Pressing Questions: The Oakland A’s

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Despite entering the year as heavy underdogs to both the Rangers and Angels, the A’s won the AL West last season, coming from down 5-1 in a memorable game on the final day of the regular season that I happened to be at.  The result culminated a remarkable comeback, as on June 30, the A’s trailed the Rangers by 13.5 games (not to mention the Red Sox by 4.5) and even crazier, were five games behind Texas with just nine remaining on the schedule, as they became one of the most unlikely division winners in recent memory. It wasn’t a fluke either (although counting on a repeat of last year’s league-leading 15 walk-off wins probably isn’t safe), as Oakland’s run differential (+99) was the fourth-best in the American League and just barely behind the Rangers (+101). Still, this was a team that lost Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey and Josh Willingham during the previous offseason, so the success was certainly unexpected.

They accomplished this with newcomer Yoenis Cespedes missing a month of action, Coco Crisp (unsurprisingly) being sidelined even longer than that and the projected middle infield of Jemile Weeks and Cliff Pennington being totally worthless. It was even worse on the pitching side, as Brandon McCarthy was limited to just 18 starts due to a scary head injury, Bartolo Colon’s surprisingly strong season was cut short thanks to a suspension and Brett Anderson’s return from TJ surgery was limited by a subsequent oblique strain. In fact, Oakland’s entire rotation consisted of rookies for a stretch. In other words, the A’s overachieved while simultaneously having plenty of things go wrong. Oakland fielded a strong defense and the team sported the second best ERA (3.48) in the AL despite having such a young staff.

[Baseball 2013 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]

Despite playing in a pitcher’s park, Oakland led major league baseball in runs scored and home runs after the All-Star break last season and added Jed Lowrie, Hiroyuki Nakajima, John Jaso and Chris Young during the offseason. The A’s have to deal with two of the best teams in MLB in their own division, but at least they get to play the Astros 19 times this year (which in turn, also reverses a past advantage Texas had in interleague play, as they previously got to beat up on Houston while Oakland had to face San Francisco every year). The A’s have their work cut out for them to make the playoffs let alone win their division again, but there’s no doubt this is an intriguing young team.

Q: What’s the deal with Coco Crisp?

A: Over the last three years, Crisp’s 120 stolen bases rank fourth in MLB, and while the three ahead of him have averaged 142.4 games played, Crisp has averaged 110.3, and his success rate of 88.2 percent (he went 33-for-33 vs. RHP last season) has been better than any player in the league (minimum 50 attempts). Crisp has also hit a more than respectable 27 home runs over that three-year stretch (Michael Bourn has hit 13 homers in 539 more at bats). He hasn’t had a HR/FB rate over 9.0% during this time while also sporting a strong LD rate and a 1.25 GB/FB ratio, so it’s pretty crazy the speedy Crisp has a .288 BABIP over the past three years, which ranks 168th among all hitters. He’s 33 years old and most certainly injury prone, but if things broke right for one season (he somehow stays healthy, his “luck” regresses), there’s some serious upside here. Crisp is someone to target in the middle rounds of your draft.

Q: How good can Brett Anderson be?

A: Anderson impressed after returning from Tommy John surgery last season, posting a 2.57 ERA and 1.03 WHIP with a 25:7 K:BB ratio over 35.0 innings. Obviously, it’s a small sample, but it also included a GB/FB ratio (3.59) that would have led major league baseball by a wide margin (Jake Westbrook led with a 2.77 rate) had he qualified. Anderson missed more time late in the year after suffering a strained oblique, so there’s no question he enters 2013 as a major question mark when it comes to health (32.7% of his pitches were sliders last season, which would’ve ranked fourth in MLB), but there’s no doubting his ability when on the mound. After giving up 20 homers over 175.1 innings during his rookie season, Anderson has allowed just 15 long balls over 230.2 innings since, as he induces so many groundballs. The K rate hasn’t been elite, but the rest of Anderson’s profile suggests he can be a highly valuable fantasy pitcher, if he can stay healthy. He just turned 25 years old two weeks ago.

Q: How high should Yoenis Cespedes be drafted?

A: Cespedes hit 23 homers and stole 16 bases while putting up a .292/.356/.505 line over 487 at-bats during his first season in the states. He improved with more experience, and while most players fare better at home, the fact he hit more than 50 points higher (.319 vs. .268) in a park with so much foul ground as Coliseum reveals plenty of upside moving forward. Cespedes is a bit of a free swinger, but he’s a pure hitter with a lot of potential if he can avoid the various injuries that cost him more than 30 games last year. Remember, he jumped immediately from Cuba to the majors with zero minor league experience and displayed skills of a future star. If you project his stats after the All-Star break over 150 games, you get a line that looks like this: .311-28-20-102-92. His current ADP is 50.18, which seems too low.

