A detailed look at the A’s

Posted By on April 1, 2011 9:00 am

OK, finally at the last piece of my season preview stuff. You’ve seen my predictions for the standings and the awards, as well as my close look at the Giants. Now, the A’s. I’m going to try not to make this a total copy of the way I analyzed the A’s, but it’ll be similar. The bottom line is how many runs do we think the A’s will score, and how many will they allow?

By now you probably know that I think the A’s are going to better this year, good enough to win the division even. But let’s see.

Start with the pitching. The A’s pitching was very good last year, as we all know. They gave up 626 runs, the fewest in the league. Can they do that again?

Trevor Cahill had a 2.97 ERA, with a .237 BABIP. That’s a lot of balls finding gloves instead of holes. I’m not too big on using BABIP to evaluate what a guy did, but it is useful for evaluating what he may do in the future. So I don’t think Cahill will be quite as effective. Gio Gonzalez saw his ERA go down from 5.75 to 3.23. Again, he’s young, so maybe he got that much better, but that’s an awfully big improvement. I don’t think he can repeat that either. Dallas Braden’s numbers have gotten a little better in each of his seasons, so I think he’s legit. He’s perhaps a little iffy because he relies so much on a feel pitch and his defense. He may be the same or a little worse. Probably not much better.

Finally, there’s Brett Anderson. He was hurt last year and started only 19 games, but he had a 2.80 ERA. I’ve always felt like Anderson was the best of the current generation of young A’s pitchers. If he can stay healthy, he may be able to do that over 32 starts. Still, 2.80 is a tough pace to keep. It would be no shock (or no embarrassment) if he slipped a little too.

As for No. 5 starter Brandon McCarthy, who knows what he’ll do. Will he be better than Vin Mazzaro (4.27) and Ben Sheets (4.53)? I doubt it.

So I really don’t see any way the A’s rotation, as a whole, could be as good as it was last year. It should still be good, but not quite that good.

The A’s are hoping that they’ll make up for that in the bullpen. Andrew Bailey is back as the closer — I’m assuming his current injury won’t be a big deal, but that could be a big assumption. He’s been consistent over his first two years, with ERAs of 1.84 and 1.47. That’s tough to maintain, so expect him to be a little worse, especially with the question mark of the elbow.

The A’s added Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour. Fuentes has a 3.41 ERA over his past two years, which is exactly his career ERA. Balfour has been less consistent. He had a 4.81 ERA in 2009 and a 2.28 ERA in 2010. Which will the A’s get? I have no idea. But those guys are stepping into the roles mostly filled last year by Craig Breslow and Michael Wuertz. I’m not sure Fuentes can be as good as Breslow (3.01) and Balfour vs. Wuertz, who has had a similar up-and-down past few years, is a toss-up. The advantage to the A’s is that they still have Breslow and Wuertz, only they are pushed down into the roles that Brad Ziegler and Jerry Blevins had last year. That’s where the upgrade really is, but how much does that matter? It matters if guys get hurt, as they did last year.

All in all, I think the A’s bullpen will be better, but not a whole lot better, because of the question about Bailey’s health, Balfour and Wuertz’s inconsistency. It also could be better if Rich Harden does anything. I’m not counting on him, and neither are the A’s, so he’ll only be a plus, I think.

Add that up, I think the A’s probably give up a few more runs this year.

Now, the offense. It has to be better, right? Here is how the A’s did, by position, last year. Considering these numbers and the players who will get the at-bats this year, I honestly see them being better (or, at worst, the same) in every spot.

Position OPS
as C .646
as 1B .805
as 2B .730
as 3B .666
as SS .686
as LF .719
as CF .728
as RF .628
as DH .724

Let’s start with each of the new guys and figure what we can expect.

Right fielder David DeJesus has a career OPS of .787. He’s 31, so he shouldn’t decline. He wasn’t in a great hitter’s park before, so the Coliseum shouldn’t crush him too much. Give him .780.

Left fielder Josh Willingham has a career OPS of .841. He’s 32, so a little more chance for decline than DeJesus. Like DeJesus, he came from a somewhat neutral park. I’ll give him .840.

Designated hitter Hideki Matsui is going to be interesting. He’ll be 37 in June. He’s got bad knees. I don’t have huge expectations for Matsui. His career OPS is .848, but it was .820 last year and I doubt he’ll get better. Give him .800.

Last year the A’s got .628, .719 and .724 out of those three positions. That’s just brutal for three offensive positions. I think I’ve been realistic with the projections for DeJesus, Willingham and Matsui, and I’ve got the A’s improving by a total of 132, 121 and 76 points at those three spots.

In center field, the A’s have Coco Crisp, who had a .779 OPS last year and .742 for his career. The A’s, who played much of the year without the injured Crisp, got .728 out of that position last year. I’m reluctant to count on him for much better than last year, so we’ll split the difference between last year and his career and give him about .750. Still, an improvement of 22 points.

Shortstop Cliff Pennington (.687 last year and .699 career) may get a little better, but not much. Second baseman Mark Ellis is a solid bet to do the same. His career OPS is .740 and he was at .739 last year. Ellis is older than Pennington, so he may go down and Pennington may go up, so let’s just call those guys a wash. First baseman Daric Barton had his best year last year, but I’m not necessarily inclined to think he’ll go down because he’s still only 25. I am not ready to assume he’ll get better either, so I think it’s fair to think he’ll produce the same as last year, too.

Now, the two most interesting guys are Kevin Kouzmanoff and Kurt Suzuki.

The A’s are probably banking on a big improvement from Suzuki. His .669 OPS last year was the worst of his career, probably because of the pressure of batting where he shouldn’t. Put him back in the No. 6 spot, and we can probably count on him coming closer to the .727 of his first three years. That’s an improvement of 81 points from the overall catching number.

Kouzmanoff had his worst year last year. He had a .745 OPS (in pitcher-friendly Petco) over his three previous seasons, and he had a .679 mark with the A’s. Kouzmanoff, like Suzuki, was thrust into an important, middle-of-the-order role and it may not have suited him. He’s still only 29, so I don’t think his skills diminished that much. Kouzmanoff ought to get back into the .730 range, at least. That’s an improvement of 66 points from the overall third base OPS.

So, add all of that up and you get an average improvement of 55 points. As I wrote with the Giants, you have to deduct from that for injuries and bench players. I deducted 20 percent for the Giants, but I’ll probably deduct 30 percent for the A’s because their players are much more injury-prone. (Really, that may be too hard on the A’s, because they have a decent bench, so the dropoff won’t be huge when the regulars are out.) That still leaves you with an improvement of 39 points in overall OPS.

A 39-point improvement in OPS last year would have taken the A’s from 12th to just above average. If they got to average in runs, that would be an improvement of 58 runs.

So, I think the pitching will be a little worse, and the offense a lot better. Last year the A’s actually played to an 86-win pace, based on their run-differential, but they only won 81 games. If they improve their run differential by about 40, which is certainly reasonable based on my projections, they can definitely win 91 or 92 games.

I think that puts them on the bubble for the playoffs. Certainly the Rangers and A’s will be right there.

I’m taking the A’s, though.

All of this is pretty unscientific and filled with flaws in reasoning — “Hey Jeff, ever heard of any stats besides OPS and ERA?” — but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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