2016 Padres Catchers and Infielders – Strength or Weakness?

More Alexei, Less Alexi
By Hugh Rothman
The Padres catching situation stands as follows: Derek Norris will be the starter, backed up by Austin Hedges and/or newly acquired Christian Bethancourt. Norris and Hedges manned the position last season too, taking over for Yasmani Grandal and Rene Rivera in 2014.
In 2014, the Padres were below average (and sometimes waaaay below average) at every position… except catcher. That was the one shining positional beacon in the stinking sewage that passed for an offense that year. Grandal and Rivera combined for a 4.4 WAR (wins above replacement) in 2014 so they clearly were not the problem. However, it was decided by general manager  A.J. Preller that both players needed to be sacrificed in order to improve the rest of the offense in 2015. Grandal helped net the Padres Matt Kemp from the LA Dodgers, and Rivera was a minor piece in helping the Padres acquire Wil Myers from the Tampa Rays. The Padres also acquired their new starting catcher Derek Norris from the Oakland A’s for injury-prone 3rd starter Jesse Hahn. After all the wheeling and dealing, the Padres somehow managed to hold on to one of their top prospects in Austin Hedges, and he eventually became the backup.
The end result: Norris and Hedges combined for a 2.3 WAR in 2015. That’s still not bad. The problem is that 2.5 WAR came from Norris, and -0.2 WAR came from Hedges. In other words, the Padres would benefit from a better backup catcher, but resolving that issue isn’t so easy.
Why?  Because Austin Hedges is an amazing catcher. He was a 2nd round pick and immediately showed an otherworldly aptitude for the catching position. Pitchers adore throwing to him. His arm is so strong (chorus: how strong is it?), he can throw a pea through a battleship if so desired. There are lots of glowing defensive stats about Hedges, but it would be easiest to look at just one overall defensive measurement, DRS (defensive runs saved). Hedges had a DRS of 6 despite being the backup. If he had played the whole season, his DRS would be 21 (per Baseball-Reference.com), which is pretty unreal. The starter Derek Norris had a decent year defensively, with a DRS of 3, which is still above average. Hedges’ mark of 6 in less than a third of the playing time that Norris got is a testament to his stupendous defensive prowess.
Unfortunately, Hedges can’t hit.
He couldn’t hit in double-A. He couldn’t hit in triple-A. He really, really can’t hit in the majors. Whatever defensive benefits he brings to the table he more than gives back with his hitting: .168/.215/.248 (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage) in 137 at bats is simply terrible and the kind of production that cannot be tolerated by any self-respecting baseball franchise. Hedges is only 23 years old, so maybe there is some growth potential, but he is very far away from being even remotely productive as a hitter. Perhaps this is the reason that former Atlanta Braves prospect Christian Bethancourt was acquired.
Bethancourt, a former top-10 prospect of the Braves, is himself a youngster at age 24. His defense isn’t as good as Hedges (whose is?); his DRS last season was very close to 0, meaning he is about average defensively. His hitting is a tiny bit better than Hedges’ (he hit .200/.225/.290 last season in 155 at bats). However, that’s certainly not very impressive. Bethancourt showed a bit more hitting acumen in the minors than Hedges, but not much more. In short, Bethancourt is not much of an upgrade offensively, and a significant downgrade defensively. The Padres are clearly hoping that at least one of them takes a big step forward offensively this season whether in triple-A or the majors, and they are probably hoping that it is Hedges who is the one who takes that step, because that would give them a catcher who can win games with his defense alone – if only his hitting was just moderately acceptable.
In the meantime, the starter is Derek Norris, who had a decent year. The knock on Norris has always been his defense. What A’s fan doesn’t remember the Royals stealing 7 bases on Norris during the 2015 wild-card game, which undoubtedly contributed to the A’s eventually losing that game. But, as previously mentioned, Norris had an above-average DRS last season, including throwing out 34% of would-be base stealers, which was better than the league average rate of 28%. Norris contributed enough offensively to put him in the upper echelon of NL catchers, and this will be his age 27 season, so there could be some further growth, both offensively and defensively.
If Hedges and/or Bethancourt can grow just a bit more offensively, and Norris remains reasonably healthy, catching won’t be a problem the Padres need to worry about in 2016. Instead, they can worry about other spots on the diamond, like the infield for example… or not?
The Padres infield was, not to belabor the point, an unmitigated disaster in 2014, so Preller went right to work to fix it. His big move: He acquired Will Middlebrooks to play 3B in place of Chase Headley. That was it! First baseman Yonder Alonzo remained, as did second baseman Jedd Gyorko, and shortstop Alexi Amarista also stayed put as the replacement for the toxic waste dump formerly known as Everth Cabrera. Ok, so Preller did decide to sign defensive stalwart Clint Barmes to back up Amarista, but otherwise… that was it! In hindsight, it appears that the Padres could have used a bit more help in the infield, although there were some pleasant surprises.
At first base however, Yonder Alonzo was not a surprise whatsoever. He did exactly what he always does: draw some walks, hit for far less power than is acceptable for a starting major league first baseman, and get hurt. In the end, Alonzo contributed a 1.1 WAR for the season, which is pretty meh, but not disastrous. Still, Preller had seen enough and decided to finally terminate the Alonzo Experience by shipping him to the Oakland A’s (a team that appreciates players who can draw a walk). The Padres will instead give the first base job to last year’s center fielder (in name only) Wil Myers. Imagine, if you will, John Kruk playing centerfield. It would be entertaining, and quite hilarious, unless you were a Padres pitcher. Wil Myers wasn’t quite that bad, but he was pretty bad; a -6 DRS, which, if he had stayed in centerfield the entire year, would have become a -15 DRS. That would have been among the worst marks in baseball. Clearly, Myers was completely miscast as a center fielder, so the Padres decided to move him to first base instead; a very understandable decision. Myers was at one time a top 10 prospect and had a dynamic rookie campaign. Even last year, when he could play, Myers hit reasonably well. Unfortunately, the injury bug hit Myers hard, which is yet another reason to move him to first base. If Myers can stay healthy, he is a decent enough athlete to play first base capably and should improve upon his .253/.336/.427 numbers from last season. Myers is just 25 years old, so better times should be coming for him.
2015 began innocently enough with second base being manned by Jedd Gyorko. In 2013, Gyorko excited Padres fans by leading the team with 23 homers, which impressed the club enough to give him a sweet five year deal. Gyorko responded to this vote of confidence by completely laying an egg in 2014. In preparation for 2015, Gyorko reportedly had worked very hard to improve his swing and his confidence, blah, blah, blah… and the result was something in between 2013 and 2014: a .247/.297/.397 line including 16 homers, in 458 at bats. Not very good, even for a second baseman, although if Gyorko’s defense was good, that might be an acceptable result. Alas, Gyorko’s defense is not good. The Padres recognized this and decided to anoint one of their former first round picks, Cory Spangenberg, as the new solution at second base mid-year, and had the brilliant idea of moving Gyorko from second base to shortstop! The end result was about what one would expect: Gyorko’s defense was below average at second base, and significantly below average at shortstop. This offseason, the Padres finally cut bait on Gyorko and traded him to the Cardinals. Spangenberg will be the starting second baseman in 2016.
Cory Spangenberg was the Padres’ first round pick in 2011 (10th pick overall). He quickly showed a good batting eye and solid hitting skills in the minors, with above average speed, and below average power. Last season, he showed enough to allow the Padres to entrust their second base position to Spangenberg and he didn’t disappoint, hitting .272/.339/.399 in 303 at bats and playing league average defense. If he can get that on base and slugging percentage just a bit higher, Spangenberg will become a fine asset for the team. The second base position in the National League is not exactly teeming with great players right now. Spangenberg compares favorably with Neil Walker, who was thought of highly enough by the Mets to trade for him in his last season before free agency. Spangenberg had a higher batting average and on-base percentage than Walker, and trailed him in slugging percentage but not by much. Spangenberg will be an improvement over Gyorko, both offensively and defensively in 2016.
Alexi Amarista began the 2015 season at shortstop even though he is woefully miscast as a starter at any position. Amarista’s best quality is that he can play anywhere and not look ridiculous. He can hit about as well as a 24th or 25th man on a baseball squad should hit. He should never get more than 150 at bats in any season. Nevertheless, there he was on opening day playing shortstop and providing next to nil at the plate. In the end, the Padres received a nice .207/.257/.287 poke in the eye for their troubles at the position. Installing Gyorko at shortstop in the latter part of the season was more desperation than solution-based thinking at that point, but what option did they have. It is inconceivable that the Padres didn’t find a better shortstop option than Amarista to start the season. Preller didn’t make the same mistake in 2016, signing Alexei Ramirez to man the position this year.
Ramirez is now 34 years old and just trying to hang on. His defense at shortstop has been above average for most of his career, but it’s starting to slip (his DRS was slightly below 0 the last two years). Similarly, his offense had been pretty decent for a shortstop most of his career, but that is starting to slip too, and last year, his OBP was under .300. Still, Ramirez has been generally steady and durable throughout his career, and a bounce-back from his subpar season last year is possible. More likely, Ramirez will struggle to be average, and the Padres will try something else in 2017. Ramirez is about as stop-gappy a stop-gap as one can imagine in this scenario. The Padres are just hoping to plug a hole for now. What is a real shame is that the Padres had a top shortstop prospect just last year, in Trea Turner, before trading him to Washington in one of their many whirlwind trade flurries. Turner will soon be the Nationals shortstop and he’ll be a good one. The Padres sure could use someone like that… oops!
At third base, the aforementioned Will Middlebrooks began the year manning the hot corner, and he showed his power well enough. Unfortunately, Middlebrooks couldn’t keep his average to an acceptable level. Utility player Yangervis Solarte, acquired from the Yankees in 2014 in the Chase Headley deal, began to play more and more at third base and before anyone knew it, he wrested the job from Middlebrooks and everyone else and claimed it for his very own. Solarte hit .270/.320/.428 in 571 at bats and played solid defense, like one would expect from a defense-first utility player. His 2.2 WAR was 3rd on the team. He was a pleasant surprise, but one the Padres will gladly accept. The starting job is his for the foreseeable future, plus, he has a really cool name!
In summary, the Padres look to be slightly above average at catcher, improved at first base, second base, and third base, and hopefully shortstop too. They will likely be above league average at second base and third base, and hope that Wil Myers can at least provide league-average first base production. Ramirez will probably be a below-average shortstop, but the team is hoping that his offensive and defensive production will still be a significant improvement over their 2015 options. Most of the solutions quietly came from in house with the low-cost exception of Ramirez at shortstop (because the Padres needed *something* there). Outfield… well, that will be more of a challenge to resolve.

