Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Oakland Athletics.
2010 record: 81-81
Finish: Second place, AL West
2010 final payroll: $61.8 million
Estimated 2011 opening day payroll: $60 million
About the best thing you could say about the A's most recent four seasons is that they vanquished their reputation for being postseason saps, a deft bit of optimism strangled by the requirement that one must reach the playoffs before bowing out of them.
At issue for those four years was not necessarily an inability to score runs or an inability to prevent them, but an inability to synchronize the two.
To wit, in 2010 A's pitchers allowed the fewest runs in the American League, only to be undone by an offense that scored the fourth fewest. The season before, a capable offense was incapable of propping up a pitching staff that ranked in the bottom half of the league in runs allowed. The trend – one up, the other down – existed for the back half of the aughts, each element taking turns adding empty seats to the Oakland Coliseum.
At last, the A's appear to have found harmony for 2011.
The only team in the West that can legitimately claim roster improvement over 2010, the A's largely held their pitching advantage (parting only with right-hander and six-game winner Vin Mazzaro(notes)) and acquiring right-handed reliever Grant Balfour(notes) and two power bats – Hideki Matsui(notes) and Josh Willingham(notes) – along with better-than-average hitter David DeJesus(notes).
On the flier side, general manager Billy Beane signed erstwhile A's right-hander Rich Harden(notes) (nine trips to the disabled list) and former Texas Ranger Brandon McCarthy(notes), whose shoulder/effectiveness issues have limited him to 22 major league appearances since 2007. Beane missed again on third baseman Adrian Beltre(notes), but not for lack of trying, and seems to have accomplished the next best thing.
That is, harmony.
On Sept. 23, "Moneyball," the movie, will be released. The A's will be in Anaheim, Calif., conveniently close to Los Angeles, and by then we'll know if Brad Pitt is playing the guy who polished the A's into contenders (again) or the guy whose forward-thinking tactics have been run aground by tight budgets and sparse crowds.
Beane's A's will not be an offensive juggernaut, not in that ballpark and not by the standards of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and, in the West, the Rangers. But with a starting rotation that is as deep and affordable as it is young – and should get a full season out of Brett Anderson(notes) – and a bullpen that held its own in spite of closer Andrew Bailey's(notes) elbow trouble, the offense does not have to be.
It merely must be close enough to average to give Anderson, Trevor Cahill(notes), Dallas Braden(notes), Gio Gonzalez(notes) and whoever takes the fifth spot (Harden, McCarthy, Josh Outman(notes), Bobby Cramer(notes), Tyson Ross(notes)) a fighting chance.
In 2010, the summer he turned 36, Matsui was erratic yet produced a similar season to his last with the Yankees – 21 home runs, 84 RBIs, .274 batting average, .361 on-base percentage. He's fragile, but appears to have let go of left field forever, to everyone's benefit.
Willingham is a 20-homer guy and is healed from knee surgery. DeJesus is healthy, outfielder Coco Crisp(notes) is healthy, catcher Kurt Suzuki(notes), at 27, is due a bounce-back season, and first baseman Daric Barton(notes), at 25, looks like he's about to become a very good ballplayer.
The division has backed up some, and the A's have timed it up – progressing to the point they should contend with the Rangers in the West, and perhaps for a few hearts and dollars in the Bay Area.
Coming soon, to a ballpark near you.
A's in haiku
Fremont, San Jose,
The heart of Jack London Square.
Oh where, oh where, oh …
Next: Florida Marlins.
- Billy Beane