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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

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