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2014 A's Preview: Primed For Another Division Title?

Scott Jenstad

Scott Jenstad

Scott Jenstad is a veteran of both NFBC and CDM fantasy games. He has won three NFBC Main Event league titles and finished twice in the Top 10 Overall. Scott is a hardcore fan of the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland A's and Golden State Warriors. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenstad.

2014 Oakland Athletics Team Preview

The A's surprised many by repeating as AL West Champions in 2013. They found a way to improve upon their 94-win Cinderella 2012 season by even winning two more games in 2013. Of course, the A's followed their fantastic season with yet another loss in an ALDS Game 5, losing for the second year in a row to a Justin Verlander gem in the deciding contest. Everyone always points to a Game 5 when a series is lost, but the A's really lost the series in Game 4, a game which they led 3-0 in the fifth inning and scored no runs down by one in the eighth inning after loading the bases with no outs. Aside from another playoff frustration, 2013 was an extremely successful season for the A's. The most notable item of the season was the emergence of Josh Donaldson as a legit MVP candidate. After a rough spring which had experts questioning if Donaldson would even keep his job all year, he responded by hitting .301 with 24 home runs and 93 RBI, finishing fourth in the AL MVP voting. Donaldson's emergence enabled the A's to overcome a disappointing season (compared to hopes and projections) from Yoenis Cespedes and a complete disaster of a season from 2012 breakout star Josh Reddick.

The A's pitching staff was boosted by an exceptional (if not unexpected) season from 40-year-old Bartolo Colon. Coming off a 50-game suspension for PED use, Colon won 18 games while compiling a 2.65 ERA, the second-best mark in the American League. Colon parlayed his successful season into a two-year contract with the Mets. While the A's will miss Colon's consistency in the rotation, they are very rich in young talent that will toe the rubber for them in 2014. Jarrod Parker recovered from a terrible April to put up another solid season and Sonny Gray emerged as a potential future ace. Gray made 10 regular season starts after his callup, winning five games with a 2.67 ERA and striking out more than a batter per inning. The A's also received good seasons from young starters A.J. Griffin (3.83 ERA in 32 starts) and Dan Straily (3.96 ERA in 27 starts) who should only get better with another year of experience. With a need to replace Colon, the A's rounded out the rotation by signing Scott Kazmir to a two-year deal this winter. Kazmir had a re-birth in 2013 and should enjoy pitching in the spacious O.co Coliseum.

The major retooling the A's did in the offseason was to the back-end of their bullpen. They lost closer Grant Balfour to free agency (Rays), but replaced him with Jim Johnson in a December trade with the Orioles. In addition to acquiring Johnson, the A's also added a top-notch setup man in Luke Gregerson who has an ERA under 3.00 in each of the last three seasons for the Padres. Finally, the A's added Eric O'Flaherty as a free agent from the Braves. O'Flaherty will not join the A's until mid-season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but he gives them a very nice lefty to pair with Sean Doolittle. These new arms join back-end stalwarts Ryan Cook and Doolittle (and Dan Otero who emerged in 2013) to form what should be a fantastic bullpen, which is especially valuable considering how young the A's rotation is.

The A's figure to be right in the mix in the AL West, but are probably still not the favorite even after back-to-back titles. The Rangers made major additions to their offense, trading for Prince Fielder and signing Shin-Soo Choo as a free agent. They will enter the season as the favorite of most experts, which is probably just about how the A's would like it. The Angels will also be in the conversation if they can find a way to get better starting pitching coupled with bounce-back seasons from Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols. With the AL East as strong as always, whoever does not win the division will likely have to battle to earn a Wild Card berth. It should be a fun division race all year and the schedule makers have set it up to be a potentially very exciting finish as the A's visit Arlington for a four-game set on the final weekend of the season.

Offseason Moves

Lost Grant Balfour (Rays), Chris Young (Mets), Bartolo Colon (Mets), Scott Sizemore (Yankees) and Kurt Suzuki (Twins) via free agency.

Of the free agents lost, Balfour and Colon figure to be the ones that the A's will miss the most. Colon was a rock in the starting rotation all year long and finished sixth in the Cy Young voting, but the A's were wise to avoid a two-year deal with a 40-year-old pitcher. Balfour was very solid for the A's last year, but they also assumed they could not afford him in free agency. His deal with Baltimore fell through and the Rays were able to scoop him up on a much cheaper than expected contract. One has to wonder whether Balfour's antics on the mound, which caused issues with Victor Martinez in the ALDS, finally turned the A's off as they acquired Jim Johnson as their closer very early in the free agent process, never showing much interest in retaining Balfour.

