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December 22, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Athletic Ambitions

by Christina Kahrl

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The A's are invariably interesting to talk about, not simply for personal reasons. On the one hand, they might be seen as overachievers, managing 81 wins to finish second in the short stack. On the other, this is the team we here at BP have managed to collectively peg as a likely division winner as recently as 2009. And no, they did not win the division, though there's no real joy in confessing my own innocence and failure to get aboard to projected performance bandwagon. If the A's had really been a little engine that could, that would have been swell, what with a new East Bay stadium in Fremont San Jose a location TBD to winkle out of an unwilling public, not to mention the even less tractable, ungenerous Giants.

They weren't, however, and the problem has really boiled down to the lack of a quality offense to live up to a staff that has transitioned in a number of quality youngsters. Pitching as good as the A's have assembled, via trade and development, should contend. Unfortunately, a pathetic pop-gun assault has managed to “improve” by getting from an MLB-worst .244 team True Average in 2008 to 23rd-place finishes the last two years, generating TAvs of .253 and .255. While arguments that a focus on defense has been a major component of their lineup selections, at the end of the day, the absence of power has been telling.

Now, I know what you're thinking, you're so Fain, you probably think this song is about... well, Daric Barton, or Ryan Sweeney. But that's not entirely the case. I'm here to praise OBP, not bury it. The A's were one of the best teams when it came to generating bases on balls, ranking seventh in the majors and fourth in the AL in unintentional walk rate. The problem is that when an entire lineup isn't very good at delivering power, you've got an opportunity-conversion issue that has nothing to do with “luck,” BABIP, situational hitting, or any other passing fancy. You're just not going to plate people, and by ranking 28th in the majors in ISO (identical to their 2009 finish), the A's didn't. The power of patience and being baseball's fourth-best baserunning team last year got them all the way up to 23rd in team True Average.

The responses were fairly straightforward. Billy Beane, Dave Forst, and company went straight for the slots that most needed fixing, tackling the outfield and their DH slot. This was sensible enough, when you consider the unit-wide production they were getting:

Position
MLB 2010 Avg TAv
A's 2010 TAv
LF .275 .241
RF .283 .245
DH .288 .273

Center field was the easiest call, as the A's committed themselves to Coco Crisp by picking up their $5.75 million option. Per nFRAA, Rajai Davis' defense in center had dipped in 2010, and other metrics were even less charitable, suggesting the A's were right in their preference. Offensively, the contrast also favored Crisp; his three-year TAv across 2008-10 was .274 to Davis' .266, a small difference, but add it to the defensive considerations, and choosing Crisp over Davis is understandable. The obvious risk involves Crisp's fragility, but the A's weren't done addressing their outfield.

A matter of preference seemingly settled, the A's followed up by moving to the more critical action items. For the answer in one outfield corner, they dealt Vin Mazzaro and an organizational lefty to the Royals for David DeJesus. Trading for DeJesus a week after making their choice between Davis and Crisp should give them a quality OBP source also capable of delivering some small measure of power—at least relative to Davis. Expecting something beyond a .150 ISO would tip over from wishcasting to tripping past the land of make-believe to far more dangerous places. That done, one more week's worth of shopping around helped cut expenses. Rather than risk going to arbitration with Davis to keep him around in a corner to little gain again, they dealt him to the Blue Jays for a mismatched pair of hard-throwing right-handed relief suspects: the towering Trystan Magnuson, 6-foot-8 of low-90s goodness plus developing breaking stuff, fresh from Double-A, and his teammate, Little Lord Danny Farquhar, 10 inches shorter but a couple o ticks faster with his four-seamer. Only Magnuson had to be placed on the 40-man, so the A's didn't lose a roster slot while adding an interesting pair of relief arms while reclaiming a couple of million dollars that would have gone to Davis' paydays for other uses.