An Update on The A’s, Who Can’t Seem To Sit Still!

The A’s Movin’ and Shakin’

by Jim Silva

Well, what do you know – the A’s went and made some more moves before the season started. Yeah, not really a surprise. So let’s take a look at what the moves mean to the A’s 2016 lineup.

The Infield

    In an attempt to make it easier on the A’s PA announcer, Beane/Forst traded Bret Lawrie to the White Sox for two minor league pitchers. There is chatter that says Lawrie was moved because he was a negative clubhouse factor. That move leaves most of the infield picture settled, with Jed Lowrie at second, Marcus Semien at shortstop, and Danny Valencia at third. It isn’t a surprise that someone was moved. Once the A’s acquired Lowrie, the writing was on the wall for Lawrie or Valencia. Lowrie is a known commodity, whereas Lawrie still had some growth left – specifically power potential. It removes a lot of uncertainty in the infield in Oakland, but also means there won’t be much chance for anyone outperforming their projections at second base or third base.
    The other big move the A’s made actually complicates the first base situation even though it doesn’t involve an infielder. Oakland picked up Khris Davis from the Brewers of Milwaukee for two solid prospects – Jacob Nottingham, the catcher Oakland got in the Kazmir trade with the Astros, and Bubba Derby, a 6th round pick last year who put up gaudy strikeout numbers in the lower levels of the A’s farm system in 2015. Davis will be the everyday left-fielder, which will of course shake up the outfield situation – we will get to that in a bit. What it also does is mess with the first base situation. Mark Canha was likely to get a lot of time in left unless Coco Crisp made a remarkable recovery from his chronic neck ailments. Canha also plays first base, so what is likely to happen is that he and Yonder Alonso will fight for playing time. If Alonso suffers an injury and misses significant time (which is a thing for Alonso), then Canha takes over. It will be interesting to see what gets sorted out in spring training. The A’s have a glut of left-fielder/first baseman types who are big question marks. One thing that hasn’t changed is that the health of Coco Crisp, their highest paid player, will determine a lot of personnel moves.

The Outfield

    The acquisition of Khris Davis and his extraneous ‘h’ means that all the intrigue involving Jake Smolinski, and Andrew Lambo is virtually over. Davis hit 21 home runs in 259 plate appearances in the second half of the 2015 season making him the biggest power threat in the A’s lineup. The former Brewer has been an average, to slightly below average, defender in left field for the last three seasons with DRS (defensive runs saved) values of -2, 4, and -6 in 2013, 2014, and 2015. Last season he showed league-average range in left at 1.78 (the league average was 1.79). Davis put up much better walk totals last year than he had in the past, with 44 free passes in 440 plate appearances as opposed to his 2014 totals of 32 walks in 549 plate appearances. Davis swung less often than he had in the past, displaying improved plate discipline. His minor league record shows multiple seasons of OBP’s above .400, so maybe this is Davis finally making the adjustments to major league pitching, possibly explaining his breakout second half of 2015.
    Assuming Coco Crisp stays with the A’s, he will be fighting with Billy Butler for DH time, and with Lambo and Smolinski for an outfield reserve spot. Crisp can play centerfield, which neither Smolinski nor Lambo can manage. Coco can spell Burns in centerfield, or play there for an extended stretch if Burns can’t follow up his rookie breakout with another quality year. A healthy Crisp makes the A’s outfield much deeper, but it makes it unlikely that Smolinski and Lambo both make the team, unless the A’s manage to move Billy Butler or Coco Crisp. Crisp and Butler are owed a lot of money and had poor seasons last year, making a trade unlikely.
    On a sunnier note, Crisp being limited to fewer games in the outfield might mean he and his useful bat make it through the season, which would make the bench deeper. Last season the A’s gave Sam Fuld 325 plate appearances, even though his slash line was .197/.276/.293. Fuld is useful for his glove, but has lost all of his offensive value since coming to Oakland. He has put up back to back seasons with an OPS between .568 and .569 – not the kind of consistency you want from your fourth outfielder. He is the kind of guy you carry if you decide you have room for a 5th outfielder who is a glove-only option, and that doesn’t happen much these days as teams are more likely to carry 13 pitchers, and only 12 position players.

The Starting Rotation

    There is more to come for the A’s this off-season – probably in the next few days – because the A’s designated Sean Nolin for assignment. This means that they have to trade him within 10 days, or hope he clears waivers so they can send him down to AAA to start the season. The team is in this position because they needed to make room on the 40-man roster when they acquired Khris Davis. Nolin is too valuable a piece to just lose for nothing, so we have to assume the A’s have a deal in the works that involves the former Blue Jays’ starting pitcher. The only other possibility is that the A’s are hoping that his mediocre numbers in his six starts last season when he was called up, mixed with his lost time due to injury in 2015, will make teams leery about making a waiver claim on the 6’4” lefty. That seems like a really big gamble to take, so the only logical explanation is that the A’s will be trading him this week. If they were going to expose someone to a waiver claim without a deal in place, Felix Dubront or Aaron Brooks would be better candidates, since losing them wouldn’t represent a hit on the A’s future (or their present, for that matter).

What now?

The A’s got better for next season, this is certain. They just improved their offense, while giving back prospects, including Nottingham, who had just been named the 66th best prospect in baseball. It begs the question: what direction are the A’s going? Davis is under team control for the next four seasons, but that involves arbitration and possibly some huge raises – likely one of the reasons the A’s moved last season’s MVP Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays for prospects. Giving up Nottingham might have been the only way the A’s were going to nab a cleanup hitter without losing Franklin Barreto, their top prospect, or Sean Manea, their top pitching prospect. It isn’t what a rebuilding team does though. So do the A’s have enough to make a run in 2016? They have completely rebuilt their major league bullpen, and picked up a cleanup hitter while stabilizing their outfield picture for the next few seasons. They have improved their bench depth and are hoping for health to improve their starting rotation. They do not look like a rebuilding team because clearly they aren’t. This is what it looks like when a small-market team tries to assemble the best roster they can on a shoestring budget so that they can make a run if the pieces all fall into place. The A’s are unlikely to nab a playoff spot in 2016, but they have put themselves in a position to compete, and in poker parlance, they now have a chip and a chair – they are in the game.