Q: Can they stay healthy?

A: While health is obviously an important issue with all teams, it seems overriding with Oakland’s roster. The previous three questions involving Coco Crisp, Brett Anderson and Yoenis Cespedes all had an underlying theme regarding their questionable durability, but they hardly are the team’s only worries.

Over the last three years, Grant Balfour has a 2.44 ERA and 1.01 WHIP with an 8.77 K/9 rate. He didn’t fully take hold of the closer’s role until the middle of August last season, but he was a perfect 17-for-17 in save chances from there on out, so there’s little doubt he has the ability to be an elite fantasy option, especially while playing for a team projected to win around 85 games. However, his injury history is extensive (last season was the first time he’s ever thrown 70.0 innings), and true to form, Balfour recently underwent knee surgery that will sideline him four-to-six weeks. The procedure was deemed minor, and there’s hope he’s ready to start the season, but if not, look for Ryan Cook or Sean Doolittle to open the year in the closer’s role.

Meanwhile, Jarrod Parker had one career start in the majors before last season after previously undergoing Tommy John surgery, while Jed Lowrie has never played in 100 games in a season during his career. It’s a concern and will be a major factor in Oakland’s ability to contend in 2013.

Q: How much will they platoon?

A: The A’s had a lot of success platooning last year, and it’s safe to expect more of the same in 2013, which is mostly bad news for fantasy owners, especially those not in daily leagues. It’s no sure thing Jed Lowrie plays second, as it’s possible he moves to third, with Scott Sizemore taking over 2B. Regardless of what position they play, the battle to watch in spring training is Josh Donaldson versus Sizemore. It appears Jemile Weeks is buried on the depth chart.

At catcher, John Jaso hit .302/.419/.508 with a 42:50 K:BB ratio and 10 homers over 252 ABs vs. right-handers last year (not to mention 47 RBI while going 5-for-5 on SB attempts). Derek Norris will likely give him a breather against southpaws. Coco Crisp is a switch hitter, Josh Reddick hit 20 homers over 387 at-bats against righties last year (although his splits haven’t been pronounced at all during his career), while projected DH Seth Smith has a .283/.361/.503 career line vs. RHP during his career, so as of now, it appears Chris Young is on the outside looking in when it comes to regular playing time.

While Young has been markedly better vs. left-handers since entering the league (.860 OPS vs. .718), it’s hardly a sure thing his ABs are limited, as injuries and/or performance could become a factor. Young is coming from a hitter’s park, but this is a 29-year-old who was off to a .410/.500/.897 start (with five homers and two steals) last year before he crashed into an outfield wall that resulted in a ligament tear in his shoulder that essentially ruined the rest of his season. Young’s hot start was obviously a small sample, but a mechanical change in his swing (he previously produced far too many pop ups) looked like real growth, and this is someone who averaged 23.5 homers and 25.0 steals over his previous two seasons despite a poor batting average (he also had 32 HRs and 27 SBs during his rookie campaign). Considering he’s one of the better defensive center fielders in baseball, it might be hard to keep him out of the lineup. Young shouldn’t be forgotten in fantasy circles.

Quick Hits: Tommy Milone had extreme splits last season, as he posted a 2.74 ERA and 1.05 WHIP at home and a 4.83 ERA and 1.52 WHIP on the road. However, his K:BB ratio wasn’t nearly as drastically different (4.2 vs. 3.5), and in fact, his K rate was far better on the road (7.3) than at home (5.8). The big difference was homers, as he allowed just six over 98.2 innings at home versus a whopping 18 long balls in 91.1 innings on the road – that featured a near 10.0 percent difference in HR/FB rates, which is likely no fluke, as only Safeco Park has suppressed home runs more in the AL than Oakland’s Coliseum over the past three years, according to the Bill James Handbook. So despite the other peripherals, it’s probably safe to call Milone a product of his environment, and he’s best used as a spot starter.

Hiroyuki Nakajima hit .311/.382/.451 with 13 homers and seven steals over 136 games last year in Japan, and he’s getting paid to clearly take over the team’s starting shortstop role…Dan Straily essentially came out of nowhere last season, as after never pitching above High-A, he posted a 2.78 ERA with a 1.00 WHIP and 190 strikeouts over 152.0 innings across Double and Triple-A. He held his own after joining Oakland, but scouts continue to doubt his long-term upside at higher levels, and he’ll likely be competing with Bartolo Colon for the No. 5 starter spot. Colon had an elite 3.96 K:BB ratio last season, but he’ll soon be 40 years old and is returning from a drug suspension…Brandon Moss hit a home run every 12.6 at-bats last season. Before then, he averaged a HR every 45.2 ABs. Maybe it’s Captain Obvious, but expect something in between in 2013…Addison Russell is a legitimate top-10 prospect in baseball, but he’s only a keeper league option at this point.

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