That wasn't the end of it, as last week's deals demonstrated. First, the A's signed Hideki Matsui to replace Jack Cust, who was once again non-tendered, to make less via free agency than arbitration. This might seem like a modest surprise as improvements go, since Matsui managed a .294 TAv to Cust's .306. That looks like no improvement whatsoever, and with Matsui turning 37 while is a few weeks away from his 32nd summer, you might have suspension-of-disbelief issues with the proposition. However, single-season splits aside, Matsui has hit .287/.349/.460 against lefties, to Cust's .225/.350/.372; between the problem of carrying a full-time DH in the age of four-man benches and the unavailability of platoon partners that usually involves, devoting a spot to Godzilla instead of Cust comes with a roster space-related recommendation. But there's also the question of how often Matsui might deliver an extra-base hit or a hard hit—Matsui's .190 career ISO vs. Cust's .207 isn't the point, the fact that Matsui generates extra-base hits better than nine percent of the time, or puts the ball in play 66-70 percent of the time, to Cust's eight percent (which he hasn't achieved since 2008) and 46 percent, that is the point. It's the pursuit of defensive friction, of getting more runs through more hard-hit balls in play.

However, just two guys is just that—two guys. Fixing the other corner came next, as the A's acquired a single season of Josh Willingham's time for a pair of worthwhile prospects: the hard-throwing, ready-now Henry Rodriguez, and nearly-ready center-field prospect Corey Brown. If healthy, Willingham ought to provide both significant power and the patience they were going to get from the slot if Ryan Sweeney were in the lineup. Shunting Sweeney into fourth outfielderdom represents another ripple-effect improvement; he may not be a great everyday option for defense in center should Crisp break down again, but a backup outfielder capable of producing a TAv in the .270 range is an asset to fall back on, instead of a problem to resolve as locked-in everyday player.

To revisit that table, what if DeJesus, Willingham, and Matsui produced at their career averages?

Position
MLB 2010 Avg TAv
A's 2010 TAv
New A's TAv
LF .275 .24  1 .273 (DeJesus)
RF .283 .245 .296 (Willingham)
DH .288 .273 .291 (Matsui)

The A's wind up going from below average at three slots (counting Cust's playing-time partners at DH) to average or better at all three. Sure, that's optimism, but it beats another year of playing make-believe that Sweeney might magically discover the power stroke he never had, or that a lineup replete with people who fundamentally cannot put hard-hit balls in play or over the fence will somehow magically score runs by the accumulation of plate pedantry and witty baserunning antics has long since suffered braining with the reality stick.

There is still the matter of finding a better everyday answer at third base than Kevin Kouzmanoff, but some metrics are charitable on the subject of defense, and perhaps this is the role that lefty-swinging Eric Sogard will fulfill. Between Mark Ellis' rest days and the Hero of Macedonia's benchable bat, maybe that's enough playing time for Sogard to become the AL's answer to Mike Fontenot, assuming that's a question you want to ask. However, it's one the A's really should.

On the pitching side of the equation, dealing away Mazzaro in the DeJesus trade did open up the last slot in the rotation. Here the A's did what smart shoppers do when there isn't already an obvious solution on hand: they went dumpster-diving, and grabbed multiple alternatives. Landing the fragile duo of Rich Harden and Brandon McCarthy involves risk, but between the slot's skippability and the hope that one or the other is healthy enough to pitch over the full span of the season, they make a decent pair of low-cost risks, with some tenuous upside possibilities. Harden has made a habit of disappointing expectations the last two years while being relatively healthy (by his own low standard), while McCarthy hasn't managed 120 IP in any season since 2005. It's the sort of combination that leaves me thinking that we shouldn't relegate long-luck lefty Bobby Cramer to the human interest-story bin just yet. And there's always the duo of Missouri Ruffians, Cards castoff Clay Mortensen and Royals reject Philip Humber. The danger is really a matter of losing any of the front four for an extended stretch, because as entertaining as that motley crew might be for fifth-starter options, counting on two of them for an extended period of time should Gio Gonzalez, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, or Dallas Braden break down can leave a club hoping the standard for contention is still down around 85 wins. Or less, because winners need not be too choosy.

The bullpen hasn't been left alone after a mediocre 2010. The A's relief corps finished 12th in both ARP and Relief-only FRA. While closer Andrew Bailey and their successful retread tandem of Craig Breslow and Michael Wuertz were all set for their slots, submariner Brad Ziegler and side-arming southpaw Jerry Blevins don't deserve unquestioned job security, perhaps more in their roles than on the staff. While trading for Willingham cost them the triple-digit virtues of Henry Rodriguez, they'll have Joey Devine making his latest attempt to put his usually successful disabled reliability on hold for a season, and mix some pitching into his career. They'll also have a leftover loser or two from the initial fight for the fifth slot in the rotation, and perhaps both Harden and McCarthy could be pen-bound at some point if Josh Outman's rehab from TJS go well enough that he pushes his way back into the rotation at some point.

