Analysis: Impact Of Holliday And Giambi

After a 2008 season that saw the Oakland A's pull up the rear in the American League in runs scored, the A's front office had a mission this off-season: improve the team's offense. Since the end of the season, the A's have done just that, adding veteran sluggers Matt Holliday and Jason Giambi. We take a look at the impact of these two acquisitions on the team and on the potential roster…

When the Oakland A's were at their peak in the early 2000s, the team's hitting philosophy used to be described as "walk-walk-three-run-jimmy-jack." Over the last half of the decade, however, the A's offense has more often been "walk-strike-out-double-play." In 2008, the A's offense plunged to new depths, as they brought up the rear in the American League in scoring and managed only 125 homeruns. Only one player – Jack Cust – hit more than 20 homeruns (Cust had 33) and only two other players even reached double-digits (Emil Brown (13) and Mark Ellis (12)).

The A's entered 2008 with the understanding that there would be some struggles, as the team was in a rebuilding mode. However, it is hard to believe that anyone could have imagined that the A's struggles at the plate would be quite so dire. During the second half of last season, the A's managed a team batting average of .231 (they hit .249 before the break) and only three A's regulars (Cust, Ryan Sweeney and Kurt Suzuki) finished the year with an OPS above 700.

The impact of a poor offense was even more dramatic when it was teamed with a young starting pitching staff during the second half of the 2008 season. In the first half, the A's were able to stay in contention for the AL West division lead thanks to a relatively veteran pitching staff led by Rich Harden, Joe Blanton and a healthy Justin Duchscherer. Before the All-Star break, the A's posted a stellar 3.39 ERA and were 51-44.

Things changed dramatically for the pitching staff during the second half of the season, however. Harden, Blanton and veteran swingman Chad Gaudin were traded and replaced with youngsters such as Dallas Braden, Sean Gallagher and Jerry Blevins. Duchscherer was felled by a hip problem in August, and his spot in the rotation was taken by rookie Gio Gonzalez. In addition, veteran closer Huston Street struggled and was eventually relieved of his closer duties in favor of rookie Brad Ziegler (although, in that particular case, it is hard to argue that it was a downgrade in terms of production).

The results were predictable. Burdened by inexperience, the young A's staff had a tough time pitching in an environment where two runs was often all it would take for the opposition to put a game out of reach. The A's team ERA jumped more than a run to 4.93 and the team's second half record was a dismal 24-42.

Going into the 2009 season, the A's are planning on featuring a young pitching staff once again. Unless the team signs or trades for a veteran starter, Duchscherer will be the most tenured member of the starting rotation, and he has only one full season in the big leagues as a starter (the rest of his six seasons were spent primarily as a set-up man). He is also coming off of hip surgery for a second consecutive off-season. Consequently, it is likely the A's will be leaning heavily on young starters such as Gonzalez, Gallagher, Braden, Josh Outman and Dana Eveland. In addition, the A's have a number of top pitching prospects who will start the season at Triple-A (Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, James Simmons and Vince Mazzaro, to name four) who could join the Oakland rotation at some point during the season.

During both press conferences to announce the Matt Holliday trade and the Jason Giambi signing, A's GM Billy Beane alluded to the fact that he felt it was important to give his young pitchers the confidence when they got on the mound that they had an offense that would make up for some of their mistakes. Beane indicated that he believed that the strong offenses of the A's 1999-2002 teams helped the development of pitchers such as Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito.

In adding Holliday and Giambi, the A's front office has given its young team two recognizable, All-Star caliber players to sit in the middle of the line-up. Although it is difficult to measure the psychological impact of having "star names" on a team, it is clear that at times during the second half of last season, the A's didn't always feel like they could compete with the teams they were playing against. Having stars in the line-up should boost the confidence of the younger players that they will be able to stand-up to any team in the league.

From a numbers perspective, these two acquisitions have an obvious impact. Holliday had a 947 OPS in 139 games last season for the Colorado Rockies, and lest one think that those numbers were entirely a Coors Field creation, he posted a solid 891 OPS on the road, a number that would have led the A's by a healthy margin. Giambi had an 876 OPS last year, to go along with 32 homers and 96 RBIs. His OPS away from the left-handed-hitter friendly Yankee Stadium was 826, which would have been second on the A's last year.

Combining Holliday and Giambi with Cust gives the A's a one-two-three punch in the middle of their line-up that can compete with nearly any in the league. All three are capable of hitting 30 homeruns and all of them are hitters who work the count extensively and draw a lot of walks, which will set-up easy RBI opportunities for hitters lower in the order. And if Eric Chavez is healthy, that will give the A's another threat to hit 30 homeruns and post an OPS well-above 800.

Adding Holliday and Giambi also allows the A's to place their returning hitters in spots in the line-up that are more suited to their skill-sets. For example, last season the A's asked Kurt Suzuki to hit in the top five spots in the order for the majority of his starts, but he was far more effective hitting sixth in the line-up or lower than he was hitting higher-up. Oakland will now be able to move Suzuki down in the line-up. In addition, young players such as Daric Barton, Suzuki, Ryan Sweeney and Travis Buck will no longer be asked to be the focal points of the A's offense, as they were at various times last season.

Impact on the Roster

As Beane indicated during the Giambi press conference, the off-season is far from over and there are still a number of veteran hitters on the market that the A's could target to solidify their offense even further. However, it is clear that these two acquisitions are already going to have a huge impact on the A's roster for the 2009 season.