The Rockies Infield in 2016: What? No Tulo?!

Infields of Gold
by Jim Silva

    At the start of last season, the Colorado Rockies had a chance to have three Gold Glove infielders playing at the same time. How often has that happened? More often than you’d think, actually. In fact, one example, the 1973 Orioles had three guys in their infield win it in the same year they played together. Brooks Robinson (3rd base), Mark Belanger (shortstop), and Bobby Grich (2nd base) all won the Gold Glove in 1973 playing for the Orioles – their centerfielder (Paul Blair) won it in 1973 also. Still, it is a cool thing to have, and not exactly common. The Rockies still have Gold Glove winners D.J. LeMahieu and Nolan Arenado, but are currently stuck with an extremely expensive albatross of a shortstop in Jose Reyes after trading away Troy Tulowitzki, the third member of the Rockies’ Gold Glove infielder’s club. Until last season, Reyes had been a reliable 2.0 to 4.0 WAR producer, mainly because of his bat. The last time he picked up at least 1.0 defensive WAR was in 2007 when he was 24. Using DRS (defensive runs saved), Reyes has cost his team between 4 and 16 runs a season every year since 2010, including eight runs last season in 116 games. It was widely speculated that when the Blue Jays included him in the Tulowitzki trade, the Rockies would turn around and trade him for more prospects since the Rockies are rebuilding and have no desire to keep a declining player who is making $22 million a year. That curiously didn’t happen, creating speculation that the Colorado management didn’t have a cohesive plan. The situation darkened when Reyes made comments indicating that he had no interest in playing for the Rockies, and then was accused of domestic abuse during this off-season, making him about the least tradable player in all of baseball. He goes to trial in April. The Rockies had weakened arguably their greatest strength in an attempt to acquire prospects and undoubtedly thought they could move Reyes. Maybe it will work out for them, but sadly the best outcome might be for Reyes to be suspended for a good chunk of the season saving the Rockies part of the $22 million they owe him in 2016.
    In the meantime, the Rockies are drooling over their shortstop of the future, Brendan Rogers, their first round pick in last year’s draft who has already risen to the 20th spot in all of baseball on BP’s top 101 prospect rankings for 2016. As if Rogers wasn’t exciting enough, they have another young shortstop, who is much closer than Rogers to being ready for the majors, in Trevor Story. Story repeated AA last season and spent a half season in AAA showing a solid glove, good range, and donating 20 baseballs to fans watching him from the outfield seats. Story’s slash line was .279/.350/.514 between his two stops in the minors in 2015. Half of that was accomplished in the hitter’s paradise of the Pacific Coast League, but for a shortstop who has a solid arm and solid range and is only 23, that is something to be excited about. In spite of Story’s power and speed – he is also a high percentage base-stealer (probably a great cook too!) – he is considered somewhat of a disappointment with the bat because of his poor strike zone judgment. The shortstop struck out 141 times last season in 512 at-bats, which was a solid improvement from 2014 when he struck out 144 times in only 396 at-bats. 2013 was even worse – he struck out an earth-shattering 183 times in 497 at-bats at the high A level. Story walked 60 and 51 times respectively in 2014 and 2015 so it isn’t all bad news, but nobody can strike out that often in the minors and claim to be ready for the better pitching at the major league level. Good news – Story repeated high A and improved dramatically, then did the same with AA, so he is capable of great growth. That’s good news for the Rockies, who are currently stuck with Jose Reyes through the 2017 season (there is a $4,000,000 buyout for 2018) unless he can regain value this season and get himself traded. If Reyes stays with the Rockies through 2016, Story has a little time to repeat AAA and nail it like he has done in the past with lower levels. Rodgers spent his first season collecting a baseball paycheck last year in the Pioneer League, so Story likely has a couple/three seasons to establish himself before being caught from behind, if the Rockies give him a chance. If Reyes gets suspended for a long stretch, then put your money on Story to get his chance.
    DJ LeMahieu was Tulo’s full-time keystone partner for the last three seasons and collected the aforementioned Gold Glove in 2014. DJ saved the Rockies 17 runs that year at second base, but dropped off to 3 runs saved last season – still solid. What he did for the first time last season was contribute with the stick, creating 75 runs, 28 more than his previous high RC. LeMahieu was good for 2.0 offensive WAR and 2.3 WAR overall – his first season above 2.0 (1.4, 1.2, and 1.5 in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively). His slash line of .301/.358/.388 is good work for a slick-fielding second baseman. If he can repeat those numbers, or continue to improve (he is 27) then he might continue to make the All Star Game like he did for the first time in 2015.
    The beast at 3rd base, Nolan Arenado, won his first Fielding Bible Award – oh – and his third Gold Glove in his third season in the majors in 2015. Arenado has saved 64 runs in those three seasons besting Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre, and Kyle Seager for total runs saved since 2013. Those guys won the last three Fielding Bible Awards and/or Gold Gloves. Arenado has range and a cannon for an arm, and great feet to set up every play. He also is willing to give up his body as evidenced by a couple scary forays into the stands making catches on foul pops last season. “Sharknado” put up 5.8 worth of WAR with a huge breakout year. His glove is old hat by now, but he finally hit the way the Rockies have been expecting. Arenado led the league in home runs with 42, RBI with 130, and total bases with 354, posting a slash line of .287/.323/.575 (an OPS of .898) and finishing 8th in MVP balloting. His first half was a little better than his second half (.926 OPS versus .866 OPS) but he was generally consistent from start to finish. Arenado has established himself as the star of the Rockies, and remember he is only 24, so he is here to stay.
    It used to be that every year you could just write Todd Helton’s name into the first base spot and be done with it.  Since 2011, the last season Helton put up numbers worthy of a starter, the Rockies have been doing a lot of mixing and matching of first basemen. Only Justin Morneau’s 3.2 WAR 2014 could be considered a big success. Next season looks to be another season of mixing and matching at first with the Rockies trying to decide between Ben Paulsen, Mark Reynolds, and Carlos Gonzalez, who has never played first base in the professional ball.
    Paulsen played 91 of his 116 games at first last season, but didn’t nail down the job. Ben was flat neutral as a defender at first, not saving or costing the Rockies even a tenth of a run, so it was up to his bat to swing the scale one way or the other. Paulsen was a 3rd round pick in 2009 and hit some in the minors, but that’s the problem – “some” just isn’t enough for first base. He accrued 0.8 WAR over the course of 116 games and 354 plate appearances in 2015, so he helped the Rockies win – kind of. The rule of thumb when using WAR is that 2.0 WAR is the mark of a starter and anything lower is bench player. Trying to extrapolate Paulsen’s WAR to a full season still has him falling short of the mark and based on his minor league numbers, what you see is pretty much what you get. His average, slugging, and on-base percentage marks last season were in line with what he’d done in the minors, and he is 28, so expecting much growth means you are a hopeless Rockies fan.
    The Rockies signed Mark Reynolds in December to compete for the first base spot, or get work as the corner infield backup man. Reynolds played mainly at first for the Cardinals last season, but also got on the field at 2nd, 3rd, and in the outfield. Reynolds is a masher who strikes out at often-historical rates – he holds the mark for strikeouts in a single season with 223 in 2009. He is also 4th, 7th, and 14th on the single season strikeout list. He is really good at striking out! He is also quite good at hitting home runs having notched seasons of 32, 37, and 44 along with four 20-plus seasons. So are all the long balls worth all the wind Reynolds stirs up around home plate? Part of the problem is that Reynolds registers all those strikeouts without accruing a decent number of walks to offset them. If he managed to pick up 80 walks to go with the home runs and whiffs (like he did in the middle of his career) then he would be a much more valuable player. As it is, his on-base percentages over the last three seasons have been .306, .287, and .315 which means dude is creating outs by the truckload. All those outs drag down his offensive value to the point where it is questionable whether you want him taking up a spot on your 25 man roster. Since 2010, Reynolds has been in the red for defensive runs saved every season but one – he saved six runs in 2014. So you can’t keep him around for his glove either, not that the Rockies are thinking that. If he gets regular playing time, Reynolds will hit home runs in Coors Field, of this there is no doubt. He will also strike out by the bushel and his glove will be no better than mediocre. The temptation for the Rockies will be to run him out there so fans can get excited by his moon shots, but he will likely be a sub 1.0 WAR guy like he has been every year since he registered 1.2 WAR in 2012.
    This off-season there has been talk of moving Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies power-hitting left-fielder, to first to save his body some of the wear and tear that has put him on the disabled list enough in 2013 and 2014 to limit to 180 games played between the two seasons. Even at the start of last season Cargo’s balky knee was making him look old and limited and then he started to feel better and crushed the ball the rest of the way. The Rockies still might trade their expensive superstar, but if they don’t, they need to find a way to get him in the lineup as often as possible. A move to first base, where they don’t have an obvious solution, makes a lot of sense. Gonzalez is only 30 so he should have more 30+ homer seasons in the tank (40 last season). There is a cost to moving an outfielder with three Gold Gloves to the infield, but are the Gold Gloves legitimate? Gonzalez saved the Rockies five runs last year – not bad. Interestingly, his Runs Saved (RS) numbers have never supported his Gold Glove awards – not even once. He won the award in 2010, 2012, and 2013. His RS numbers in those years were 1, -13, and 11 respectively. Obviously the 2010 and 2012 numbers aren’t worth discussing – he clearly wasn’t the best defensive left-fielder in the National League. The 2013 numbers are good, but Starling Marte saved 24 runs that season significantly besting Gonzalez. It’s fair to say that Cargo is a decent left-fielder, but moving him away from left is not cause for the wringing of hands. Will playing first base help keep Gonzalez off the disabled list? It’s possible. Is it worth the gamble? Well, from an infield standpoint, it is hard to say how his glove will hold up, but assuming he is invested in learning the position, it is hard to believe that he wouldn’t be a huge upgrade over what the Rockies would otherwise run out there. It isn’t a straight math problem where you compare the options at first to the options in left and compare their numbers. If the Rockies get 200 more plate appearances out of Cargo by moving him to the infield then it is almost assuredly worth it. We will explore the question further when I write about the outfield situation next week.

