Thursday, December 10, 2009

2010 Team Analysis: Oakland Athletics

Oakland A’s

2009 Record: 75-87

General Manager: Billy Beane

Manager: Bob Geren

Organizational Philosophy: the key to this offseason is focused on player development with their primary focus on pitching and cultivating high upside positional prospects.  Since Billy Beane has assumed GM duties since 1997, the Athletics have been a team not afraid to remold themselves with shrewd trades, MLB prospects and finding key short-term free agents.

This offseason I expect the Athletics to focus on utilizing their minor league talent pool in various positions while looking to trade certain valuable pieces all with an eye to be contenders in the AL West by 2012.

2010 Commitments:

Starting Rotation:

Brett Anderson ($400K)
Trevor Cahill ($400K)
Gio Gonzalez ($405K)
Vin Mazzaro ($400K)
Dallas Braden ($410K)
Josh Outman ($400K)

Brett Anderson has the talent to be a #1 starter and should be thrusted into that role in 2010.  Anderson was considered a minor throw-in in the trade of Dan Haren to the Diamondbacks after the 2007 season.  However, since that time, Anderson has shown excellent command and the ability to induce a high number of groundballs in both the minors and in 30 MLB starts last season. 

The only question mark I see next season will be how Anderson responds after pitching 175 MLB innings last season.  Before the 2009 season Anderson barely touched 100 IP in a given season and the 70+ innings increase could be seen as a red flag for most 22 year old pitchers going forward.  Last season Anderson did start slow posting an ERA in the high 5's between the months of April through June.  However, his BB's totals were still considered good at 2.67 per nine innings.  By midseason, Anderson saw an increase in his K/9 from 6.32 to 8.86 from July to September while keeping his BB/9 at an excellent 2.08.  Anderson did get stronger as the season wore on as his fastball increased in velocity from his usual 92-94 mph to 95-97 mph; apparently the 70+ innings didn't wear him out last season which could mean the A's are confident in his abilities to assume a bigger workload in 2010.

Trevor Cahill experienced a breakout in 2008 as he shot through the minor league ranks by posting excellent strikeout and groundball numbers and seemed destined to be the next great A's pitcher.  In his first season in the MLB, Cahill struggled as his K's were cut in half from 10.61 in high A and 8.03 in AA to 4.53 last season.  Throughout his brief minor league career, Cahill has been able to induce a large number of groundballs and in 2009 this skill was still there (47%) but the same "skill set" brought over, unfortunately, was his high walk rate. 

In the minors, Cahill posted a rather high BB/9 of 3.42 in 19 low A starts in 2007.  In 2008 he carried that over with a BB/9 of 3.19 in 13 high A starts and 4.62 in 6 AA starts.  Last season, Cahill paired his low K rate with a high BB rate of 3.63 which doesn't bode well for a contact pitcher who throws a lot of fastballs in the 89 mph range.  Next season, Cahill will be 22 and will be under scrutiny to get his command under control but he does have the skills to be a quality MLB starter - just not a great one.

Gio Gonzalez is another promising LHP struggling with a high BB rate.  Gonzalez will be 24 at the start of next season and has bounced around a few organizations in his brief career.  What Gonzalez brings to the table is his high number of strikeouts, last season Gonzalez posted a K/9 of 9.94 in 17 MLB starts while inducing a high percentage of groundballs (46%).  What dogged him was a high BB/9 of 5.11 along with a high BABIP of .369; of course the BABIP should come down but the walks are an issue.  Gonzalez seems like a perfect candidate for the bullpen: high K/9, issues with command, low contact rate but I expect the A's to be patient with him this season and give him a good share of starts before finalizing his future.

The rest of the projected rotation rounds out with Vin Mazzaro, a talented 22 year old who projects as a good mid-rotation starter.  Mazzaro was hounded by a higher than usual BB/9 (3.84) and BABIP (.352) last season and could be in for a slight bounceback.  Dallas Braden is a soft-tossing lefty who is stingy with the walks and should post a few valuable starts next season while Josh Outman will see if his elbow holds up this spring after being shut down early last season.  Outman is a talented lefty who consistently hits the mid-90's with his fastball but can struggle with his command.

Free agent Justin Duchscherer was wisely offered arbitration by the A's this offseason.  His value could take a hit as teams may not be willing to part with a supplemental pick for a pitcher expected to only sign for a year or two after struggling with various health issues.  If Duchscherer returns he'll be a great option as a #2 starter.

Clay Mortensen should be a contender for a starting job this spring.  Mortensen will be 25 at the start of next season and was one of the additions in the Matt Holliday trade.  He has shown excellent command in the minors as well as displaying a good sinking fastball/slider.


