The Oakland A's will begin their defense of their AL West division crown on Monday when they open the 2013 season against the Seattle Mariners in Oakland.
The A's are coming off an offseason in which the front office looked to improve the roster without trading away key pieces with an eye toward the future. With a lot of young talent on the roster, the A's surprise 2012 AL West title could signal a start of a run of success, as the club looks to earn back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in 10 years.
The A's broke camp with a 17-13 spring record while having battles at a number of positions, most notably the middle infield. Oakland clearly needed improved production from the 2012 season up the middle and found upgrades at every position during the offseason. The A's acquired catcher John Jaso in a three-way trade with Seattle and Washington, sending away promising pitching prospects A.J. Cole, Blake Treinen and Ian Krol.
After Stephen Drew left the team and signed a lucrative one-year deal with Boston in the offseason, the A's inked Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima to a two-year, $6.5 million deal with an option for 2015. Nakajima was expected to be the A's every-day shortstop. He brought with him a capable bat and adequate glove but had a questionable arm, especially on throws from deep in the hole.
Almost two months later, the A's traded for the versatile Jed Lowrie, who had been on their radar for some time. They gave up first baseman Chris Carter and prospects Brad Peacock and Max Stassi. Lowrie, a Stanforn alum and former first-round pick, is a switch hitter with the ability to play all over the infield. Oakland viewed Lowrie as a super utility man who would find a way to get 500 plate appearances at various positions.
But Nakajima's learning curve was steeper than anticipated in the spring, leading to struggles both at the plate and defensively. He hit .167/.286/.190 in 49 plate appearances before suffering a hamstring injury that forced him to the disabled list to start the season. The severity of his injury isn't yet clear, but the time off will allow Nakajima to continue his adjustment to baseball in the US in less pressure-filled environment on a rehab assignment in the minor leagues once he has healed.
With Nakajima on the shelf, Lowrie became the every day shortstop, which in a way simplified the rest of the infield battles after his name was thrown around at all four spots.
Jemile Weeks injured his shoulder March 1 after putting together a nice run in the spring's first two weeks and failed to win the second base job out of camp. That spot will go to the duo of Eric Sogard and Scott Sizemore, while Weeks will look to get back to his 2011 form at Triple-A. The A's got only a combined .228/.303/.316 slash line from the position last season and hope the optimized platoon of Sogard and Sizemore can improve those numbers drastically.
Sizemore struggled early in the spring as he worked his way back from a torn ACL that cost him the entire 2012 season. However, he looked better towards the end of camp and the A's will start the season with Sizemore seeing time mostly against left-handed pitchers. Sogard forced his way onto the roster with a huge spring and will see time against right-handers at second base. Both Sizemore and Sogard will be playing to remain on the roster when Nakajima and Adam Rosales (intercostal muscle) return from their injuries. Before going down with injury last week, Rosales was putting together a strong spring and he could factor as the A's utility infielder this season when he is healthy.
The other addition the A's made up the middle was outfielder Chris Young, who was acquired from the Diamondbacks in a three-way deal for Cliff Pennington and shortstop prospect Yordy Cabrera, who went to the Marlins.
Young adds athleticism to an already talented outfield and has the ability to play all three positions. With the group of outfielders being the most talented on the roster, plugging in Young will allow A's manager Bob Melvin the flexibility to give Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick a few extra days off or time at designated hitter to help them stay fresh throughout the season. With their high-energy play, the A's outfielders admittedly wore down towards the end of the year and had slumps bleed into the postseason. Reddick saw the biggest drop off, going just 2-for-17 in the Division Series against Detroit.
Seth Smith will receive most of the at-bats at designated hitter against right-handed pitchers, although the A's will likely shuffle several players through the DH spot, including Crisp, Cespedes and Young, as well as Jaso. Smith had an 806 OPS against right-handed pitching last season, but posted only a 521 OPS in limited action versus lefties.
For the second spring in a row, Josh Donaldson has a handle on the third base job and should come in with a much higher level of confidence this time around. Late last season, he returned to the major leagues after losing his job to Brandon Inge to hit eight homers over the final two months while providing a high quality glove at the hot corner. Donaldson had a strong spring, hitting .300/.368/.517 slash line with three homers and four doubles.
Donaldson has been known to be a slow starter throughout his career and will need to get off to a decent start to maintain confidence in line with his raised expectations. Knowing he won't have to compete with Lowrie for at-bats should help.
Brandon Moss faces the very tough task of trying to repeat his breakout performance from 2012, when he hit 21 long balls in just 84 games. But like Reddick, Moss struggled in the postseason, getting just two hits in 15 at-bats. Pitchers will likely adjust to Moss this season, making it unlikely he will be able to repeat his power numbers. His .251/.317/.442 career line is far more likely in 2013 than 2012's .291/.358/.596 clip.
Moss hit 19 homers against right-handers and just two against lefties, which led the A's to acquire the right-handed hitting Nate Freiman, who was put on waivers by the Astros. Freiman, a 6'8'' power forward-like player, slugged 24 homeruns in 137 games in the Texas League last year, an environment usually tough on hitters. Freiman made the major league team without any time at Triple-A, but as a Rule-5 player, he had to make the team out of camp, otherwise he would have been offered back to his original club (the San Diego Padres) for cash.
Freiman is Duke University's all-time homerun leader and could be an adequate replacement for Carter if his measurables play out in the big leagues. He has a career 1060 OPS against left-handed pitching and could be an intriguing, low-risk find if he's able to show off his power in his limited role.
