Pressing Questions: The Oakland A’s

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After not making the playoffs for five years, the A’s have won their division each of the past two seasons, which has been especially impressive considering both the Rangers and Angels have been among the favorites to win the World Series over that span. It hasn’t exactly been a fluke either, as Oakland has produced a +233 run differential during that stretch, which was the third-highest in MLB. Oakland’s payroll last year to open the season ($68,577,000) was the fifth lowest in major league baseball, which looks even crazier when compared to the Rangers ($127,197,575) and Angels ($142,165,250). Despite the continued discrepancy in payrolls, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA still projects the A’s to win the American League West in 2014, although by an extremely close margin, as the system predicts 88 wins for the Athletics, 87 for the Angels, 84 for the Rangers and even 83 for the improving Mariners.

[Baseball 2014 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]

During the offseason, Oakland lost Bartolo Colon through free agency but countered by signing Scott Kazmir to a two-year, $22 million deal. They were quite aggressive when it came to the reliever market, as after letting closer Grant Balfour leave, the A’s traded Jemile Weeks for Jim Johnson and Seth Smith for Luke Gregerson. They also signed Eric O’Flaherty to a two-year deal despite him not likely to be available until midway through 2014 coming off an elbow injury. “Moneyball” was all about market inefficiencies (OBP happened to be the main area at the time the book was written), and Billy Beane clearly believes short term deals with relief pitchers are an area to exploit these days, although that doesn’t exactly matter to fantasy players. Oakland also dealt for Craig Gentry, who’s fantastic defensively, which should help the fantasy owners of A’s pitchers. Oakland has also leaned heavily on platooning of late, as the Athletics were one of only two teams to be at least 10 games above .500 versus both right-handed and left-handed starters last year, with the only other being the World Series winning Red Sox.

Onto the pressing questions:

Q: What’s up with Yoenis Cespedes?

A: He was the 68th most valuable fantasy player during his rookie campaign in 2012 but fell to No. 120 last year. This makes Cespedes pretty tough to value, as a rookie who posted a .292/.356/.505 line while also dealing with a huge culture shock has to be considered impressive with a ton of potential, yet all of his metrics since then suggest maybe his weaknesses have been exposed, as his BB% from his rookie season (8.0) dropped last year (6.4) while his K% increased even more dramatically (18.9 vs. 23.9). Not to mention he’s been injury prone. Still, Cespedes hit more fly balls (with fewer pop ups) last year and has a strong 14.6 HR/FB% during his career, so some upside remains. But he went just 7-for-14 on SB attempts and has more home runs (49) than doubles (46) during his brief career. It’s probably safest to let someone else draft Cespedes in 2014, especially since his cost remains relatively high (his current ADP of 62.3 is higher than Matt Kemp and Billy Hamilton, not that the latter two don’t come without risk as well).

Q: Can Josh Donaldson and/or Brandon Moss repeat their breakouts?

A: Last season Donaldson had a 1.23 GB/FB ratio to go along with a 35.6 FB% and an 11.8 IFFB%. His career HR/FB% is 13.2. Moss had a 0.58 GB/FB ratio to go along with a 51.8 FB% and an 8.8 IFFB%. His career HR/FB% is 15.5. Neither have long track records, but based off those batted ball profiles, it sure seems like betting on Moss is the safer side. This makes even more sense when considering their draft costs, as Donaldson is currently a typical late eighth round pick (ADP 90.9), while Moss can be had in the late 16th round (ADP 179.7). Of course, third base is a tougher position to fill, but there’s increasing evidence position scarcity should be ignored (except for catchers, obviously). However, while the in depth stats point to Moss being the favorite to hit more home runs than Donaldson moving forward, it should also be noted Coliseum has suppressed home runs for left-handed batters by 26% over the past three years, which is the most in the American League (it’s not exactly a hitter’s haven for right-handers either).

Q: How should we value Coco Crisp?