Before the Holliday trade, the biggest spring battle in A's camp was shaping up to be in the outfield between Travis Buck, Ryan Sweeney, Carlos Gonzalez, Aaron Cunningham, Matt Murton, Chris Denorfia, Rule 5 pick Ben Copeland and Rajai Davis. The trade for Holliday didn't alleviate that glut of outfielders (Gonzalez was traded away, but Holliday was added, leaving the number the same), but it did make at least one-third of the outfield (left field) a spot that was set in stone.

The Giambi signing has added another wrinkle to the outfield battle. Instead of competing for two starting spots this spring (center and right), the aforementioned group may be battling for only one, as Jack Cust may be slid into right field to accommodate Giambi at DH. Of course, Giambi can play some first base, so incumbent first baseman Daric Barton will need to have a strong spring after a disappointing rookie season in order to ensure that he is the first baseman and not Giambi.

The players most effected by these moves are Buck, Barton and Cunningham, in all likelihood. Denorfia, Murton, Copeland and Davis were going to be battling for a back-up outfield spots regardless, and they still figure to be engaged in that same battle this spring, unless one or more of them are traded. Sweeney likely has his name at least penciled in as the A's starting centerfielder right now, thanks to his 2008 performance that saw him hit .286 with a .350 OBP and play solid defense. A poor spring could change those plans, however, and his is coming off of surgery on his finger.

Cunningham was probably a long-shot to make the A's out of spring training even before these two acquisitions and he is an even longer-shot now. The A's are very high on Cunningham, but he is only a year-and-a-half removed from High-A ball and has less than a month of Triple-A experience. A very solid overall hitter, Cunningham still needs to work on his plate patience and on his defense, something that will be easier to do with regular playing time in Sacramento than irregular time in the big leagues. He won't turn 23 until late April. It would take a huge spring from Cunningham both at the plate and in the field to earn a roster spot with Holliday and Giambi on-board. He is still likely to see some time in the big leagues this season at some point, regardless of where he starts the season.

Buck began the 2009 season as the A's lead-off hitter and one of the faces of the franchise. A horrible April got his year off on a bad note and injuries held him back for much of the early part of the season. He started hitting well during his final month with Triple-A Sacramento in August and he had a torrid final two weeks of the season with the A's, hitting .367 with four homers and a 1088 OPS in 49 at-bats.

Buck has the advantage of being able to play some centerfield, although his best position is in a corner outfield spot, so he could push Sweeney for the starting centerfield job with a big spring. In all likelihood, however, if Buck has a big spring and is given the starting nod on Opening Day, it will be at the expense of Barton and not Sweeney.

Barton's 2008 season was a bit of a nightmare. He entered the year as a strong candidate to win the Rookie of the Year award, but slumped badly after a decent April and seemed to find his stroke only in September, when he hit .279 with a 919 OPS. Barton finished the year with a .226 average in 446 at-bats, which was one of the lowest averages for any player in the league with that many at-bats. Barton did show surprising agility over at first base and became an asset with the glove by the end of the year. He underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip during the off-season, although he is expected to be ready for spring training.

There was some talk even before the Holliday and Giambi acquisitions that Barton might need some more time in Triple-A. Although he has been in the A's system since 2005, Barton is only 23 years old and he won't turn 24 until mid-August. His minor league track record is very strong, but his worst minor league numbers were posted at the Triple-A level. It wouldn't be a shock to see the A's start Barton in Triple-A next season if he continues to look as lost at the plate this spring as he appeared to be for much of last season. If he is swinging the bat this spring like he was last September, however, Barton almost certainly will begin the year in the A's everyday line-up.

Given the injury history of the players involved in the battle for spots at first, DH and in the outfield, there will be plenty of playing time for most of these players throughout the year. Despite being young players, Barton, Sweeney and Buck have extensive injury histories, as do Giambi and Denorfia, so giving those players regular rest could help them avoid the DL.

Should players such as Barton or Buck spend any time in Triple-A, it will have a ripple effect throughout the organization. One of the consequences of the A's efforts to stockpile young talent over the past few years has been that Oakland has a glut of promising prospects and may not have enough spots to go around in the higher levels should players such as Barton or Buck land in Triple-A. As of now, the Sacramento first base/DH positions are set to be taken by Tagg Bozied and Tom Everidge. If Barton were to be on the River Cats' roster, one of those players would likely be moved down to Double-A. However, there is an even bigger log-jam in Double-A at the first base/DH positions next season, with Sean Doolittle, Chris Carter and Matt Spencer all set to compete at that level. All three can play some outfield in addition to first base, but the A's have other outfielders who could see time at Double-A, as well.

The A's outfield situation at Triple-A and Double-A is crowded. Assuming Cunningham is assigned to Triple-A, the River Cats are already looking at Cunningham, Javier Herrera, Richie Robnett, minor league free agent signing Matt Carson and Danny Putnam for outfield spots. Not to mention Eric Patterson, who can play both second base and the outfield. At Double-A, the A's are looking at the possibility of Corey Brown, one of the Carter/Doolittle/Spencer trifecta, Archie Gilbert, Matt Sulentic and Jermaine Mitchell possibly vying for time. Pushing down one of the Triple-A guys to Double-A would create an even bigger log-jam.


The acquisitions of Holliday and Giambi are positive ones, both in terms of the production they will bring to the team and the veteran leadership. However, they do create somewhat of a fuzzy picture for the A's in terms of what will be their everyday line-up. As it was last year, spring training should be filled with spirited competitions for playing time again this season.

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