Signed Coco Crisp to a two-year contract extension.

Crisp provided a lot of fantasy value in 2013, but not in his usual fashion. His stolen bases dropped all the way down to 21 (from 49 and 39 the previous two years), but he also muscled up and hit a career-high 22 home runs and became the least likely member of the 20/20 club in 2013. Crisp's OBP is not as high as a team would typically want from a leadoff hitter, but his efficiency on the bases and newfound power make him the catalyst for the A's offense. It seems reasonable to expect that the power will wane a bit in 2014, but that the speed will return and Crisp might give owners a solid shot at a 15/30 season if he can remain healthy, which has always been his biggest question mark.

Traded Jemile Weeks and Michael Freitas to the Orioles for Jim Johnson.

Once considered the A's second baseman of the future, Weeks was dealt to the Orioles for Johnson, who immediately slides right into the closer's role in Oakland. The A's have a lot of high-end setup men, but with his experience in the role combined with his high salary, he figures to have a pretty decent leash on the closer job. The A's do not usually pay for closers, but the fact he was only on a one-year deal was appealing to the A's. Johnson has delivered back-to-back 50 save seasons, but he blew nine opportunities in 2013 and at times was walking on eggshells to keep his job in Baltimore. On the plus side, in 2013, Johnson increased his K/9 to 7.2, the best full-season mark of his career and he plugged along with a 58 percent groundball rate.

Traded Brett Anderson and $2 million to the Rockies for Drew Pomeranz and Chris Jensen.

Just two years ago, it appeared that Anderson was going to be the A's ace of the future and perhaps one of the elite left-handed starters in the American League. Anderson added to his injury-prone reputation by throwing just 44.2 innings in 2013 after suffering an ankle injury early in the season and never fully recovered. The difference in his 2013 campaign was that when he did actually pitch, he wasn't even remotely effective. Anderson compiled a 6.04 ERA in 2013 while making five starts and 11 relief appearances and now moves to the unfriendly confines of Coors Field. Pomeranz struggled in his stint in Colorado after coming over in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade and the A's are hoping the former fifth overall draft pick will find his way, with home games in Oakland rather than Denver helping the cause. Pomeranz will likely begin the year in Triple-A, but could be one of the first guys to get the call if there are injuries in the rotation.

Traded Michael Choice and Chris Bostick to the Rangers for Craig Gentry and Josh Lindblom.

In a move that surprised many A's fan, the A's shipped out one of their top prospects who they had selected 10th overall in the 2010 MLB Draft. After a 30-homer campaign in 2011, Choice's power waned as he suffered through a hand injury. Gentry continued to be a serviceable fourth outfielder, capable of stealing bases (24-for-27 in 2013) and providing good defense, but that appears to be his upside. When deployed correctly, his glove and quality platoon line makes him a valuable commodity, and the move into a cavernous home park shouldn't hurt his production as a player with minimal power to begin with. Gentry will likely get most of his at-bats against lefties and also gives the A's someone who can play center field to spell Coco Crisp on occasion. Lindblom will likely start the year in the Triple-A rotation after being converted to a starter by the Rangers in 2013.

Traded Seth Smith to the Padres for Luke Gregerson.

Smith had an up and down 2013, but does provide nice pop against right-handed pitchers and will be an effective part of a platoon for the Padres. In each of the last two seasons, Gregerson has slotted into the setup role in front of Huston Street in San Diego, posting a combined 8.9 K/9 across 138 innings in 150 appearances. The A's will use him to add to their accomplished bullpen, with Gregerson sharing setup duties with Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle at the back end in front of closer Jim Johnson.

Traded Jerry Blevins to the Nationals for Billy Burns.

Blevins had been a mainstay in the A's bullpen since 2008. He turned in another solid season of relief for the A's in 2013, compiling a 3.15 ERA over 60 innings and even tossing in five wins for good measure and should provide the Nationals with a nice lefty out of the pen. Burns is coming off an impressive minor league season in which he posted an .808 OPS and was successful on 74-of-81 stolen base attempts. However, he is a bit old for his level at age 24, and owns just one career home run in 1,155 minor league plate appearances. He likely will spend 2014 in the A's minor league system.

Signed free agent Nick Punto (Dodgers).