An Analysis of the 2016 Oakland A’s

Elephantine Expectations
by Jim Silva
    The A’s first came into existence in the American League in 1901 in Philadelphia as the Athletics. That first A’s team was managed by Cornelius Alexander McGillicuddy (Connie Mack), who was also part owner, in his first year back in the manager’s seat after five years away from the dugout. Mack had been a player-manager for Philadelphia’s NL team until 1896. Under Mack the A’s won the World Series five times in eight tries. He managed the A’s through the 1950 season. The A’s moved to Kansas City for the 1955 season under new ownership and never finished higher than 6th in their 13 years there. They were sold and moved again with Charles Finley taking them to Oakland where their fortunes quickly changed. They managed their first winning season since 1949 in their first season in Oakland – 1967, then won the AL West five years in a row starting with the 1971 season. The A’s won the World Series three years in a row from 1972 through 1974. They appeared in the World Series three seasons in a row, 1988, 1989, and 1990, winning the middle one after a massive earthquake delayed the  Bay Area series against the San Francisco Giants for several days. They have won the West seven times since that last World Series appearance, but haven’t made it back to the big stage since 1990. So will this be the year the A’s break their World Series drought?
Standing Behind The Dish

    In the 2014 play-in game versus the Royals, Oakland’s lack of a catcher who could throw was grossly exposed when KC stole seven bases against them, while only being caught one time. There was some bad luck involved as the A’s started Geovany Soto, a late season acquisition, who actually throws well. A thumb injury took Soto out of the game in the 3rd inning, and the Royals ran like bunnies all over Derek Norris and to be fair, Jon Lester. The A’s started 2015 with two catchers – one acquired in a trade – both of whom could hit a bit. But had they broken the pattern of using catchers who would be exposed by a team willing to steal?
    The A’s shipped Derek Norris to the Padres before last season after picking up Josh Phegley in the Jeff Samardzija/Marcus Semien deal. Norris had a 3.0 WAR season (his best) for Oakland in 2014. He had always been about league average in his ability to cut down base stealers with two seasons in a row at 26%. 2014 saw that number drop to 17%, 10 points below league average. For comparison, Soto threw out 53% of the runners who attempted to steal off of him in his short stint with the A’s, and the A’s only other catcher in 2014, John Jaso, threw out 11%. Jaso is a special case as he regularly has one of the slowest pop times – the time it takes a catcher to get rid of his throw during a steal attempt – in the majors. Jaso should be a designated hitter and emergency catcher at this stage in his career.
    In 2015 the A’s put Stephen Vogt behind the dish 100 times, and Josh Phegley, their acquisition from the White Sox, 68 times. Vogt, who was more of an emergency catcher in 2014 getting into 15 games at catcher and throwing out the only three runners who tried to steal on him, threw out a league average 32% of the base runners who attempted steals in 2015. Phegley was even better at 39%, 7% points above league average, although Phegley doesn’t frame pitches well and cost his staff just over 6 runs last season in that department. He is an average pitch blocker though, and has a strong arm, so defensively he isn’t too far below average when you put the whole package together. Vogt is a worse pitch framer than Phegley, costing the A’s just over 10 runs in lost strike calls last season. His overall defensive package is uglier than Phegley’s and he is truly a “bat first” catcher. The A’s are likely to stick with the same pair next season because Vogt put together a 3.5 WAR season, including a 114 park adjusted OPS. Phegley had a .749 OPS, including 9 homers, in roughly half a season of work – 243 plate appearances for 1.6 WAR. Granted, some of Vogt’s WAR was accumulated at other positions – first base, left field, and DH, but working more than 4.0 WAR out of your catcher spot is impressive. The A’s catching may have been the most successful non-pitching position in 2015 due to their offensive prowess, but Vogt and Phegley hurt the A’s pitchers by costing them strikes. Of further concern is that Vogt’s first and second half splits don’t bode well for 2016 as his OPS dropped 242 points from .872 before the All Star break, to .630 after the All Star break. Phegley dropped off a bit too, but nothing like what Vogt experienced.
    There isn’t anyone pushing from the minors quite yet. The A’s actually signed two minor league free agents to catch at the upper levels last season. Their highest level minor league catcher who is a bona fide prospect is Jacob Nottingham, who came over in the Kazmir trade from Houston. He showed great growth last season as a hitter clubbing 17 home runs with three teams and compiling a .316/.372/.505 slash line while reaching high-A as a 20 year old. He is a real catcher whose bat is ahead of his catching mechanics. He is a couple seasons away, so the A’s will need to work with their decent catching core until Nottingham is ready. Catchers get banged up, but while the A’s for Nottingham to be done cooking, if the duo of Phegley and Vogt comes back healthy, the A’s should experience solid performance from an offensive standpoint. If that ever changes the A’s will have to make a move because their catching tandem isn’t cutting it behind the plate.