Andrew Bailey ($400K)
Brad Ziegler ($405K)
Michael Wuertz ($1.1M; arb eligible)
Jerry Blevins ($405)
Brad Kilby ($400K)
Jon Meloan ($400K)
Henry Rodriguez ($400K)
Craig Breslow ($420K)
Joey Devine ($560K)
Dana Eveland ($410K)

Last season, the A's readjusted their bullpen and found their closer in 2009's Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey.  Developed as a starter throughout his minor league career, Bailey did come on strong with a fastball and quality cutter that seemed to miss a lot of bats.  Bailey did benefit from a very low BABIP (.237) and strand rate (84.9%); so, could a statistical correction be coming in 2010?

Brad Ziegler is one year removed from his excellent rookie showing in 2008.  Last season, Ziegler worked as a set-up man and despite primary stats not quite as impressive as his '08 season, a case could be made that Ziegler actually pitched better in 2009. 

In 2008, Ziegler was 3-0 with 11 saves and a 1.06 ERA in 59.2 IP.  In those innings he allowed only 47 hits with 22 BBs and 30 Ks.  He was successful in keeping the ball in the park by only allowing 2 HR's in those with an excellent GB% of 64.7.  However, looking Ziegler's FIP of 3.72 (Fielder Independent Pitching, a stat that is becoming increasingly popular in terms of understanding how good a pitcher really was) one can see that Ziegler benefited from a lot of luck that season.  His BABIP was an incredibly low .246 while his strand rate was an astonishing 92.3%!  (If you're not too familiar with the luck factor that is associated with strand rates then I suggest you read this article to get a better understanding of it.)

Flash forward to 2009: Ziegler finishes with 2-4 record with 7 saves and an ERA of 3.07 in 73.1 IP.  Again, Ziegler was successful in keeping the ball in the park by, again, only giving up 2 HR's all season and his ability to induce grounders was no fluke with 62.3% of hits hitting the ground.  Also, Ziegler was better in terms of getting strikeouts since his K/9 was up two points from 4.53 in '08 to 6.63 last season while his BB's stayed the same (3.32 vs. 3.44); so, what's with the sudden increase in ERA?

Looking at his '09 numbers we see a dramatic rise in hits allowed (82) which suggested that a lot of those groundballs probably sneaked in for hits since his BABIP dramatically rose to .344 while his strand rate came back down to earth to a closer-to-league-average of 77.6%.  This all points to Ziegler having an a season much closer to what we should expect since his FIP wasn't that far off at 3.17.  What makes me think that Ziegler pitched better in 2009 than 2008 comes down to two things.  First, we get a sense of his true skill-set (contact pitcher that induces a lot of groundballs) and, second, in 2009 we saw improvements in his ability to strikeout more batters and get opposing hitters to chase more pitches out of the strike zone which led to a lower overall contact rate.  I think we will see more of an improvement next season (lower BB total?) as Ziegler quietly builds upon what he can accomplish thereby becoming one of the better set-up in the AL.

Another quality set-up man in the A's bullpen is 30 year old Michael Wuertz.  Last season, Wuertz was a hot trade topic and could be peddled again this offseason.  In his first full season at Oakland, Wuertz posted an incredible K/9 of 11.67 by striking out 102 batters in 78.2 innings.  In his pro career, Wuertz has always struggled with command as most of his BB/9 rates have come in somehwere around 4 but last season his walks were kept to a minimum with a BB/9 of 2.63.  Wuertz was pretty league average in terms of BABIP (.277) and strand rate 77% so I'm not expecting much regression but his low walk totals could be a mirage and if the A's believe this to be the case then selling high on Wuertz would be a good move this offseason.

One middle reliever who could be in for a major jump next season is LHP Jerry Blevins.  This 26 year old former Cub posted a better than average K/BB of 3.83 in 29 relief innings and is expected to take on more high-leverage situations in 2010.

Brad Kilby was successful in his small sample of 17 IP last season.  Kilby was incredibly effective in posting strikeouts in his minor league career; although a low BABIP and high strand rate did lead to his effective AAA numbers early last season but he is another 27 year old lefty expected to contribute in the bullpen.

Jon Meloan will be 26 at the start of next season and has already been the property of 5 different MLB teams. After posting excellent strikout numbers a few seasons ago in the lower minors, Meloan hit a wall in terms of control and has been reduced to "intriguing project" since then.  The A's will see if he can build upon the 8 quality innings he pitched out of the 'pen last season.  If not the A's may try to add him in some trade package before his value completely evaporates.