Does it add up to a contender. Well, yes, but as a matter of circumstances, not all of which were under the control of Beane and Forst. As Ulysses S. Grant once observed, “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. ... try to think what are we going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do." That's reasonable as well as relevant to Oakland's ambitions, in that the A's couldn't really concern themselves over whether Cliff Lee would re-sign with the pennant-winning Rangers. Or, for that matter, what bit of sorcery the Mariners would submit to, having prayed long and hard to the false gods of defensive supremacy. Or the Angels striking out on everything and being left to watch all the major free agents choose anywhere but Anaheim. Put all that together, and this time around it might really add up to a team that should contend in the AL West.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Hideki Matsui,  The Call-up

24 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Bellis

Thanks for the A's talk! I have to say I find it interesting and perhaps a little telling that you could do a whole piece about Oakland without mentioning Chris Carter. I know he has a history of struggling with promotion at every level and he was as bad as could be in his first A's cup of coffee. He looked a little better in round 2. He would seem to be the only guy in the whole organization with any potential to be a difference maker. Hard to see where the at bats are going to come from now. Doubtful they'll be willing to displace Barton or to live with Carter's defense in left, which will now be filled by Willingham anyway. Have the A's given up on Carter. There seems to be no point in further AAA seasoning. Maybe they carry him for spot DH against lefties and some spot starts at 1B/LF.

Dec 22, 2010 10:21 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

I made a point of leaving him out, because there are two important problems: one, where would he fit on the roster and get at-bats if nobody else gets hurt; two, would he hit well in a reserve role, even if he was squeezed in? I'm hoping this is like the McGwire '87 problem, in that his bat just ends the conversation and the A's move other people around to suit him, but considering Willingham and DeJesus have both endured their share of breakdowns, I figure the opportunity will come.

Dec 22, 2010 14:06 PM
 
klipzlskim

Christina - Any thoughts on the TBD A's location now that the Oakland City Council has approved funding for an EIR (and Lew Wolff's buddy Don Perata lost the mayoral race)? Is this anything to get hopes up over or too little too late?

Dec 22, 2010 10:27 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

The A's stadium hell has gone past the point the Giants were at for so much of the '80s and '90s, and you're right to bring up the political considerations, especially given how many saw their careers warped or ruined by the Giants' belated park acquisition. I'm beyond worrying about it; I see the logic of San Jose, but the Commissioner has been reliably slow on resolving this issue, and I expect the Giants are being stubborn on the off chance that the A's just go away, and have the market all to themselves.

Dec 22, 2010 14:11 PM
 
juiced

The A's can win that division, mark it down. The contours of the team make it possible that they become this year's SFGiants...they are that good at run prevention. In my view they should now renew their efforts to secure Beltre. Yes, they will have to overpay, but they are operating extremely cheaply everywhere else. This denies a division competitor 4 wins or so, in addition to swinging 4 wins to the A's. With the Rangers vulnerable after losing out on Lee, the Mariners suckitude, and the Angels' decline, the time is now to get Beltre.

It's hard for me to say that because I think Beltre is overrated and hits into a ton of outs, but the A's are so close to taking the West the time to push is now.

Dec 22, 2010 11:07 AM
rating: 1
 
Bellis

Beltre is never coming. He shunned them last year and he never even responded to the offer they put out this year. I think the A's probably knew Beltre would never take their offer and probably also knew that they had no shot at signing Iwakuma. Seems to be some sort of odd game they're playing to create the illusion of spending money without actually spending any. Or potentially to call attention to the fact that they can't compete for FA's because of "the facility" as Billy Beane has said recently in order to lever their way into San Jose. I really do think it is now and has always been ownership's primary objective to get to San Jose. Whatever negotiations they have with Oakland and Fremont are just of show.

