When the Oakland A’s take the field at the O.co Coliseum on Monday night, only two players are expected to be in the starting line-up that appeared in last year’s season opener: starter Sonny Gray and second baseman Eric Sogard. The A’s roster overhaul was so complete this off-season that only 13 of the team’s 25 active players on Opening Day played an inning in the green-and-gold last season.
The A’s finished spring training with the most wins in the major leagues, but came out of camp with several key injuries. Closer Sean Doolittle rehabbed a sore left shoulder all spring and isn’t expected back on the mound for the A’s until late May, at the earliest. Outfielder Coco Crisp had surgery last week to clean up a troublesome right elbow that bothered him all spring. He could be on a similar timetable to Doolittle. Outfielder Josh Reddick will miss at least the first five games of the season with a strained oblique he injured at the start of Cactus League play.
With Crisp and Reddick sidelined, the A’s have plenty of questions surrounding their offense heading into 2015. Newcomers Ben Zobrist, Billy Butler, Ike Davis, Josh Phegley, Marcus Semien and Brett Lawrie were already going to be tasked with replacing the offensive production of Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Derek Norris, Jed Lowrie and Yoenis Cespedes. Now the A’s will be asking Sam Fuld, rookie Billy Burns and Craig Gentry to fill the void left by the injuries to Reddick and Crisp.
The A’s have two rookie position players on their Opening Day roster who will be making their major league debuts: utilitymen Tyler Ladendorf and Mark Canha. Ladendorf will be the bench version of Zobrist while he is on the active roster, filling in all over the field, especially in late-game situations. Canha, a Rule 5 selection, will fill the void left by the injury to Nate Freiman as the A’s right-handed first baseman. Canha will also see time in left and right fields.
Oakland doesn't figure to have as much power in their line-up as they did in 2014, although they do have several players who project to reach double figures in homeruns. Where the A's will be improved are in the areas of team speed and defense. Their infield defense, in particular, should be much better than last season, when the A's were hampered by several below-average defensive infielders. An outfield of Gentry, Fuld and Burns may not produce one homerun all season, but they will be the fastest trio that the A's have played in an outfield together since the days of Luis Polonia, Jose Canseco and Stan Javier. Crisp, too, will bring speed to the bases when he is in the line-up, as will Semien, Lawrie, Zobrist and Reddick. Look for the A's to run more in 2015 than they did in 2014.
The A’s starting rotation is young and talented. Gray leads a group that includes veteran Scott Kazmir, second-year right-hander Jesse Hahn, third-year hurler Drew Pomeranz and rookie Kendall Graveman. A’s 2014 starter Jesse Chavez moves into the bullpen as a longman, but he could make spot starts from time-to-time. The A’s rotation should be a strength, but if any of the five falter, the A’s will have plenty of experienced options in Triple-A that they can turn to, including 2002 AL Cy Young award winner Barry Zito and off-season acquisitions Chris Bassitt and Sean Nolin, and 2014 spot-starter Brad Mills.
If things go according to plan, the A’s will have some difficult decisions to make mid-season regarding their rotation when right-handers Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin are ready to return from Tommy John surgery. Both pitchers have fared well in their rehabs thus far. Parker could be available as soon as early June, while Griffin’s target date is likely more in the area of the All-Star break. The A’s could use Parker and Griffin in a variety of ways, including out of the bullpen, to ease them back in.
The A’s bullpen was expected to be a strength going into spring training, but the A’s do have a number of questions surrounding their bullpen heading into the regular season. The biggest question is the health of Doolittle, who was one of the most dominant relievers in baseball last season. The best case scenario for the A’s is that Doolittle returns in late May and doesn’t miss a beat, but they won’t know how much they can rely on Doolittle until he is throwing in games.
While Doolittle is out, Tyler Clippard will assume the closer’s role on most nights. Clippard was acquired in January from the Washington Nationals and is set to be a free agent at the end of the year. He has been one of the best right-handed set-up men in baseball for the past several years, but this will be his first year in the American League since he was a rookie with the New York Yankees. Clippard struggled in the closer’s role for the Nationals a few years ago, so it remains to be seen how he will handle that role with Oakland. Even if Clippard shines as a closer, his absence from the eighth-inning role will something the A’s will have to address.
Oakland had hoped that former All-Star closer Ryan Cook would be able to serve as that primary right-handed set-up man while Clippard was the closer. Cook struggled all spring and was optioned to Triple-A Nashville. The A’s won’t hesitate to bring Cook back if he is effective in Triple-A, but he won’t be a sure thing for the A’s in the early going, at the very least.
The A’s will bridge the gap to the ninth inning with a combination of Dan Otero, Eric O’Flaherty and Fernando Abad. Rookie R.J. Alvarez could move into a set-up role if he gets off to a good start this season. Evan Scribner and Chavez will give the A’s some length in the middle innings.
At the end of the day, the A’s should have enough pitching to keep the team from being really bad, but it remains to be seen if they can hit enough to prevent that dreaded mediocrity. The A’s spent much of the lead-in to the 2015 spring training talking about the 2012 season and how the A’s surprised everyone after trading away several veterans that off-season. The 2012 model is one that certainly could apply to the A’s if everything breaks perfectly. For that to happen, Davis and Butler need to have comeback years at the plate, Zobrist has to live up to expectations, Reddick, Lawrie and Crisp have to find ways to stay healthy for the majority of the year, and one of the group of Semien, Lawrie, Phegley and Canha has to exceed expectations. The A's have enough depth in Triple-A to withstand a few injuries (especially to the pitching staff) and to allow them to make a few mid-season moves if they are in contention.
If things don't break Oakland's way, the 2015 A’s are more likely to parallel the 2010 squad, which was a team that finished at .500 on the strength of its pitching staff. An Oakland season heading in the 2010 direction will likely result in several mid-season moves to deal veterans entering their free agent years, such as Zobrist, Clippard and Kazmir. Either way, the A's should find a way to generate some headlines yet again this season.