Playing Pepper 2014: Oakland Athletics

Since 2009, one of the traditions of the spring has been the Playing Pepper series.  I ask a number of questions of blogs–some in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, some not–that cover the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball.  This year, not only is my son involved–he and I came up with the last question together–but the series is also brought to you by Purpose, Perseverance and Power Arms, the United Cardinal Bloggers annual publication.  Only $2.99 at the Kindle store, so get yours today!  But first, get out the bats and gloves and let’s play some pepper.

Oakland Athletics
96-66, first in the AL West, lost in the ALDS

For all the noise that the Angels have made the last couple of years, for all the expected success of the Rangers, it’s been the A’s that have gone into the postseason wearing the AL West crown.  While they may not be the team we think of when it comes to that division, they’ve proven that Billy Beane knows how to build up a contender on a shoestring.  Like we didn’t already know that.

Today, we talk about the folks in green and gold with a panel that might not be as large as yesterday’s (no panel ever will be!) but has quality running through it nonetheless.  Joining us are:

So stick around and let’s find out about the former home of Tony La Russa.

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

CCA: Obviously , the biggest pickups this off season were Craig Gentry, Luke Gregerson and Scott Kazmir. The Brett Anderson trade was a bit mind boggling, as we got practically nothing in return, There were a couple of free agent signings that didn’t excite me in Philip Humber and Nick Punto. All in all I have to believe that the front office has a plan, and I have faith in their abilities. I am going to give them a solid B- just because of the fact that I didn’t think Oakland had to make many moves, and the first 3 players mentioned above are going to be major contributors.

PV: I’d give general manager Billy Beane and company a solid “B” for the A’s offseason. They opened up the franchise’s pocketbook to quickly and competently replace departed free agent starter Bartolo Colon and closer Grant Balfour with younger options in Scott Kazmir and Jim Johnson. They improved their bench with Nick Punto and Craig Gentry and they strenthened the bullpen with Luke Gregerson.

Hard to complain about a typically spendthrift club shelling out some bucks to extend Coco Crisp‘s contract while aggressively strengthening the overall roster of a back-to-back division champ.

TVP: I’d grade it at a solid-B. The bullpen has been upgraded to what on paper looks like one of the best bullpens – dare I say? – ever. I really liked the deal to acquire Luke Gregerson from San Diego. That said there were some true bullpen deals that left me wondering a bit. The trade that net the A’s Jim Johnson seems particularly foolish given his cost vis-a-vis the cost of a proven commodity like Grant Balfour. I’d have rather spent the money on Balfour (he ended up getting far less from Tampa Bay) and at least change the narrative of the A’s never retaining free agents. Swapping out Abad for Blevins doesn’t seem like a move really and the Brett Anderson deal was underwhelming. The move to get Craig Gentry was bold and should pay huge dividends but I felt its true benefit was diminished by the Coco extension that keeps Gentry in a 4OF role, though those guys always end up with a ton of ABs. Scott Kazmir was a nice pick up and I expect good things out of him. I would’ve liked to have seen more done with a first base/DH type, but alas that was not to be. I still wonder if the A’s could make a play for a Kendrys Morales type after the draft.

C70: Is Josh Donaldson the real deal?

CCA: Yes…the “Bringer Of Rain” is the real deal. A lot of people were disappointed that he didn’t win the gold glove…yet Manny Machado was VERY deserving. I am looking forward to watching this special player and seeing how his career pans out.

PV: If “real deal” means the minor league catcher has successfully made the transition to valuable everyday third baseman on a winning team then the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

Some projection systems have Donaldson pegged for a major falloff from a 2013 campaign that earned him some down-ballot-MVP votes but even with a decline at the plate he’s still a fantastic bargain and productive player for the A’s.

TVP: Who knows? I was very high on Josh Donaldson and wanted him to be made to be the backup catcher for years, then it just never materialized. Out of nowhere last year he strikes gold. He fWAR’d better than Miguel Cabrera last year (due to his underrated defense) and would I expect that going forward? No. I wouldn’t be surprised with a Josh Reddick like regression, but I think the real Donaldson is a very solid player but not an AL-elite third baseman.

