Springtime Storylines: Did the Athletics add enough offense?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The San Jose A’s (pending committee review).

The Big Question: Did the Athletics add enough offense?

The A’s were 11th in the American League in runs scored last year. In comes Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus and Josh Willingham. Out go Jack Cust, Gabe Gross, and Rajai Davis.  This is improvement. How much of an overall improvement, however, depends on whether the solid-yet-not-spectacular returning starters hold their own and/or improve.

Daric Barton had a nice season last year and one presumes that entering his age-25 season he could build on that, even if some projections are pessimistic.  Mark Ellis was another relative bright spot last year but I’m more pessimistic about him, as his 2010 season was out of step from his previous handful of seasons.  Kevin Kouzmanoff and Kurt Suzuki each had pretty dreadful years at the plate. Neither will ever win a Silver Slugger Award, but each has a bit more than they exhibited in 2010, and even a bit of upward-trending noise will help.

All of which gets to the heart of things for Oakland: with the pitching staff (more about them below) no one requires offensive heroics from this bunch.  What they need to avoid are total sinkhole seasons from multiple players like they had last season.  Getting rid of Gross and returning Coco Crisp to the lineup eliminates a couple of sinkholes. Adding Willingham and DeJesus brings in some upside (and also some injury risk).  Everyone else needs to at least be competent. It’s not a tall order for a team that will frequently be playing in low scoring games.

So what else is going on?

  • Obviously the rotation is a team strength. Trevor Cahill  was fantastic last year. Brett Anderson was too, and if he’s healthy this year — a big honkin’ if given his recent elbow troubles — he could really be something special.  Gio Gonzalez has looked phenomenal this spring and some people around the A’s camp think that he’s going to explode in 2011. I’m not sure if they do irony in the 209, but the guy that threw the perfect game last year may be the weakest of the A’s top four pitchers. Young pitching can break your heart, but if the members of the rotation can avoid being mentioned in the same paragraph as Dr. James Andrews this year, there is every reason to think they’ll be the best bunch in the American League.
  • Besides the offense, a weak spot last season was the team’s bullpen, but Billy Beane addressed it this winter, adding Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour to the mix. With Andrew Bailey, those three combine for an outstanding late inning troika.  The concern, of course, is health.  Bailey has already missed time this spring. Balfour and Fuentes aren’t young. But really, the bullpen has been significantly improved. Throw in Michael Wuertz, Craig Breslow and Joey Devine and the A’s are competing with the Yankees for the deepest bullpen in the league.
  • Helping both the starters and the pen is some pretty spiffy defense. Barton is one of the best defensive first basemen around and Ellis and Cliff Pennington are solid up the middle. Kouzmanoff isn’t what he once was with the glove, but he’s no slouch. The only bad thing about all of this is if the A’s win the West, we’re going to hear from every person who ever misunderstood “Moneyball” about how crazy it is that the Moneyball A’s won with pitching and defense. That is always a tedious conversation.
  • We’re coming upon the two-year anniversary of Bud Selig’s announcement of the formation of the committee to study whether the A’s should move to San Jose. So far the committee has yet to make a peep, but its existence — and the specter of the team moving south — has done much to dampen fan enthusiasm. Between that nonsense and the desecration of the Oakland Coliseum with those seats for Raiders game — which simultaneously blocked what used to be a nice view of the hills and prevented any Anaheim-style renovation of the place to make it a pleasant ballpark — I’m struggling to think of a fanbase that has been more abused than that of the A’s. It’s a shame given that the A’s should be pretty damn good this season.

So how are they going to do?

Quite well.  Indeed, while I’m still picking the Rangers — a pick about which I am less enthusiastic given yesterday’s announcement that Neftali Feliz is returning to the bullpen — I think Oakland will challenge Texas all year and it wouldn’t shock me at all if they took the division instead.  For them to do it, though, will take health, the continued progression of their young rotation and some relative upside years from a few otherwise limited hitters.  And one tends not to get rich betting on luck, health and young pitching.

Call them second place in the West, but second with a bullet. If things break right, playoffs.

Twins place Miguel Sano on the 10-day disabled list with shin injury

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The Twins have placed third baseman Miguel Sano on the 10-day disabled list with a stress reaction in his left shin, per the Star Tribune’s LaVelle E. Neal. Sano left Saturday’s game against the Diamondbacks after running out a ground ball double play in the fourth inning and was held out of Sunday’s lineup.

Sano, 24, is batting .267/.356/.514 with 28 home runs and 77 RBI in 475 plate appearances this season. The Twins are five back of the Indians for first place in the AL Central and currently hold a tie with the Angels for the second Wild Card slot.

Ehire Adrianza got the start at third base during Sunday’s win and could handle the hot corner while Sano is out. Eduardo Escobar could also get some time at third.

Buster Posey thinks Hector Neris hit him on purpose

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Giants catcher Buster Posey was hit by a pitch in the bottom of the eighth inning during Sunday afternoon’s series finale against the Phillies. It was a first-pitch fastball from closer Hector Neris, who had just entered the game. The Giants then had the bases loaded, but Pablo Sandoval struck out to end the inning and the Giants went on to lose 5-2.

After the game, Posey said he thinks Neris hit him on purpose, per Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle. Posey thinks Neris thought he couldn’t get him out.

Per MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki, Neris said “absolutely not” when asked if he threw at Posey on purpose. The rest of the Phillies clubhouse, per Zolecki, “Say whaaat?!”

Here’s a link to the video of Posey getting hit. Now that we have automatic intentional walks, pitchers don’t even have to risk throwing four pitches wide of the strike zone to intentionally walk a hitter, so if Neris felt he couldn’t get Posey out, there was still no need to hit him. Furthermore, Neris isn’t going to hit Posey to load the bases and put the go-ahead run on first in a 4-2 ballgame. Sandoval has been a much worse hitter than Posey, for sure, but Neris would lose the platoon advantage if he felt like facing Sandoval instead, anyway.

Getting hit hurts, so it’s understandable Posey may have been salty in the moment. But after the game, when the pain has subsided and he’s had time to think over everything, there’s no way Posey should still come to the conclusion that Neris was trying to hit him on purpose.