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Picking up the Pieces - An Oakland Athletics preview

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A look ahead at our first AL West opponent of the 2015 campaign

As is tradition
As is tradition
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This past offseason, baseball fans everywhere had a burning question on their minds surrounding one of the most active franchises of the winter: "What the heck is Billy Beane doing?"

Granted, it was pretty much a certainty that the Oakland Athletics would have an eventful offseason after their bewildering 2014. The A's spent the first half of last season as baseball's most dominant team. When trading season arrived, Beane decided to really go for it, bringing in Sam Fuld, Jeff Samardzija, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Jonny Gomes, Adam Dunn, and Geovany Soto for the stretch run. It didn't come without a cost to the 2015 roster, as Yoenis Cespedes had to be shipped out to bring in Lester. Despite that notable loss, it certainly appeared that baseball's best team significantly improved their roster.

While the "improved their roster" part of that perception is correct, the "baseball's best team" part proved to be illusory. Regression was in store for many of the team's hitters, but what was more damaging to Oakland's campaign was a flurry of injuries.

  • Speedy leadoff man Coco Crisp was playing through a hurt neck
  • Power-hitting lefty platoon bat Brandon Moss had his power sapped by a hip injury
  • A foot injury limited outfielder and utility catcher Stephen Vogt's versatility and playing time
  • OBP machine John Jaso was lost for the season to a concussion in August
  • Nick Punto and Jed Lowrie missed time, causing bespectacled, punchless Eric Sogard to start a majority of Oakland's games in the middle infield over the last two months
  • Relief ace Sean Doolittle missed a couple weeks, during which time the A's bullpen blew some leads

With the Angels playing remarkable baseball down the stretch, the injuries alone likely robbed whatever chance the A's had of winning the AL West. While the drama of waiting until the last game of the regular season to finally clinch a playoff berth could have been avoided even given the banged-up roster, settling for a Wild Card slot was probably inevitable. Yet, the one-and-done loss to the Royals in the Wild Card playoff could not have sat well with Billy Beane, particularly when his team blew a 7-3 lead in the late innings. After dealing away talent (most notably Cespedes and top prospect Addison Russell), in a failed push for a World Series in 2014, it was going to be interesting to see which direction Beane chose in the coming offseason.

What followed was a series of transactions that did more to confuse than clarify the direction of the team. It was an odd combination of moves in that some of them screamed "win now" and some reeked of "wait 'til next year."

Win Now

  • Signed designated hitter Billy Butler to a three-year, $30 million deal, in hopes that the lumbering ex-Royal could re-discover his ability to hit for average and good power
  • Acquired one year of versatile, underrated superstar Ben Zobrist from the Rays along with Yunel Escobar, who was subsequently flipped for excellent set-up man Tyler Clippard

Wait 'til Next Year

  • Traded franchise player Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays in exchange for prospects along with his replacement at third base, aspiring dolt and current lineup deadweight Brett Lawrie
  • Traded Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox for prospects (and Josh Phegley), including current starting shortstop Marcus Semien, who's hitting extremely well while pissing off the defensive metrics
  • Traded Moss to the Indians for a minor league second baseman

After these moves and a couple other rearrangements, the picture's still a little fuzzy. It looked like Beane was aiming to replace some of his prospect stock that he lost in mid-2014, but then the acquisition of one year of Zobrist came after notable downgrades to the 2015 roster. The whole thing felt really in-between-y. Still, as Rick Hahn might tell you, the second Wild Card increases the importance of giving yourself a puncher's chance at reaching the postseason, even if you're building towards something that's not yet fully formed. Beane entered 2015 with a decent roster and a long-term outlook that was more favorable than it was on September 1, 2014.

Unfortunately, the A's stumbled out of the gate and now find themselves an extreme long shot to make themselves relevant in 2015, as plenty has gone wrong in the early weeks of the season. Star acquisition Zobrist is on the shelf, which once again means Sogard is starting baseball games. Lawrie has been striking out more than he ever has, resulting in a sub-.300 on-base percentage. Defensive whiz Sam Fuld's run of competence at the plate with Minnesota in the first half of last season is looking more and more like a flash in the pan, as he's been utterly horrid with the lumber. Butler's attempt at a bounceback campaign has seen his batting average continue to erode.

Still, in addition to the aforementioned Semien, there have been bright spots for Oakland in the early going among the position player crop. Vogt has taken over full-time catching duties and he's been absolutely raking at the plate, ranking in the top ten in all of baseball in each of the three triple-slash stats. Right fielder Josh Reddick has been right up there with Vogt, with a dramatically reduced strikeout rate fueling his success. New import Ike Davis has held his own at the cold corner and has chipped in at the plate by getting on base and smacking doubles. The A's have been losing a lot, but they still get to have nice things.

The nicest of all their things might be ace starter Sonny Gray, who has been lights out. Gray has a good fastball, but his curveball and slider are outstanding and he's increasingly favoring the latter of late. He's backed in the rotation by Scott Kazmir, whose career's second act has been attributable in great part to rediscovering his velocity in 2013. Kazmir's .233 BABIP points to rougher times ahead, but he's no worse than a LAIM at his core, and is probably better.

Swingman Jesse Chavez and his cutter have been effective in his second tour of duty in the starting rotation, but the remainder of the rotation has been less inspiring. Jesse Hahn was acquired from the Padres for Derek Norris, and he's been the decidedly less effective Jesse. Hahn's throwing harder this season, but missing far fewer bats, and it seems attributable to problematic changes in vertical movement. There's a few concerning trends there, but the sinker losing a good chunk of its dip stands out as a pretty significant problem. Finally, Drew Pomeranz was having a pleasant dream last season in which hitters kept slapping the ball right into the defense, and runners kept magically getting stranded. He woke up.

Despite the atrocious start to the season, things like run differential and WAR suggest that the A's are still the middle-of-the-road team they were coming into the season. Some of that discrepancy is bad luck, but one can also point to rough performances from the bullpen and defense, two things that commonly lose close games. Still, even if things get better going forward, they've dug themselves quite the hole, and all signs point to the A's selling at the deadline. That fate shouldn't sting all that much, as Beane's on-the-fly re-tooling has kept Oakland in decent shape beyond this year. Seemingly every season, the Athletics come in as a threat to surprise everyone and put together a strong campaign, and that's because there's method to the madness.

Predicted Record and Finish: 75-87, 4th place, AL West

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Coco Crisp - LF

SP1. Sonny Gray - RHP

2. Marcus Semien - SS

SP2. Scott Kazmir - LHP

3. Josh Reddick - RF

SP3. Drew Pomeranz - LHP

4. Billy Butler - DH

SP4. Jesse Hahn - RHP

5. Stephen Vogt - C

SP5. Jesse Chavez - RHP

6. Ike Davis - 1B

CL. Tyler Clippard - RHP

7. Brett Lawrie - 3B

RP1. Evan Scribner - RHP

8. Sam Fuld - CF

RP2. Dan Otero - RHP

9. Eric Sogard - 2B

RP3. Fernando Abad - LHP