AL West: Division Champ Oakland Even Stronger in Title Defense
Few division champions can remain under the radar, but the 2013 Oakland Athletics currently sit in the shadow of their division rivals, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Texas Rangers
Although the national media might be entranced by the possibilities of a lineup that includes Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and Mike Trout, the A’s have more depth and a whole lot more pitching top to bottom. And the Rangers, as talented as they are, may struggle to recover from the collapse in the last ten days of 2012.
Many around baseball may still see the A’s a fluke and a one-time wonder, but when observing the construction of the team and the incredible depth of both the 25 man and 40 man roster one can see why the team surged at the end of last year. A’s GM Billy Beane went out and quietly filled the holes on the roster.
Defensively the A’s outfield will be one of the best in baseball. Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick will be on the corners and at the heart of the A’s lineup. Reddick is a Gold Glove outfielder who was a league leader in assists and has a cannon for an arm. Cespedes struggled a bit at the beginning of the 2012 season, but he has been an incredibly quick learner at every facet of the game and may be turning a defensive liability into a plus. The A’s brought in Arizona Diamondbacks centerfielder Chris Young to split time with Coco Crisp in centerfield. Young has disappointed in his offensive consistency during his young career, but his defense at the centerfield position is one of the best in baseball. Crisp will continue to be a strong fielder, albeit one with a very weak arm.
As strong as the outfield defense is, it has been in the infield that the 2012 A’s dramatically turned around and have improved upon in the 2013 roster. Gone are AAAA scrubs like 3B Luke Hughes and 1B Kila Ka’aihue and in are under the radar, but solid 3B Josh Donaldson and 1B Brandon Moss. Moss hit for a .291 AVG last year with a .358 OBP and 21 HR’s in only 265 AB’s. If Moss continues with his surprising late career explosion, the A’s will not be hurting at 1B like they did in the days of light hitting Daric Barton, who was cut at the end of spring training.
The biggest addition in the infield has been Jed Lowrie, who came over in a trade from the Houston Astros. Lowrie has been slated to start the year at shortstop, but he can play any infield position. Lowrie may not have Gold Glove caliber defensive skills, but he has a fantastic bat and was one of the Astros few offensive bright spots last year. Second base will be a work in progress throughout the year, but Eric Sogard took the position after a torrid spring. Also, the A’s brought in catcher John Jaso, who is a strong hitting catcher to split time with the young catcher Derek Norris. Norris struggled both offensively and defensively at times last year, but shortened his swing and worked on his defense during the offseason. The young 24-year-old catcher could certainly be starting most of the games by the end of the year.
As strong as the A’s lineup is, it is the pitching that will make or break their season, and where they will separate themselves from division rivals. It is also the pitching that has the highest chance of busting for the 2013 A’s team. Most of the starters, who were nearly all rookies and under 25, will come back from last year. Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin and Tommy Milone all had amazing first seasons, but as talented and polished as they all seemed there is no way of telling if one or more could have a sophomore slump. Brett Anderson, at a mere 25 will be the anchor at the top of the rotation; but he has suffered a number of injuries and missed most of last year because of one. If one or more of the A’s starters goes down and others struggle they A’s have difficulty replacing them from a depleted farm system.
The big three bullpen aces, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, will return from last year and will make late innings brutal for opposing teams. Although Balfour is currently the closer, it is quite possible that the younger Cook or Doolittle could emerge in that role by the end of the year. Doolittle, who converted from first baseman to pitcher just last year, added a vicious slider to his repertoire during the offseason and could improve on his standout rookie season.
The A’s are a team built for the slog of a long season, and what they lack in star power they easily make up for in depth. The lineup has no holes and if the young starting pitchers don’t seriously regress, the pitching staff will most likely be in the elite class of the American league. On top of the pitching and depth is the emerging star that is outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who would be a household name if he were playing in New York instead of Oakland.