Monday, March 06, 2006

New Beginnings, Part III

Alright, we’ve predicted the 2006 paths of the Seattle Mariners (bad) and Texas Rangers (neutral). In the midst of the assembly of the Tatonka list, I want to return to the topic of 2006 AL West projections. Polishing off my crystal ball, we find that next up are the Oakland Athletics.

Changes this offseason for the A’s started off oddly, with manager Ken Macha walking away after he couldn’t come to a satisfactory agreement on a contract extension. Only a few days later, he returned as the A’s manager. Fun.

On the field, Macha will be able to mismanage a mostly solid core group, who have been bolstered by a couple of interesting off-season additions. In the pitching staff, Kirk Saarloos will step aside to make way for Esteban Loaiza in the fifth-starter spot. Saarloos and lefty Joe Kennedy will presumably be the spot starters, to fill in whenever one of the top five is injured. Otherwise, last year’s pitching staff returns, with a full year of Huston Street providing a certain amount of confidence in the bullpen.

Besides adding Loaiza via free agency for a perfectly reasonable $7 million a year for three years, Oakland GM Billy Beane also swung a trade to add a third center fielder to the team. To be sure, all three of these guys can play anywhere in the outfield, so for a while, it seemed as though Oakland was improving their defense considerably. The new addition? Nice guy Milton Bradley, who’s all fun and games—his favorite is the simply titled “Tantrum,” the Monster Slugathon…er, right. In any case, Oakland traded farmhand Andre Ethier at the absolute peak of his value to the Dodgers, and got two (2, or II!!) major leaguers in return—the arbitration-eligible volcano known as Bradley, and Antonio Perez, who could be a serviceable infield utility guy.

Lest the defense become too solid, though, Beane also saw the opportunity to sign ultimate whiny Bitch Sock Frank Thomas to a paltry half-million dollar deal. Thomas, who was once kind of good with that wooden stick thingy, cannot currently run, and even in perfect health he cannot be allowed on the field, at the penalty of several runs per game. Consequently, the A’s are hoping that the man can start at DH, pushing mediocre fielder Nick Swisher back to the outfield, and centerfielder Jay Payton to the bench. That still gives the team two centerfielders in the starting defense, which ought to improve upon last year a bit.

Besides subtracting, then adding Macha, and adding Loaiza, Bradley, Perez, and Thomas, the A’s had a rather quiet offseason. No major pieces of the team departed (although Barry Zito is rapidly approaching free agency, and the A’s are already pleading poverty rather than insult him with a contract extension), and they won 88 games in 2005, so there is great optimism in Oakland.

I submit that there probably shouldn’t be. Oh, it’s virtually a lock that the A’s finish above .500, and therefore above the M’s. But if Zito leaves this year without Oakland getting anything in return, then this is the last year for a while that they will have all the pieces together to make a serious run at losing in the first round of the playoffs. But there’s plenty of room for pessimism.

For instance, did I mention that the starting DH is both surly AND unable to swing a bat in anger? It’s probably a good thing—just think what happens during the first losing streak of the year, in a clubhouse with the Big Hurt and Milton Bradley together? Do you think Ken Macha will be able to prevent the two fiery misanthropes from destroying things? Me neither.

In addition, there are lingering injury issues for important parts of Oakland’s lineup. Eric Chavez, one of those uberprospects turned into above-average MLB player, a species that we love to hate because they “failed” to meet expectations, has experienced lingering shoulder issues, and was supposed to address those in October with shoulder surgery (as he wasn’t busy doing anything else). Instead, he decided to pretend that his shoulder was just fine, and although it still bothers him, at least he didn’t have surgery! Brilliant! (Has the Mariners’ training staff been doing side jobs? “Play through the pain, kid. If it didn’t hurt, everyone would be a Gold Glove third baseman. Suck it up.”)

Meanwhile, young shortstop Bobby Crosby has shoulder issues as well, which doesn’t help him much in his everyday job of THROWING THE BASEBALL ACROSS THE DIAMOND REALLY HARD. Plus, he can’t swing quite as well either. Huh.

Well, at least they have Macha back.

So how will this A’s team do? As usual, best and worst case scenarios:

Worst-case: Chuck Norris wanders into the clubhouse, is challenged by Thomas and/or Bradley, and without any effort whatsoever destroys not only the A’s, but the entire city of Oakland.

Oh, sorry…I’ve been reading that Chuck Norris list that’s all the rage. Really, the worst-case scenario is several major injuries to the pitching staff. Oakland is pretty deep, but eventually will run out of decent arms. Actually, I think that their depth minimizes the non-Chuck Norris inflicted damage here. Meanwhile, every major hitter on the team suffers injury, while offensive black hole Jason Kendall plays every single day.

Result: Thomas can’t play, Chavy and Crosby miss half the season each (or worse, “play through” major injuries and suck). Fewer than 700 runs score for Oakland in 2006, while the decimated pitching staff coughs up, say, 730 runs. That’s right, this is a worst-case scenario: the team is that solid. The downside here is then something in the neighborhood of a 76-86 season. No one will witness this debacle in person, however, since Lewis Wolff will adopt Lorian tactics and start badmouthing his product when the city and county continue to block his attempts to get a free new stadium.

Best-case: Like I said, not much variation here. The best case scenario involves Big Frank staying healthy enough to get 400 plate appearances. It also involves zero suspensions or injuries involving either Thomas or Bradley. A few small injuries can occur, but neither of the guys on the left side of the infield suffers performance decline due to their matched shoulder injuries. Ken Macha learns how to manage. This team, though, has a ceiling of something like 750 runs scored, while giving up only 700 or so. This is an 86-76 team, not good enough most years to win the AL West.

There we go: I can’t believe I’m typing this, but I just don’t see Oakland as a major playoff contender this year. They won’t age and fall off the map like the 2004 Mariners or anything, since the team is mostly young. But I am not foreseeing any breakouts from superstars here. Besides, even with the solid team they had last season, Oakland coughed up the division down the stretch, and they ended up underperforming their Pythagorean projection by 5 full games. Contender or not, the odds that they finish behind the M’s are in the same category as the Chuck Norris bit actually happening. At least Oakland fans can take solace in their team's depth, and youth, and in the fact that their team ought to be comfortably in second place if the Angels should fall apart and allow for another team to pass them.

That is analysis for another day.


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