How Many Holes Does It Take to Fill The A’s Infield? (Apologies to the Beatles)

    Last season, Billy Beane made moves intended to fill some of the recurring holes in the A’s infield. He picked up Marcus Semien and named him starting shortstop. He swapped his budding superstar third baseman, Josh Donaldson, for someone else’s former budding star third baseman, Brett Lawrie, and acquired a potential star shortstop (Franklin Barreto) in the process. He acquired a former future star first baseman (Ike Davis) and traded for a second baseman/really cool pocket knife, Ben Zobrist. That’s quite a remake/remodel season and that’s only the infielders! The trades were more complicated than what you see above, with some pitchers coming back and other pieces leaving, but the common theme was that Beane was trying to rebuild without completely starting over. He wanted to beef up his depleted minor league system (from his all-in attempts to win the 2014 World Series) while still competing – which meant adding major league parts. When you try to do two things at once with a trade, you tend to end up doing each thing less effectively than if you focus on one thing at a time, but that’s a topic for a whole different article. This section looks at the A’s infield last season, and what the plan is for next season.
    In early April, the A’s starting infield looked like it would be Ike Davis at first, Ben Zobrist at second, Marcus Semien at short, and Bret Lawrie at third. That was the plan anyway. Unfortunately, Davis was injured or ineffective for most of the season, Zobrist was also out for several weeks after getting off to a slow start – still solid numbers which got better after his return – and then was traded to the Royals when the A’s were clearly out of it. Semien was a nightmare defender for the first half of the season, but with the help of coach, Ron Washington, seemed to right the ship during the second half. Lawrie stayed healthy for the first time in a while and put up his worst offensive and defensive season so far in his short career. All in all it was a train wreck for anyone who played on the dirt part of the field for the A’s. Changes started happening during the second half, and have continued into the off-season.
    In 2015, the A’s used the first base spot like many teams use the DH spot – stick some guy in there who can’t play anywhere else and hope he hits enough to carry the position. They’ve just never really found a starting first baseman. Ike Davis, who looked like he would be the starter when 2015 began, was just released after a season where injuries and performance limited him to 239 plate appearances. He slugged .350 with a park adjusted OPS of 79. So the A’s have moved on, making a trade for oft-injured first baseman, Yonder Alonso. The Padres kept hoping Alonso would turn into Mark Grace or something even better, but he is now 28 years old and has yet to break the .400 mark (in a season with at least 100 plate appearances) with his slugging percentage. Alonso does have value; last season he showed what he could do with 400 plate appearances at this stage in his career. He got on base at a .361 clip, which is in line with his career numbers, and would have led the A’s in that category last season. He rarely makes errors at first base and bounces above and below league average with his range factor. It appeared that he would be a doubles machine after he hit 39 in his first full season with the Padres, but he has yet to break 20 since then, partly due to his inability to avoid injury and partly due to an apparent lack of power. Still, nobody would be shocked if Alonso managed 30 doubles assuming he managed to get to the plate 600 times. Alonso is a lefty, but fares decently against same-side pitchers with a career .313 OBP against port-siders, so he doesn’t have to be platooned. He could be a starting first baseman if his body can hold up. That is a huge if, but he only made $1.65 million last year, so whatever the A’s can get out of him should be a bargain as they wait for one of their best prospects, Matt Olson. If Alonso goes down, then the A’s must move Mark Canha back to first base from left field, assuming he isn’t already involved in some kind of platoon with Alonso. Canha was a rule five pick from the Marlins by the Rockies, who then traded him to the A’s. He played left field and first base for the A’s, and I discuss his numbers in the outfield section of this analysis.
    Ben Zobrist looked like he would be an upgrade at second for the A’s last year when they traded for him last off-season, and he was indeed – particularly in the second half. But when the A’s faded from contention, they shipped him to KC. After the move, Oakland experimented with Bret Lawrie at second where he did better than at third. Going into the off-season, Lawrie appeared to be the front runner for the starting job at second. He is an offensive upgrade over Eric Sogard but he isn’t the gloveman that Sogard has been over the years. Still, Lawrie’s promise of power gives him the nod, or it did until they traded for Jed Lowrie. Jed’s second stint with the A’s means they currently have three viable options to play two spots – second and third. There are trade rumors about the other two guys – Danny Valencia and Bret Lawrie so stay tuned.
    Jed Lowrie is likely a half season rental who will be flipped by the trade deadline for a prospect. Beane and Forst have done this before – most recently with Zobrist – and it is a good strategy. That means Lowrie will get playing time so that his value doesn’t decline. It is hard to say what Jed is these days. He has a reputation as a middle infielder with pop who doesn’t have the range to play short, and is, at best, an average defender at second and third. If the A’s plan on giving him a position and not moving him around (as per his request) then second is likely the spot, regardless of whether they trade Lawrie or Valencia. He will hit doubles and maybe reach double figures in home runs, and walk enough to get on base at around a .330 clip – not bad.
    If the A’s keep Lowrie, Lawrie, AND Valencia, then Lawrie or Lowrie could move between the two spots while Valencia holds down third base (and the A’s need to figure out a way to sign Peter Lorre to announce home games even if he IS dead). Valencia had a breakout year and was waived by the Blue Jays, allowing Oakland to claim him and make him the starting third baseman. It is pretty rare to waive someone with an OPS of .838 but the Jays did it with Valencia, and the A’s pounced. For the season, Valencia posted an .864 OPS and a park adjusted OPS of 140. His glove was sound if unspectacular as his range factor was slightly above league average at third, as was his fielding percentage. Valencia was 30, so this could be late development or an outlier although his batting average on balls in play with Oakland – .308 – was in line with his career total – .305. His value has never been higher, and Lawrie’s has never been lower, so if the A’s are going to move one of them for prospects it should be Valencia. That said, if the growth is real they have a considerable upgrade at third and possibly at second depending on your view of Bret Lawrie.
    The talk about Lawrie when he was traded to Oakland was that he would shine, if only he could stay healthy, and getting him off the artificial grass in Toronto would accomplish that – at least Lawrie was counting on that. It seems that the latter was correct even if the former turned out to be untrue. Lawrie was pretty awful, most definitely not providing the kind of offense expected of a third baseman in this era. It appears that part of the blame fell on his lack of selectivity. He was actually more selective as a 22 year-old when he struck out 86 times in 536 plate appearances and walked 33 times. Lasts season his strikeouts jumped to 144 in 602 plate appearances and his walks dropped to 28. His power numbers look pretty consistent over the last  four seasons with slugging percentages between .397 and .421 (.407 last season), but he just makes too many outs. It’s hard to see him actually regaining control of the strike zone, because his grasp of it has always been pretty tenuous. In the minors, his highest walk total was 47 (AA as a 20 year-old), and the increase in strikeouts is a concern. His OBP has dropped every year in the majors and is now right around .300.
    When the A’s traded Jeff Samardzija for a package that included Marcus Semien, the hope was that Semien would be the long term solution to the A’s shortstop woes. This was based more on his ability with the bat, and projection, than on his ability with the glove. Most of his experience in the field has been at second base in the majors although he has played second, short, and third in the minors. In the field it didn’t start well – his overall fielding percentage was well below league average – but that was mostly based on his god-awful first half. His range was about league average, if slightly below. His bat, though – 45 extra base hits, including 15 home runs, from your 24 year-old shortstop, and an OPS of .715 (park adjusted OPS of 95, so slightly below league average for all hitters) is worth being patient for. Speaking of patience, that’s a place where Semien needs to grow. His ratio of strikeouts to walks was 132 to 42, which pretty much matches his last partial season in Chicago. There is evidence of good strike zone judgment in his not-too-distant past. In his last full season in the minors he struck out 90 times while walking 92 times – numbers close to that, along with a slight bump in power would make him a star (assuming he holds on to the defensive gains he made under coach, Ron Washington’s tutoring). Wash talked about Semien’s transformation in an article by Kristina Kahrl, stating how smart he was and how eager to learn. According to Washington, Semien put in a lot of extra work on the mechanics of the position and most observers would agree that the improvement has been tremendous, not to say that he is a wizard with the glove quite yet. The main complaint is arm strength, but under Washington’s tutoring the young shortstop has cleaned up the mechanics of his throw in an effort to maximize what arm he has.
    The bottom line is that what Beane did last year didn’t work completely, but with some tinkering the hardest part looks like it may be working – Semien at short. With three pieces, plus Sogard as a backup, second and third base will likely be an upgrade from where the team started last year. Even first base will be improved even if Alonso is just a place holder. Overall, the A’s infield should be much less scary this season.

