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.

Reds’ manager Bryan Price extended through 2017

PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 28: Manager Bryan Price #38 of the Cincinnati Reds looks on during the fifth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on August 28, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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The Reds will roll with manager Bryan Price for at least one more season. Per MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon, Price has been extended through the 2017 season with a club option for 2018. He won’t be the only familiar face leading the team, as the Reds have reportedly asked the entire coaching staff to return as well.

This is Price’s second consecutive season with 90+ losses since Cincinnati signed him to a three-year contract back in 2014. While he hasn’t been able to replicate the same kind of success that former skipper Dusty Baker found in 2012 and 2013, he’s been saddled with a team that’s still in the throes of rebuilding, not one that looks on the cusp of playoff contention. It is, after all, the same team that has not seen a healthy season from Homer Bailey since Price’s arrival, one that unloaded Jay Bruce for a pair of prospects earlier this year and one whose pitching staff set a single-season record for most home runs given up by a major league team.

Justifying Price’s extension requires a different kind of yardstick, one that measures player development and individual success over the cumulative win-loss record. Here, Price has overseen solid performances from contributors like Adam Duvall, who is batting .244/.297/.506 with 2.9 fWAR in his first full major-league season, as well as young arms like Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, and Michael Lorenzen, among others.

From comments made by Reds’ CFO Bob Castellini, Price’s success within a rough rebuilding process appears to have cemented his place within the club, at least for the time being.

I like the young, aggressive team Walt and Dick have put together with players from within our system and from recent trades. […] Bryan has been here seven seasons now. He’s comfortable with the direction we are heading with our young players, and we are comfortable with him leading us in that direction.

Dusty Baker calls the Nationals “a baby making team.” Whatever that means.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 31: Manager Dusty Baker #12 of the Washington Nationals looks on before the start of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on August 31, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
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When the Nationals fired Matt Williams a year ago, it might’ve been a safe assumption that they were going to go with that new breed of young, handsome recently-retired player-turned-manager who, despite a lack of experience, allegedly knows how to deal with modern players better and knows how to handle a clubhouse. Those assumptions have proved largely off with these guys — Williams was a disaster, Matheny wins despite himself and Ausmus looks like he’s perpetually on the verge of a breakdown — but that’s the all the rage these days anyway.

Instead, the Nats hired Dusty Baker. Though Baker had tremendous success as a manager everywhere he went, he was maligned by some for some pitcher handling stuff in Chicago (which said pitchers have long denied was an issue, but let’s let that lie). He was also, more generally, thought of as a “retread.” Which is what people who prefer younger folks for jobs tend to call older people, even if the older people know what they’re doing.

And yes, I will cop to thinking about managers that way a lot over the years, so I’m not absolving myself at all here, even if I was pretty OK with the Dusty Baker hiring. I’ve evolved on this point. In no small part because of how Dusty Baker has done in Washington. Flash forward a year, the Nats are division champions and Baker may be a top candidate for Manager of the Year. That, in and of itself, should show you how wrong the haters were.

But if it doesn’t, this sure should:

I have no earthly idea what that means and Castillo gives no further context. All I know is that it sounds cool as hell and of any current manager, only Dusty Baker could say that and pull it off.

Because he’s Dusty Baker and has nothing to prove to you. And if you don’t like it, shoot, he’ll just go back home to his winery or whatever and live out the rest of his days being cooler than you.