The Giants outfield looks to improve upon 2015.

Hunter Back On The Prowl
by Jim Silva

    For many teams, the outfield is where a lot of the fireworks are generated on offense and often where the stars play – not so for the Giants. Other than Hunter Pence, the Giants have filled in with players who are solid but not stars of the same quality as their infielders. That’s not to say that the outfield is bad, just that you aren’t looking at Mays or Bonds out there.
    Hunter Pence is the “Ace” of the Giants outfield. In this, his 4th season with the Giants, Pence is second to perhaps only Buster Posey as the face of the team. The quirky right-fielder had two excellent seasons for the Giants before being derailed by injuries last year, managing only a half season. Pence is usually good for 20+ home runs, 50+ walks, and an OPS north of .800. You could have penciled him in for 150+ games until last season as he had met that mark every year since 2008. At 32, the hope is that Pence can hold onto some of that reliability for a few more seasons. He is lean and athletic so he is more likely to regain health than other players who are, shall we say, less wiry. Pence is 6’4 220 and built like a thin question mark. He doesn’t look like a guy who would have 194 career home runs in 9 seasons. The guy is all fast twitch and he looks wrong doing everything – but it works.  His career .284/.327/.478 slash line is about what teams expect of him each year. He isn’t going to drill 40 homers or bat .330, but you know what you’re going to get out of him year in and year out.
    Pence is slightly below average with the glove based on comprehensive defensive metrics, although his reputation is better that his stats. He has posted negative DRS (defensive runs saved) numbers three out the last four years (last year he broke even), although his range factor has been around league average or above in each of the last three campaigns. Like his swing, he looks a mess in the outfield even though he gets the job done.
    The 2012 trade to acquire Pence looks like an incredibly one-sided deal, mainly because it is. None of the three players (Nate Schierholtz, Tommy Joseph, and Seth Rosin) the Phillies acquired in the deal are likely to do anything this season, or really much of anything at the major league level in the future. Scheirholtz hit some home runs for the Cubs and put up 1.5 WAR – his only season with a WAR above 1.0. – in 2013 (after the Cubs signed him away from Philadelphia), but is unlikely to see action in the majors again except as an emergency call up. The full picture with Pence is that he hits for average and power, runs the bases well, plays a pretty clean right field, is a blast to watch – even in the on-deck circle – and is a fan and teammate favorite. If he has fully recovered from his injury-laden 2015, he will garner some MVP votes and be in contention for the All Star team putting up nearly 4.0 WAR seasons.
    The Giants have been hoping that Angel Pagan would be the starting center-fielder who saved the Mets 19 runs in 2010 while contributing 5.3 WAR. Pagan has contributed to the team since then, but not with his glove. The now 34 year old Pagan has cost the Giants runs with his glove every year since they acquired him in 2012 culminating in a DRS last season of -20 runs. Pagan has battled injuries for years and they appear to be winning based on his declining numbers last season. 2015 was the first season where Pagan failed to post an OPS+ (on-base plus slugging relative to the rest of the league) above 100 falling all the way to 77. He has battled injuries his entire career, but now that he has had a bulging disc and spinal stenosis, you have to wonder if he can be the guy who finished first in the league in range for center fielders in 2010 and 2012, or even the guy who slugged over .400. His career average slugging percentage is .406 but he dropped to .389 in 2014, and .332 in 2015. He moves to left field where his glove will be under less pressure – his body too probably, but his bat will have to produce like it’s 2013. Otherwise he will be pushed to the side by younger, healthier players with power as soon as this year.
