Note: For previous Yankee Analyst 2011 team previews, click here.
The 2010 Oakland Athletics (81-81, 2nd place in the AL West) represented quite the dichotomy — on the one hand, their starting pitchers boasted the best ERA in the American League by nearly half a run, at 3.47 (Seattle’s second-best mark was 3.83). However, that same staff was 6th in FIP (4.10), and had the AL’s largest negative delta between ERA and FIP by far (-0.62), indicating that the pitching staff benefited from some of the best luck in the game (second-highest strand rate among AL starting staffs, at 74.7%, 0.1% behind Tampa Bay; and lowest BABIP, .269) as well as a notorious pitcher’s park with perhaps the most expansive foul territory in the game, which undoubtedly helped spike many a potential rally.
The 2010 team’s bullpen was also good, but not quite as good as the starters, compiling a 6th-best 3.83 ERA and 9th-best 4.19 FIP.
Unfortunately the A’s were unable to parlay what appears to have been the lowest cumulative ERA a starting staff has put up in the American League since Boston’s 3.32 in 1990 into greater success (though they did snap a stretch of three straight losing seasons), as Oakland’s team wOBA was just .315, which means the A’s lineup collectively hit as if there nine Cliff Penningtons in it instead of just one.
Billy Beane, eager to correct this paltry offensive showing, went out and made several significant upgrades to Oakland’s offensive unit. First, Beane imported two big bats through trades in acquiring David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, both of whom — though they played injury-shortened seasons — had higher wOBAs than every regular on the 2010 Athletics save the departed Jack Cust. Secondly, Beane signed former beloved Yankee and one-time Angel Hideki Matsui to a one-year pact. While these three players alone won’t be enough to catapult Oakland into the ranks of the offensive elite, it’s safe to say that Oakland won’t be tossing up a .315 team wOBA again in 2011.
With regards to the pitching staff, there’s a battle for the last spot in the rotation between Brandon McCarthy, Josh Outman, Rich Harden, Tyson Ross and Bobby Cramer, while the bullpen’s two new big names are Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes.
As for the Yankees and the A’s in 2010, the Yankees basically laid waste to Oakland for the second straight year, winning nine of the ten games the two teams played, including sweeps in both Oakland and at home.
Anyway, onto the projections. The below charts contain key offensive numbers for what I expect Oakland’s Opening Day lineup to look like, along with the players that will be in the mix for bench spots. On the pitching side of the ledger I have Oakland’s projected rotation, along with the cast of thousands vying for spots in both the rotation and bullpen.
I’m using 2010 actual numbers, along with each player’s 2011 CAIRO and PECOTA projections, due to the fact that they are both park-adjusted, enabling a more apples-to-apples comparison, and I opted for two projection systems instead of one because relying on only one really doesn’t tell you anything. One important thing to keep in mind in reviewing the CAIRO projections is that SG doesn’t factor baserunning into his wOBA calculation, which means for a speedier player you can probably add somewhere on the order of .010 to .015 points of wOBA to scale it to Fangraphs’ version.
Unfortunately Baseball Prospectus doesn’t use wOBA or FIP, so in the wOBA section the column on the far right is True Average, which is basically BP’s version of wOBA but scaled to batting average instead of on-base percentage; and in the FIP section I have WHIP in the far right — WHIP obviously doesn’t correlate with FIP at all, but I wanted to at least put something in that column for the PECOTA projection. I’ve gone ahead and highlighted the team leader in yellow in each statistical category for each data set for quick reference.
I’d also like to take a moment to thank Nico Pemantle from Athletics Nation for his time, expertise and graciousness in helping me ensure I covered more or less every player in contention for Oakland’s 25-man roster.
Both CAIRO and PECOTA are known for being a bit more on the pessimistic/realistic end of the spectrum, and that comes out to a fair extent with the offense. CAIRO thinks very little of Coco Crisp‘s 2010, projecting him to lose nearly .050 points of wOBA (though some of that will be made up in his baserunning, so the .313 projection is probably closer to .325 utilizing Tango’s/Fangraphs wOBA). CAIRO also sees OBP Jesus Part II Daric Barton and his 5th-best-OBP in the AL taking a hit down to .362, although to be fair the system only has 14 Major Leaguers exceeding even the .380 plateau (20 players did last season).