21 year old Henry Rodriguez made a brief appearance out of the A's bullpen last season after striking out 71 batters in 43.2 AAA IP.  2009 was Rodriguez first full season in the bullpen after 9 disasterous AA starts in 2008.  Rodriguez can touch 100 mph on his fastball but he is still considered a "thrower" rather than a pitcher based on his complete lack of command.  I would expect another season in the minors for Rodriguez until he can figure out his control issues. 

Craig Breslow is another LHP project shuffled around by multiple MLB teams before landing in Oakland.  Breslow will be 29 at the start of the season and found success vs. both LH and RH hitters. 

Joey Devine was recently re-signed by Oakland for one season after spending all of last season recovering from elbow surgery.  Before going down, Devine was one of the key figures in Oakland's bullpen and should return to high leverage situations next season. 

LHP Dana Eveland has been disappointing since becoming an Athletic a few years ago struggling with both his command and weight.  This bullpen is full of capable lefties and I'd imagine the A's would love to trade him for anything of remote value if the opportunity would arise.

Sam Demel has shown excellent groundball rates in the minors.  Last season between AA and AAA he allowed only 2 HR's in 62 IP.  Demel did struggle with his command in AAA.  If he has a solid spring he could be a valuable member of next season's bullpen.

On the field:

C: Kurt Suzuki ($410K)
C: Landon Powell ($400K)
1B: Daric Barton ($410K)
2B: Mark Ellis ($5.5M)
2B/OF: Eric Patterson ($405K)
2B/SS: Aaron Miles ($2.7M; $1M of his salary will be paid next season by the Chicago Cubs)
SS: Cliff Pennington ($400K)
3B/OF: Jake Fox ($400K)
3B: Eric Chavez ($12.5M)
LF: Scott Hairston ($1.25M; arb eligible)
LF: Travis Buck ($410K)
CF: Rajai Davis ($410K; arb eligible)
RF: Ryan Sweeney ($410K)

Both Kurt Suzuki and Landon Powell should carry the catching load reasonably well next season.  Suzuki is limited offensively, but his ability to cut down on his strikeouts the past three seasons have been impressive.  Both catchers are excellent defensively but Powell's age (28 at the start of next season) and AAA numbers do suggest that further minor league conditioning will be a waste at this point. 

The Athletics could find themselves platooning these two since there is a gap in OPS between Suzuki and Powell when facing a LHP and RHP.  As it stands, Powell could face righties (.772 OPS) while Suzuki would face lefties (.735 OPS).  As for Powell being an everyday catcher: it's been a long road for Powell, he was drafted out of college at the age of 22 and missed all of 2005 with an ACL tear in his knee.  In 2007, Powell missed more time due to the same injury and this should be a concern if Powell is expected to take a full catching workload.

After given a full-time shot at 1B in 2008, Daric Barton has been quite disappointing.  In that season, Barton had the lowest SLG (.341) and ISO (.121) stats among all starting players at 1B.  Last season, Barton was shipped off to AAA while the A's decided to give Jason Giambi another shot at trying to recreate his old Oakland glory days.  When that failed, the team found Barton hitting the ball with more power at Sacremento and decided it was time for him to resume full-time duty at 1B.

As a firstbaseman, Barton provides reasonable defense along with the ability to get on base.  It's expected that Barton will hit around .260/.350/.405.  Nothing outstanding but not embarrassing, either.

Other players who could contend for the job at first is Chris Carter, a former White Sox prospect acquired a few seasons ago.  Last season, Carter showed exceptional power and the ability to draw walks in 485 AA at-bats.  The only question about Carter is where he will play exactly?  Scouts hate his glove but he did show some "improvement" last season by only committing 7 errors in 105 games.  Next season, Carter will be 23 and if his power carries over this spring expect him in an A's uniform but where he'll play, 1B or DH, is the question.

2B looks to be a bit crowded with Mark Ellis, Gregorio Petit and newly acquired Aaron Miles all expected to jockey for playing time.  Ellis has been plagued by injuries and can no longer be counted as an everyday player.  Petit is a slow-footed groundball hitter who will probably remain in AAA until an injury pops up. 

Aaron Miles, on the other hand, is a strange addition since he is another player who finds himself on the DL for about 30-40 games a season and seems to have benefited with a rather high BABIP until last season when he was an overpaid disaster for the Chicago Cubs.  This season the Cubs have agreed to eat about a million dollars of his salary but even at his reduced wage you'd think the A's would find other options.

Unfortunately, Eric Patterson has such a horrendous glove at 2B that he will be forced to fight for playing time in crowded and more competitive OF.  Patterson has shown the ability to hit for decent power and has above average speed, but in the OF, those skills are a dime a dozen.