    Undoubtedly, Pagan’s precipitous decline was the main reason the Giants went out and signed Denard Span. To get Span, the Giants had to commit to him for three years (plus a mutual option for a fourth), which is a risk since Span is 32 and battled injuries himself last season. When healthy, Span contributes great range in center, speed on the bases, and excellent command of the strike zone. His career .352 on base percentage and .76 walks per strikeout make him a difficult guy to erase cleanly. Span has contributed with the glove as his stats show, although last season, plagued by injuries, he cost the Nationals 10 runs according to DRS in spite of his range, which at 2.62 was still above league average (2.41) for center fielders. Span’s best season with the glove was 2012 when he saved the Twins 19 runs and put up 5.0 WAR. His best season with the bat was 2014 – his last full season with the Nationals – where he put up 4.2 offensive WAR. Span will be a solid leadoff hitter and will likely track down a lot more balls than Pagan, but the contract he signed might turn into a weight around the Giants’ neck if injuries start to steal away his speed on the bases and cut his elite range down to where he turns into Angel Pagan.
    Left field is usually where you stick your big slow guy who pounds the ball over the fence – think Dave Kingman or Pete Incaviglia here. With Pagan out there, there is lots of room for the 4th and 5th outfielders to get playing time. Gregor Blanco has been in the outfield picture for the Giants for four seasons and until 2015 appeared in 140+ games each season. 2015 saw Blanco’s playing time diminish even though he posted career-best offensive numbers for a full season. His .291/.368/413 slash line was the basis for his 1.1 WAR season. Blanco’s glove is about average like the rest of his game. He is an excellent 4th outfielder who can play all three outfield spots without killing the team and can get on base, but he is not a starting outfielder for a championship team. The amount of playing time he has garnered with the Giants shows you how much they rely on their infield for production. There is nothing wrong with that kind of team construction, but if the Giants give Blanco 450 or more plate appearances, they will be hurting their chances to have that weird even-season World Series mojo work out. This isn’t a condemnation of Blanco, but having two guys like Blanco essentially starting for you in the outfield means that you are probably leaving something on the table. So what else do the Giants have in their outfield cupboard?
    Mac Williamson had a hot spring with a .310/.396/.667 slash line. That .667 slugging percentage comes via three doubles and four home runs in 48 plate appearances, and the three walks help the on-base percentage. Williamson’s minor league history shows him to have a good hit tool and some power – mostly doubles to go along with 15ish home run power. He cranked 25 jacks in 2013 in San Jose, but that’s the Cal League where even baby chinchillas hit double digit dongs. In his brief exposure to the majors he struck out almost 24% of the time, up from his minor league career rate of 20%. His minor league numbers (.291/.376/.486 slash line) say he is close to being ready even with a lower batting average of .249 in triple-A. His Arizona Fall League numbers and his spring numbers indicate that he might be ready to break out. He crushed AFL pitching to the tune of a .370/.442/.493 slash line, so Pagan and Blanco should be looking over their shoulders at the 6’4”, 240 pound youngster in the rear view mirror.
    Jarrett Parker had a hell of an introduction to the big leagues in 2015 where he made the most of his 54 plate appearances, clubbing six home runs and hitting .347 with a .755 slugging percentage. Nobody, not even Mama or Papa Parker, believes that Parker can reproduce his numbers anywhere ever again, but his minor league numbers show him to be a patient hitter with real power. The main problem is that it took him so long to reach the majors – he is 27 – and is no longer really a prospect. It also seems like the book is out on him with pitchers striking him out in a third of his 60 plate appearances during his spring training battle with Mac Williamson. In his first full season at triple-A last year he put up nice numbers including a .283/.375/.514 slash line, 51 extra base hits (including 25 home runs), and 62 walks to somewhat offset his horrific 164 strikeouts. Striking out almost 33% last year in triple-A is slightly above his career minor league strikeout rate of 30% and neither are pretty.
    Even though Parker has the better tasting cup of coffee stats, Williamson should beat him out eventually and then compete for the starting job in one of the corners. The Giants outfield is old so there should be plenty of chances to play, even as the 5th outfielder. Williamson supposedly has the glove, arm, and range to be an asset, so if he can hit a little he’ll get plenty of chances to show why he is the third best outfielder in San Francisco right now.

