The 2014 Oakland Athletics will look very similar to the 2013 version, which was the second-best team in the American League. As a result, management hopes to duplicate their AL West title -- at least.
While the A's will miss the surprising 18-win season put forth by Bartolo Colon, who signed with the Mets in the offseason, they do bring in a similarly resurrected pitcher in Scott Kazmir. The lefty had a very good season with the Indians, only a year after pitching in the Independent League, and falling far off of fantasy radars everywhere.
In the bullpen, the A's let Grant Balfour walk, despite the Australian closer posting the best season of his career. To remedy that, Oakland traded infielder Jemile Weeks for Orioles closer Jim Johnson, who is six years younger than Balfour.
Offensively, they're bringing back the same lineup that scored 338 runs in the second half of last season, which was only outdone by the Red Sox. For the entire season, only the Red Sox, Tigers and Cardinals scored more runs -- which is an incredible feat, considering the lineup didn't have a 35-home run hitter or a 100-RBI guy. And let's not forget that O.co Coliseum ranks as a top-five pitcher's park.
From a fantasy perspective, there will be about a dozen Oakland players who will be drafted, but the big question is -- will we see 11 or 12 Oakland players ranking among the top 276 players at the end of the season?
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Coco Crisp, CF
2. Josh Donaldson, 3B
3. Jed Lowrie, SS
4. Yoenis Cespedes, LF
5. Brandon Moss, 1B
6. Josh Reddick, RF
7. Alberto Callaspo, 2B
8. John Jaso, DH
9. Derek Norris, C
1. Jarrod Parker, RHP
2. Scott Kazmir, LHP
3. Sonny Gray, RHP
4. Dan Straily, RHP
5. A.J. Griffin, RHP
Others: Tommy Milone, Drew Pomeranz
Bullpen: Jim Johnson (Closer), Ryan Cook, Luke Gregerson
Do the A's have an ace? Not really, but they have plenty of promising arms for fantasy owners to use. A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker had successful debuts in 2012, and Sonny Gray and Dan Straily followed suit with solid first seasons in 2013. Gray even threw eight shutout innings against the Tigers in the playoffs. None of the above players really project out to be front-end starters, but then again, Griffin, Parker and Straily are entering their third season as starters, which is usually a great indicator for a possible breakout.
From a fantasy perspective, each of these pitchers are worth drafting in the middle and later rounds, with Gray topping out in round 14 or so. Gray may take a small step back, as Griffin and Parker seemed to take. A sophomore pitcher has to adjust to what adjustments the hitters have made after his first go around.
Kazmir's probably more of an outside in fantasy mixed leagues, and the A's also have some depth, with Tommy Milone and Drew Pomeranz available. If Pomeranz can stay healthy, he might finally make good on the promise of his talent, after being the fifth overall pick with Colorado in 2010.
What can we expect from the updated Oakland bullpen? The A's bullpen, which ranked sixth in the majors last season in ERA (3.22), added Jim Johnson to replace Balfour, along with Luke Gregerson, Ryan Cook and eventually Eric O'Flaherty (Tommy John surgery last May). The surplus of starting pitching should make this bullpen deep and long.
Johnson comes over to the Bay Area after posting an MLB-leading 101 saves over the past two seasons in Baltimore. His K/9 increased a bit, along with his BB/9, and his ERA climbed nearly half a run from 2012.
While Johnson remains young enough to stave off a decline in production, another 50-save season might be too much to ask. While the A's are better than the O's, Johnson topping out just above 35 saves seems like a better projection for a closer on a new team. That makes him someone to consider as your first fantasy closer -- draft him near round 10 or so.
To which tier of third basemen does Josh Donaldson belong? Looking back on last season, Donaldson eclipsed the Evan Longoria-David Wright group (and all but three other third basemen) in head-to-head points already. So the real question should really be -- do we expect Donaldson to remain this good, or can we expect a falloff?
Donaldson broke out as a 27-year-old last season, developing into one of the A's three best hitters last season. He led the team in RBI (93) and hitting (.301), played the most games (158) of any A's hitter and tallied the second-most runs (89) and third-most homers (24).
Where was all of this bat action in Donaldson's previous part of his career? Well, remember that he originally came through the A's and Cubs' systems as a catcher. Catching prospects do happen to take longer to come around offensively, usually because they have to learn the more important aspects of the game first -- defense and handling a pitching staff.
Then in 2012, the A's started using him at other positions, which further delayed his development. Now, he's entrenched as the A's third basemen for the foreseeable future. Can we expect a continued rise in his offense? Probably not. And we'll likely see him come back a bit even from last year's numbers, but he doesn't appear to be a flash in the pan nor a young stud on the rise. He's just a top-10 third baseman -- that likely won't land in the top five again.
Scott Kazmir, SP -- While it sounds crazy to think the former Mets farmhand will rediscover some of the magic he had with the Rays in the mid-2000s, consider what Bartolo Colon did in his 16th season in the majors last year. Kazmir should benefit from a great pitcher's park, and owners will be able to draft him with a final draft pick. Understand, of course, that he'll be available there because everyone else thinks he's a trip to the DL waiting to happen. You can just keep riding him until he does -- and it's only a 23rd-round pick you've gambled on him. The upside -- he wins over a dozen games in 175 innings on a team that scores a lot.
Yoenis Cespedes, OF -- Anyone who saw YouTube videos of Cespedes knows he has power and speed to spare. Unfortunately, those who saw Cespedes play last season knows he swings at bad pitches too often. His bad plate discipline continued to get worse as the season wore on, finishing with a 2.2-percent walk rate in September. He makes a visit to the DL at least once a season, and his strikeout percentage increased from 18.9 percent in 2012 to 23.9 percent last year. (That's top-20 futility, right there.) If you want him, you have to blow a fifth- or sixth-round pick on him, while likely passing on players like Wil Myers and Jason Heyward.
Dan Straily, SP -- Straily's second half of last season was better than both Parker's and Griffin's. Straily posted a 3.61 ERA in 13 starts and a pedestrian 7.22 K/9 rate. His WHIP was high, and he did go 4-6 in that stretch, but it's also important to remember he led the minor leagues in strikeouts back in 2012. Things look good for the 25-year-old, but he has to get his K-rate up again, while still keeping his control. If the offense can continue to score runs aplenty, and this improved bullpen can clean things up in the back half, Straily could end up being a top-30 SP. While Gray would seem to be the more obvious breakout pick, he's already being taken in Round 14 or so. Straily's going five rounds later.
AL-only guys to know
Luke Gregerson, RP -- Coming over from San Diego, Gregerson is as reliable a middle reliever as you can find, striking out a batter per inning, and keeping his ERA under 2.80 in his past three seasons.
John Jaso, C -- With Derek Norris and Stephen Vogt sharing catching duties, Jaso becomes the regular designated hitter for the A's, which means he'll get a lot of at-bats, and he'll retain his catcher eligibility. But consider the fact that his slugging percentage (.372) in 2013 was lower than his on-base percentage (.387), and you understand why he's not necessarily the slugger you want in mixed leagues.