A: He’s never played in more than 145 games during any season in his career, including failing to appear in 140 since 2007. However, since joining Oakland four years ago, Crisp has averaged 12.3 homers, 35.3 steals and 70.3 runs scored over 115.5 games. To put that into perspective, if you prorate that production over 150 games, it’s an average of 15.9 homers, 45.8 steals, 91.2 runs and 66.2 RBI. In other words, Crisp is a top-25 fantasy asset when on the field. Even his career BA of .272 was much better than the MLB average (.253) last season, and all those stolen bases are even more valuable with the league total being so down of late. Billy Beane and company agree, as the A’s signed the 34-year-old to a two-year, $22 million deal during the offseason.

As for fantasy terms, the guy with one of the coolest names in baseball (sports?) and an aspiring rapper was a more valuable fantasy player than Troy Tulowitzki, Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Trumbo last season, despite missing 31 games. Crisp makes more sense in (shallower) mixed leagues than he does in AL-Only formats since his durability is a real problem, but don’t overlook his production of late. His current ADP in Yahoo leagues is 131.8. This likely means nothing, but it’s worth noting he was the No. 2 player in all of fantasy baseball over the final month last season.

Q: Is Sonny Gray an ace?

A: Gray was the No. 18 pick in the 2011 draft but wasn’t exactly atop most fantasy lists as possible prospect impacts for 2013. But after making his debut in a relief outing in one appearance before the All-Star game, he finished the 2013 regular season with a 2.67 ERA and 1.11 WHIP with a 67:20 K:BB ratio over 64.0 innings. To be fair, this breakdown featured nearly twice as many innings at home (where he posted a 1.99 ERA and 0.93 WHIP over 40.2 innings). Gray is a right-handed pitcher playing in a stadium that has suppressed home runs for left-handed batters more than any other park in the American League over the last three years, but his underlying stats suggest he’d be successful anywhere. Had Gray qualified, among starters who had a GB/FB ratio as good as his 1.92, only A.J. Burnett’s K% (26.1) was better than Gray’s (25.7). I’m not the world’s biggest fan of xFIP, but Gray’s 2.92 mark last year would have tied for eighth in all of baseball had he qualified, which is especially interesting since that stat normalizes home run rates, and Gray’s 8.3 HR/FB% would be considered “lucky.” Regardless, Gray sure looks like someone to target in fantasy leagues.

Quick Hits: Jed Lowrie had never appeared in 100 games during his career before last year, so it makes sense fantasy owners are wary of him in 2014. But he was the eighth most valuable fantasy shortstop who currently has a 193.7 ADP…Jim Johnson is the only A.L. pitcher to record 50+ saves in consecutive seasons, and while it was a bit curious Oakland decided to pay him so much for one year, he should be treated as a top fantasy stopper in 2014…Jarrod Parker’s WAR went from 3.5 in 2012 to 1.3 last year, as a 6.12 K/9 combined with a .260 BABIP doesn’t look like a great combination moving forward. But he’s still just 25 years old and has a good pedigree, so there’s obviously a chance he makes real improvements as soon as this season. However, while Parker may be the team’s “ace” by name, fantasy owners shouldn’t consider drafting him ahead of Gray or Scott Kazmir.

Speaking of Kazmir, he looks like a nice gamble, despite his scary injury history. Who knows how long he can keep it up, but this is a pitcher with a strong pedigree who just posted his highest average fastball velocity (92.5 mph) since 2005 as well as an average slider velo (83.4) that was also his highest since 2007. This is all especially crazy since Kazmir hadn’t thrown more than two innings in the majors since 2010. I know being skeptical is the right route here, but he did record a 43:4 K:BB ratio over 28.0 innings in September and posted a 10.1 SwStr% overall during his comeback. It’s not crazy to treat Kazmir as a top-50 fantasy starter, but he won’t cost nearly that much in most leagues…The A’s recent success is especially impressive considering their lack of success in the draft, not to mention Michael Ynoa looking like quite possibly a bust, although to be fair Addison Russell looks like a future star and one of the most desirable assets in dynasty leagues.

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