A look at the changes to the Padres oufield for 2016.

How About Some Offense AND Defense Please?
By Hugh Rothman
No team, it seems, is affected more by its outfielders than the San Diego Padres. In 2014, as I have stated several times before, the Padres offense was historically awful. And while the infield was pretty dreadful, it was the 2014 Padres outfield that truly dragged the team’s offense down to history making levels. In 2015, the Padres sported a completely revamped outfield which was a breath of fresh air to their fans who had suffered through the nightmares of far too many Will Venable at-bats. The 2015 Padres outfield was far more productive offensively. However, on the surface, the idea of having Justin Upton, Wil Myers, and Matt Kemp roaming the spacious fields of Petco Park seemed like a scary defensive experiment. It turns out that the results of said experiment were far scarier than anticipated.
A Brief Mention of 2014 – Or Seth Smith, We Turn Our Lonely Eyes to You
Seth Smith put up a .266/.367/.440 slash line for the 2014 Padres in 521 plate appearances, finishing second on the team with 12 homers. That’s not exactly star quality production, but it ain’t bad. Of course, it absolutely outpaces every other player who attempted to play outfield for the Padres in 2014. Are you ready for some ugly numbers? Hold on tight:
Plate Appearances
On-Base %
Slugging %
Will Venable
Cameron Maybin
Alexi Amarista
Chris Denorfia
Tommy Medica
Carlos Quentin
Rymer Liriano
Jake Goebbert
Abraham Almonte
  • Note: Amarista played in the infield as well. He had 197 plate appearances as an outfielder.
Wasn’t that fun?!? There’s more! Xavier Nady, of all people, rose from the dead and contributed a groovy .135/.238/.405 slash line with his 42 plate appearances before sinking back into the stinking, gurgling abyss where all zombies come from. I was personally surprised to see that even Jeff Francoeur, who is apparently on a whirlwind tour to ruin the offenses of every team in baseball, managed to sneak in 28 plate appearances. Naturally, Francoeur had to outdo all of these other outfielders by putting up a tasty .083/.179/.083 slash line that is beyond the pale in pure suckitude.
In short, this was an absolute embarrassment. Clearly, big changes had to be made.
2015 – I Got it! No, You Got it!
A.J. Preller immediately got to work and acquired Kemp, Myers, and Upton to play the outfield, relegating all other pretenders to the bench, or to triple-A, or to… somewhere (anywhere!) else. Alas, one of the victims of the purge was the venerable Seth Smith, but he did fetch a decent bullpen piece. Upton and Kemp had certainly shown they could hit and hit well in the past. Myers too, in his rookie season, had a very impressive campaign. So what happened?
Matt Kemp had a nightmarish start to the season. He didn’t hit his second homer until June. Eventually, he heated up in the second half to finish with a sort of respectable-ish .263/.312/.443 slash line, with a nice even 100 RBIs to boot. Offensively, this was not a disaster. Justin Upton had a different year. He started off reasonably hot, cooled off, got hot again, cooled off, and eventually finished with a .251/.336/.454 slash line. Again, very respectable, considering what the Padres had experienced in the prior year. Wil Myers hit .253/.336/.427 when he was healthy, which, alas, was not very often. Saving the day for the Padres when Myers was tending to his ouchies, was none other than Justin Upton’s brother Melvin, who returned from two disastrous seasons in Atlanta to actually contribute something to a team! His .257/.329/427 slash line as a center fielder was quite welcome, for the first time in 3 years.
However, there is another aspect to the game of baseball: defense. This is where there were significant problems. Let’s start with the good news: The Upton brothers were both ok with the glove. Their DRS numbers (defensive runs saved) were slightly above average. Their defensive WAR numbers were both above replacement level, although not by much. Unfortunately, Justin, the brother who can thump, left for greener pastures this year, but Melvin, the brother who might yet have something left to contribute, is still around to play left field.
Center field was manned by Wil Myers, at least, when the season began. Myers, who had only briefly played center in the minors, was on board with the move, reportedly working on angles and reads during the offseason and in spring training. Since Myers was the youngest and fastest of the three starting outfielders, and besides, the Padres didn’t have anyone else, it made sense to stick Myers in center and watch him prosper. The Padres were sort of following the Ferengi philosophy (the pure capitalists on Star Trek, Next Generation): Step 1: Acquire a youthful player, Step 2: Put him in center field, Step 3: Profit! It didn’t work out very well. First of all, Myers, for all of his preparation, still stank as a center fielder. The numbers aren’t pretty: He was on pace to have a DRS of -20 for the year. That would rank among the lowest numbers in baseball. His defensive WAR was -0.8. That’s pretty hard to do, especially considering that Myers hurt his wrist, was out for a month, came back for 3 days, and then was out for 10 weeks recovering from surgery on that very same wrist. There is no truth to the rumor that the Padres pitching staff were the ones who applied a Billy club whack to Myer’s wrist in the middle of the night, but it wouldn’t be shocking if those rumors were true! Eventually, he came back, but by then, thankfully, Melvin Upton had supplanted him in center. The Myers center field experiment was an abject failure because 1). He can’t play center field very well, and 2). He is too fragile to play there anyway. Myers moving to 1B in 2016 is a sensible move for everyone involved.
