In an American League West division expected to be dominated by the juggernaut Texas Rangers and free-spending Los Angeles Angeles in 2012, the Oakland Athletics improbably rose to the top thanks to strong performances from unproven youngsters and journeyman misfits-- a run reminiscent of Billy Beane's original Moneyball teams.
Beaneball's Jason Wojciechowski joins us as we continue our tour around the American League West, checking in on the offseasons of the Seattle Mariners' rivals.
Jon: We did a podcast last spring in which you questioned your Athletics' ability to overcome the Seattle Mariners for third place in the A.L. West. What were some of the pleasant surprises that allowed the A's to shock the powerhouse Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels and end the season with a division title?
Jason: The best answer to this is "who wasn't surprisingly good?" Basically everybody who ended the year in the outfield or at first base/designated hitter (Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Seth Smith, Jonny Gomes, Brandon Moss, Chris Carter) hit better than I expected. Tom Milone and Bartolo Colon both pitched to their upside, and Travis Blackley and Sean Doolittle provided significant value out of nowhere (Blackley's route to Oakland involved washing out of the big leagues and pitching in Australia, while Doolittle, who struck out 11.4 per nine, had not pitched since college).
Jon: How did your opinion and evaluation of Yoenis Cespedes evolve from the day he was signed by the A's through the end of the season?
Jason: When Cespedes signed with the A's, I hoped he'd be good but I recognized that because of the uncertainty around his game the A's were paying him an amount of money that, relative to normal free-agent salaries, meant that he'd earn his keep just by being average. Then he started doing things like hitting a ball off the face of the second deck in center field that night in April in Oakland and I adjusted to hoping he'd be good, giving him an outside chance of being great, but realizing that, no matter what, he'd be a whole lot of fun.
At this point, I have no more questions about his bat. His physical tools at the plate are off the charts, and he's not the wild-eyed free-swinger that some suggested he might be. He's not going to post a 10 percent walk rate any time soon, but pitchers will be careful with him, and he has enough of a clue (along with enough pure strength and bat speed) not to get himself out chasing their pitches. His ability to stay healthy (he had one trip to the disabled list and multiple other "day-to-day" situations in 2012) is the major open question, and his defensive chops (he badly misplayed a number of balls in center, but his athleticism and arm seemed to serve him well in left) are still under examination.
All in all, by September, I'd reached the point of exuberance, likely to the point of irrationality.
Jon: What have the A's been up to this offseason? Are there any areas you'd still like to see them address before Spring Training rolls around?
Jason: The major hole on the roster this offseason was shortstop. The A's and Stephen Drew each declined their end of a $10 million mutual option. Shortly after Drew signed a one-year pact with Boston, the A's brought Hiroyuki Nakajima over from Japan to play the position. The hope is that Nakajima can adequately cover it (he's only going to make $6.5 million over the two guaranteed years) until Addison Russell, the 2012 first round pick, is ready or on the cusp of being so.
The shortstop hole was partially created in the first place by their trade of Cliff Pennington to Arizona for outfielder Chris Young, who should fill a part-time/rotating spot with the outfielders listed above, all of whom are returning except for Jonny Gomes (who also signed in Boston). Outside of Nakajima, Young, and reliever Chris Resop (who is unlikely to play a major role) the A's projected 25-man roster at MLB Depth Charts is entirely made up of players who finished the year with the team. (This doesn't count Scott Sizemore, who missed all of 2012 with injury, but was on the A's in 2011.)
In other words, if you saw Oakland in the playoffs, that's the team you're going to see again in April.
Jon: How do you think the A's stack up against the rest of the A.L. West right now? What has to go right to allow the A's to make it back to the playoffs in 2013?
Jason: I'm an eternal pessimist, so I see a lot of possibility that the A's performed to a man at the 75th percentile of what we might have projected for them in 2012. For someone like Josh Reddick or Yoenis Cespedes, this might mean that we should upgrade our estimations of their talent level, but let me go out on a limb and say that Brandon Moss will not slug nearly .600 again. The A's have enough redundancy at most positions to survive injuries or cratering performance, but I don't know that they have enough pure talent on hand to actually expect more than 81 wins.
I think the A's path to another mid-90-win season involves health for Brett Anderson and Jarrod Parker, one of Dan Straily or Tom Milone stepping up to pitch like a number-two starter, and the offense maintaining a semblance of competence through the efforts of Cespedes, Reddick, Carter, Smith, and one surprise (Crisp getting on base a lot, Young returning to his 2010 peak, Scott Sizemore repeating 2011, or Derek Norris living up to his prospect potential).
Los Angeles Angels offseason Q&A with Garrett Wilson of Monkey With A Halo
Houston Astros offseason Q&A with James of Astros County