C70: Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

CCA: I don’t believe there will be many roster battles. The Sogard/Callaspo “battle” at second base will change daily due to L/R matchups, and you can bet Punto will get some AB’s as well. Jed Lowrie will also switch from both middle field positions. This really isn’t the type of team to have set positions. It will be interesting to see if Gentry takes away some AB’s from Josh Reddick, but this is one fan hoping he shakes off his wrist injury and becomes the player he once was.

PV: How about the second lefthander in the bullpen? It’s not sexy but it’s probably the best the A’s have to offer since they brought back the bulk of the roster that won the AL West in 2013. It looks like Fernando Abad and Joe Savery will duke it out during spring training for the honored title of LOOGY. In the end, they may just be keeping a seat warm for Eric O’Flaherty as the southpaw reliever recovers from Tommy John surgery.

TVP: Middle infield/Last roster spot. The A’s keep saying they are going with Eric Sogard in a platoon, but I can’t imagine them benching Alberto Callaspo all that much (I really felt he would be traded) and I also can’t imagine they don’t do much of anything with Nick Punto. So if Callaspo, Punto and Sogard all make the club it’ll be interesting to see what happens with that last roster spot. I am not a fan of Sogard’s and would love to see him in Sacramento but it seems unlikely. How the bench works out with this mess will be interesting.

C70: What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

CCA: I would hope none as that would mean injuries and disappointing seasons. I am still waiting for Addison Russell, yet we probably won’t see him until 2015.

PV: If a rookie makes a big impact for the A’s in 2014 that will probably mean that something went very wrong since Oakland has an experienced roster that’s built to win now. The again, if top prospect Addison Russell plays so well in the minor leagues that he forces his way into Oakland’s lineup at shortstop the team could actually get a lot younger and a lot better at the same time. Jed Lowrie’s limited glove would play a lot better a second base than it does at shortstop.

TVP: It’s never someone you expect. So Shane Peterson or Hiroyuki Nakajima? Again with that mess of a bench situation, not sure how Peterson could even make the team (my guess is Brandon Moss would be a de facto fifth outfielder) but someone always seems to get hurt and I think he could put together a nice little run. Nakajima faces more problems ahead of him but if he gets it together I think he could quickly rise on a depth chart especially if second base remains a challenge.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

CCA: 91-70 and a division title sounds nice. The Mariners and Astros will be better teams this year, so the division will be a bit tighter.

PV: 117-45, kings of the AL West for the third year in a row while setting a new record for most wins in a season. C’mon, what did you expect me to say?

In all seriousness, I’m so bad at predicting records that I won’t waste everyone’s time but I’m optimistic that the A’s can break the 90-win barrier and make the playoffs again.

TVP: 93-69, 1st. Now that I pick them to win, they of course will not. This team is balanced, though I am concerned about starting pitching depth they always seem to make that work. Texas’ additions to me don’t really make them that much better. The Angels are a team I expect big things out of and I think the Mariners take a big step forward. Houston will be Houston. That said, everyone will beat up on each other a bit so despite the low win total I think the A’s narrowly win an exceptionally tight race.

C70: Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

CCA: I enjoy Coco Crisp on the base paths, Josh Reddick’s gun, Josh Donaldson’s defense, and Bob Melvin‘s stoicism.

PV: I have a soft spot for reliever Sean Doolittle. I love his ascent from failed first-base prospect to shutdown reliever enough that I sponsored his Baseball Reference page when he broked into the league with the A’s. He’s a great story, he’s a fun personality to follow on Twitter and he’s been an integral part of Oakland’s recent success. It’s impossible not to like that.

TVP: Jarrod Parker bar none. Parker has poise up the ying-yang. He never gets fazed it seems. I love his moxie on the mound and he is just a competitor never bringing past failings in an at bat or game or even season come back and rattle his confidence.

My thanks to all of these guys for their help in this edition.  It would seem like there’s another enjoyable season of A’s baseball on the horizon!

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