Jaso and Derek Norris will team behind the plate. A's catchers hit .204/.262/.325 last season, but the A's hope for significantly improved production from their backstops this season. Jaso will get the majority of the starts against right-handed pitchers, although Norris will see some time against right-handers, as well. Norris looked much improved this spring at the plate, showing more patience, as well as excellent power. Jaso had an 850 OPS in 108 games for Seattle last season, with most of his production coming against right-handed pitchers.
With the departure of Brandon McCarthy to Arizona, Brett Anderson becomes the A's Opening Night starter, followed in the rotation by Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone and A.J. Griffin. The fifth starter will be Dan Straily to begin the year as Bartolo Colon will serve his five remaining games on his suspension incurred last season for testing positive for high levels of testosterone.
Anderson only threw 12 innings in big league camp this spring (he got some time in minor league games), but will be in top shape to start the year after returning strong from Tommy John surgery late last summer. Last year, Anderson was very effective for the A's in six regular season starts before straining his right oblique in September, going 4-2 with a 2.57 ERA and 3.57 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Especially encouraging for Anderson was his career-high 59.8 percent ground ball ratio and career-low 16.7 fly ball percentage. The battle for Anderson will be to continue to stay healthy, which could allow him to become one of the better left-handed starters in the American League if he's able to make 30 starts, something he's done just once in his career in Oakland.
Parker will be breaking camp in a major league rotation for the first time in his career. The 23-year-old finished the 2012 season second on the team in innings, but started the season with Triple-A Sacramento after struggling with command in the spring. Parker's Cactus League numbers weren't very good, but there's little concern about the right-hander heading into the season. Parker spent time this spring working on incorporating more curveballs into his repertoire, a pitch he used early in the count as a get-over pitch last season.
With almost a full season in the majors under his belt, Parker's high upside should become even more apparent this season as his command improves after being another year removed from Tommy John surgery. Parker should have a better feel for his two-seam fastball while continuing to improve his slider. His changeup has become his best strikeout pitch, which should also show improvement. There's little doubt Parker has the makeup of a potential ace and could provide Oakland with a very formidable duo atop the rotation alongside Anderson.
Milone is another young hurler who is entering his second season as a major league starter. Milone threw very well for the A's at home last season, but struggled on the road. Milone had 15.4 percent of fly balls leave the park on the road, compared to just 5.6 percent in Oakland, leading to an ERA of more than two runs higher on the road. The soft-tossing lefty didn't put up great spring numbers either, but walked just five hitters and gave up three homers in 23.1 innings. Milone's home and road splits improved as the 2012 season wore on and he should become a solid No. 3 starter should that trend continue in 2013.
Griffin began last season in Double-A and wound up having one of the best rookie seasons in recent memory, going 7-1 with a 3.06 ERA in 15 starts. The fly-ball pitcher clearly benefited from playing in the Coliseum, but he made his mark with great command, leading to a low walk rate. Griffin's signature slow curve is reminiscent of Barry Zito's same pitch from the left side, but Griffin's measurables say he may have benefited from a good deal of luck. Regardless, Griffin's command should keep him in games and he should continue to be effective in his home confines.
Straily began last season as Griffin's roommate in Midland while both played at the Double-A level and both found themselves in the major leagues later that summer. Straily led all of baseball in strikeouts during his time in the minors and showed signs of being able to replicate that ability in the majors. But the right-hander often found himself leaving fastballs up in the zone, leading to 11 home runs in just 33.1 innings. Also a fly ball pitcher, Straily will need to work on getting his pitches down in the zone to get more ground balls. With a fastball that tops out around 92, Straily won't get major league hitters to whiff as often as minor leaguers, so pitching to contact low in the zone will be key for him to stick in the majors for an extended period of time.
Initially, Straily is slated to make just one turn in the rotation before being replaced by the veteran Colon, who pitched well for the A's before being suspended for violating baseball's performance enhancing drug policy last season. Throwing more fastballs than at any other point in his career, Colon made his living low in the zone, inducing ground balls at a high level while minimizing walks.
Colon's projected productivity remains unclear after his suspension. His performance over the last two seasons became tough to judge after his failed test for high levels of testosterone. But the A's appear to have insulated themselves from Colon's struggles with Straily and the potential promotion of Sonny Gray, the A's 2011 first-round pick, who will start the season in Sacramento. Gray might have a higher ceiling than Straily given his harder fastball and quality curveball as an out pitch, but Straily will likely be the first option should Colon falter given his advantage in experience.
The A's bullpen was one of the best units in the American League last year and is returning all significant pieces with a new addition. Chris Resop joins the team as a versatile middle-innings right-hander from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Resop combined to make 137 appearances over the last two seasons and should see plenty of time in the middle innings after a very strong spring.
Grant Balfour remains the A's closer and has been a model of consistency throughout his major league career. Although he hasn't spent much time as a closer, Balfour has had an ERA above 2.57 just once in the last five seasons. Balfour walked more hitters than he would have liked to in 2012, but he made up for it by allowing less than five hits per nine innings. The Australian underwent knee surgery at the start of spring training, but he returned to regular work the final two weeks and is expected to have any restrictions in the early going./p>
Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook will be the top set-up options, giving the A's hard-throwing options from either side of the rubber in high-leverage situations. Both can get strikeouts at high rates, but will look to get more ground balls by getting their fastballs down in the strike zone more consistently. Both could transition to a closer's role at any point.
Pat Neshek will be another late-inning option, especially against right-handers. The sidewinder has allowed just a .171/.251/.302 line to righties over his career. Veteran lefty Jerry Blevins also returns after a very solid 2012 where he allowed just 45 hits in 65.1 innings. Right-hander Evan Scribner earned the final bullpen spot and will break camp in the majors for the first time in his career. Scribner made 30 appearances last season, posting a 2.55 ERA and a very good 1.19 WHIP.