Nate Freiman, Josh Donaldson, Adam Rosales, Jed Lowrie

2014 Preview: 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 2014 season. Next up: The Oakland Athletics.

The Big Question: Is there life without Jarrod Parker?

The A’s rotation has been a strength over the past couple of years, with A’s starters posting the second-best ERA in the American League last season. Bob Melvin has had the luxury of several good young arms at his disposal, some with considerable upside.

But this spring has dealt the A’s a blow, first with A.J. Griffin missing time due to flexor tendinitis and then with Jarrod Parker going down for his second Tommy John surgery. Parker has been key to the A’s two straight division titles, posting a 3.73 ERA in 378 innings for the A’s during the past two seasons after coming over in the late-2011 trade for Trevor Cahill. Coming into spring training he was expected to be the staff ace, now he’s gone for the season. Oh, and free agent signee Scott Kazmir has had some health issues this spring as well.

Suddenly, the rotation has Sonny Gray — who has a grand total of ten major league games under his belt — as the Opening Day starter with Kazmir, Jesse Chavez, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone following him. It’s also possible that Drew Pomeranz and Josh Lindblom will see some time starting. Girffin is expected back in early May, but if he has a setback and if Kazmir hits some more speed bumps in the early going, there are going to be some problems with the A’s pitching.

The A’s aren’t a pitching-first team or anything — they are a well-balanced team with a potent offense — but the weakening of the starting rotation right out of the gate is not good news to say the least, and it puts that much more pressure on untested starters, the bullpen and the offense.

What else is going on?

That offense: it’s a nice, balanced one that isn’t too terribly reliant on any one guy. The A’s ranked third in the AL in runs last season and did so via a healthy slugging percentage while not totally abandoning a running game and the A’s historically strong OBP skills. While the A’s would love for Yoenis Cespedes to develop into an MVP candidate, his regression last season was cushioned by the presence of Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Jed Lowrie, Coco Crisp, Derek Norris and others. Just so many weapons here.

The bullpen is revamped but is still a profound strength. Gone is Grant Balfour, in at closer is Jim Johnson. Johnson has saved over 100 games over the past two seasons, but he was far shakier and far unluckier last season than he was in 2012. Also in are Eric O’Flaherty (who won’t be available until June following Tommy John rehab), Fernando Abad and Luke Gregerson. With holdovers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook setting things up the bullpen — however different it looks — will still be a strength, especially once O’Flaherty comes online.

Be it pitching or offense, the A’s are an uncommonly deep team. They, as last season, will use multiple lineup combinations and will hand more at bats to bench guys like Craig Gentry, Eric Sogard, Daric Barton and even Nick Punto than a lot of teams might. It’s a tribute to Bob Melvin’s strengths as a manager that he always seems able to put the right peg in the right hole at the right time and to play the matchups.

Last year most people couldn’t have picked Josh Donaldson out of a police lineup, yet as the year wore on there was increasing talk of him becoming an MVP candidate. Between his power and his top-notch defense at third base, such talk should continue. That thing I said about the offense not being too reliant on one guy? It isn’t, but Donaldson is turning into a star.

Prediction: I had it as a tossup between the A’s and the Rangers for first place, but the Parker injury gives me reason to worry about Oakland. Still, they should be a strong contender for the wild card and, if a few things bounce this way instead of that, a third straight AL West title would not be at all surprising. Still: Second place, AL West.

Yordano Ventura and Jose Fernandez were two of the most promising arms in MLB

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 3: Starting pitcher Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals throws a pitch in the first inning during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on July 3, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
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Baseball lost two incredible pitchers in the last four months, both to horrible and unforeseen tragedies. Jose Fernandez and Yordano Ventura were among the most talented and promising pitchers in MLB, two young arms that drew both accolades and criticism for their performance on the mound.

Ventura signed with the Royals in 2008, blazing through several tiers of their farm system before he was called up to replace an injured Danny Duffy in late 2013. He secured his rotation spot the following spring and finished a solid 2014 campaign with a 14-10 record, 3.20 ERA and 2.4 fWAR in 32 starts for the club. During the Royals’ World Series run later that year, Ventura dedicated his performance in Game 6 to Cardinals’ prospect Oscar Taveras, who was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic just two days earlier.

In four years with the Royals, Ventura pitched to a 38-31 record, 3.89 ERA and 6.5 fWAR. While his command and overall production rate waned, bottoming out in 2016 with a 4.45 ERA and 1.85 SO/BB rate, his dynamic pitch repertoire still kept him front and center in the Royals’ pitching staff. He brandished an electric fastball that, at its lowest point, hovered around 96.6 m.p.h. and, at its best, topped out around 102.6 m.p.h.

Like Ventura, Fernandez made an instant impression in the major league circuit. He earned Rookie of the Year distinctions in 2013 after delivering a 12-6 record, 2.19 ERA and 4.1 fWAR with the Marlins. Despite undergoing Tommy John surgery in his sophomore year, he recovered to take on a full workload in 2016 and stunned the league with a 16-8 record, 2.89 ERA, career-high 253 strikeouts and 6.1 fWAR.

Ventura developed a reputation for brushing back hitters, which escalated in some cases to volatile bench-clearing brawls. In 2015, he was ejected for three altercations in three consecutive games and served a seven-game suspension. Halfway through the 2016 season, he earned another eight-game suspension after plunking the Orioles’ Manny Machado in the back with a 99 m.p.h. heater. Some speculated that his aggressive behavior on the mound was excused — or, at least, made more palatable — by his talent and track record, while others called for a more heavy-handed approach from the league.

Fernandez, too, found himself at the center of speculation after reports emerged that painted the 24-year-old as a “clubhouse difficulty,” citing attitude problems that damaged relationships between the pitcher and Marlins players and staff. On the field, he was occasionally chastised for failing to adhere to some of baseball’s unwritten rules, most notably when he showed his elation after hitting his first career home run off of the Braves’ Mike Minor in 2013.

It’s impossible to predict where Fernandez and Ventura’s careers would have taken them. We mourn them not for their actions on the mound or their potential as star pitchers, however, but for their inherent value as people who were loved and respected by their families and teams. Major League Baseball will be worse off for their loss.

Yordano Ventura killed in an auto accident

CLEVELAND, OH -  JUNE 2:  Starting pitcher Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals jokes with teammates as he walks off the field after the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on June 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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UPDATE, 12:07 p.m. EDT: The Royals have confirmed reports of Yordano Ventura’s death with an official statement. No further details pertaining to the accident have been divulged.

Terrible, terrible news: Christian Moreno of ESPN reports that Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura has been killed in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic. His death has been confirmed by police. He was only 25 years-old. There are as of yet no details about the accident.

Ventura was a four-year veteran, having debuted in 2013 but truly bursting onto the scene for the Royals in 2014. That year he went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 183 innings, ascending to the national stage along with the entire Royals team with some key performances in that year’s ALDS and World Series. The following year Ventura won 13 games for the World Champion Royals and again appeared in the playoffs and World Series.

Ventura was often in the middle of controversy — he found himself in several controversies arising out of his habit of hitting and brushing back hitters — but he was an undeniably electric young talent who was poised to anchor the Royals rotation for years to come. His loss, like that of Jose Fernandez just this past September, is incalculable to both his team, his fans and to Major League Baseball as a whole.

Our thoughts go out to his family, his friends, his teammates and his fans.