This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 18: the Oakland Athletics.
2014 Record and Finish: 88–74 (.543), second place in AL West (ninth overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 81–81 (.500), third place in AL West (18th overall)
The Case For
At this point, you bet against Billy Beane at your own risk. The Athletics' longtime general manager spent the off-season making a trade roughly every hour, totally overhauling a team that once again fell short of the playoffs after last season's Wild-Card Game collapse against the Royals. But this is a GM who has overseen six division champions in his 16 years running the A's. His roster tinkering may have looked like unnecessary meddling, but as always, there were a number of savvy moves amidst the madness.
Beane's best deal came in mid-January, getting two-time All-Star Ben Zobrist in a trade with the Rays to shore up second base, a position that was a persistent weakness for Oakland a year ago. Likewise, Marcus Semien, acquired from the White Sox in exchange for Jeff Samardzija, should give the A's a long-term solution at shortstop. Zobrist and Semien should be a significant improvement up the middle from what Eric Sogard and Jed Lowrie gave Oakland last year.
The rotation will miss Samardzija, but it gained a pair of intriguing young arms in Jesse Hahn and Kendall Graveman. The 25-year-old Hahn, brought over from San Diego, posted strong strikeout rates in his rookie season, whiffing 70 in 73 1/3 innings. Graveman, a part of the Josh Donaldson deal with Toronto, is a 2013 eighth-round draft pick who dominated four levels of the minors in 2014. Armed with a heavy sinker and impeccable control (a walks-per-nine rate of 1.7 last year), the 24-year-old righthander has dazzled in spring training, giving up just one run in 15 innings to make himself the favorite for the fifth starter spot.
Those additions will fortify an already solid group of young players, including No. 1 starter Sonny Gray, slugging rightfielder Josh Reddick and closer Sean Doolittle, who spent his first three seasons in pro ball as a first baseman before switching to the mound. A's fans may not recognize the team that steps onto the field for Opening Day, but if Beane's moves pay off, they should see this roster contend all the way through 2015.
The Case Against
Beane has more hits than misses in his career, but a few of his off-season moves were head-scratchers. Donaldson's impending pay raise through arbitration made his departure almost necessary, but Brett Lawrie is a poor replacement at third base. Injury-prone and not particularly productive when he is on the field, Lawrie slashed a mere .247/.301/.421 in 282 plate appearances for the Blue Jays last year, and his defense is a sizable step down from Donaldson's Gold Glove-caliber work. Sending Brandon Moss to the Indians, meanwhile, robbed Oakland of a good deal of power, and the return, minor league second baseman Joe Wendle, was both uninspiring and unlikely to help in 2015.
In free agency, Beane was even less successful. His three-year, $30 million deal for Billy Butler looks like a costly blunder, given the portly designated hitter's age (29 on April 18) and loss of power (his slugging percentage has fallen from a career-best .882 in 2012 to a career-worst .702 last year).
The rotation is untested in the cases of Hahn, Graveman and Drew Pomeranz, and there's little trusted depth behind them. Beane has always proved a wizard at finding pitchers, either via the scrap heap (see Scott Kazmir), in the minors or by trade, but this group of starters will test his ability to uncover above-average arms. The A's do have Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin on the way back from Tommy John surgery, but those rehabs are perilous and unpredictable, particularly in the case of Parker, who underwent his second ligament replacement procedure last year.
In sum, Oakland has a lineup that looks weaker than last year's and a rotation that is a far cry from the troika of Gray, Samardzija and Jon Lester it featured down the stretch in 2014.
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X-Factor: Ike Davis
It's been a long, hard fall for Davis since he was taken with the 18th pick of the 2008 draft by the Mets. Once considered a future cornerstone for the franchise, Davis was undone by injuries ranging from ankle sprains to valley fever. Mets management finally soured on their first baseman last year, shipping him to Pittsburgh for a pair of minor leaguers, though his Pirates stay (.235/.343/.378 in 397 PA) was ultimately no more successful than his time in New York (.241/.334/.433 over five seasons).
Now Davis, like so many other major league cast-offs, comes to Oakland hoping to rebuild his career. But are the A's making a mistake in relying on him as their regular first baseman? The southpaw does have good power—he bashed 32 homers for the Mets back in 2012—and has always shown a good eye at the plate, with a career walk rate of 12.6%. But he's consistently struggled to make contact, and lefthanders have tortured Davis in his career; he's a mere .196/.261/.316 hitter against them. And O.co Coliseum is not a place lefty hitters want to call home. FanGraphs has Oakland as the third-hardest place for a lefthander to hit one out.
The A's can solve Davis's woes against southpaws by pairing him with 6'8" righty Nate Freiman in a platoon. But beyond that, Oakland simply has to hope that the former top prospect can put it all together in his age-29 season. If he can't, the A's will be left with a gaping hole in the middle of their lineup and no easy way to fix it.
Number To Know: -1.4
Last season, Oakland's second basemen—Sogard, Alberto Callaspo and Nick Punto—combined to deliver -1.4 WAR, the seventh-worst mark in the majors at the position and the lowest number for the A's at any spot on the field. In fact, Oakland hasn't been above replacement level at second base since 2010. That should change with the addition of Zobrist, who was a five-win player in '14 thanks to his patient approach at the plate, above-average defense and solid base running. While Zobrist won't be a long-term solution at second—he's a free agent after the season—he nonetheless should upgrade the position for the A's and offset the loss of Donaldson in the infield.
Most Overrated: Stephen Vogt
"Catcher is their biggest hole, and Vogt is a No. 3 catcher when they only had one. He's never been known for being a great defender. If there's any chance for them to upgrade there, I think they will."
Most Underrated: Fernando Abad
"Not only is he capable of coming in and facing a tough lefthanded hitter, throwing up to 97 with a plus slider, but he also gets out righthanded hitters, and he’s capable of pitching multiple innings. I expect this guy to be an All-Star. When people start noticing how good he is, he’ll get the credit he is due."