Adrian Cardenas is an exciting 22 year old 2B prospect who seems to be about ready offensively; however, his glove is questionable and his 6 errors in 35 games at AAA doesn't exactly breed confidence; a move to 3B has been mentioned but his bat doesn't exactly play at the corners.

SS seems to be Cliff Pennington's position for the time being (nothing too special here).  Grant Green will proabably begin the 2010 season returning to high A so he's a year away, at the very least.

Since signing a six year extension after the 2004 season, Eric Chavez has only been able to cobble together two productive seasons.  The latest diagnosis could spell the end of his career and bring forth the inevitable spinal fusion surgery much earlier than expected.  Chavez is in bad shape and is probably advised to take the money and run.  Publically he seems very optimistic but injuries this severe go way beyond appeasing fans and playing baseball and now it's simply time to move on.

The recent trade with the Cubs that sent them Aaron Miles also had 28 year old Jake Fox attached to the deal.  It's expected that Fox will play 3B.  Fox isn't expected to replace Chavez's elite defense at the hot corner but his bat does have plenty of power (.293/.357/.528 career line in the minors) but his ability to draw walks could use a little work. 

Next season, Fox will be entering his first spring training with a position that is expected to have his name on it (GM Beane has hinted that the team is still in the market for a 3B and if that happens then Fox may become the lead candidate to play 1B).  However, AL pitchers will soon learn that Fox loves to hit fastballs and it may be only a metter of time before he gets a steady diet of off-speed pitches (something he had to contend with last season in the NL).  It may be expected for Fox to struggle during the first half but if he learns to adjust he could be good for 20+ HR's next season.

UPDATED DECEMBER 15: With the A's agreeing to send Brett Wallace to the Blue Jays for OF prospect Michael Taylor (who was part of the package from the Phillies in the recent Roy Halladay trade) this definitely frees up th glut of positional prospects they have at the infield corners and makes their OF very interesting in the next few seasons.  More on Michael Taylor later.

As it stands, the 2010 Oakland A's outfield shapes up with Scott Hairston in LF, Rajai Davis in CF and Ryan Sweeney in RF.  Hairston is a versatile OF with good range and can provide league average hitting.  He isn't very expensive and his contract doesn't expire until after the 2011 season. Davis is a legitimate stolen base threat and if he could improve his ability to draw walks - he would be an excellent leadoff hitter.  Davis did benefit from a very high .366 BABIP, so expect a bit of regression in terms of BA next season.  Sweeney is an excellent defensive oufielder who has been making modest gains at the plate (he still hits like a fourth outfielder but until their prospects are ready he'll be more than adequate).

Travis Buck is the current fourth outfielder but this team has plenty of interesting prospects in the horizon.  Aaron Cunningham seems to be the most MLB ready among the young outfielders, however his upside is limited and has many scouts seeing him as a good fourth outfielder.

Corey Brown will be 24 at the start of the season and did work to decrease some of the strikeouts that were plaguing him in the lower minors.  Brown has legitimate power but his K's and low batting average will also be included.

Matt Spencer is another 24 year old who may still be a year away.  He was decent in his promotion to AA but still needs to work on his approach.  He has a big body (6'4"; 211 lbs) which still could fill out.  His power still seems to be developing.

Finally, two outfield prospects that I find very intriuging are Grant Desme and Michael Taylor.

Desme made noise last season by hitting 31 HR's and swiping 40 SB's between low and high A.  He also followed that up by leading the recent Arizona Fall League season in HR's with 8.  Besides his high frequency of strikeouts, a major thing working against Desme is his age.  Next season he will be 24 and is already considered a bit old for the lower levels.  I'm sure the organization will promote him to AA at the beginning of next season but if his strikeouts continue at this high frequency then reaching the majors will be an uphill climb. 

Michael Taylor (again, age 24) is a prospect I've liked since researching him in my proposed Roy Halladay trade scenarios.  Taylor is a five-tool candidate who draws walks and keeps his strikeouts in check and should get a shot at serious playing time this spring.  His ceiling is much higher than Cunningham's and has the arm and range to play RF.

Next Season's Forecast: This team shed a lot of payroll this offseason by waving goodbye to free agents Bobby Crosby, Adam Kennedy and making Jack Cust a non-tendered free agent.  The extra money does bring their payroll down between $20-$30M and will provide them flexibility to sign a short-term free agent but the team's focus will be on the future.  Beane has been patient and by enduring a lot of bad seasons since his famous "moneyball" days, he finally seems to have the parts and pieces to both build upon and further reshape this team to his eventual liking.  My guess is that by 2012 we will get to see Oakland as a legitimate contender for the next few seasons until Beane is forced to tear it down and start all over again.

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