Wednesday October 1st, 2014

Final Record: 88-74 (.543), second in AL West, won second wild-card

Eliminated: Sept. 30

What went right in 2014: On the morning of Aug. 10, the Athletics were 72-44 (.621) with the best record and run-differential in baseball and a four-game lead in the American League West. At that point, they led the majors in runs scored, having plated 4.9 per game, and only the Padres and Mariners had allowed fewer than their 3.4 runs per game.

Royals earn overdue postseason win as Athletics complete collapse

Though things went very wrong from that point forward, Oakland still managed to claim the AL's second wild-card spot and make its third straight postseason appearance. Alas, the A's lost an instant postseason classic in the Wild-Card Game against the Royals. Oakland twice got within two outs of advancing to the Division Series before ultimately losing in the bottom of the 12th inning.

What went wrong in 2014: Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin both missed the entire season due to Tommy John surgery. Closer Jim Johnson, acquired in a salary dump in the offseason and signed for $10 million in his final arbitration season, recorded just two saves before pitching his way out of that job and, ultimately, off the team entirely. The A's recovered from those early blows thanks to strong seasons from the likes of sophomore Sonny Gray, free-agent addition Scott Kazmir, converted reliever Jesse Chavez and lefty relief ace Sean Doolittle, who took over for Johnson as closer. But pitching was not the problem in the end.

From Aug. 10 through end of the regular season, Oakland went 16-30, scoring a mere 3.4 runs per game. Battling a bad neck, centerfielder Coco Crisp hit .209/.270/.282 over that stretch. Brandon Moss hit just .181/.341/.286 with two home runs due in part to torn cartilage in his right hip. Catcher Derek Norris hit .216/.291/.261. Stephen Vogt, playing first base almost exclusively, hit .198/.263/.286 when not laid up with a sprained ankle. The team's second basemen, primarily Eric Sogard and Alberto Callaspo, hit .242/.275/.275. Its designated hitters, despite the Aug. 31 addition of Adam Dunn, hit .198/.284/.272. Only Josh Donaldson, Josh Reddick and Jed Lowrie avoided contributing to the team’s offensive collapse.

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To make matters worse, in July, general manager Billy Beane pushed his chips to the center of the table with two blockbuster trades for starting pitching that were clearly designed to load up his rotation for a deep postseason run. On July 5, he dealt shortstop Addison Russell, one of the top prospects in all of baseball, and three others to the Cubs for righties Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Then, on the morning of the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, Beane flipped Yoenis Cespedes, his starting leftfielder and No. 3 hitter, and a competitive balance pick to the Red Sox for lefthanded ace Jon Lester and righthanded platoon outfielder Jonny Gomes. Lester and Samardzija pitched well for the A's after their respective acquisitions, but Hammel struggled, Gomes was useless and the team's leftfielders in the wake of Cespedes' departure hit .193/.294/.241 at a time when his bat was desperately needed.

Those trades may yet have paid off if Lester, who had posted a 1.97 ERA in 11 postseason starts heading into the Wild-Card Game, had been able to pitch his new team to the Division Series, but it wasn't to be. Thanks to a pair of home runs from Moss and seven strong innings from Lester, the A's took a 7-3 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning of the game in Kansas City, but due in part to poor relief work from offseason addition Luke Gregerson, that advantage was shaved to 7-6, with all six runs charged to Lester. Kansas City rallied in the bottom of the ninth and 12th innings to end both the Athletics' season and, most likely, Lester's time in an Oakland uniform.

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Overall Outlook: Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but the A's are far worse off heading into the offseason than they would have been had they simply stood pat in July. Lester, Hammel and Gomes are all due to become free agents. Cespedes, meanwhile, has one year of team control remaining in Boston, and Russell has his entire career ahead of him with the Cubs. To make matters worse, among the Athletics' other free agents this fall is shortstop Jed Lowrie, for whom the team now lacks an internal replacement. Other A's due to hit free agency include Gregerson, late-season catching addition Geovany Soto, infielder Alberto Callaspo and Dunn, the last of whom has chosen retirement instead.

Pitching should still be a strength in Oakland. It has one more year of Samardzija and Kazmir to pair with Gray, and should get Parker and Griffin back from injury. There's also lefty Drew Pomeranz, who impressed in 10 starts with a 2.58 ERA but fractured his hand in late June, creating an added urgency for the rotation reinforcements Beane added in July. Likewise, the bullpen, headed by Doolittle, remains strong with or without Gregerson's return.

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The lineup, however, will still be a significant concern. Donaldson is a star in his prime, but he will turn 29 in December. Moss, now 31, is headed for microfracture surgery on his hip. Crisp will turn 35 in November and has what a team trainer termed "chronic, degenerative changes" in his neck. Norris is an excellent hitter for a catcher, but Bob Melvin chose not to start him behind the plate in the Wild-Card Game because of his defense (he threw out just 17 percent of opposing basestealers this year). Reddick has been erratic in terms of health and production the last two seasons.

Aside from that cast of characters, there's really no one else on the team or in the organization who projects as an everyday player in 2015. And as the last six weeks of the season proved, Melvin's managerial magic is only as good as the players (and the health of those players) he's employing in his various platoons and job-shares.

Given Oakland's general lack of spending power and depleted supply of trade chits, the losses of the 28-year-old Cespedes, a career .263/.316/.464 (116 OPS+) hitter, and Russell, who was by far the team’s best prospect, are particularly painful. Over the span of just three years, the A's went from upstarts to favorites in the AL, but in attempting to deliver on that expectation, they may have cut their run short. Beane has his work cut out for himself in cleaning up his own mess here.

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