Sunday, November 06, 2005

2005 AL West in review: Oakland Athletics

Here we have the second installment in our four-part review of the AL West. The first one generated only the wind whistling, tumbleweeds, and the occasional robot-spam comment, but that might be entirely attributed to our interest in discussing the fate of the Angels next season. Or not. In any case, I offer the following as food for thought; the Rangers are up next, in about a week.


By the way, Oakland has perhaps the most interesting pair of blogs in Elephants in Oakland (A's analysis using brain) and Athletics Nation (Billy Beane fanboy/shrine site, without brain). Peruse the blogs, and especially their comments, if you dare....

Oakland Athletics
88 – 74, 2nd in AL West, 7.0 games back

772 Runs Scored
658 Runs Allowed

Pythagorean W-L Record: 93-69

Team Batting in the form of Player-Seasonal Notation (total team hitting stats divided by 9)

AB

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

SO

SB

CS

BAVG

OBP

SLG

625

164

34

2

17

82

59

91

3

2

.262

.329

.407

Like the Angels, the 2005 Athletics collectively batted like a team of nine Aaron Rowands. Send in the clones.

Team Pitching in the form of Player-Seasonal Notation

Starter (average stats of top five starting pitchers)

W

L

IP

R

ER

ERA

H

K

BB

HR

12

10

187

82

75

3.63

168

125

61

19

Reliever (all other pitching stats divided by six)

W

L

SV

IP

R

ER

ERA

H

K

BB

HR

4

3

6

86

41

36

3.82

79

75

33

10

The pitching poster boy for the 2005 A’s is probably their very own Joe Blanton. Nice.

Ownership

By contrast to their SoCal counterpart in the division, the A’s are currently one of the “small market” teams, a status that affects every baseball decision that is made by the club. Their current ownership group (led by John Fisher, in terms of percent of the team owned, but whose public face is minority owner and General Managing Partner Lewis Wolff) has put all of its effort behind getting a new stadium to replace one of the worst major league parks around. So far, the city isn’t buying what they’re selling.

What does a small-market payroll look like? In 2005, Oakland spent $61.98 million, plus $1 million to the Pirates in the Jason Kendall deal, for a total of $62.98 million paid out. Coming off the books this year are $13.74 million in the form of a variety of free agents, and possibly more cash with some team options not picked up, but with six or seven players eligible for arbitration. Of those, only Joe Kennedy and Bobby Kielty seem likely to earn substantial raises, so the team could be left with some salary flexibility entering the Hot Stove season.

Although they are not the smallest spenders in baseball, the A’s are clearly a team with a budget, and that will continue to be the case for 2006. Indeed, unless Wolff and company can get a new stadium out of Oakland, this is likely to be the case for a good long time in Athletics land. Fitting, indeed, for the distant descendant of Connie Mack’s penurious Philadelphia A’s teams, or the more recent cash-oriented shenanigans of Charley O. Finley’s Oakland A’s in the 1970s. We can expect to see creative roster construction in the offseason, but tempered always by financial considerations.

Front Office

Billy Beane is at the helm of the A’s, given unquestioned freedom to run the organization as he sees fit by the ownership group, which has gone so far as to give Beane a share of the team in his most recent contract extension (which runs through 2012). In part due to the infamous Michael Lewis book Moneyball, Beane is a lightning rod for verbal combat between statheads and “traditional” fans—whether they’ve read the book or not. Hall of Fame second baseman and Hall of Shame announcer Joe Morgan continually insists that Beane wrote the book, and that the ideas that Morgan (imagines) are in Beane’s head are dead wrong. More recently, Bill Shanks has attempted to fire a broadside into the pirate ship Bill James Revenge with his book Scout’s Honor; Shanks may not have read the book that he’s critiquing very closely either.