How about right field? That was manned by Matt Kemp, who used to be such a good fielder that he played center field back in the day. That was before his arthritic hips starting acting up. Nowadays, Kemp is not a reasonable candidate to play center field anymore. Unfortunately, his days in right field may be numbered as well because in a word, he is a disaster out there. Kemp had an offensive WAR of 2.2, which isn’t bad. Unfortunately, his defensive WAR was an incredible -2.4, which actually made Kemp a below replacement level player in 2015! His DRS was -15. His .972 fielding percentage was worst on the team. Sometimes numbers lie, and maybe Kemp really isn’t this bad. But no, not this time. He really is this bad. Unfortunately, the Padres have an obligation to pay Kemp a premium salary for the next 4 years. The ending could get ugly.
The result of the below-average outfield play from Myers and especially Kemp no doubt contributed to the decline of the pitching numbers. Even the average defense from the Upton brothers didn’t help the pitchers that much (but at least they didn’t hurt them). Will Venable and Cameron Maybin proved they are below average hitters, especially in 2014, but at least those two can play some serious defense. The 2015 Padres outfield had at best average defense from some of their outfielders, and well-below average defense from the rest. The venerable Bill James himself was quoted as saying that much of pitching is in fact, defense! How much did the pitching suffer due to sub-par defense in 2015? Using DRS, the Padres saved a total of 8 runs from their outfield defense in 2014, but gave up a total of 31 runs from their outfield defense in 2015. Thirty-nine runs, just from defense in the outfield, is a pretty big swing and undoubtedly hurt the pitching staff big time in 2015.
2016 – How About Both Offense AND Defense This Time?
Perhaps the Padres learned some valuable lessons over the last two years. You see… outfielders have to play offense AND defense. Anyway, Justin Upton predictably accepted a multi-year contract of many millions to ply his trade in Detroit. Yonder Alonzo was jettisoned to Oakland, making room for Wil Myers to play 1B. Melvin Upton was still around, and his promising half-season was enough to convince the Padres brass that he still could contribute. Albatross Matt Kemp is still around. At least one more outfielder was needed. Seth Smith, sadly, was not available. Instead, the Padres traded for the former Cardinals centerfielder Jon Jay.
Jon Jay was a typical Cardinal: he wasn’t a high draft pick, he didn’t have particularly outstanding tools, he wasn’t a power hitter. Yet, at every level, all he did was hit, including in the majors. His career batting average is .287 and he enjoyed success in every year of his career, except for last season, which was quite terrible. Various injuries were to blame, including wrist problems, which concerned the Cardinals enough to consider trading him. The Padres, who were all too happy to rid themselves of Jedd Gyorko and his ridiculous contract, took the plunge. If Jay is back to full health, there is no reason to think he can’t be the leadoff hitter the Padres have pined for since the days of Bip Roberts, at least for a couple more years. Jay is just the sort of player that may be perfect for Petco Park. He can hit for average, doesn’t have much power, and can play a solid center field. A pretty good pick up for the Padres… if he is fully healthy.
Matt Kemp is Matt Kemp. He is one year older, his hips are not getting any better, and his best position nowadays might be designated hitter. But alas, the Padres have no choice but to pay him, play him, and hope for the best. I repeat: this won’t end well.
Melvin Upton is… well, who knows what he is. He could be the exciting player who looked crazy good with the Tampa Rays. Or, he could be the rotting corpse that played for the Braves the last couple years. My guess is that it is something in between, that at the very least, Melvin Upton is once again able to contribute enough to help a team. The Padres will welcome anything they can get from Melvin considering they have to pay him a princely sum as well.
Backing up these guys are a couple youngsters: Travis Jankowski and Jabari Bash… er Blash. Jankowski is a speedster with little power and Blash is a monster power hitter with no plate discipline to speak of. It makes sense for the Padres to have both of these players on the bench with the hope that one, if not both of them will break out. It won’t happen. Jankowski doesn’t hit well enough to make up for his lack of power and Blash doesn’t recognize a ball from a strike most of the time. Jankowski is 25 and Blash is 26 so this is who they are, for the most part. The Padres could (and have) done worse for backups. Rymer Liriano, at least, is thankfully no longer in the picture, nor is Jake Goebbels, whoever he is (see that 2014 chart above!).
This is not a championship outfield. The Padres have a decent center fielder in Jay, an ok left fielder (at best) in Upton, and an above-average offensive but below-average defensive right fielder in Kemp. It is unlikely that the Padres will suffer 2016 with a historically bad offensive outfield like they did in 2014, or a significantly below-average defensive outfield in 2015, but being “average” or more likely, a bit below-average overall, is not enough to push a team to a championship.