Punto performed as expected for the Dodgers, batting .255/.328/.327 while seeing at least 33 games at three different infield positions (save first base). With no power and little speed, Punto's fantasy value is regulated to the very deepest of leagues. He'll take his solid glove to Oakland this year to fill a similar role with the A's, where a part-time platoon arrangement is likely on tap, although the A's may be able to afford him a brief run as a regular at second base given their lack of an established option at the keystone.

Signed free agent Scott Kazmir (Indians) to a two-year, $22 million deal.

Kazmir returned from a year away from professional baseball to become one of the best stories in the game in 2013, resurrecting a once-promising career and making 29 starts while showing flashes of being a highly effective big league starter again thanks to his continued ability to miss bats at a good clip (9.2 K/9). The new and improved version of Kazmir featured better control, as he carried the lowest walk rate of his career (2.7 BB/9) in his return to the mound. The Indians reaped the benefits of a low-risk gamble to the tune of a 2.5 fWAR pitcher, but the front office was unwilling to re-sign him during the offseason when a weak market for starters drove up the price. Kazmir signed with the A's in December, landing a two-year, $22 million deal and an opportunity to make half of his starts in a very pitcher-friendly environment in 2014. A bout of dead arm slowed Kazmir in August, but he was able to log 158 innings, his highest total since 2007. The durability concerns remain, but it's entirely possible that those concerns will enable the 30-year-old left-hander to be an undervalued rotisserie commodity again in 2014.

Signed free agent Eric O'Flaherty (Braves).

A torn UCL ended O'Flaherty's season in May, leaving the Braves without their top two lefty relievers. O'Flaherty posted a combined 1.31 ERA and 60 holds from 2011-2012, and has held opposing lefties to a .200/.262/.269 line in his career. While his recovery figures to push well into the season, O'Flaherty should join the A's bullpen late in the first half, after inking a two-year deal with Oakland in January.

Projected Lineup (vs RH / LH)

1. Coco Crisp, CF
2. John Jaso, DH / Jed Lowrie, SS
3. Josh Donaldson, 3B
4. Brandon Moss, 1B / Yoenis Cespedes, LF
5. Yoenis Cespedes, OF / Brandon Moss, 1B
6. Jed Lowrie, SS / Derek Norris, C
7. Josh Reddick, RF
8. Stephen Vogt, C / Craig Gentry, DH
9. Eric Sogard, 2B / Alberto Callaspo, 2B

The A's love to platoon and have plenty of opportunities to do so this year. It remains to be seen whether John Jaso will go back to catching a significant number of games after his concussion issues, but many reports indicate that he will serve the A's DH against righties and the catcher position will be a platoon between Derek Norris and Stephen Vogt. Brandon Moss will likely sit against tougher lefties, giving way to Nate Freiman who had a lot of success against lefties in 2013. Craig Gentry will not only get at-bats against lefties as a DH, but will also spell all three outfielders during the season. Nick Punto will provide the same role on the infield and get time at three infield positions.

Projected Rotation

1. Jarrod Parker
2. Sonny Gray
3. A.J. Griffin
4. Scott Kazmir
5. Dan Straily

The A's rotation seems pretty set heading into the season barring a spring training injury. Parker, Gray, Griffin and Kazmir are locks to start the year in the rotation with Straily being the only guy who could conceivably lose his job in the spring. Tommy Milone and Drew Pomeranz will be used as starters in the spring in case they are needed in Oakland to start the year due to injury or a Straily meltdown.

Closer: Jim Johnson takes over the role from the departed Grant Balfour. Johnson's strikeout rate increase combined with his extreme 58 percent groundball rate were both appealing to the A's as they acquired him in a trade in December. Johnson has converted 101 saves the last two seasons and will be given every chance to hang on to the job. The biggest risk to Johnson in the job is the fact that if he does struggle at all, there are four or five setup guys good enough to slide into the role fairly seamlessly.

Key Bullpen Members: This is certainly an area of extreme strength for the A's. Newcomers O'Flaherty and Gregerson were already covered above, but the A's had a strong pen even before those guys came aboard. Sean Doolittle has only been a pitcher for two seasons, and while his ridiculous 11.4 K/9 from 2012 dropped in 2013, he compiled a sparkling 0.96 WHIP in 2013 in 69 innings. He is one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball and will likely get the first crack at closing should Johnson falter or be injured.

Ryan Cook followed up his strong 2012 with another strong season, but showed some pretty serious cracks late in the year. He was terrible in September and found himself out of usual setup role during the playoffs. His second half 1.56 WHIP has to be a concern, but he has great stuff and will likely rebound to his prior form. Dan Otero was a nice surprise for the A's in 2013, allowing zero home runs in his 39 major league innings and will start 2014 as a key member of the Oakland bullpen. The pen will also feature Jesse Chavez as a long man, with Fernando Abad and Evan Scribner battling for the last spot.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

Can Yoenis Cespedes take it to the next level and become a superstar?