Given the controversy, it is perhaps not that surprising to note that Beane is not in fact as great an innovator as many people seem to believe. Sure, he’s using statistical methods to analyze performance of players and prospects, and he’s trying to find players who might be successful who will fit into the Athletics’ small-market budget (by seeking and taking advantage of market inefficiencies), but those ideas aren’t that new—indeed, it is pretty clear that the A’s had adopted this kind of approach twenty years ago under the influence of Eric Walker. So Beane is no Branch Rickey. He is, however, a slick wheeler-dealer who isn’t afraid to pull off a big trade, or to let an important part of the team leave via free agency.

Manager

Ken Macha (resigned in the offseason to a three-year deal, through 2009, after negotiations broke down and he was let go by Beane when Macha turned down Beane’s initial deal).

Macha seems to be a non-entity to me, but some A’s fans viscerally hate the man. If the difference between actual record and Pythagorean record could be chalked up to the manager (and it can’t), then Macha could be guilty of losing five extra games a year, which is substantial. He does make some fascinating lineup decisions, and fails to rest his regulars, but Beane wouldn’t have offered to resign him if he didn’t reflect the organizational philosophy. The players like him.

Coaches—A slight shakeup from last season, with no word yet on a role for Ron Washington:

Curt Young (pitching coach)
Bob Geren (bullpen coach)
Brad Fischer (first base coach)
Ron Washington (third base coach?)
Rene Lachemann (bench coach)
Gerald Perry (hitting coach)

“Hitting” coach Dave Hudgens was let go for 2006 immediately after the season. Hudgens was a disaster for the A’s, and a potted plant would offer a certain amount of improvement. Think Walt Hriniak. Without the distinctive style of batting.

Ballpark

McAfee Coliseum (the new name for Network Associates Coliseum, which is the new name for the Alameda County Coliseum) was built in the mid-1960s and hosts both the Oakland Raiders and the Oakland A’s, the latter since 1968 when Finley moved the Kansas City A’s west. A’s fans lament the dual-purpose facility’s devotion to football over baseball, in ways that remind me of the bad old Kingdome. The open air, grass field has generally played as a neutral park that slightly favors hitters, although its vast foul territory is reputed to favor pitchers. Indeed, in the last three seasons, the park has once favored pitching, but the general trend is neutral. From 2003-05, the park factors were 93/101/103 for hitters, and 94/101/103 for pitchers.

Defense

The DER achieved by the Athletics in 2005 was tops in the American League by a wide margin. They turned 71.7% of non-HR batted balls into outs, well above the league average of 69.6%. A good portion of this advantage derives from Eric Chavez and Bobby Crosby on the left side of the infield, the generally solid infield defense all around, and the smooth Mark Kotsay in center field. It cannot have resulted from the abysmal defense played by any of the regular corner outfielders, notably natural DH Nick Swisher (about whom, Zach Manprin of Elephants in Oakland fame notably quipped, “Swisher’s defense makes some long for the days of Magellan (Terrence Long)”.)

Pitching

Pitching was the strength of the A’s in 2005, as it has been for years. But instead of Mulder, Hudson, and Zito, an entirely new staff put up a stellar performance, with nary a weak link on the pitching staff. Oakland ended with its staff ERA just a tick behind Anaheim at 3.69, although their Run Average was considerably higher at 4.08. Indeed, despite the superior DER, the A’s surrendered far more unearned runs than did the Angels. This despite allowing the lowest slugging percentage against in the entire American League, a miserly .382 mark.

Frankly, the worst pitcher who saw regular time for the 2005 Athletics was Keiichi Yabu, who posted a 4.50 ERA in 58 innings pitched, and whose 2006 option was declined after the season. When closer Octavio Dotel went down with a major injury early in the season, the A’s didn’t miss a beat, plugging young Huston Street in and plowing ahead.

Hitting

If pitching was the strength and defense generally sound, then hitting must have been the weak link for an A’s team that played poorly early, streaked back into the division race, and then faded miserably in the last couple of weeks of September.