The A’s Outfield Problem (or Coco Burns My Mouth)

    The A’s have a number of players on their 40 man roster who might be considered options to play the outfield next year. Two of them have locked down starting jobs based on their ability and should be out there at the start of next season. Billy Burns took the centerfield job and had a surprisingly good year cranking out 2.8 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and was a .298 hitter when you adjust his raw batting average for park effects. Most of his WAR was earned at the plate but he is an adequate centerfielder. If he can sustain last season’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) of .339 and increase his on-base percentage from last season’s .334 to .350 or higher  – and based on his minor league stats that might happen – then he is a legitimate leadoff hitter. It would be hard to displace him unless he regresses as there are many teams in need of guys who can get on base. In right field, the A’s have a resurgent Josh Reddick. Reddick battled injuries two seasons in a row, but stayed on the field long enough last season (149 games) to post a 3.5 WAR season, while posting a slash line of .272/.333/.449 and a park adjusted on base percentage of 113. He even stole 10 of the 12 bases he tried to pilfer. He has cut his strikeout percentage each of the last three seasons dropping from 22.4% to 11.2% – cutting it exactly in half. Last season his walk rate increased a bit and seems to have stabilized around 8%. Reddick has a reputation for having a cannon in right which might explain why his assists have dropped off from 15 to 6 since his gold glove 2012 season. Base runners seemed to have learned that he has a strong, accurate arm and have stopped trying to take an extra base on him.
    This leaves left field – oh, left field – where currently the starter is Coco Crisp. When Coco is healthy, he delivers speed and some pop to the A’s lineup while playing a solid left field. The problem is that Coco is not likely to be healthy enough to play baseball every day ever again. Chronic neck problems have brought him down each of the last two seasons after a 2013 season where he racked up 4.1 WAR. It isn’t just age – Crisp is 36 – as the outfielder is always trim and in shape. It is extremely unlikely that he will ever put up a 4.0 WAR season again, and even expecting a 2.0 WAR season out of him falls into the category of wish-casting. This is not an attack on Coco – he is a minor star when he is healthy – but chronic neck problems can be debilitating. So if the A’s are counting on Crisp to start 140+ games then they will likely be disappointed. The big problem with waiting around to see how Coco’s neck fares is that Crisp is the highest paid player on the A’s by a lot, making $11 million last season, and under contract for 2016 at the same $11 million. The A’s have a buyout option for $750 thousand with Crisp holding a vesting option based on games played and/or plate appearances in 2015/2016. So the A’s are stuck with him, and I hesitate to say it like that because he is a great guy to have on the team from all accounts. But a disabling injury doesn’t care how you treat the rookies or how early you show up to take extra fly balls. The A’s are in some kind of rebuild, so ideally you would get Coco off to a hot start and trade him, but I doubt he would pass the physical if traded, not to mention the contract burden someone would have to take on. Complicating or simplifying the A’s problem is a lack of a proven option.
    The A’s have plenty of bench guys who can play the outfield, and a few unknowns. Jake Smolinski (for example) is 26 and has the wee total of 84 at-bats that say he can hit in the majors (with Texas in 2014). His minor league career stats don’t show him as a guy about to break out, although his last 150 at bats in the minors made him look pretty Ruthian. He is unlikely to be a star, but might be a stopgap for the A’s if they could somehow move Crisp. His projections have him as .250 hitter with around 10 homers in a bit more than half of a season. I think the A’s would be happy to get a .730 OPS (on-base plus slugging) out of him in a full season with 15 to 20 homers (which might be a stretch). Crisp’s neck might force the issue, but I think Billy Beane should work hard to move Crisp for anything they can get. This would allow the A’s to save the money, or at least a good chunk of the money, and try out some guys who are 10 years younger than Coco who could provide some upside instead of only providing decline years.
    Another direction the A’s could go would be to move Mark Canha to left field opening up an even bigger hole at first. Canha played slight above replacement level baseball with some streaks of power and a solid-average glove in both left and at first. Canha had a park adjusted OPS of 102 and a slash line of .254/.315/.426 hitting 16 homers and stealing seven bases in nine tries. He isn’t going to make errors at either position, but his range numbers weren’t great – so basically he catches what he gets to. He was not a championship player last season, but it was his first try at regular playing time and his minor league numbers say he might have a little more pop and some more walks to give. If he does, that makes him a solid starter, but not a star. Right now, the A’s are short a few solid starters, so some growth from Canha would get him another 150 plate appearances. The problem with moving Canha off of first is that it makes Ike Davis the starting first baseman. It was a good gamble for the A’s to pick up Davis last year but it just didn’t pan out. You would expect him to miss time, which he did, but you’d also expect him to hit for power and get on base, which he didn’t.
    A somewhat wild long-shot option, and probably their best option assuming Billy Beane is in rebuilding mode, would be to try Andrew Lambo in left. Lambo was claimed off waivers from the Pirates this offseason. He has hit with excellent power and gotten on base at AA and AAA, but in his 99 plate appearances has looked overmatched at the major league level. He is a 27 year old lefty who has more power against righties, but he has improved at each level against lefties – at least in terms of hitting for average. Mainly, injuries have stopped him from getting an extended try in the majors. Lambo actually has some minor star potential if he can make some adjustments to major league pitching and stay healthy. Granted, that is saying a lot, but Lambo has a short, quick swing and generates a lot of power with it. As an essentially free player, it would be wise of the A’s to give him every chance to prove himself in the majors. There is some potential for a SmoIinski/Lambo platoon since Smolinski has had some pretty impressive lefty mashing splits, especially last season in AAA.
    It will be interesting to see what Beane and Forst do to assemble a squad for 2016. He has a few tough moves to make, but in the end it will likely be a rough season for the A’s as they build for the future. They should go all in and ride some of their intriguing gambles until they prove that they can or can’t play. Lambo, Canha, and Smolinski need extended playing time if the A’s are to capitalize on Beane’s gambles in acquiring free talent. Maybe the next Brandon Moss is already on the roster!

Designated to What?

    If you’ve ever tasted durian, a foul-smelling tropical fruit considered a delicacy in some countries in Asia, then you know what taste A’s fans had in their collective mouth last season every time the DH spot came to bat. After the 2014 season, the A’s signed Billy Butler to be their full-time DH for three seasons at the cost of $30 million. Butler was coming off two sub-par seasons in a row (1.5 WAR and -0.3 WAR), but is durable, and at 28 looked like he was capable of a rebound. Between 2009 and 2012, Butler logged OBP’s no lower than .361 and slugged between .461 and .510. In his All Star season of 2012, Butler showed the power everyone had been expecting from him, hitting 29 home runs. Butler had hit, but keep the man away from the glove safe because he is likely to hurt someone. “Country Breakfast” has never had a dWAR higher than -1.2 in any full season at first base. Yes, you read that right – negative 1.2. Nevertheless, it looked like a decent gamble by A’s GM, Billy Beane, albeit a somewhat expensive one.
    Butler showed his usual durability appearing in 151 games – 136 at DH and 7 at first base – and came to bat 601 times in 2015. Nobody expected Butler to accumulate any dWAR (a measure of how much better a defender is than a replacement level player – think of that guy who is up and down all season between AAA and the majors), and he didn’t, but they expected better than the -0.6 oWAR (the same measure for hitters) that Butler posted last season. He actually cost the A’s wins by running out there to the batter’s box every day. For comparison, the average DH in the AL last season posted the following slash line – a .259 batting average/a .333 on base percentage/and a .439 slugging percentage. That includes everyone who occupied the DH spot all season. Butler’s slash line was .251/.323/.390 putting him well below average at the position he was best suited for at a cost of approximately $7.66 million if you count his contract buyout from the Royals.
    But that is all water under the bridge. 2016 is a new season and Butler will make $11.667 million this year. So what can the A’s expect from him? Baseballreference.com projects him to hit at a slightly improved .265/.334/.399 clip, leaving him short of league average again. His glove isn’t going to turn into an asset, so unless Butler significantly beats his projections the A’s will be losing ground every time he steps to the plate. Butler’s cost means the A’s are likely to give him every chance to recapture his past where he was a 2.2-3.2 WAR player instead of his current negative WAR self. If the A’s decide to trade him and somebody bites, then the A’s might be able to use the spot to keep Coco Crisp rested and somewhat healthy or give at-bats to Jake Smolinski, Andrew Lambo, and Max Muncy to see if any of their bats are worthy of hanging onto when they are competitive again. All three need playing time to see if they have any value, and considering what Butler has become, what would be the risk of opening up the DH spot to the youngsters?

Pitching a Fit

    Oakland went into spring training looking like their starting rotation was deeper than about any other team in baseball. Things didn’t work out as planned even though the A’s didn’t trade away any starters. To understand how this all unfolded, let’s take the Way-Back Machine to 2013. That was the season the A’s only had seven different pitchers standing on the mound when the ump cried out, “Play ball!”, and five of those pitchers made 26 starts or more – that is some serious stability in a rotation. Additionally, no reliever pitched more than their closer, Grant Balfour’s 69.0 innings. The stability of the 2013 rotation protected the bullpen with good results. They were counting on similar magic to compete in 2014.

