A's have depth and talent to make run at another AL West crown
"The term 'starter' means something different here," A's manager Bob Melvin said during spring training. Melvin was explaining how he anticipated handling not only the personnel, but the personalities on a roster that now seems to have four everyday outfielders, after the offseason trade for former Diamondbacks' All-Star Chris Young, and five everyday infielders, due to the acquisitions of shortstops Jed Lowrie and Hiroyuki Nakajima, the latter a free agent from the Seibu Lions of Japan.
"We have a lot of moving parts," Melvin said.
The A's surprising surge to the American League West title last year was due, in part, to Melvin's savvy managing of a rotating cast of characters. It was a heavy rotation. An even 50 players wore an Oakland uniform in 2013, he points out, from Allen (Brandon) to Weeks (Jemile). Melvin was able to try all sorts of combinations, and found enough good ones to win 94 games.
Now the club will attempt to advance its model to the next level, thanks not just to a surplus of passable major leaguers, but to a surplus of starter-caliber major leaguers, several of whom will likely have to play all over the diamond in order to receive a season's worth of at-bats.
"The difficult part will be for Jed and Chris, having to play some positions that they haven't had to before in their careers," Melvin says. "We'll see how it goes. Stay tuned. It wasn't a problem last year, and that's why we had the success we did. We played for that day, every day."
"It works because Bob makes it work," says David Forst, the A's Assistant GM. "It starts with him, and his ability to communicate with guys and explain their roles, and get them to buy into it. But it doesn't work if guys are unhappy, if guys aren't getting the right amount of work. Bob does a great job of facilitating that."
The A's surplus is by design, and it was born from the experience that only a very low-revenue, low-payroll club can acquire. "We've sort of created it because of how many years our offseason plans were completely sabotaged by injury," explains Forst. "Very rarely, between 2008 and 2011, was the team that we envisioned out on the field."
"If we have injury problems, we can't go out and sign a $20 million player, or trade for someone of that stature," adds Melvin. "We're trying to create a 25-man roster, in house, that enables us to withstand injury, that enables us to put the best potential lineup out there on a particular day."
Since 2006, the year of their most recent playoff appearance before last season's five-game ALDS loss to the Tigers, the A's have been in a hyper rebuilding mode, cycling through players and prospects in an attempt to find a combination that worked. A total of 179 players participated in at least one game for them between 2007 and 2012.
"You're looking for the right mix," Forst says. "In this market your window is so small. So short. When you find it, that's the one you stick with and try to build on. Which is, we hope, what we have now."
Oakland's depth extends to the starting rotation, which will run to six possible members when Bartolo Colon is eligible to return from his PED suspension after the season's first five games. Until then -- and perhaps even long after that -- the rotation will consist of five men who are 25 or younger, including a quartet of second-year players in Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily.
"As an organization, we give younger players prominent roles and let them do their thing very quickly," Melvin says.
The senior member of the group -- and, in fact, the longest-tenured member of the team -- is Brett Anderson, the staff No. 1 who turned 25 on Feb. 1. "I can rent a car now -- that's the positive of turning 25, about the only one," says Anderson. "If you're here three, four, five years, it seems like 10 [at] other places."
Last year, the A's proved that they can win thanks in large measure to that young, cheap, precocious depth. Anderson made only six starts, due first to his recovery from Tommy John surgery and then a strained oblique; Colon was suspended; Brandon McCarthy was lost for the season after being struck in the head by a line drive. It didn't matter.
In 2013, Oakland will seek to further its grand experiment. It does not have the star power of its deeper-pocketed opponents, as perhaps only Cuban leftfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who provided a stellar and immediate return on the major gamble the team made in signing him last February to a four-year, $36 million deal before he'd every played an inning in the U.S, possesses truly elite talent.
But the A's do have ready-to-go options, accumulated through years of savvy dealings, that teams like the Yankees and Angels lack. In a new era in which virtually every team considers itself a contender, meaning that fewer external fill-ins will be available during the season even to the very rich clubs, that depth could prove a separator for the A's. Their model, like it was during the Moneyball era, could be one that every organization soon tries to replicate.
Melvin plans to find 500 plate appearances for Lowrie, acquired in a trade with the Astros in early February. That is a total the 28-year-old has never reached, due not to performance but a history of maladies that has included a fractured wrist, mononucleosis and, last year, a sprained ankle and nerve damage in his right leg.
Lowrie, though, has shown flashes of production when he's been on the field -- he had 16 home runs and 42 RBIs in 97 games in 2012 -- and he rejects the notion that he is injury prone.
"Somebody that says that doesn't know what he's talking about," says Lowrie. "If you don't take care of yourself and you continue to get injured, I'd characterize you as injury prone. When things are out of your control - you get in a collision at second base because you're trying to make a baseball play -- that's different. I'm not going to change the way I play the game to try to prevent those situations. I'm going to do what I can to get an out and help the team."
The last pitch McCarthy will likely ever throw for the A's was the one that came right back at him last Sept. 5, fracturing his skull and sending him into emergency brain surgery. But the A's had the starters to withstand his loss (they went 18-8 thereafter), and they still will -- particularly after Colon returns from his suspension.
McCarthy rejuvenated his career in Oakland, going 17-15 with a 3.29 ERA over two seasons there. But he has moved on, to the Diamondbacks, and so have the A's.
The unsung heroes in last year's majors-leading 14 walk-off wins were the members of the A's bullpen, who consistently kept things close enough for the lineup to do its late damage. Oakland's relievers ranked second in the AL in ERA (2.94) in 2012, and the group is better this year.
"The bullpen arms they run out there, one after another after another . . .," said one competing executive, shaking his head in admiration, after his team had played them this spring. "Good arms, big physical guys."
That's particularly impressive given all of the top relievers the organization has traded away in recent years, including closers Huston Street and Andrew Bailey. It helps to have organizational options such as Sean Doolittle, a first baseman who suddenly became a shutdown setup man with a fastball that approaches 98 miles an hour from the left side.
The A's struck out 1,387 times last season, more than any AL team ever had before. There is little reason to expect that number to decrease, not when they've added a player like Young, who has whiffed 814 times in hit 885 big league games. The offense, in other words, will continue to be of the feast-or-famine variety -- very much like that of the Rays, their southeastern doppelgangers (as far as finances, roster depth and gritty style), who last season struck out 1,323 times, the third most in AL history.
Even in a stacked AL West, the A's are positioned to prove that last season was not at all a fluke, thanks to a roster that is cleverly constructed to minimize the impact of inevitable injuries and poor performances -- and thanks also to the singular talent that is Cespedes.