There’s a new bit of conventional wisdom that’s gaining traction in the media. It says the Oakland offense will be so bad in 2004 that they’ll have trouble besting the amped-up Angels for the division title. I should know; I myself indulged in this bit of convention in a recent column I wrote for, the gracious purveyors of my primary day job.

The question I should’ve asked before pontificating on the subject at hand is this: is it actually true? Is the Oakland offense really in such desperate straits. First, let’s acknowledge is no longer a team built around its run-scoring capabilities. Ever since the Moneyball furor, some observers haven’t enjoyed pointing out that the A’s are in fact a pitching-and-defense outfit. Pointing this out is no longer breaking news, and it never really was all that subversive. It’s just true; Oakland hasn’t ranked in the top half of AL in runs scored since 2001, but they’ve ranked second and first, respectively, the last two seasons in fewest runs allowed.

Nevertheless, runs are runs, and the A’s appear poised to lose quite a few of them on the offensive side of the ledger. Consider that shortstop Miguel Tejada and catcher Ramon Hernandez are both elsewhere. Tejada, among AL shortstops, finished third in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), while Hernandez ranked fourth among AL catchers in VORP. Tejada and Hernandez also ranked second and fourth, respectively, on the team in VORP. That’s a serious hunk of production lost by the team that ranked only ninth in the loop in runs scored.

Positional scarcity means it’s especially challenging to replace the runs you lose from your starting shortstop and catcher in tandem, but the A’s did what they could, given their limited coffers. Replacing Hernandez will be Damian Miller, who, at least offensively, figures to be a substantial drop-off. Bobby Crosby will be Tejada’s proxy in 2004, and while he’s a fine prospect, it’s only reasonable to expect some struggles in his first full season at the highest level.

With that in mind, let’s take a look, using PECOTA’s weighted mean projections for 2004, at how the offenses compare, in terms of VORP. The first list will be the actual VORP contributions for the core hitters in 2003. The second list will be the PECOTA projections for 2004. In both lists, the top five outfielders are included, since Oakland’s recent modus operndi has involved a rotation of sorts in the outfield. Forthwith…

Pos.	Player		   2003 VORP
C 	Ramon Hernandez		30.3
1B	Scott Hatteberg		 6.9
2B	Mark Ellis		 8.6
3B	Eric Chavez 		55.8
SS	Miguel Tejada		50.4
OF	Terrence Long		-8.5
OF	Eric Byrnes		19.7
OF	Chris Singleton		-2.3
OF	Jermaine Dye	       -20.6
OF	Jose Guillen		 4.1
DH	Erubiel Durazo		32.2
Total for 2003		       176.6

Pos.	Player		   2004 VORP
C	Damian Miller		 5.0
1B	Scott Hatteberg		 8.8
2B	Mark Ellis		15.4
3B	Eric Chavez		50.7
SS	Bobby Crosby		18.1
OF	Mark Kotsay		19.6
OF	Bobby Kielty		16.7
OF	Jermaine Dye		 3.8
OF	Eric Byrnes		15.0
OF	Billy McMillon		 4.2
DH	Erubiel Durazo		22.6
PECOTA Total for 2004          179.9

As you can see by the totals, the 2004 offense actually projects 3.3 runs better than in 2003. What’s surprising is not only do the A’s core hitters grade out better than last year’s model, according to PECOTA, but that’s in spite of modest VORP losses by Chavez and Durazo. If I’d told you that the A’s would lose Tejada and Hernandez, replace them with Miller and Crosby, and suffer declines relative to the position for Chavez and Durazo, how many of you would think they’d actually project to have a better offense in ’04?

This speaks to just how listless the Oakland outfield was last season, in terms of offensive production. Just getting rid of Singleton and seducing a replacement-level performance out of Dye adds almost three wins. The outfield rotation in 2004 looks to be a massive improvement, and that’s where the offensive attack makes most of its marginal gains.

There are, however, some reasons to be skeptical about these projections. First, Mark Kotsay is battling a chronically injured back that sapped his production last season. His health reportedly has improved, but the rigors of playing center won’t help. Can he be counted on for a full season of productive platework? Well, PECOTA’s projection for Kotsay seems reasonable to me: 439 ABs, .275/.347/.433. It’s not a full season, and it’s not sparkling production. It’s Bobby Kielty that I’m highly wary of. I like his patience at the plate and his glove at the corners, but a right fielder with a lifetime .428 SLG who’s spent his entire career in hitters’ parks isn’t terribly special. Considering he’ll be toiling in a pitcher’s park for the first time, I think he could be a disappointment. Still, PECOTA sooths a rather modest batting line of .254/.351/.437 for him.

On the upside, Eric Karros will be spotting Hatteberg or Durazo whenever there’s a lefty on the mound. While there’s reason to believe his recent performance against portsiders is somewhat anomalous, he’s still an upgrade over Hatterberg and Durazo when a left-hander is on the bump. Also, you never know, but Chavez’s long-awaited bust-out season might finally happen.

Whatever the case, Oakland’s drastic offensive decline this winter seems to have been exaggerated. They’ll still have some trouble scoring runs, but, frankly, that’s a quandary to which they’re accustomed.

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