The A's will be featuring an entirely new infield in 2015. Brandon Moss is out at first base as he was traded to Cleveland. The slugger is due a sizable pay increase after his second consecutive 25 HR, 80 RBI campaign. That is a burden that Oakland didn't want to bear. In comes Ike Davis, a player in dire need of a fresh start. Davis has shown power potential in the past, but he still can't hit lefties and Oakland's Coliseum has been a graveyard for home runs from left handed hitters. He'll most likely be in a platoon with either Mark Canha or Nate Freiman. New DH Billy Butler may get a couple looks at first as well. To be honest though, he doesn't need any more on his plate to further his already declining power figures. Second base got a boost in the acquisition of Ben Zobrist. Zobrist knows what it is like to build on a budget from his time in Tampa Bay. He should fit in perfectly to what Oakland is trying to do and provide a bat as good at the top of the lineup as it is at the bottom. If nothing else, he may surpass Eric Sogard and Nick Punto's combined production from last year by June. The new shortstop is Marcus Semien. Coming from the White Sox in the Jeff Samardzija deal, Semien provides Oakland with a controllable asset. He isn't eligible for free agency until 2021. Third base is the most intriguing change in Oakland's inner defense. Normally, getting a 25 year old with the potential Brett Lawrie possesses would be quite the coup. However, it came at the expense of Oakland's most potent hitter the last two years: Josh Donaldson. Frequent injuries have stunted Lawrie's projected rise to stardom, but he is still young. It will be intriguing to see if he can finally break through in Oakland in replacing a perennial AL MVP candidate. While third base is the most fascinating, catcher is the most troublesome position on the roster. Gone are Derek Norris and John jaso, leaving third stringer Stephen Vogt as the starter. With all the roster turnover this winter, it is very surprising to see this glaring weakness untended. Vogt may start Opening Day, but if he is still behind the plate come September, Oakland is in probably worse shape that I expected.
While the infield underwent a transformation, the outfield stayed remotely stagnant. Coco Crisp makes the only shift, moving from center field to left. Crisp is the highest paid position player on Oakland's roster at $11 million. Two years ago he proved worthy of such a price tag as he set a career high in home runs (22) and finished 15th in the AL MVP balloting. His age, he's 35 as of Opening Day, showed last year though as the power (down to 9) and batting average (down 15 points to .246) dipped and he looked slow in center. A shift to the corner should do him good in the field. Hopefully for A's brass, it'll help rejuvenate his bat as well. Taking over center field duties is Sam Fuld. Fuld came back to Oakland last year at the trade deadline in a deal for Tommy Milone. He started off the season with the A's before being waived. He was a valuable utility outfielder for Oakland, but provided next to nothing at the dish (.209 BA, 3 HR, 19 RBI in 60 games). He has never been a starter for a full season in the Majors and I expect that to continue. If speedster Billy Burns (50+ steals three straight years in the Minors) can get his bat in order, center should be his. Josh Reddick returns in right field. He didn't quite replicate his breakout 2012 last year, but he rebounded from a disappointing 2013. Injuries still robbed him of 53 games, but the glove and plate discipline that eluded him in 2013 reappeared when he was healthy. The Oakland lineup doesn't look too bad but they will need full health from their power hitters or run production is going to be at a premium this year.
While the offense has the potential to sputter, the pitching staff should chug along swimmingly. Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija are gone to Chicago but Sonny Gray remains as the A's ace. Gray has all the makings of a Cy Young Award winner. He went 14-10 with a 3.08 ERA but both those figures look worse because of the A's late season swoon. Gray is the real deal and with his ability to get deep into games, he could challenge the 20 win mark in 2015. In 2014, Scott Kazmir set a career high in wins (15) and pitched his most innings (190 1/3) since 2007. The strain of that workload may make him regress a bit this season, but he should still be a reasonably productive second starter. Oakland has a lot of options in building the rest of their rotation, though most are unproven. Jesse Hahn had a decent rookie season in San Diego but one has to factor in Petco Park to pitching numbers like you would do for hitting numbers in Coors Field. Kendall Graveman, who came over in the Josh Donaldson trade, has had a tremendous spring (3-0, 0.42 ERA, 0.66 WHIP) and should get a spot. The last spot is up for grabs between a pair of starter/reliever tweeners, Drew Pomeranz and Jesse Chavez. Chavez made the most of his time in the rotation last year (8-8, 3.45 ERA) but the former top-10 pick Pomeranz has more upside. Plus, you can't really have two Jesses in the rotation can you? I was going to mention Barry Zito as an option but then I peed myself laughing. (I'll replace the ottoman honey!) If Jarrod Parker comes back strong from Tommy John surgery in June, this rotation just gets that much better.
The bullpen was one of the main culprits in last year's collapse but Beane addressed it this winter. New addition Tyler Clippard, acquired for Yunel Escobar in January, gives the Athletics a two headed closing monster along with Sean Doolittle. It'll be interesting to see if either emerges as the alpha dog or if manager Bob Melvin uses a platoon. Clippard would get the nod against right handed dominant ninth innings while Doolittle would get lefty laden lineups (say that three times fast). The rest of the bullpen isn't anything to sneeze at either. From the left side, Fernando Abad (1.57 ERA, 0.86 WHIP) throws gas while Eric O'Flaherty's sinker is a hell of a weapon. From the right side, Dan Otero (8-2, 2.28 ERA) and former All-Star Ryan Cook provide versatility as both situational and long inning relief.
As you can see, the faces may be slightly different but not much has changed in Oakland. The pitching staff is strong but the lineup leaves a lot to be desired. There is also always a sting after a team-wide disintegration like the one Oakland went through over the late summer months of 2014. I expect Billy Beane to be active throughout the year to fill in any gaps that his team has or potentially will have. They won't have the good fortune of riding a good start into the playoffs this year. It'll be a struggle to stay above the .500 mark this season. It is a struggle I feel they'll ultimately lose.
LAST YEAR'S RANKING: #11 (DOWN 9)
PREDICTED RECORD: 79-83
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REPS: Sonny Gray (starting pitcher), Ben Zobrist (second baseman), Fernando Abad (relief pitcher)
Hopefully this will be the last article Trevor Utley will write about the Oakland A's for quite some time.
Image Credit: Athletics logo (sportslogos.net)