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The Strike Zone

2014 Season Preview: Oakland Athletics

Jed Lowrie appeared in a career-high 154 games in 2013, hitting .290/.344/.446. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)Jed Lowrie appeared in a career-high 154 games in 2013, hitting .290/.344/.446. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 5: The Oakland Athletics. You can find previews for teams 30 through 6 here.

2013 Record and Finish: 96-66, first place in AL West (third overall); lost in ALDS to Detroit

2014 Projected Record: 94-68, first place in AL West

The Case For

The A's are the two-time defending AL West champions in large measure because of the deep rosters Billy Beane has given to his manager, Bob Melvin. This year’s is no different, and they’ve already had to tap into it, as Jarrod Parker – who was to be the Opening Day starter, and who last year had a stretch of 19 straight starts without a defeat – was lost in spring training to a second Tommy John surgery. On top of that, A.J. Griffin, another young rotational stalwart, was shut down with elbow tendonitis. Even so, the A's are built to withstand such unfortunate events in a way that most teams, whose dreams are broken along with the arms of their key pitchers, are not. For example, Tommy Milone, who started 59 games the past two seasons but might have begun the season in the minors were everyone healthy, will simply now step back into the rotation.

The Case Against

The A's are better protected against injuries that most of their competitors, particularly as far as their pitching, but their offense is by necessity composed of players who are prone to inconsistency. As a scout recently pointed out, a few years ago, Josh Donaldson was a back-up Triple-A catcher, and last season, his WAR was second in the AL to only Mike Trout. Jed Lowrie had never before stayed healthy enough to play in even 100 games, but last year, he played in 154 of them and led AL shortstops in OPS. Yes, the 2013 A's sustained a few disappointing performances, as Yoenis Cespedes appeared to regress as a sophomore and Josh Reddick’s home run total plummeted from 32 to 12, but still they ranked third in the league in runs scored. The point is that, in order to contend at its payroll, the club has to pursue high variance strategies as far as the players it acquires, stocking its lineup with hitters with upside but who were not sought after by others because they are risky in a variety of ways (past performance, age, injury history). That risk has worked out for the past two years, and is mitigated somewhat by the club’s depth, but all it would take is a few more coinciding negative outcomes (Donaldson proves a one-year wonder, Cespedes doesn’t bounce back) for the whole thing to collapse.

2014 Fantasy baseball team preview: Oakland Athletics

X-Factor: Addison Russell

A strained hamstring ended Russell’s spring after 12 games – the A's assigned him to minor league camp on March 16, to rehab – but the 20-year-old’s days in the minors will likely end at some point this season. The game’s No. 14 prospect, according to Baseball America, has an advanced all-around skill set (in 110 games last season, he had 46 extra-base hits and 21 steals), and he could be called upon to give the A's a boost similar to the one Manny Machado provided the Orioles two years ago. Lowrie could shift to second to make room for Russell, moving Alberto Callaspo to the bench.

Number To Know: Five

Even though last year’s closer, Grant Balfour, is now in Tampa Bay, Melvin might have five legitimate closer candidates at his disposal by mid-season. Jim Johnson, an All-Star with the Orioles in 2012, will begin the season with the job, but behind him will be Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, Luke Gregerson and eventually, assuming a timely recovery from Tommy John surgery, free agent signing Eric O'Flaherty. Oakland's bullpen might be unmatched as far as talent, and it is also well constructed, as Doolittle and O'Flaherty are both lefties who have the stuff to get right-handed batters out (they hit .227 against Doolittle last season, and .209 against Flaherty). Consider it another reason why injuries to Oakland's starters won’t be as damaging as they might for most other clubs.

Scout's Takes

Most overrated: Josh Reddick

"Super defender, ran into 32 homers in 2012. He did have a wrist problem last year, so you have to give him a mulligan, but you expect to see the real Josh Reddick this year. The real Josh Reddick for me is probably .250, 18 to 20 home runs, 70 RBI. Nobody knew him two years ago, nobody knew how to attack his strengths. He wasn’t a household name. Last year, they carved him up pretty well. He has a one-way swing. Everything is a long swing, he pulls everything. Last year, he didn’t have the flexibility in his wrist to manipulate the ball around the field, but I still don’t love his swing. He’s got an uppercut, which is not that odd for a left-handed hitter, but his is really turn and burn – guess and go. You’re going to need to see him drive the ball the other way, show the will and the ability to hit the ball the other way, if he’s going to be a star. To get him out, you can throw him something soft he can pull way foul, and then pitch him away."

Most underrated: Jed Lowrie

"Last year, he played every day. That was the thing that was the knock on him, that he couldn’t stay on the field. Last year, he stayed on the field and nearly led the AL in doubles. He was probably the best pure hitter on that team. It’s not far-fetched for them to hit third this year. In spring training, Melvin’s been using both Donaldson and Lowrie in the three hole, rotating them between two and three. He can hit with two strikes, works the middle of the field. He’s never late, he doesn’t seem to be guessing and he’s in control of the batter’s box."

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