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.

Video: Minor leaguer bounces a home run off of an outfielder’s head

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Jose Canseco hit 462 homers, was the 1986 Rookie of the Year, the 1988 MVP and played for 17 years in the big leagues, winning two World Series rings and making the playoffs five times. Yet he’s not remembered for any of that. At least not very often.

No, he’s remembered for his ignominy. For his role in participating in and, subsequently, exposing baseball’s PED-fueled world of the 1990s. For his continued insistence that he was blackballed by Major League Baseball and his continued attempts to play via the independent league route. For his crazy post-playing career antics in which he spent a few years tweeting about aliens, conspiracy theories and non-sequiturs of every stripe.

Mostly, though, people remember Canseco for one random play: the time he helped the Indians’ Carlos Martinez to a home run when a fly ball bounced off of Canseco’s head and over the wall back in 1993:

 

Well, Canseco now has a friend in infamy. That friend: Zach Borenstein of the Reno Aces, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Triple-A affiliate. Yesterday Borenstein pulled a Canseco on what should’ve been an Alex Verdugo F-9:

Borenstein’s glove may have gotten a piece of that — the announcer seemed to think so anyway — and I have a hard time figuring that his head would give it that much bounce. I mean, look how far he was from the wall! He wasn’t even to the warning track. That’s a serious assist.

Still: gonna rule this a Canseco anyway. It’s too good not to.

And That Happened: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Cubs 7, White Sox 2: Chicago wins! Willson Contreras hit a three-run homer and drove in four in all. The talk of the game, though, was John Lackey who plunked four White Sox batters. Three of them in the fifth inning. It put me in mind of Dock Ellis’ famous “do-the-do” game, except Lackey is about as far from Dock Ellis-level cool as one can possibly get. Sox pitcher Carlos Rodon struck out 11 batters but lasted only four innings. Should’ve given up some more ground balls. It’s more democratic. The Cubs have won nine of 11.

Yankees 4, Reds 2: Todd Frazier hit into a triple play in his first at bat as a Yankee in Yankee Stadium. A run scored on the play — out number three came on a time-buying rundown — and the Yankees still won, so I suppose he doesn’t mind much. Jordan Montgomery allowed one run while pitching into the seventh. Didi Gregorius hit a sac fly and homered. Here’s the triple play:

Brewers 8, Nationals 0: Zach Davies pitched shutout ball into the eighth and Oliver Drake took it the rest of the way. Travis Shaw, Eric Thames and Manny Pina all homered. Shaw’s was a three-run blast. “Oliver Drake” sounds like a fake name a guy gives to the police after the party gets raided. He’s a little drunk and has to think fast, scans the room, sees his DC comic book collection and just blurts it out.

Astros 5, Phillies 0: Houston can bash your brains in or they can shut you out. Well, they can shut Philly out at least. Old friend Charlie Morton did the honors here with seven shutout frames. Speaking of Morton and the Phillies, remember when he was supposed to have turned into a Roy Halladay clone? For that matter, remember Roy Halladay? That was some Ric Flair-Buddy Landel falloff there, brother. In other news, Jose Altuve only went 1-for-4, so I assume he had a compound fracture or something.

Blue Jays 4, Athletics 1: Fun with earned runs. A’s starter Sonny Gray gave up four runs in the second — all the runs the Jays would score in the game — but they were all unearned. Tough luck? Well, they were unearned because Gray himself made the throwing error that caused them to be unearned. Oh, and he also uncorked a wild pitch that put a runner in scoring position. He gave up four hits in the inning — two doubles — but all the runs were “unearned.” Stats are dumb.

Indians 11, Angels 7: You don’t see many walkoff grand slams, but Edwin Encarnacion hit one here in the bottom of the 11th. All three of the baserunners reached via a Bud Norris-issued walk, one intentional, two accidental. That was the second grand slam allowed by Angels pitchers in the game, by the way, as Bradley Zimmer hit one in the second. The Indians had a 7-0 lead after two and blew it before Encarnacion’s heroics. In other news, the AP gamer reads like Coppola’s discarded first draft of “Apocalypse Now”:

CLEVELAND — Bradley Zimmer didn’t care one bit that his mouth was filled with talcum powder.

To the rookie, it tasted like victory.

Royals 3, Tigers 1Whit Merrifield homered on the game’s first pitch and Danny Duffy was solid into the seventh. That’s seven straight for Kansas City. Meanwhile, Ned Yost just rendered every studio analyst and color commentator’s job obsolete with what is, really, the only commentary you need:

The Kansas City Royals are keeping the pressure on in the AL Central, and manager Ned Yost has no big secrets to offer about their impressive winning streak. “There’s no key to staying in it. You just keep playing good,” Yost said. “If there was a key to staying in it, then we would stay in it forever. You just play good. That’s all you do.”

Rays 5, Orioles 4: Baltimore closed the gap late and threatened in the ninth but the Rays held on to break their five-game losing streak. Tim Beckham hit a three-run homer. Rookie starter Jake Faria pitched into the eighth inning and pitched well before running out of gas and stalling out.

Rangers 10, Marlins 4Joey Gallo hit two homers and Mike Napoli and Rougned Odor each had one as well. Christian Yelich had a three-run homer and drove in all four of Miami’s runs in a losing cause. Adrian Beltre went 0-for-3 and the Rangers have a day off on Thursday, so, barring a 16-inning game in which Beltre goes 7-for-7 today, the march to 3,000 will go at least into this weekend. That’s unreasonable, of course. The Rangers could never play a 16-inning game with their bullpen. If they did. Beltre’s 7-for-7 and 3,000th hit would be the sidebar story.

Cardinals 3, Rockies 2: The Cardinals called up top prospect Harrison Bader yesterday. He made a good first impression, doubling to lead off the ninth inning and then scoring the walkoff run on Jedd Gyorko‘s sacrifice fly. He had to slide and everything:

Braves 8, Diamondbacks 3: Kurt Suzuki homered twice and Matt Kemp homered and tripled. Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz allowed two runs over six, striking out nine. He hasn’t lost any of his last nine starts, going 6-0 in that time.

Mariners 6, Red Sox 5: The Red Sox took a one-run lead in the 13th inning with a Sandy Leon RBI single, but Seattle came back in the bottom half via a walk-fielder’s choice-single-wild pitch-walk-infield single combination, proving that you don’t have to bash anyone’s brains in to win this crazy game. Jean Segura hit the walkoff single. Doug Fister was the Sox pitcher responsible for those thousand cuts.

Dodgers 6, Twins 2: Chris Taylor hit two run-scoring doubles and continued his torrid post-All-Star Game hitting. Dude’s 23-for44 in those 11 games and is at .321/.388/.545 on the year. Dude can play five or six positions too. The Dodgers win their 70th game.

Mets 6, Padres 5: Yoenis Cespedes homered, doubled and tripled, driving in three. He scored on that triple too, thanks to a Wil Myers throwing error. Cespedes even threw a bullpen session before the game, so even if the Mets can’t contend in the last two months of the season, maybe they can be fun and let Yo pitch:

Giants 11, Pirates 3: Madison Bumgarner finally earned his first win of the year, allowing one run over five innings. The San Francisco bats were winners too, as Bumgarner singled and scored, Buster Posey had three hits and an RBI, Joe Panik added a bases-loaded triple and the now-departed Eduardo Nunez drove in two before he started hugging his mates.