In fact, most of the regular position players hit quite well. Only Jason Kendall and Scott Hatteberg sucked up huge numbers of outs without actually contributing anything meaningful to the team’s offense. Ken Macha’s…ahhh, interesting lineup decisions sometimes had fans scratching their heads. But the A’s scored more runs per game than division champ Los Angeles/Anaheim, and they did so with a young team that is likely to improve at the plate in 2006, because…

Aging

The A’s small market approach to roster construction currently has them with a team whose key players are just in or even just entering what should be their prime years of baseball. With the exception of Kendall and Hatteberg, the entire regular lineup has yet to reach age 30, including Dan Johnson and Bobby Crosby (25 in 2005), and Nick Swisher (24). Shoot, even Eric Chavez is only entering his age-28 season, although his shoulder may already be 45 years old. On the pitching side, none of the starters are even 28 at this point, while closer Street is but 21.

There is every reason to believe that the pitchers can maintain their dominance, and that the hitters will mature and collectively sustain their levels of output as well.

Positions and Player Movement

Long-term Contracts
The A’s own the following players’ contracts for the long-term:

Eric Chavez (2010, option for 2011)
Bobby Crosby (2009)
Keith Ginter (2006)
Rich Harden (2008, option for 2009)
Danny Haren (2009, option for 2010)
Scott Hatteberg (2006, option for 2007)
Jason Kendall (2007)
Mark Kotsay (2008)
Jay Payton (option exercised for 2006)
Barry Zito (option for 2006)
*Jay Witasick (brand-new two-year contract worth $2.75 million, plus a $2 million option for 2008)

Not yet eligible for arbitration

Joe Blanton
Justin Duchscherer
Ron Flores
Jairo Garcia
Dan Johnson
Marco Scutaro

Huston Street
Nick Swisher
Matt Watson

Arbitration-Eligible

Juan Cruz
Mark Ellis
Adam Melhuse
possibly Kiko Calero, as a Super-Two player
Joe Kennedy
Bobby Kielty
Seth Etherton

Prospects

Oakland’s farm system has, also infamously, loaded up on college players in the couple of drafts leading up to 2005. The ’05 ammy draft saw something of a departure from that strategy, with a number of prep players picked up early. This might simply reflect the ready supply of upper-level minor league talent, with Beane’s team seeking some longer-term projects now. On the other hand, by the time fifty rounds of drafting were done, the A’s had still mostly selected college players, so perhaps just the order changed.

Indeed, a good number of Oakland’s best prospects saw significant time on the major league squad in 2005, and will figure as major players going forward. Of the top ten A’s prospects as judged by minor league guru John Sickels before the 2005 season, half of them spent substantial time playing in the Show, and a sixth was flipped to Colorado in the Kennedy/Witasick for Byrnes/Quintanilla trade in July.

The A’s remaining top prospects (as rated by John Sickels before the 2005 season) include the following players, none of whom are clearly ready to join the big-league club:

LHP Dan Meyer (shoulder injury, mystery)
C/1b Daric Barton
OF Richie Robnett
C Kurt Suzuki
OF Danny Putnam
OF Andre Ethier

Free Agents

Alberto Castillo
Erubiel Durazo
Octavio Dotel
Ricardo Rincon
Tim Harikkala
Keiichi Yabu (option declined for 2006)

Roster Construction

My best guess as to the makeup of the 2006 Athletics (again, with '05 stats augmented by Win Share information from The Hardball Times):

Pos

Player

2005 Major League Stats

Age

PA

BAVG/OBP/SLG

WS

WSAB

Starters

C

Jason Kendall

31

651

271/345/321

14

2

1b

*Dan Johnson

25

425

275/355/451

10

2

2b

Mark Ellis

28

478

316/384/477

21

12

3b

*Eric Chavez

27

683

269/329/466

21

9

SS

Bobby Crosby

25

368

276/346/456

12

5

LF

#Bobby Kielty

28

427

263/350/395

10

2

CF

*Mark Kotsay

29

622

280/325/421

19

7

RF

#Nick Swisher

24

517

236/322/446

12

2

DH

Jay Payton

32

432

267/306/444

12

3

Bench

C

#Adam Melhuse

33

102

247/284/381

2

1

IF

Marco Scutaro

29

417

247/310/391

11

3

IF

Keith Ginter

29

150

161/234/263

1

-2

DH

*Scott Hatteberg

35

515

256/334/343

8

0

OF

*Matt Watson

26

50

188/220/250

0

-1

(* = left handed hitter; # = switch hitter)