From watching Cespedes, there is no doubt that he has all the natural talent necessary to join the elite players in MLB. Anyone who watched his domination in the Home Run Derby now knows he has an insane abundance of power. He has dealt with minor injuries throughout both of his MLB seasons, which have slowed him down, but in 2013, his batting average crashed to .240. He struggled mightily once pitchers got two strikes on him, hitting .130/.175/.216 in those situations. He still managed to hit 26 home runs, but for fantasy owners, his stolen bases dropped off as he dealt with minor injuries much of the year. The flashes of brilliance are still there, but after a year as poor as 2013, it suddenly seems less likely that he will enjoy the superstar status A's fans were hoping for.

Can Josh Donaldson repeat his 2013 season?

Donaldson was tabbed as the A's sleeper in this review last year and ended up as one of the breakout stars in all of baseball. He hit .301 with 24 homers and 93 RBI, finishing fourth in the AL MVP race and serving as the MVP for many fantasy owners who drafted him very late or added him early in the season as a free agent. Donaldson was consistent all season and finished the season in the top-10 in the AL in slugging percentage, on-base percentage and OPS. Many people will point to Donaldson's high BABIP in 2013 as a reason for regression, but is also needs to be pointed out that in addition to that BABIP spike, Donaldson lowered his strikeout rate and raised his walk and contacts rates as he continues to improve as a hitter. A full repeat may not be likely, especially in the batting average, but if your league treats him as a fluke, definitely grab him for a very solid 2014.

Will the real Josh Reddick please stand up?

Reddick was the A's breakout star in 2012 with 32 home runs in his first season with the A's, but had a brutal 2013, hitting .226 with only 12 home runs over 385 at-bats. Reddick crashed into the fence in foul territory in Houston in April and injured his wrist and never seemed to be the same after the injury. He had surgery on the wrist after the season ended and by all accounts, he expects to be ready to go for spring training. The batting average will always be an issue and wrist injuries are always scary for power hitters, but his draft value will be severely depressed this year and he presents a nice buying opportunity as there will not be very many 30-homer potential bats available where he is being drafted.

Just how good is Sonny Gray?

Gray was the A's top pitching prospect coming into 2013, and he exceeded any and all expectations upon his callup to the rotation in August. He made 10 starts with the A's and won five of them, while amassing a 2.85 ERA with a 9.2 K/9. He is receiving a lot of hype heading into 2014 drafts, especially after his dominating performance in Game 2 of the ALDS. Gray has a fastball that sits in the low-90s and features a fantastic curveball that he changes speeds on to induce strikeouts. Combining the strikeouts with the 53 percent groundball rate in his short time in the majors sure looks like a template for a lot of success and he has already proven he can handle the big moment without a problem. It is scary to put too much faith in a guy with only 10 regular season starts, but his profile on paper and to the eye is extremely impressive.

Strengths

The pitching staff figures to be the strength of the A's as they attempt to win a third straight AL West crown. They have four young and exciting starters and if Scott Kazmir can continue on his 2013 re-birth (a huge "if" mind you), the A's starters should give them a solid shot to win most nights. Combine that with the revamped bullpen and the A's pitching staff projects to be a strong contender for the lowest team ERA in the American League. The lineup does not jump off the page like some teams, but the A's willingness to platoon and put guys in the right spots to succeed leads to more runs than one would think. Brandon Moss continues to fly under the radar, but should not once you realize that he was sixth in the AL in slugging percentage in 2013 and he trailed only Mike Trout in OPS during the second half of the season.

Weaknesses

The biggest weakness for the A's right now among the starters is offense from the two corner outfield spots, but with Reddick and Cespedes, that could translate to an overwhelming strength pretty rapidly if they both bounce back from their 2013 struggles. The other weakness is their minor league depth as they have promoted almost all of their major league ready talent. Outside of Addison Russell, the A's have very few high-end minor leaguers that are close to contributing. This could become a big issue if the A's suffer a lot of injures this year.

Rising: Sonny Gray. Gray was covered above in depth and could be the ace of the A's staff already, after only 10 regular season starts.

