Mar 2, 2010

Off-Season Perspective Part II: How Far Can Young Pitching Carry You? The Athletics Perspective

I started this with the Phillies (of course, my NL East pick). Here's my AL West pick, the Oakland Athletics.

The Athletics are a young, fairly unexciting team on the whole. I've tried to watch their games locally here, and there's really no player on the roster who would be considered a game-changer. For years, they've been painted as the "Moneyball" franchise for no small reason being the actual subject of the book. It seems like, though, that other teams with a larger pools of resources have adapted or implemented at least some of the methods of regarding inefficiencies.

This year the A's have put together a one note team. Again, they are lacking in offensive production. It won't be a stretch to predict that they will easily score a quantity of runs that places them in the bottom 3rd of the league. They play in a pitcher's park, and the only regulars returning with a greater than 100 OPS+ are Jack Cust, Rajai Davis, and Ryan Sweeney. Their payroll will also be in this region as well. The question to be explored is whether they have enough strength in talent to overcome this roster deficiency.

The other end of the roster is known as the pitching and defense side. We've all heard the mantra: "Pitching and defense wins ballgames." The A's have infused their roster with an especially young pitching staff.

Their staff ace from last year was 21 year old Brett Anderson; he will return and has a lot of room for improvement. He had a 3.33 K/BB ratio, 7.7 K/9 ratio, and in the 2nd half he had a 6-4 record with a 3.48 ERA after struggling in the 1st half. He will be the defacto ace.

The struggling rookie last year was 21 year old Trevor Cahill. He was much wilder (3.6 BB/9) and did not have much success to build upon for this coming year (10-13, 4.63 ERA).

Other young pitchers include 23 year old Gio Gonzalez (9.9 K/9, 5.1 BB/9), 22 year old Vin Mazzarro (5.8 K/9, 3.8 BB/9), and probable swingman 25 year old Dallas Braden, who had flashes of success last season in the 1st half before being injured.

Their bullpen is anchored by reigning rookie of the year, 25 year old Andrew Bailey with two 30 year old set-up guys, Michael Wuertz and Brad Ziegler. Wuertz was especially effective last year (11.7 K/9, 0.96 WHIP).

So in effect, the Athletics have a lot of young pitchers that have the potential to carry the team or at least give improvement to the team. This is especially possible because of their ballpark (98 Park Factor where over 100 favors batters) and because they;ve assembled an outfield of essentially three centerfielders to track down flyballs (Coco Crisp, Rajai Davis, and Ryan Sweeney).

There are also two wildcards in the piching mix that will determine whether the A's can compete with the other very much above average AL West teams, Justin Duchscherer and Ben Sheets.

Duchscherer was a reliever turned starter in 2008 who became an all-star built upon a 1.00 WHIP and 2.45 ERA in 22 games. That was until he got hurt, missed the end of 2008 and all of 2009. It remains to be seen if his arm will hold up over an entire season.

The real question mark that has the team buzzing is the return of Ben Sheets to the mound. He signed a 1 year-$10 million "prove yourself" deal to give some veteran presence to this rotation. IF he regains the form of 2008, the A's received a potential top 10 starting pitcher. As they say, the proof will be in the pudding as the season goes along. Sheets will need a lot of trials to ensure his curveball has returned to form from his layoff, surgeries, and rehab. Realistically, the A's can expect great control and some strikeouts from Sheets (7.6 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9 for his career). Can he endure an entire season this time around? How many surgeries are too much on an arm?

This is essentially the A's strategy: take one high risk high reward ace, use him as a mentor and a vritual shield for the young pitchers to develop them further. This can be done because even with Sheets, the starting rotation's cost is only $17 million. Of course, this does nothing about the hitting inefficiencies that are present up and down the lineup, which will probably be this team's downfall.

Prediction: A's struggle to reach .500, you can't win a division with half a team (though the Mariners tried that last year), 79-83

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