Starting Pitchers

Age

IP

ERA

WS

WSAB

LHP

Barry Zito

27

228.3

3.86

14

7

RHP

Danny Haren

24

217

3.73

15

8

RHP

Joe Blanton

24

201.3

3.53

14

8

RHP

Rich Harden

23

128

2.53

13

9

LHP

Joe Kennedy

26

152.7

6.01

1

-4

Bullpen

RHP

Huston Street

21

78.3

1.72

13

8

RHP

Justin Duchscherer

27

85.7

2.21

11

6

RHP

Kirk Saarloos

26

159.7

4.17

9

4

RHP

Jay Witasick

34

63.3

2.84

6

3

RHP

Kiko Calero

30

55.7

3.23

5

3

LHP

Ron Flores

25

8.7

1.04

1

1

I was a bit surprised at the A’s exercising Jay Payton’s $4M option, since it seems unlikely that he will be an everyday starter for the A’s. Having kept Payton, it was clearly time to cut Scott Hatteberg loose, and then resign him for less money if the A’s really want him back as a bench player. I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, but Billy Beane seems to like Scott Hatteberg…a lot. Conversely, the contract for Jay Witasick seems like a reasonable deal.

Matt Watson produced some awful stats in his cup of coffee with the big league club, but he toiled in AAA Sacramento for the second straight season and demonstrated solid hitting prowess, putting up a 315/404/516 line for the River Cats, with more walks than strikeouts and solid power numbers. Watson has yet to be given a fair shot with Oakland for some reason, and he is by no means the flashiest outfielder in their minor league system, but I would argue that he’s better than Nick Swisher right now. In the end, it looks like he might be forced into a 5th outfielder career. Meanwhile, Andre Ethier is tearing up the Arizona Fall League (well, who isn’t?), and some A’s fans want to see him in green and gold next season.

In any case, I’m completely guessing, of course, on some of the roster fillers, but in general, we’re looking at an Opening Day roster that costs somewhere around $54 million, plus arbitration/resigning costs with Mark Ellis, Bobby Kielty, Adam Melhuse, Joe Kennedy, and possibly Kiko Calero. That leaves somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 million free if ownership wants to keep the payroll burden around $63M, after factoring in benefits payments.

Consequently, it is possible to imagine that the A’s will be somewhat active on the free agent market this offseason. The last thing, though, that they need is pitching. Instead, they must pursue an upgrade at second base or outfield. Indeed, a right handed power-hitting outfielder wouldn’t be the end of the world, to upgrade on the current team. But now we’re daydreaming. Perhaps a two-year deal at a modest salary for Mike Piazza to DH would be a possibility. Juan Encarnacion, anyone?

Other features of the 2006 Oakland season are pretty much out of Beane’s hands at this point. Eric Chavez was originally scheduled to have shoulder surgery this offseason, but has recently decided to put it off because he doesn’t understand what is wrong with his shoulder. Brilliant. Chavez had a down season at the plate, while winning a fifth Gold Glove as much on reputation as anything else. If that trend continues, he will be somewhat difficult to replace, given the Oakland salary structure and his long-term deal. Jason Kendall had a miserable 2005 at his level of salary and reputation, but there are no other catchers near enough to being ready in the A’s system that it would be possible to replace Kendall yet. So the big offensive problems in 2005 could linger and become the big offensive problems in 2006 as well.

To sum up: The Athletics are poised for the top of the success cycle now, despite having dismantled their previous outstanding team just last offseason. They do not figure to be major players in the free agent market, having recently developed a number of key players via the minor leagues. However, Billy Beane is often involved in trade discussions that surprise people (like last year’s acquisition of Jason Kendall from the Pirates), so it might be safe to predict some sort of unorthodox move. Still, while the A’s will contend in 2006, parts of the 2005 season suggest that their roster is also prone to lengthy slumps, given their lack of depth. (Notably, most of the A’s slumps coincided with injuries to key offensive players.)

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