Dec 22, 2010 11:36 AM
rating: 0
 
juiced

Bellis, there are two benefits to them going after Beltre. Either they get him or they drive up the price that the Angels have to pay to get him. The A's offer of 5/65 wasn't cheap in the slightest. Actually in my view it's an overpay.

Dec 22, 2010 13:07 PM
rating: 0
 
Bellis

Don't get me wrong, I would like for them to get Beltre, even with a slight overpay and even for 5 years knowing he's got that history of overperforming in contract years then fallig off. He's just a very good fit in that they get a solid right handed bat without sacrificing defense and as an ancillary benefit they lose the Kouz as an everyday rally killer.

What I am saying is that I really believe that Beltre had no intention of signing with the A's and the A's knew it but made the offer anyway in order to accomplish something totally unrelated to actually acquiring Beltre's services. Otherwise, why would he not even bother to have his agent at least call and negotiate or decline? Especially considering that it looks, at least on the surface, like a very reasonable offer.

Dec 22, 2010 13:26 PM
rating: 0
 
juiced

Bellis, I think the answer to your question is that Beltre is in negotiation mode. The A's made their 5/65 offer very early in the offseason, and Beltre and Boras are gonna kick the tires on what they can get before jumping on the first offer. Reportedly, they rejected the Angels similar , slightly sweetened offer of 5/70, which the Angels have now pulled. Supposedly a 6th year is his line in the sand. Fat chance of either of those franchises taking that bait, but I think the point is that the two offers are close enough that I'm not convinced that Beltre would rule the A's out completely at this point. We'll see.

Dec 22, 2010 13:39 PM
rating: 0
 
drmorris

Boras clients have a demonstrable tendency to sign wherever the biggest money appears. (Werth to Washington, anyone?) If the A's present the winning bid, Beltre will don the green-and-gold in 2011. As a sweetener, Beltre has shown he's very comfortable on the left coast with prior stints in Seattle and L.A.

Which is why Beane ought to push chips forward and get him. The A's have the money. Beltre would be a mega-contract by Oakland standards, but not an outrageous one in the scheme of things. As Juice mentions above, the move is probably a net 8-win swing against one of your tougher division rivals. Spend, Billy, spend!

Dec 22, 2010 14:04 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

That, or rent next winter's free agents. See if the Cubs will talk about Aramis Ramirez, or see if the Dodgers will eat some chunk of change for Casey Blake. Which goes a long way towards showing how limited the options are...

Dec 22, 2010 14:15 PM
 
Richie

Signing Beltre today means not signing someone else tomorrow. Like, say, extending Anderson. No way Beltre is worth anywhere near what you guys are suggesting. At this time a year ago, would anyone have been shocked by Kouzmanoff having a better offensive season than Beltre?

Dec 22, 2010 15:18 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

I also don't understand the thinking re Matsui and Cust. With no need for pinch-hitters or double-switch guys, why can't you carry a platoon DH? Aren't we always (properly) railing against teams carrying 12 pitchers? A right-handed batter from whom you need nothing but hitting against left-handers ought to come very cheap.

Dec 22, 2010 15:24 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

It's fine to rail against seven-man pens, but that isn't going to stop it from happening. There's a point at which, in talking about what's to come, I have to address practical considerations, not what would be done were I crowned Empress of the North. Would it make sense? Yes. Will it happen? Not very likely. So, let's move on...

The other necessary real-world consideration is sorting out who can handle a bench role, because not everyone can make the adjustment. Here again, it's easy to say one guy or another will be the next Gary Roenicke or Bill Schroeder, but not everyone can handle it (Ron Cey '87, for example). Similarly, not every skipper creates the usage patterns to let a guy get the playing time he needs to then be useful in the role you really want him for.

Dec 22, 2010 16:02 PM
 
juiced

Richie, normally I feel exactly as you do, and in fact when taken in isolation I agree that 5/65 is an overpay for Beltre. When the A's offered that to him at the beginning of the offseason I felt exactly as you did for the same reasons.

But its all about context, and the context has changed given how the hot stove season has progressed. The Rangers lost out on Lee and are consequently 4-5 wins weaker. The Angels lost out on Crawford and consequently havent improved by the 4-5 wins that we thought they would. There are no real big players left, Beltre excepted. And finally the A's are exceptionally close to the Angels and Rangers now talent wise.

