn't have much to complain about. The kicker, though, is that Blanton and Harden and Haren are young, and (Harden especially) have the potential to improve by a lot. There are three of them, after all, which gives the A's three shots at such improvement. And that is what pushes the Oakland pitching forward.
I'm not as enthusiastic about their bullpen, though. Yes, yes; Huston Street, 37 saves, no argument. He's fine. The bullpen was a big strength for Oakland last year. Look at these numbers:
Street, 69 games, 3.31
Kiko Calero, 70 games, 3.41
Chad Gaudin, 55 games, 3.09
Justin Duchscherer, 53 games, 2.91
Brad Halsey, 45 relief games, 3.99
Joe Kennedy, 39 games, 2.31
I'd take that. The only problem is this: bullpens don't do things like that two years in a row. It's the nature of bullpens. I don't want to point any fingers, but of those six guys, one (Kennedy) has already been shifted to the rotation. Another one or two will get hurt. Another one or two will have a bad year for no apparent reason. Maybe one will be traded. Meanwhile, some other pitcher will show up and crowd the picture. I don't mean to say that the bullpen is going to be a source of trouble for the A's; just that it's almost certainly not going to be the great asset it was a year ago. Want an example? In 2005, the Blue Jays had a fantastic bullpen. Miguel Batista was the closer, and piled up a bunch of saves, but his supporting cast was as good or better than he was. Justin Speier, Scott Schoeneweis, Pete Walker, Jason Frasor and Vinnie Chulk all had tremendous seasons. Two years later they've been scattered to the four winds and their fortunes have shot up and down like a rubber elevator.
Another thing it occurred to me to think about is, What is Oakland not doing that it should be doing? And the answer is, nothing, really. I don't see any part of this roster that looks like the plan failed, or like Billy Beane simply hasn't paid enough attention to it. The team has more than its share of young players, including the way-important young pitchers, and more coming. There are plausible veterans around to fill in the gaps. There aren't any contracts that are going to kill the team. None of the positions are unattended. They're ready to go. Compare to the Blue Jays: what are the Jays not doing that they should be doing? Well, they're not developing as many good players from the minors as they planned. Especially young pitchers. And if there's a major-league starting shortstop on the Toronto roster I have yet to learn his name. There aren't any complaints like that for the Oakland Athletics.
So I was reading a bunch of previews and stuff when doing research for this article, and came across the idea, more than once, that Oakland would either be really good this year or really bad. Because of all the risks they're taking, you see: Piazza's a risk, and Embree, and Shannon Stewart, and Harden and Crosby and Chavez... But doesn't it make more sense that some of the risks would pan out and others wouldn't, leaving us with a team that's in between really good and really bad? That's my prediction. Oakland's performance last year puts them at about the 85-win mark. I think they can make some modest improvements from that level, and push 90 wins if they have a good year. Most likely that'll be good for second in the division.