A look at the 2016 Diamonbacks outfield without Ender Inciarte.

Shagging Flies in The Desert
by Jim Silva

    There has been one sheriff in Phoenix for a couple years now, and that has been Paul Goldschmidt. Not that the Diamondbacks didn’t have any other good players, but none of the youngsters had reached star status until last season. A.J. Pollock took his game to another level in 2015 and became the deputy to Goldy’s sheriff. Pollock has been an underrated centerfielder for the last couple of years. In 2015 – his age 27 season – he put it all together saving his team 14 runs according to DRS (defensive runs saved), and putting up a 7.4 WAR season.
    Pollock’s previous two seasons had been good by most measures. In 2013 and 2014 he put together 3.5 and 3.9 WAR seasons respectively, while also saving his team 12 and 8 runs according to DRS. Pollock won a Gold Glove last season and actually deserved it if you believe the defensive numbers. A couple of factors turned him from a good player into a star last season. First of all, A.J. increased his walk rate and decreased his strikeout rate. It wasn’t a huge change, but the 53 walks combined with his .315 average drove his on-base percentage from his previous high of .353 to .367. He spent more time hitting in the two hole, but he also was the leadoff hitter 48 times. That .367 on-base percentage would make him a good candidate to bat first on most teams, but his power and batting average might make him a two or three-hole hitter on a team with so many high on-base percentage candidates. Pollock also showed excellent speed and the ability to steal bases with a high success rate – 39 steals at 85% last season. This represented a big jump for Pollock who had stolen 27 bases in his previous 862 major league plate appearances. A move to the two hole in front of Goldschmidt might decrease Pollock’s stolen base totals, but he will still steal at a high success rate.
    One of the other pieces that came together for Pollock last season was a swap of some doubles for home runs. He reached double digits in home runs, with 20, for the first time in his career. He still swatted 39 doubles and chipped in six triples for 65 extra-base hits on the year. His slugging percentage didn’t change from 2014, staying at exactly .498 again, but it was achieved by a decrease in doubles and an increase in home runs. As Pollock was 27 and experiencing his first full season’s worth of at-bats, it is reasonable to expect  the homer spike to stick around and maybe even increase with experience and health, especially if his walk rate/strikeout rate growth continues. Pollock’s growth is real and should be the new normal for the next few years giving the Diamondbacks two hitting stars who can also pick it with the best of them.
    ESPN reports that David Peralta will move to right field in 2016 to accommodate Yasmany Tomas. Peralta should get close to 600 plate appearances this season after the Diamondbacks dealt away Ender Enciarte. The 2015 version of David Peralta did an excellent job in his 517 plate appearances with a slash line of .312/.371/.522. That’s quite a slash line for his second season in the majors. Peralta showed excellent bat control making contact with 86% of the pitches he swung at that were in the strike zone, where about 80% is average. He also showed good strike zone discipline offering at just under 33% of pitches outside of the strike zone, which was an improvement from 2014, and well below the average, which was approximately 46%. With 53 extra-base hits in 517 plate appearances, he showed excellent power, hitting 26 doubles, 17 home runs, and leading the league with 10 triples. The one area where Peralta showed weakness was against lefties. His slash line against freaks who throw from the wrong side was .250/.311/.375 – pretty anemic. More at-bats against lefties will either drive down his batting average below .300, or he will make adjustments and become even scarier at the plate. Peralta batted in the four hole more often than not in 2015, so there will be many chances to drive in Goldschmidt and Pollock if they bat in the 3rd spot and 2nd spot respectively.
    Peralta’s glove is a little harder to call after two seasons in the majors. Last season, he saved 15 runs with positioning and cutting off extra-base hits but gave them back plus a few with mistakes and poor throws. He is a converted pitcher so you would expect a canon for an arm, so perhaps the issue is with accuracy. His range was above league average at all three outfield spots, so if the throwing issue was a one year aberration, then he should be a plus defender with a power bat in 2016.
    Yasmany Tomas defected from Cuba in 2014 and signed an enormous contract with Arizona – six years for $68.5 million. He is 25 ,and had played for the Cuban national team but didn’t have much minor league experience when the Diamondbacks brought him up to the big league team – 21 at bats at Reno. Perhaps it was the big contract that inspired Arizona to rush him to the majors. Tomas is a big man, and looks like he could crush the ball just by looking at it. Unfortunately that isn’t what happened last season when he was called up.
    His showing in spring training had many believing that he could not hang at third base and his work there in 31 games proved it as he cost his team six runs, according to DRS, and showed below league average range. He also made six errors in his limited time there for a .918 fielding percentage. In an attempt to give his bat a chance to shine without his glove detracting so much, the Diamondbacks shifted him to right field where he cost his team yet another six runs.