Thus, I now see the A's signing Beltre as a poker bet that itself has negative expectation, but which carries with it sufficient "implied odds" if they make the postseason in terms of revenue generated to be worth it. And the downside at making him an offer in the Angels' range is that you lose out but jack of the Angels payroll in the process.

As for a platoon DH I assume you meant Willingham as Matsui's right handed caddy not Cust. But they have announced plans to start both, with Willingham in left. And given what they had to give up to get both of those guys...ie next to nothing.. they seem like reasonable, if aging, gambles that improve their offense from the admittedly putrid status quo.

Dec 22, 2010 15:39 PM
rating: 0
 
juiced

Arguably , the A's are slightly ahead of the Angels right now even without Beltre, and a tad behind the Lee-less Rangers. IMO

Dec 22, 2010 15:40 PM
rating: 1
 
juiced

jack of=jack up

Dec 22, 2010 15:41 PM
rating: 0
 
amazin_mess

They are definitely building a contender for 2011. Just one more bat would do wonders...I like the Aramis Ramirez suggestion. Maybe even give the Rockies a call for a guy like Ian Stewart, who they seemed to have soured on somewhat.

Dec 22, 2010 15:53 PM
rating: 1
 
pobothecat

Love the Ian Stewart idea. Note the acquisition of both Wigginton and J. Lopez in Colorado.

Dec 22, 2010 23:57 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

The As ought to be on the cusp of contention for the next 5 years, in that division. I doubt that Beltre will ever return $13 mil for any of those 5 seasons. And will likely be a total millstone in 2 of those.

Make do early on, then put that money to good use IF you're in contention come the time 1/3 to 1/2 the teams are trying to dump salary. Then get a Blake or Aramis or even an Uribe at a fraction of Beltre's cost.

Dec 22, 2010 17:33 PM
rating: 0
 
pobothecat

On the 5th starter question ... another name to throw into speculative brew is Tyson Ross. Remember, he was dominant in July, after being converted to a starter in Sacramento (before being shut down in early August.)

On the OF shuffle, a quick Micheal Taylor update ... no change. Arizona was a repeat of Sacramento: 270-ish with almost no pop.

And, finally a question --- anyone have an update on Outman's recovery? I remember a whisper that me might see action in September. Never happened, but I take that as an indication he could be ready to go come April. Wrong?

Dec 22, 2010 23:56 PM
rating: 0
 
juiced

Casey Blake sucks and Uribe is under contract for 3 with LA. The Aramis option is somehwat intriguing , but even then, we're assuming a reversal of his health and performance regression the last couple year. Possible yes, but probable? By waiting to the deadline you can at least see what comes, but in my view its better to bank those wins at the beginning of the season by paying, admittedly over, for Beltre.

Dec 23, 2010 12:05 PM
rating: 0
 
PeterBNYC

Adrian Beltre is a poisoned cup ("Never fight a land war in Asia...") on which Beane should (and I think will) pass, even given the 5/65 "offer", which I believe was indeed designed to make Beltre very expensive for LAA or TEX. Far better to keep powder dry and then let Beane loose at the trade deadline- a Ramirez rental then might work, but I bet there will be even better alternatives in June. Beltre (just look, for the love of Pete!) becomes a monster (thanks, Fenway) in his walk years, then subsides to a league average hitter when his contract is in the bag. He did this to the Mariners. Believe me, anyone who signs Beltre will have cause to regret it.

Dec 23, 2010 12:51 PM
rating: 0
 
Bellis

To be fair to Beltre, in the first 4 years of his deal with Seattle he produced 19, 25, 26, and 25 home runs. From 06-08 he slugged about .460 on average with OPS at right about .800 and he played at least 140 games 05-08. He did it in the AL West and in a ball park pretty comparable to the Coliseum. No doubt the A's would take those numbers with high quality infield defense. While there's risk and the value may not be there, Beltre almost certainly make them better in the near term. Given how tough it's been for the A's to attract FA talent, it's almost to the point where if they can get somebody to take their money and it's at least in the realm of being a reasonable contract, they should jump on it.

All that being said, I am convinced that this is not a negotiating tactic and that Beltre has no interest in the A's. Hope I'm wrong.

Dec 23, 2010 13:45 PM
rating: 1
 
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