Declining: Coco Crisp. Crisp provided a lot of fantasy value in 2013, but not in his usual fashion. His stolen bases dropped all the way down to 21 (from 49 and 39 the previous two years), but he also muscled up and hit a career-high 22 home runs and became the least likely member of the 20/20 club in 2013. Moving forward, it is hard to believe that the home runs will return quite to that 2013 level and with Crisp being 34 now and often dealing with nagging injuries, one has to question if the stolen bases will return to prior levels. When healthy, Crisp is the catalyst for the A's offense, but if the home runs return to his career average and the stolen bases don't pop back up, you are left with an injury-prone guy that you overpaid for in your draft.

Sleeper: Dan Straily. After destroying the minors in 2012 (11.2 K/9 in 152 innings), a lot was expected of Straily coming into 2013. He started the season slowly and was inconsistent at times, but after a sparkling September, he ended his first full season in the majors with an ERA under 4.00 to go along with 10 wins. His high strikeout rates in the minors have not translated to the majors (7.3 career K/9), but he found his groove later in the year, giving up two earned runs or less in nine of his last 11 starts. If he can parlay that finish and increase his strikeout rate a bit, he could emerge as a nice value in fantasy drafts. With Gray, Parker and even Griffin getting a lot of attention on drafts, Straily could be the A's starter to target.

Supersleeper: Addison Russell. Everyone knows about Russell in the prospect and keeper league world, but in the fantasy world, he is a deep sleeper for 2014. While it is likely he needs another year of seasoning, the A's should be a contender this year and that can make teams bring up a guy a bit earlier than they want to. With Jed Lowrie at shortstop, an injury is always a possibility and it is hard to see the A's trusting Eric Sogard to play shortstop full time. After an electrifying debut in 2012, Russell encountered a bit more trouble in 2013, hitting only .269, but he still contributed 29 doubles, 10 triples, 17 home runs and 21 stolen bases, all very impressive numbers for a 19-year-old in his first full season. Russell will likely start the 2014 season at Double-A Midland, but he certainly is on the fast track for the A's and will rise through the organization quite rapidly and that ascension could be expedited greatly with a player like Lowrie in front of him who is coming off his only healthy season of his big league career.

Top Prospects

Addison Russell, SS – See above.

Billy McKinney, OF - McKinney was the A's first-round draft pick in 2013 out of high school in Plano, Texas. The 18-year-old outfielder amassed 215 at-bats across Rookie Ball and Low-A and hit .326 with three homers and eight steals. Most scouts' take on McKinney is that his quick and short swing will translate well to professional baseball and while he does not truly excel in any particular area, he is a very complete and well-rounded player. McKinney only turned 19 in August, so he is a long ways from the majors, but he will be watched closely this year in High-A and could progress through the system fairly rapidly, especially for a player drafted out of high school.

Raul Alcantara, SP - The A's acquired Alcantara in the Andrew Bailey trade that also netted them Josh Reddick two offseasons ago. Alcantara finished 2013 with 12 wins in a season split between Low-A and High-A, and he was very strong in his 27 starts while putting together a 3.11 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. Alcantara has excellent control (1.4 BB/9), which makes up for his non-dominant strikeout rate (7.1 K/9). He will be 21 this season and seems likely to be starting games in Double-A at some point, possibly right out of the gate this season. He is considered one of the top arms in the Oakland system and the A's showed their faith in him by adding him to the 40-man roster in the winter in order to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.

Michael Ynoa, SP The A's signed Ynoa to a record signing bonus when he was 16 years old, and he proceeded to miss two entire seasons with arm issues in 2009 and 2011. Ynoa had his biggest workload in 2013, throwing 75.2 innings over 21 starts between Low-A and High A. He thrived at Low-A Beloit (2.14 ERA in 54.2 innings), but struggled with a 7.71 ERA over 21 innings upon his promotion to High-A Stockton. Even with the disappointing results after the promotion, Ynoa showed flashes of the talent the A's saw when they signed him by carrying a 8.6 K/9 in 2013, but his control issues (4.2 BB/9) need to be fixed if he is ever going to fulfill the hype that surrounded him when he was signed.

Renato Nunez, 3B - The A's signed Nunez as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2010. Nunez hit .259 in Low-A with Beloit in 2013, but did hit 19 home runs and drove in 85 runs, an impressive season for a 19-year-old and in the pitcher-friendly parks of the Midwest League. By all accounts, his speed will never be an asset and his defense needs work, but most scouts agree that the power is legit. In order to move through the system quickly, Nunez will need to do something to rectify his issues making contact, as he whiffed 136 times in 2013 in 508 at-bats.