Pitcher
Starts
Innings Pitched
A. J. Griffin
32
200.0
Jarrod Parker
32
197.0
Bartolo Colon
30
190.1
Tommy Milone
26
156.1
Dan Straily
27
152.1
Sonny Gray
10
64.0
Brett Anderson
5
44.2

    At the start of spring training 2014, here is what the rotation looked like it would be for the A’s: A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker, Scott Kazmir, Dan Straily, Tommy Milone, Sonny Gray (not listed in a particular order). Jesse Chavez was another possibility, but he was likely earmarked for the pen because of the depth of the rotation, and because he is a versatile arm who can start or relieve. The dominos started to crash down during spring training with both Griffin and Parker tearing their UCLs and heading into the operating room for brand new elbows – out for the season. Straily was a hot mess with a FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching – how he REALLY pitched independent of the quality of the defense around him and the park) of 5.66, and only made seven starts (allowing 2.1 home runs per 9 innings), spending most of the season in the minors trying to recapture his game from the previous season. Sonny Gray blossomed (33 starts, 219.0 innings pitched, with a FIP of 3.46) as a 24 year old in his first full season in the majors. Jesse Chavez was a revelation as a 30 year old, throwing in 21 starts (17 more than his career total) and posting a FIP of 3.89. Kazmir continued his re-emergence with 32 starts and a FIP of 3.35 in 190.1 innings. Malone was a stabilizing force supplying league average innings making 16 starts with a 4.42 FIP, which, for a team battling injuries, was life-saving. Drew Pomeranz, acquired before the season in a trade for Bret Anderson, started in the pen but then chipped in with 10 starts before breaking his pitching hand punching a solid object in a fit of frustration. In those 10 starts, he held opponents to a paltry .590 OPS.
    The A’s, in spite of a lot of lost innings pitched, due to injuries, got off to an amazing start but were fading hard when Billy Beane traded for Jason Hammels, Jon Lester, and Jeff Samardzija. It looked like the A’s were buying insurance for their already strong starting pitching, but Beane knew the A’s rotation was starting to come back down to Earth just as the Angels were soaring, and a lack of action would leave them out of the playoffs. By the end of the season, the rotation was Lester, Gray, Samardzija, Kazmir, and Hammels, – quite a different look from what was expected when spring training started. Looking at it out of the corner of your good eye, the 2014 rotation was stable in its own weird way – at least in the first four spots.

Rotation Spots
Pitchers
Dates
Starts
Totals
1
Gray
Full Season
33
33
2
Kazmir
Full Season
32
32
3
Chavez/Lester
Start of season to July 28th/August 2nd to end of season
21/11
32
4
Milone/Samardzija
Start of season to July 4th/July 6th to end of season
16/16
32

    The 5th spot in the rotation was reasonably stable for the 5th spot with Jason Hammels taking the ball 12 times after his arrival with Lester after Pomeranz covered 10 starts before that. Looking forward, the A’s knew that Lester, Samardizja, and Hammels were likely to leave before the next season, and indeed that’s what happened.
    So what would the 2015 A’s rotation look like? Oakland was hoping for more of the same from Gray and Kazmir at the head of their rotation, but what about the rest of their starters? There was no way they could expect the same kind of stability from 2013 – or likely the bifurcated stability they got from trades in 2014. They were hoping to get Griffin and Parker back at mid-season, so there was a lot of uncertainty. Pomeranz did well as a starter and better out of the pen in 2014, but they were counting on him in the rotation because they didn’t have their accustomed rotation depth. Pomeranz lasted until the end of May until he was sent back to the pen for the rest of the season. His work as a starter included an OPS of .707, a 4.63 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.299, while his numbers as a reliever were an OPS of .587, and ERA of 2.61 (2 runs lower), and a WHIP of 1.065. His peripherals also indicated that he was better suited to relief work as his strikeout rate jumped from 7.3 per 9 innings as a starter, to 10.0 as a reliever. Chavez was back, and began the season in the pen, but by the 23rd of April he was solidly in the rotation and remained there almost exclusively for the rest of the season. The 2002 42nd round pick managed his best season, putting up 1.6 WAR over 157.0 innings with 26 starts and a FIP of 3.85.
    The A’s had also acquired young pitching in a couple of big trades including Jesse Hahn from the Padres and Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin from the Blue Jays. For the A’s to succeed in 2015 they would need help from some or all of their new, young starters. Hahn made the rotation out of spring training and managed 16 starts before going down for the rest of the season with an arm injury. His 3.51 FIP, 1.16 WHIP and 1.0 WAR in half a season of work made him one of the A’s best starters in the first half. The forearm injury that sent him to the DL turned into an elbow issue that didn’t require surgery but kept him out the rest of the season. Graveman was up and down both literally and figuratively. He won a spot in the rotation during spring training but only held onto it for a bit before being shipped out to AAA to find himself. When he came back he looked good the rest of the first half with a May ERA of 2.31 (only two starts), and a June ERA of 1.93 (six starts). The second half looked a lot like his first few starts and his ERA blew up – July’s ERA of 4.85 (5 starts), and August’s ERA of 5.03. He was shut down for the season with a non-arm injury after that fourth start in July, but overall it wasn’t a bad first full season for the rookie pitcher. Nolin, looked liked the better acquisition when he came over from the Jays with Graveman but struggled with injuries shortening his minor league season. When he regained his health and arrived in the majors he was ineffective allowing a WHIP of 1.621 and a FIP of 5.13. Still his numbers at Nashville indicate promise so the A’s will give him more chances to succeed. He needs a stretch of health for his talent to translate into a career.
    6’5 righty, Chris Bassitt, acquired in the Samardzija trade, got his first real exposure to the majors, adding 13 starts to the mix. Bassitt looked like a slightly better than league average pitcher posting 1.2 WAR and keeping his ERA to 3.79. Due possibly to his unconventional motion, the right-hander maintained a reverse split holding lefties to a .217 average, while allowing righties to reach at a .279 clip. He also managed to keep the ball in the park better than other A’s starters, limiting batters to 0.5 home runs every 9 innings. In all, 13 pitchers started games for Oakland over the course of the A’s 2015 season – quite different from the 7 starters of 2013. For 2016 to be a growth season for the A’s, they need to find that stability from 2013, or at least make changes based on good looks at young pitchers rather than medical urgency.
    For the A’s to compete in 2016, they must have a solid, stable group of starters behind Sonny Gray. Losing Kazmir and Chavez to trade means that they have to find 48 starts somewhere else. This spring the A’s signed Rich Hill who they are hoping will compete for the 2nd spot in the rotation. If Hill manages the 32 starts he and the A’s are hoping for, then he will  be one of 2016’s biggest surprises. He has had a hard time staying healthy and his 1.6 WAR season in 2015 in only four starts should be considered not so much a fluke as a demonstration of Hill’s talent mixed with a short string of health. Here is the first line of his Baseball Prospectus comment in the “Lineouts” section for the Yankees from the 2015 issue: “Rich Hill is a very good pitcher, which is why it’s a shame that it’s nearly physically impossible for him to pitch.” If he is finally healthy – and that is very unlikely based on his health history since 2008 (he has spent nearly 500 days on the DL including two stints to recover from Tommy John surgeries) he is very likely to be an excellent, cheap addition to the A’s rotation who likely gets traded to a contender around the deadline if the A’s are out of contention. With a one year contract, the soon-to-be 36 year old is a rental who the A’s will flip if their gamble pays off, much the way they flipped Kazmir for prospects. There is no point in citing Hill’s numbers from last season due to small sample size laws, but he certainly pitched like a number two starter for the first time in his career. He is more likely to be a number three or four for Oakland unless he has truly figured something out during his work to return to the majors.
    Henderson Alvarez is another interesting signing for the A’s this off-season. Last year’s stats, like with Hill, probably don’t paint an accurate portrait of his ability. He ended the first half of the season on the DL and had shoulder surgery. The 25 year old righty was an All Star in 2014 and earned 4.6 WAR as a 24 year old. If Alvarez recovers from arm woes and returns to form, then $4.25 million (plus incentives) is a bargain. Again, if he manages to return to form – and he did pass his physical with the A’s – if the A’s are out of contention, they will likely flip him for more prospects around the deadline since his is a one year deal. For him to succeed he needs to regain the velocity on his fastball which dropped from around 93 MPH in 2014 to just over 90 MPH in his disastrous 2015, according to a Peter Gammons article. As a fastball/changeup guy he needs the velocity on his fastball for the change to be effective, as Gammons points out here: http://www.gammonsdaily.com/as-take-low-cost-gamble-on-henderson-alvarez-regaining-health-velocity/ .
    After Gray, who is a lock to be an ace, and Hill and Alvarez who are both locks to be a mystery, the A’s are counting on a whole lot of youth and some more recovery from arm surgery for the rest of their rotation. They can’t really count on the man who, if healthy, would be the number two starter, Jarrod Parker. The A’s signed Parker to a one year deal, and while nobody knows if he will make it back to the majors this season, the team obviously thinks he is worth taking a risk. It would be unwise to count on his return at the start of the season as he broke his arm throwing a pitch while rehabbing from his second Tommy John surgery which is about as scary a sentence as a pitcher can read about himself. Parker started rehab on the arm in early July after surgery to stabilize the bone. Basically anything the A’s get out of Parker in 2016 will be gravy. Jesse Hahn wasn’t exactly much of a surprise after the A’s acquired him in a trade with the Padres last season. Hahn continued to progress from his 2104 season where he posted a WHIP of 1.2 and an ERA+ of 111. Hahn’s 2015 as a 25 year old saw him post a WHIP of 1.17 and an ERA+ of 120, so his injury really hurt the A’s chances of competing in the second half. If he can pick up where he left off, then Hahn might be the answer as the number two man in the rotation.
    Another young starter coming back from injury, Kendall Graveman should continue to make progress and find his spot as a three or a four starter. Aaron Brooks and Felix Doubront both made starts down the stretch for the A’s – nine for Brooks and eight for Doubront –  but neither of them did anything to show that they deserved to stay there. Brooks doesn’t walk many – he appears to prefer allowing batters to hit him really hard. Doubront seems happy letting hitters get on any old way they want – he has yet to post a WHIP under 1.426 at any major league stop and continued to allow homers at a high rate – 1.5 per nine innings last season. Either way, without a serious breakout by either of them, the A’s will be in trouble if Brooks or Doubront get more than emergency starts. Chris Bassitt, who started out strong and faded over the course of the season, will likely be back in the 2016 rotation – it will be interesting to see if he can make adjustments to start the season or lose his spot in the rotation as his ERA balloons.
    So to start the season it will likely look like this: Sonny Gray, Rich Hill, Kendall Graveman, Chris Bassitt, and the first of the following to get healthy enough to start, Henderson Alvarez, Jesse Hahn, and Jarrod Parker. Until one of those three become available, either Felix Doubront, Sean Nolin, or Aaron Brooks will probably come out of spring training in the 5th starter role. R.J. Alvarez and Raul Alcantara could also break into the rotation with good spring training performances – Alvarez has nasty stuff, but limited and mixed experience in the majors, while Alcantara was coming back from TJ surgery last season after showing consistent progress toward the majors.
    The dark horse, only because he just barely touched AA ball, is Sean Manaea, the A’s top pitching prospect, who has maintained a strikeout-per-nine innings rate of over 10 at every stop in his professional career. His control has also been excellent, including a strikeout to walk ratio over five in his last three stops (covering 11 starts). The A’s are unlikely to push him to the majors to start the season even though there should be a lot of excitement as soon as he comes up due to his stuff and improved command. He should be ready by 2017 – he is a fast mover –  and in the long run be the true number two the A’s need to pair with Gray.

