Springtime Storylines: Who are the Oakland Athletics?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: the Somewhere in the Bay Area Probably Oakland A’s.

The Big Question: Who are these guys?

To say the A’s have undergone a lot of changes since last season is more than a bit of an understatement.  Out are Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey, Gio Gonzalez, Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham and David DeJesus. In are Yoenis Cespedes, Bartolo Colon, Seth Smith, Jonny Gomes, Jarrod Parker, Josh Reddick and Brad Peacock.  But more significant than the net value of the changes themselves is what those changes represent.

Mostly, it represents more sadness for A’s fans who bought into the rebuild-on-the-cheap-and-surprise-everyone storylines for the past decade.  It worked pretty well. Pretty darn well, actually. But now, rather than see the big names go when they hit free agency, the A’s are jettisoning players before they actually get expensive.  Rather than saying, hey, we can compete next year with some no-names, the A’s are basically saying that this year, next year and maybe the year after are irrelevant. Call us back in three years. Maybe.

All of this is a function of their stadium situation, of course. Stuck in limbo between Oakland and San Jose, the A’s have decided to basically punt on the here and now and hope that maybe someday they can move into a new park and actually spend some money (though, it should be noted, they didn’t save that much money shipping off all those players this winter due to signing Yoenis Cespedes and bringing back Coco Crisp).  In the meantime, they have done less than the minimum to even attempt to maintain fan excitement in Oakland.

None of which has a ton of bearing on how the team will actually do. More on that below.  But existentially speaking, the Oakland A’s are … no one. A team that is neither here nor there.

What else is going on?

  • The rotation is … different.  With Cahill and Gonzalez gone and Brett Anderson injured, the rotation is Brandon McCarthy and a lot of questions. Bartolo Colon was a pleasant surprise for the Yankees last season, but his durability and effectiveness in 2012 is nothing certain. Dallas Braden is coming off shoulder surgery and won’t be ready until at least mid-May, if that. Tom Milone, Tyson Ross and Graham Godfrey are no sure things.
  • The lineup is going to be a weakness, and that’s the case even if Cespedes exceeds expectations and provides some punch in the middle of the lineup. They get Manny Ramirez after 50 games, but what can he really be expected to do after more than a year off and at the age of 40? There’s not much else exciting in this lineup.
  • What about Cespedes? He’s certainly gotten a lot of press — and God knows I was taken by him when I saw him in spring training — but let’s be realistic here: is he going to come from Cuba in his mid-20s and immediately become a serious offensive threat? Or is it more likely that he’ll be a low average, moderate power, lots of strikeouts kind of guy who plays a decent enough centerfield to pass this year and maybe next, but who is really destined for a corner?  If I’m a betting man I go with the latter.
  • The real excitement in this franchise: the farm system.  Those trades of Gonzalez, Bailey and Cahill netted the A’s a ton of minor league talent. That’s great for, say, 2014, but for now it doesn’t help. Still, if you’re a prospect hound, the A’s are a fun team to watch.

How are they gonna do?

The days of the A’s being a surprise contender in a weak AL West are long gone. Even if everything breaks perfectly, they don’t compete with Texas or Anaheim.  This is a third place team if I ever saw one.

Evan Longoria: ‘I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base’

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The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.