Thursday, November 02, 2006

Oakland Athletics 2007 Outlook

2006 results: 93-69, Won AL West, Lost ALCS

Pythagorean record: 85-77

Key free agents: Barry Zito, Frank Thomas, Jay Payton

Plan for 2007: Upgrade the lineup, pray that the team health improves, and hopefully ride the pitching staff back to the playoffs

The A’s enter 2007 with a team that swept the ALDS over the favored Twins, but one which was not really that talented. Baseball Prospectus ranked them as the third-best team in the AL West in “third-order wins,” their measure of luck-neutral performance. Oakland finished a full 8 third-order wins behind Anaheim and 4 behind Texas. In addition, they will lose their staff ace to free agency and may lose their best hitter, Frank Thomas.

That said, there are reasons to be optimistic. Rich Harden, if healthy, could be one of the top starters in the AL in 2007. Esteban Loaiza righted the ship in the second half of ‘06, posting a 57:9 strikeout-to-walk ratio after August 1. Dan Haren is one of baseball’s best young starters, and improved his K/BB ratio to nearly 4:1. Huston Street, Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero continued to lead one of baseball’s best bullpens. Overall, the pitching is in great shape, and the staff as a whole is signed to very affordable contracts, leaving Billy Beane with additional money to spend on the lineup.

And spend he will have to. Despite impressive seasons by Thomas (.926 OPS) and Nick Swisher (.865), the A’s featured a below-average offense on the whole, largely due to an offensive decline from their entire infield. Dan Johnson, Mark Ellis and Bobby Crosby, all aged 26-29, all saw their numbers drop significantly from 2005. Eric Chavez, who at 28 is theoretically at his peak, had his second straight subpar year with the stick. Though the offense as a whole will probably improve bounce back somewhat, it’s not a championship-caliber lineup, especially if Thomas leaves. Oakland finished 13th in the AL in slugging percentage, .001 ahead of the lowly Royals.

Though they won more games with pitching and defense than with home runs, the 2006 A’s were built much like the Oakland teams of early in the decade: A core of mostly cheap homegrown players aged 25-30, a cheap source of high on-base percentage at DH, and a cheap young pitching staff cobbled together from hurlers that other teams didn’t value (such as Haren, Calero, Chad Gaudin, and Joe Kennedy).

A core of cheap talent gives the A’s a natural advantage over teams like the Mets and Yankees, who must overpay in the free-agent market to get the players they have failed to develop on their own. However, the team they have assembled is not going to the World Series without a lot of luck. What can they do to improve?

Like the Tigers, the A’s will have trouble making big upgrades this offseason, because they are a balanced team with few gaping holes (although the ineffectiveness of Johnson, Crosby and Mark Kotsay left three in 2006). Given two 85-win teams, where one is strong across the board and the other is starting Neifi Perez and two other offensive ciphers, the latter is much easier to improve, as the net upgrade from Neifi to anyone else is greater than the difference between an average player and a good one:

Name

Wins above league average

Joe Average
Neifi Perez
Net Gain:

0
-3
+3



Ray Durham
Mark Ellis
Net Gain:

1
-1
+2


With Harden, Haren, Loaiza, and Joe Blanton, four-fifths of
the rotation is set, and the A’s have several capable spot starters in Kennedy, Kirk Saarloos, and Brad Halsey. If they can’t find an affordable starter in trade or free agency, they could do much worse than to plug one of these three in. The bullpen is solid top-to-bottom and doesn’t require any immediate attention.

That leaves the everyday lineup and the bench. Though the 2006 bench featured several useful players—Marco Scutaro, Bobby Kielty, and Jay Payton all filled in well for injured starters—the A’s often used their depth short of optimally, as evidenced by Ken Macha benching Kielty (he of the .901 career OPS against lefties) in favor of Kotsay (.759) against left-handed starters in the playoffs. Perhaps this is why Macha will not be managing the 2007 A’s, and perhaps Beane will order the new manager to pay more attention to this issue.

In the lineup, the A’s feature two above-average everyday players in Chavez and Swisher, and Crosby should be a third if can stay healthy and productive. Frank Thomas is a fourth, when healthy, if he re-signs. Though Thomas may have priced himself out of Oakland with his strong 2006, it’s unlikely any team wants him as anything but a DH, a position where many of the AL contenders are set for the near future (Jason Giambi, David Ortiz, Jim Thome, Travis Hafner). It’s much easier to outbid the Twins and Rangers than the Yankees and Red Sox. Still, these guys aren’t far above the league average at their positions; despite what Thomas’s MVP supporters might say, he was nowhere near the best DH in the league in 2006, and he will be 39 next year. The Oakland lineup lacks the star talent that propels a team to perennial contention.

Mark Kotsay is likely to rebound to near a league-average performance, but after two consecutive years below that level, it’s hard to expect more than that. Jason Kendall is nearing the dreaded catcher mid-thirties, and should be around league average as well. Milton Bradley will also flirt with the league average when healthy. Basically, except for the enigmatic Dan Johnson, the A’s will be returning a lot of players of league-average talent and questionable health. It’s rarely a good sign when your 33-year-old catcher has played more games than anyone else on your team in the past three years.

The best free agent signing the A’s can make is also a widely rumored one: Barry Bonds. Bonds can rotate between DH and left field, with Swisher playing first base. Bonds is Beane’s kind of free agent: old and still an excellent source of on-base percentage. The move to Oakland also keeps Bonds in the only market in the country where he is popular, and his pursuit of Hank Aaron could boost ticket sales, helping free up additional money for free agents or deadline trades. Bonds is also the only marquee hitter likely to fall into Oakland’s price range, as the A’s are unlikely to make a serious bid on Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Lee.

If he fails to land Bonds, Beane must find a corner outfielder or first baseman who can hit right-handed pitching. Kielty is fine as a platoon starter, but he is stretched as an everyday player. If he can put his personal problems behind him, Dmitri Young is an interesting option and should be affordable. He’ll be only 33 next year and has a .837 OPS against righties in his career, most of which has been spent in pitchers’ parks. Ryan Klesko is a possibility, but his health is a huge question mark, and his defense may force him to DH. Moises Alou will be 40 and shouldn’t be counted on for more than 100 games, but his hitting has held up well in old age.

Beane can also make a marginal upgrade by signing a second baseman such as Adam Kennedy and subsequently trading Mark Ellis, but it’s an unlikely scenario. Other than that, there isn’t much he can do outside of organizing a blockbuster trade for a big bat, which no one should put past him.

Whether the A’s sign Thomas, Bonds, or both, the real keys to a successful 2007 are improved health and bounce-back seasons from at least three of Chavez, Harden, Crosby, Kotsay, and Ellis. With the Rangers and Angels looking dangerous, Oakland will need everyone at full strength to advance to October again.

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