    Considering the fact that the Diamondbacks had three excellent outfielders last season (they traded Ender Enciarte during the off-season), a lot of trouble was made to try to keep Tomas on the field, so you would think that he must have raked like a beast. In fact, his slash line was .275/.305/.401 – not exactly raking. With only 31 extra-base hits in 426 plate appearances he didn’t deliver the thump that would have made up for the lack of on-base skills. With 110 strikeouts to go with only 17 walks, he didn’t get to exploit pitchers needing to throw strikes when they got behind. His swing rate was high – he swung at 57% of pitches thrown to him, and his contact rate was low – he put his bat on only 72% of pitches thrown. Subsequently, pitchers threw him strikes only 44.75 percent of the time, which is below average. He makes good contact when he swings at strikes, but flails when he chases pitches out of the strike zone.
    The Diamondbacks are clearly invested in Tomas, so he will have every opportunity to fail or succeed in 2015 as the starting left-fielder. Having Enciarte around to be his caddie next year would have helped, but since that won’t happen he will face all comers and sink or swim on his own. He hits lefties harder but wasn’t hopeless against righties so a platoon isn’t necessary. More disconcerting are his splits – first versus second half of the season. His slash line in the first half was an encouraging .313/.351/.448, but whether pitchers figured him out or something else happened to Tomas, his second half slash line plummeted to .208/.228/.325. Those are reserve middle infielder numbers, not big, lumbering corner outfielder numbers. The Diamondbacks should be scared that their $68 million investment might be a half-season wonder. His 2016 spring training was encouraging, and a hot start will put to rest fears that he can’t adjust to big league pitching. But if he struggles in the first half or has similar second half woes, what is to be done? Arizona has invested a lot of money in the Cuban star and they pushed him directly to the majors with no adjustment time. Should they send him down and work with him on what to do when pitchers discover a weakness? Unless he stops chasing, he will never realize his potential at the plate, and if he doesn’t have that, well, he doesn’t have anything.
    With Ender Enciarte gone, who will play the outfield when the guys mentioned above are at a baby shower or driving their mom up the coast to a wedding? The Diamondbacks are not afraid to push their young prospects fast, so it would not be a surprise to see Socrates Brito make the team out of spring training as the fourth outfielder. Old Socrates has a few things going for him, aside from his cool name, that make him a reasonable pick to be the guy. He is reported to have a good arm and sound glove and his very small sample size in the majors last season support this as he saved the D-Backs three runs (DRS). He also showed tremendous range in right – again small sample size caveats apply here. Brito is clearly fast, as evidenced by his 21 steals in 27 attempts last year, and his 118 career steals. It is not a stretch to envision him playing center to spell Pollock and he can clearly handle either corner. The two big issues with the husband of Xanthippe – oh wait, that’s the other Socrates – is that he doesn’t walk enough, and he doesn’t hit home runs. In defense of the fleet young outfielder, he hits for a high average (.303 in his cup of coffee in the majors to go with a career .288 mark in the minors), and he musters enough doubles and triples to avoid being labeled a slap hitter. Another thing Brito has going for him is that he is the best option. The Diamondbacks system was ranked 24th by Keith Law in his annual prospect rankings, and Socrates Brito was the only D-Back outfielder ranked in the organization’s top 10. There is some risk as Brito jumped from AA to play in 18 major league games last season, so he might be overmatched, although he looked good in his very limited debut.
    It’s hard to get excited about the 5th outfield spot, unless of course you are the one occupying the 5th outfield spot. In the case of the Diamondbacks, one possible winner of the “last spot on the roster” derby could be Peter O’Brien. You can read more about him in the Diamondbacks Catching article entitled, “Beef and Tuffy Catching for The Rattlers?”, but suffice it to say he will spend a lot of time on the bench and get his at-bats as a pinch hitter. O’Brien is a butcher in the field but can “play” left field, first base and possibly stop the ball from skittering to the backstop when the pitcher throws. What O’Brien does that gets him on rosters is hit balls to the moon – a nice skill to have on your bench. If he doesn’t get the bench spot, and instead gets sent to the minors, it will be because the Diamondbacks need someone who can field acceptably, and because Arizona still wants to try to turn O’Brien into a complete player who can field acceptably somewhere.
    The Diamondbacks lack depth in the outfield and have some uncertainty with Tomas. If he fails, then they are into very risky territory with a talented, but raw youngster just up from AA in Brito, or a powerful free-swinging statue in O’Brien. But Pollock and Peralta give them a solid to spectacular profile in center and right, and if Tomas pans out to be at least decent, then the Diamondbacks will have one of the better all-around outfields in the West.

