The Baseball Notebook

February 25, 2010 11:00 AM

Oakland A's Preview

The Oakland A’s, once the pride of the small-market franchises, with general manager Billy Beane having been canonized in the book Moneyball, are on hard times. Since reaching the ALCS in 2006, they’ve been poor—in more ways than one—the last three and hope is not exactly rippling through this side of the Bay as 2010’s Opening Day draws near.

Moneyball was interpreted---understandably, if mistakenly—as being about finding players with good on-base percentages. Oakland has only two such players in their lineup today. Left fielder Rajai Davis and designated hitter Jack Cust are the only ones who get on base with any regularity. Slugging percentage is even worse—not a single player on this team can be characterized is a consistent power threat, even just power to the alleys. There’s not a lot of hope for internal improvement either. Coco Crisp has been acquired to play centerfielder. Early in his career he was a good hitter with Cleveland, but his offense disappeared after a trade to Boston prior to the ’06 season and he has never recovered it. Kurt Suzuki has established himself as the regular catcher the past couple years, and shows flashes of a bat once in a while, but hasn’t put together a good offensive season. And if Cliff Pennington can win the shortstop job, his bat wasn’t bad in 2009. But on a team where Mark Ellis hasn’t had a productive offensive year since ’05 and Cust has been declining sharply the last two years, runs are going to be hard to come by.

The outlook for the pitching staff isn’t quite as bleak. Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden were both effective starters a year ago, and Trevor Cahill is right on the cusp of being there. None of them qualify as aces, but all have the capacity to be steady. And Justin Duscherer and Ben Sheets do have the capacity to be aces. It’s all about health in the latter cases. Duscherer was becoming one of the best pitchers in the American League before hitting the DL, and spending most of the last couple years. Sheets was always a top pitcher in Milwaukee, but consistent DL trips limited his effectiveness. With Sheets in particular, one has to assume injuries are going to be a part of the equation. He’s similar to Rich Harden, of whom Oakland got all too familiar with, in that he’ll be great when he’s healthy, but the track record makes it clear that’s a 50/50 proposition. If Duscherer could resume his place as the team’s #1 starter, life would be a lot easier in Oakland.

And the bullpen outlook is good. Andrew Bailey was a top closer last year, working in obscurity. He saved 26 games with a shutdown 1.84 ERA. The setup crew of Michael Wuertz, Brad Ziegler and Craig Breslow (the latter coming over from the Twins) all have good track records. It’s arms like these that keep Oakland’s record respectable—they still won 75 games last year—even as they languish far from contender’s status.

One area of disappointment is this team’s defense. The addition of Crisp will help drastically upgrade the outfield D, and moving Davis over to left will also be an upgrade. Oakland has also added Kevin Kouzmanoff to play third base for the now perpetually injured Eric Chavez. Kouzmanoff was a top defender in San Diego, as was Chavez through his years of regular work here. But beyond that, the ratings are substandard. This is surprising, because defense is the new “Moneyball.” The thesis behind the book that made Beane famous was not about finding players with good OBPs. It was about finding traits that were undervalued by the marketplace and exploiting that at low cost. At the turn of the century, that was on-base percentage. But times have changed, and the big market teams now spend freely to get players who are patient and take their walks. Defense—particularly range—is undervalued. Spending on run prevention alone won’t win you a World Series, but if your budget is limited, it’s cheapest way to contention. I’m surprised Oakland hasn’t done more of that.

Up Next: San Diego Padres on Saturday
Final AL West Picks & Preview: April 3

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