However, slotting Willingham fourth will provide a significant power boost to a lineup that saw only three players slug above .400 last seasons. I also really like the additions of DeJesus and Matsui to this team, although CAIRO doesn’t seem to DeJesus can come even close to approaching his career-best wOBA again (.333, down from .363). Matsui not only projects to have another solid season with a .354 wOBA, but also to lead the team in that critical offensive category, according to CAIRO. Willingham’s projected at .351, but I think many would be surprised if Willingham didn’t out-wOBA Matsui after all is said and done.
Unfortunately for the A’s, things get dreary pretty quickly after the first five hitters, as batters 6-9 project to wOBA anywhere between .297 and .314. So while the offense is definitely improved, there are still too many weak spots in this lineup. However, could the improvements the A’s have made be enough to support their pitching staff?
Rotation-wise, CAIRO sees everyone taking fairly significant ERA and FIP hits — Trevor Cahill in particular hasn’t fared well, as CAIRO sees Cahill’s ERA increasing by over a full run to 4.13, with an FIP up over half a run to 4.68. In fact, Oakland’s ertswhile ace projects to have the worst FIP in the rotation. These things tend to happen when you record the lowest BABIP in all of baseball (.236 last season) and 7th-lowest BAA. Unless you’re Felix Hernandez, that ultra-low BAA is probably not sustainable.
Brett Anderson projects to be the nominal ace, with a 3.90 ERA and matching 3.92 FIP — no smoke and mirrors here. Both CAIRO and PECOTA like Anderson to up his K/9 considerably, though neither system sees him walking less than two men per nine again. But again, not many projection systems are going to go out on a limb and predict sub-2.00 walk rates for starters. CAIRO sees Dallas Braden gaining nearly .06 of a run on his ERA, while PECOTA sees him staying much closer to his 3.50 ERA. And neither system sees Gio Gonzalez sustaining a 3.23 ERA, though both like him to increase his K/9 and also lead the staff once again in that category, assuming Rich Harden can’t come back and revert to his former self.
As for the fifth starter battle, Brandon McCarthy, despite not pitching in the Majors last season, projects to be the best candidate to fill out the back of the rotation.
The bullpen looks to be a strength again, with Grant Balfour bolstering an already strong core led by closer Andrew Bailey, Brad Ziegler and Michael Wuertz, who looks to be the pen’s second-best strikeout pitcher after Balfour. Joey Devine projects quite well for someone who missed all of 2010, and Jerry Blevins and Craig Breslow also look like strong candidates. Unless I’m missing someone, there really doesn’t appear to be a weak link in the bunch bullpen-wise.
I asked Nico Pemantle about his thoughts on the A’s heading into the 2011 season, and here’s what he had to say:
“I think the A’s are indeed a good ‘dark horse’ candidate to surprise people, and have put themselves ‘into the conversation’ for the AL West race, but I would still have to give Texas the nod as a favorite to win the division, with the A’s second and the Angels third.
I like the A’s’ starting rotation and defense a lot, I love the bullpen, and I think the offense has been upgraded to be at least decent enough to give the A’s a chance to win, say, 87 games with a shot at breaking 90 wins if things roll right.
Meanwhile, Texas is likely to go only as far as Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson can take them, and while last season that took the Rangers quite far it is unknown how 2011 will treat those two pitchers. However, Derek Holland, and potentially Neftali Feliz, offer enough depth to potentially mitigate a setback or two, and so I think the A’s’ avenue for winning the AL West involves either better health, or more luck, then Texas.”
A more-than-fair assessment, to be sure. I don’t know that I see the A’s’ offensive unit leading to a win total in the high 80s, but as Nico said, if everything breaks right it’s certainly in the realm of possibility. I also think Texas is probably a bit worse than it was in 2010 (and we’ll see whether that hunch is true when I get to the Rangers’ preview), and to parrot Nico again a lot of Texas’ fortunes rely on whether Wilson and Lewis can recreate their excellent 2010 seasons and establish themselves as rotation stalwarts for years to come, or if both players simply had fluky good years. As it stands, the AL West looks to be a two-team race, although I suppose it’d be foolish to count the Angels out, even if they did look pretty terrible last season.
My best guess is that the A’s hang in there for much of the season, making life fairly difficult for any and all comers, but probably don’t have enough firepower at the end of the day to win the division, and will have to settle for second place again. If by some miracle the Wild Card won’t clearly be coming from the AL East as September rolls around, then the A’s may still have an opportunity to fight for a postseason berth, but given the continued strength of the East it’d be difficult to speculate otherwise.
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