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September 23, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Oakland A's

by Ben Lindbergh, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fadewhether in September (or before), the league division series, league championship series or World Series. It combines an overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski, and Kevin Goldstein's farm system overview.

Today the sun sets on the Oakland A's, who watched their top two pitchers head for surgery and its offense sputter on life support.

Signs of hope: The A's have engineered a mostly successful mid-season infield makeover, trading their Opening Day second baseman and third baseman to Colorado and replacing them without missing a beat. At the keystone, 24-year-old Jemile Weeks, the Athletics' first-round selection in the 2008 amateur draft, has hit the ground running in his rookie season, accumulating 2.1 WARP in just over 400 plate appearances. At the hot corner, Scott Sizemore has amassed 1.6 WARP in just over 331 plate appearances. Overall, the A's have featured the AL's fifth-oldest collection of hitters, but their pitching staff is the league's fourth-youngest, and they haven't had to ask for a single start from anyone over the age of 29. Gio Gonzalez, Guillermo Moscoso, and Brandon McCarthy have combined for a 3.31 ERA over 470 1/3 innings, and McCarthywho missed all of 2010 and entered the season with a career ERA over 4.50owns the lowest FIP (2.81) in the AL.

Signs of disaster:The elbow injury to Brett Anderson put a damper on the success enjoyed by Oakland's other young pitchers. A season after signing a four-year extension, the injury-prone lefty set a new career-low in starts and then underwent Tommy John surgery in July. An optimist might see the surgery as a solution to his arm troubles, but it's also easy to regard it as little more than the latest in a long line of them. The A's are a team without a star: only the abysmal Astros and Twins lack at least one player with a WARP greater than the team-high 3.6 posted by both McCarthy and Josh Willingham. In related news, the A's remain in organizational limbo and dead last in average attendance as they wait for Bud Selig and his slow-moving, so-called "blue-ribbon panel" to determine the fate of their proposed relocation to a more attractive stadium in San Jose.

Signs you can ignore: The A's put together a productive outfield, as left fielder David DeJesus, center fielder Coco Crisp, and right fielder Willingham have combined for 8.9 WARP. However, this group likely won't be patrolling the pastures together for years to come: all three players enter free agency this offseason, and all three are on the wrong side of 30. Ben Lindbergh, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
For a team that hasn't reached the playoffs since 2006, the A's don't have one bold move they can make to solve all of their issues. The pitching staff took a big blow this year when Anderson went under the knife, and Dallas Braden also required left shoulder surgery. However, even with these injuries the A's pitching staff still ranked fourth in the league in ERA thanks to another great year by Gonzalez, a solid year by Cahill and an emerging season from Moscoso.

But despite efforts to improve their offense this year with trades for DeJesus, Allen, and Willingham, as well as signing free agent Hideki Matsui, the A's were one of the worst offensive teams in all of baseball.

Therefore, the A's might have to make a bold move of trading Gonzalez or Cahill for a package of players that can help the lineup and bring back depth for the rotation. Brokering a deal with the Boston Red Sox might include a blue-chip prospect such as Anthony Ranaudo, or young major leaguer such as Josh Reddick or Jed Lowrie. A deal with the Cincinnati Reds could include some combination of Yonder Alonso, Brad Boxberger, and Juan Francisco. Beane has made these type of deals in the past including the Tim Hudson deal to the Braves, Mark Mulder to the Cardinals, and Dan Haren to the Diamondbacks, which netted Carlos Gonzalez and Anderson. Jim Bowden

Hopes and Fears

Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 84-78

The lack of offensive upside at most positions puts a pretty hard ceiling on what the current roster of the A's can do. Even adjusting for the fact that Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is a tough place to hit at, the A's have generally been relying on a mix of older, adequate players that aren't good enough to be the centerpiece of an offense and younger, in-house developed players without much power potential. Weeks has been one of the rare positive offensive surprises on the team, and Sizemore was a solid pickup, but it's difficult to see where the team's going to get the offense needed to seriously compete. The A's have a much better rotation and are always good at building a bullpen, but there's only so much they can do without runs being scored, especially with Josh Willingham, the source for a quarter of the A's homers, not signed beyond this season.

Worst-case scenario: 68-94
Just as the offense limits the upside, the A's organizational supply of adequate pitching keeps the bottom from falling out too far. While the offense is composed mostly of 4th outfielders and 5th infielders, the A's have enough of those on hand to keep the run scoring from completely bottoming out, Mariner-style, when the injury bug hits. Coupled with the fact that it's difficult to actually get less than they've received out of first base and designated hitter than they got this season, that's maybe just enough to keep the losses in double digits in a regular downside scenario. Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
The A's have put together an impressive staff of young pitching. Now they have to find the bats to give them some offensive support. The good news is that there is progress in that direction, but there still needs to be more. Weeks was the only offensive prospect to establish himself in the big leagues this year, but what the A's need is power, and players like Chris Carter and Brandon Allen still present more questions than answers when it comes to finding a classic run producer at first base. The more encouraging sign of power came from 2010 first-round pick Michael Choice, who hit .332/.411/.590 during the second half of the season at high Class A Stockton and could be on pace for a late-2012 arrival. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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