Financial Gladiators - An Oakland Athletics preview

I couldn't resist. This is pretty much tradition at this point. - Ezra Shaw

A look ahead at our first opponent on the upcoming 9-game road trip.

Offense: Coco Crisp - CF, Jed Lowrie - SS, Josh Donaldson - 3B, Brandon Moss - 1B, Yoenis Cespedes - LF, Alberto Callaspo - DH, Josh Reddick - RF, John Jaso - C, Eric Sogard - 2B

For years, Coco Crisp has been primarily thought of as a slap hitter that can wreak havoc on the bases. Last season, however, he belted out 22 home runs for Oakland and surprisingly finished 15th in the AL MVP voting. He's still a good baserunner and provides the A's with a good mix of speed and pop at the top of their lineup. The Athletics are known for their high rate of player turnover, but Crisp is in the middle of his 5th straight season with the team. Familiarity, marketability (Afros!), and overall good performance have made Covelli a fan favorite in Oakland.  Crisp is dealing with a neck injury and may miss the series, so the Sox will likely see Craig Gentry instead.  Gentry is an excellent defensive center fielder whose good walk rate helps him maintain a plus on-base percentage.

Jed Lowrie's successful 2013 season was pretty shocking, not so much because of the quality of his plate appearances, but because there were 662 of them. The injury-prone shortstop has an excellent bat for his position, combining mid-teens home run power with good on-base ability. He's a below-average defensive shortstop, but the complete package is still a very good player. The AL West figures to be a tight race, and Lowrie's health will be key for the A's to repeat as champions.

Josh Donaldson has come a long way since the A's acquired him from the Cubs for Rich Harden. At the time, Donaldson was a 22 year old catcher and the least famous of the four players the A's acquired in that trade. Now, Donaldson is not only the only player from that trade in the majors, he's a bona-fide star that finished 4th in last year's MVP voting. Putting up an .883 OPS while playing in the Coliseum is no easy feat, and Donaldson did it while playing good defense at the hot corner. This season, he's picked up right where he left off as the run-producing anchor of the Oakland lineup.

Brandon Moss came to life upon arrival in Oakland. He had never cracked 10 home runs in a season in a variety of part-time roles, but belted out 21 in 2012 and 30 in 2013. Moss's teams have always been very careful to give him the platoon advantage, but he's not helpless against left-handed pitching either. He forms an odd lefty-lefty platoon with Daric Barton, who's actually better at hitting southpaws than righties. According to this article by Jayson Stark, Moss is one of 5 players in history to hit a walk-off home run in the 19th inning. There are only three walk-off home runs in history in innings later than the 19th; Dick Allen (21st inning) and Harold Baines (25th inning) both accomplished the feat as members of the White Sox.

After his exciting 2012 season, Yoenis Cespedes had himself a sophomore slump in 2013. His batting average fell 52 points to .240 due to an increase in strikeouts and pop flies. He's always a threat to hit the ball out of the park and has been drawing more walks this season than in the past. so he could have himself a nice rebound campaign. Cespedes is stretched in center, so the A's primarily use him in left field, where his throwing arm grades out as well above-average.

Alberto Callaspo is a great contact hitter that doesn't come with the typical high batting averages you'd associate with a guy that doesn't strike out much. The issue is that Callaspo doesn't have an abundance of power or speed, so his fly balls tend to get caught and he doesn't beat out many grounders. The switch-hitter primarily occupies the DH slot for Oakland, though he's capable of filling in at third, second, or first. His name makes him Oakland's answer to our own "Gonna Collapsie"; he's Abouto Collapso!

The oft-bearded Josh Reddick is the reason that Yoenis Cespedes' overqualified arm resides in left field. Reddick has the fourth-most outfield assists in baseball since the beginning of 2012, with one fewer than our own Dayan Cannon. Two seasons ago, Reddick had a breakout season for Oakland, clubbing 32 homers in his first full season of plate appearances. Last year, his power numbers dropped significantly and a recurring wrist injury was likely the culprit. He's yet to rediscover the magic, but as long as his bat remains reasonably competent, he's well worth playing for what he can do on defense.