Who will patrol the Rockies’ outfield in 2016?

When Is a Gold Glove Worth Its Weight in Gold?
by Jim Silva

    The Rockies outfield is big. By “big” I mean spacious, not inhabited by large humans, although I can’t speak to what goes on there at night. They have more fair territory than any ballpark in the majors – .18 acres larger than the average park. It is almost a third of an acre bigger than Fenway (according to Cork Gaines on Business Insider’s website). Outfielders in Coors Field have a lot of ground to cover. Perhaps Rockies’ outfielders should be allowed to play using roofless golf carts, or hover boards just to make it fair. So the question is, should the Rockies pay more attention to outfield defense than other teams who play in wee bandboxes? And that other question that you were just thinking – can a stellar group of defensive outfielders plying their trade in Coors Field have a significant impact on the pitching staff – more of an impact than a similar outfield playing in Fenway (the smallest park in the majors by area), for example? I don’t have the tools to answer either of these questions definitively, but the logic test seems to say that yes, a great defensive outfield should have a greater impact playing in Colorado than anywhere else AND the pitchers would very likely incur a significant benefit from superior fly-chasers. While it is tempting to fill the lineup with big, beefy dudes who can hit the ball very, very far and just hope for the best when they put their gloves on, logic dictates that the Rockies need to pay a lot of attention to outfield defense. Good outfield defense will make it easier for their young pitchers to develop because they won’t get shellacked quite as often, and their pitchers are more likely to stay healthy because the improved defense will decrease their pitch counts. Again, tough to prove, but let’s assume that having the biggest park in the majors means you need to have outfielders who can cover a lot of ground, especially in center-field. Keep that in mind as we explore the 2016 Rockies outfield.
    The Rockies’ center-fielder last season, and most likely in 2016, is Charlie Blackmon. “Chuck Nazty” is fast, as evidenced by his 84 career stolen bases and 76% success rate when he attempts to steal. He went 43 for 56 last season – 77%. He has some power and hits for average, as evidenced by his 17 home runs to go along with a slash line of .287/.347/.450 last season. His offensive numbers the last two seasons have been pretty similar, except for this year’s increase in triples (from three in 2014 to nine in 2015) and a smaller increase in walks from 31 to 46 in the same time frame. Blackmon almost always bats in the leadoff spot, so the extra walks help. A .347 on-base percentage is serviceable from a leadoff hitter, but not star level.
    But how does Blackmon fare defensively? I compared his range factor per nine innings last season to the league average for other center-fielders. It is a simplistic stat that adds putouts and assists, and then divides them by innings played. Blackmon’s range factor per 9 innings last season was 2.35. That means that he averages a combination of 2.35 putouts and assists per game. By comparison, the average center-fielder in the NL put up a range factor of 2.41 – a touch better than Chuck’s numbers. Looking at Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Blackmon actually cost the Rockies 7 runs with his glove, so using those two numbers to look at Blackmon’s defensive work makes him look a bit below average. To put Blackmon’s defensive numbers into perspective, perhaps a bit unfairly, let’s compare him to Kevin Keirmaier, the center-fielder for the Rays. Let’s look at the same two statistics, range factor per nine innings and DRS. Kiermaier put up a range factor of 3.26 in Tropicana Field (and the other parks he visited – most likely including National Parks). That’s a big edge over Blackmon who again posted a 2.35 range factor. That’s an extra play a game for the whole season. It’s Kiermaier’s DRS that really puts Blackmon’s season in perspective. The Ray’s center-fielder saved his team 42 runs last season – that’s 49 more than Blackmon. If you use the rule of thumb that 10 runs is a game, Kiermaier won the Rays five games with his glove as compared to Blackmon. That’s huge. The unfair part of the comparison is that I compared Blackmon to the best centerfielder in the game. Not many pitchers would like to be compared to Clayton Kershaw.
    What the comparison does is point out a mistake the Rockies are making – focusing on offense at the cost of defense at a position they desperately need to be a stellar defensive spot. I understand that there are not a lot of Kevin Kiermaiers out there – his season was the best in terms of DRS of any player at any position in the 10 years that John Dewan and his crew have been measuring it. You would, however, expect that the Rockies would run someone out to center-field every year who finished with positive defensive numbers considering how much they have struggled with pitching, and how important center-field defense is to supporting pitchers.