Relief for a Besieged Pen

    One thing that Billy Beane has usually done a really great job with was building a cheap, effective, bullpen. Last year he only hit on one of those two adjectives and it wasn’t effective, as relievers piled up a FIP – ERA independent of fielding – of 4.36. There was definitely some bad luck involved –  losing the closer, Sean Doolittle to injury for all but 12 games in 2015, but mainly the pen just pitched horribly, and the A’s lost a lot of games after the pen came into play. But this off-season the front office has been busy acquiring arms to man the pen. In fact, the A’s have almost exclusively added pitching this off-season including four shiny-new bullpen arms – John Axford, Liam Hendriks, Ryan Madson, and Mark Rzepczynski. Gone are Dan Otero, he of the 1.5 WHIP and 6.75 ERA, Edward Mujica who gave up 7 long balls in just under 34 innings, Eric O’Flaherty, Tyler Clippard, and Drew Pomeranz along with a few others who impacted the pen’s miserable performance.
    Returning from 2015’s nightmare will be closer, Sean Doolittle who should be healthy again after finishing out the season from August 23rd on. When he is right, Doolittle blows away hitters like the cheap version of an elite closer that he is. 31 year old Fernando Rodriguez seems to have turned a corner and become an effective arm out of the pen. He was not exiled after posting a 3.08 FIP in 56 appearances in relief last season. Rodriguez has always struck out a lot of hitters, including 10 per nine innings last season, and his control has improved to the point that he walked 3.7 hitters per 9 and managed a WHIP of 1.142. He was most often used in the 7th, but with the acquisition of Madson, Axford, and Hendriks, who are all used to seeing high leverage, late-inning work, it is unclear what his role will be. He appears to be a durable arm pitching on one day’s rest, or in consecutive games, in half of his appearances in 2015. Working back from the 9th it will likely be Doolittle as closer, Madson and his .963 WHIP pitching the 8th, although Hendriks could fit here also with his 2015 FIP of 2.14 and his 71/11 strikeout to walk numbers. Axford has always struggled with control so he will likely pitch if he is hot and disappear if he is not. His 3.59 FIP in Coors Field last season was decent, so Oakland could make him look good – another guy for the A’s to flip? Rzepczynski still strikes out more than 10 per 9 and his FIP has stayed in the threes the last two seasons in spite of his high ERAs and WHIPs so he might be turn into a steal for the A’s and work his way into higher leverage appearances as the season wears on.
    Ryan Dull was an interesting call up last season. He dominated in the minors and looked impressive between rookie disasters in the bigs. He had a WHIP of 1.059 and only allowed 6.4 hits per nine, but he also gave up 2.1 home runs per 9. Throughout his minor league career (153 innings) he has averaged .60 home runs over nine, so it is unlikely that he will be touched for the long ball at 2.1 per nine again. He could become a big part of future A’s pens starting in 2016. There are many arms available to pitch long relief as the A’s are entertaining several starters for their five spots. R.J. Alvarez, Raul Alcantara, Felix Doubront, and Aaron Brooks all could end up in the pen if they don’t get make the rotation or get sent down to Nashville. The A’s greatly improved pen could be the key to them posting a record over .500 in 2016. Either way, the A’s pen won’t repeat last year’s disaster.

2016 Dreams

Putting together a team that can win the World Series in a small market has been Billy Beane’s unicorn since he took over as general manager in 1997. His efforts to find undiscovered value where other teams haven’t looked yet have made him a highly thought of and highly controversial figure in baseball. The A’s struggled last season after several of Beane’s controversial moves that were designed to rebuild the depleted farm system while still maintaining a competitive major league club. It is still too early to judge some of the moves – obviously the Ike Davis move didn’t pan out, but the Semien acquisition and even the Donaldson trade involved a lot of future value making them hard to judge yet. 2016 is unlikely to be pretty for fans of the green and gold. It is likely that the pen will be substantially better and possibly the A’s greatest strength. The rotation relies on a lot of “ifs”, so it’s hard to say with certainty whether it will be a strength or a liability. The hitting and defense should both improve slightly with Semien continuing to improve in both areas, Alonso improving the first base situation (not hard based on last season’s low bar), and getting anything from Coco Crisp and the core of maybes they picked up in the off-season or brought up late last year to play the outfield. Danny Valencia might well be a push when compared to Brett Lawrie – better OBP and maybe power for Valencia versus a better glove at third for Lawrie. On the whole the A’s haven’t made enough changes to position players to see enough of a difference in their run-scoring potential or their defense to turn them from a 94 loss team into a contender in the beefed up AL West. A good outcome would have the A’s getting to .500 and a bad outcome would have their starting pitching reeling from injuries and ineffectiveness taxing their improved pen causing them to burn out in the second half. That said, it is hard to doubt Billy and crew, so look for the A’s to finish around .500 and trade away at least three players for more prospects as they look to contend in 2017.