John Jaso is the type of player that you'd expect to find on the Athletics teams of the early part of the millenium because he's very poor at defense and draws tons of walks. Jaso is awful at framing, blocking, and throwing, so ideally teams would stop asking him to play behind the plate. He owns a .391 OBP over the past two seasons as a platoon player, however, so teams have every reason to squeeze him into the lineup against right-handers. Jaso platoons with Derek Norris, and together they combine to form one very good offensive catcher. Norris is the catcher who allowed A.J. Pierzynski to score from first on a groundout by humorously running past Pierzynski on his way to to cover third base, abandoning home plate in the process.

Eric Sogard is a bespectacled second baseman that can't hit for much power, but plays a decent second base and posted an OBP around league average last season. In February, MLB.com asked fans to vote on the "Face of MLB". A's fans turned out in record numbers to troll the contest by voting Sogard all the way to the finals. He defeated Anthony Rizzo, Troy Tulowitzki, Buster Posey, and Jose Bautista along the way. David Wright ultimately beat him out, so we don't get to claim that the worst hitter on the A's is the face of Major League Baseball. Rats.

Bench: Derek Norris - C, Nick Punto - INF, Daric Barton - 1B, Craig Gentry - OF

Pitching: Starting Rotation: Sonny Gray - RHP, Scott Kazmir - LHP, Jesse Chavez - RHP, Tommy Milone - LHP, Drew Pomeranz - LHP; Closer - Jim Johnson - RHP

Sonny Gray certainly looks like nothing short of an ace. Gray has mid-90's heat with a curveball that gives hitters fits. After logging just ten starts in his first season, he was counted on to be the number-two starter for the A's in the ALDS. Though he ultimately lost the pivotal Game Five (in which the A's were held to three hits), he made his mark by outdueling Justin Verlander in Game Two. After the departure of the spherical Bartolo Colon, the way is paved for Gray to be Oakland's number-one option for years to come.

It looked like the lone, awful start that Scott Kazmir made in 2011 was the nail in the coffin, but Kazmir resurrected his career in Cleveland last season and was one of the reasons the team overperformed their way into the playoffs.  Kazmir washed out of the majors in the first place because his command deserted him and his velocity significantly dropped.  Neither of those things appear to be concerns anymore as Kazmir is off to an excellent start in Oakland.  His control has been very good and he's generally kept the ball in the yard.

Before landing in Oakland, the late-blooming Jesse Chavez had a particularly poor career as a punching bag of a reliever.  Last season, however, he performed well out of the Oakland bullpen and the A's moved him into the rotation this season.  So far, it's been quite the success story as Chavez owns a 2.47 ERA through seven starts. The biggest change for Chavez was adding a pretty good cutter to his repertoire and throwing it often.  His pitches generally have a lot of movement and are tough for hitters to square up.  It remains to be seen how he'll hold up over a full season's workload, but for the time being, he's a tough opponent.

Tommy Milone is a soft-tossing lefty.  It should therefore come as no surprise that the White Sox own a .137/.170/.196 batting line off of him.  Milone's fastball (term used extremely loosely) isn't very tough, so he relies heavily on his curveball and changeup to keep hitters off-balance.  Since the stuff isn't good, his starts can be a tightrope act because mistakes tend to be hit a long way.  Fortunately, the Coliseum suppresses dingers, so Milone is in a pretty good situation.

Drew Pomeranz has been involved in two significant trades thus far in his career.  The Indians included him in the Ubaldo Jimenez package, and the A's acquired him from the Rockies for Brett Anderson in December.  The former top prospect hasn't had much success at the major league level because he's absolutely helpless against right-handed hitters.  Like, .290/.379/.480 helpless.  Despite how tough he's been on lefites, it's too soon to pigeonhole the 25-year old as a LOOGY and the A's are hoping he can lock down the rotation slot vacated by the recently-demoted Dan Straily.

Presumably, one of the reasons Oakland acquired the fairly expensive Jim Johnson was to prevent some of their more cost-controlled bullpen pieces from racking up saves, but Johnson's awful start to the season resulted in a swift demotion out of the closer role.  Uncharacteristic control issues were a problem early on, but it seems like Johnson has righted the ship and Bob Melvin has started to give him ninth inning opportunities again.  The righty doesn't have your typical fireman's overwhelming stuff and instead relies on the ground ball to keep runs off the board.

Outlook & Prediction: The A's are a fun team and currently own the best record in the American League.  They've won well over 90 games each of the last two seasons and they've got a great shot to do it again.  Predicted record and finish: 91-71, first place, AL West.

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