    The Rockies seemingly put themselves in a position of outfield wealth this off-season when they signed Gerardo Parra to a four year deal – the fourth year being an option year. Parra has consistently been one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball posting DRS numbers of 13, 14, 9, and a whopping 37 from 2010 through 2013. The last two seasons have been very un-Parra-like as he has posted DRS score of 0 and -10. The Rockies are banking on a return of the old Gerardo on defense. They just traded starting left-fielder Corey Dickerson for closer Jake McGee, ensuring a starting job for Parra, who is 28. The question is where will they play him now that they have him? If the Rockies are truly expecting his defensive numbers to jump back up to the level they were at through 2013, then it would make sense to move Blackmon to left and install Parra in center. If the Rockies don’t believe that he is a Gold Glove defender (he won the award in 2011 and 2013) then why did they sign him for four years?
    Looking at career numbers, it is clear that Parra is the superior defender, in spite of last season. Offensively, Parra had his best season ever putting up a slash line of .291/.328/.452 for the season split between two teams – very similar to Charlie Blackmon’s season. Parra doesn’t walk much – 28 times last season, and strikes out about as often as Blackmon, about 100 times a season for the last two years. So really, Blackmon and Parra will probably put up similar numbers on offense with Parra besting Blackmon with the glove, meaning you have to start them both – Parra in center and Blackmon in left most likely.
    That leaves right-field. Last season, Carlos Gonzalez was the right-fielder for 151 games. He and Nolan Arenado are the faces of the franchise since Troy Tulowitzki was traded, and he has won three Gold Gloves in the outfield. Last season he was finally healthy enough to come to the plate 608 times, the second highest total of his career. His fragile health is the reason the Rockies are considering moving him from right field to first this season. Assuming they don’t, Cargo is the right-fielder. Honestly he is not a Gold Glove outfielder – last season his DRS was 5, which is solid. Put him in the outfield with Blackmon and Parra and you have a good, not great, defensive outfield, although improved over last season’s outfield, as the now traded Corey Dickerson, who put up a DRS of -6, will be replaced by Gerardo Parra.
    Offensively, there is no outfielder on the Rockies major league squad or at AAA who can contribute anything close to what Cargo can, but neither can they field a first baseman who can hit like Cargo. Kyle Parker cleared waivers and was recently sent back to AAA – nobody claimed him – after an uninspiring 2015. Parker hit like a pitcher, with a .179 batting average and .311 slugging in 112 plate appearances. He is better than that, but disappointingly for a 2010 first round pick, not a major league regular. Brandon Barnes logged a lot of playing time because of Corey Dickerson’s injuries, but that didn’t go well for the Rockies. Barnes makes a lot of outs. Last season he posted an on-base percentage plus slugging (OPS) of.655 which is pretty awful for a left-fielder. Barnes’ season was an improvement offensively, including his first on-base percentage above .300 (.314). Barnes is most likely a 5th outfielder or AAA option on a good team. He is an average to slightly below-average glove in all three outfield spots and has a wee bit of power. That leaves two options to replace Gonzalez in the outfield – Mark Reynolds and Ben Paulsen. Neither man is much of an outfielder and both have significant offensive limitations. Reynolds is a power-hitting, out-making, strikeout machine, while Paulsen is a nice fourth outfielder/backup 1st baseman who is not a championship level starter at any position.
    There is not really a good answer for the Rockies until some of their young outfielders, particularly David Dahl and Raimel Tapia get past AA. There is still time for Colorado to sign a low cost, short-term free agent to hold the spot warm at 1st base or in left, until the youngsters get there. Most likely the Rockies will have an easier time finding a 1st baseman – there are rumors about a Pedro Alvarez deal – than an outfielder, who can beat what the Rockies have. That would leave Paulsen as a strong bench player, and keep Barnes riding pine until someone gets injured. That said, you can expect the Rockies to stick Cargo back in right and cross their fingers. If they keep Cargo in right-field, employ a flotilla of sports medicine experts, and move Parra to center, shifting Chuck Nazty and his tats to left field then we can test the theory of improved outfield defense helping Rockies pitching (which it will, dammit!).

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.

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? 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.

Innings Pitched
A. J. Griffin
Jarrod Parker
Bartolo Colon
Tommy Milone
Dan Straily
Sonny Gray
Brett Anderson

    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
Full Season
Full Season
Start of season to July 28th/August 2nd to end of season
Start of season to July 4th/July 6th to end of season

    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: .
    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.