Nate Freiman, Josh Donaldson, Adam Rosales, Jed Lowrie

2014 Preview: Oakland Athletics


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.

Maybe Alcides Escobar shouldn’t bat leadoff

Alcides Escobar
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Alcides Escobar finished with a .292 OBP this year. He came in at .246 in 117 at-bats in August and .257 in 109 at-bats between September and October, so he wasn’t exactly flying high entering the postseason. Still, that didn’t stop Ned Yost from putting him into the leadoff spot for Thursday’s Game 1 against the Astros.

Yost finally did reconsider hitting Escobar first in September. It took Alex Gordon‘s return to health, plus the previous addition of Ben Zobrist to the lineup, in order to make that happen. However, it didn’t stick. Escobar hit ninth in each of his starts from Sept. 7-26, batting .236 with a .276 OBP during that span. With five games left to go, he was suddenly returned to the leadoff spot. The Royals went on to win all five games. Yost saw it as a sign, even though Escobar went 5-for-22 with no walks in those games.

Escobar went 0-for-4 in Thursday’s loss to the Astros. He did not swing at the first pitch of the game, which probably explains the defeat.

It’s been difficult to argue with Yost since last year’s World Series run and this year’s incredible run out of the game. The blind spot with Escobar, though, gets rather infuriating. One can defend hitting him leadoff against the Astros’ lefties. His career OBP against southpaws is .319 (.316 this year). Against righties, he’s the most obvious No. 9 hitter alive, with a career .258/.290/.342 line (.252/.284/.314 this year). He’s not a pace-setter. He’s not a spark plug. He’s a liability.

Astros top Royals in Game 1 of ALDS

Houston Astros' Jose Altuve, left, celebrates with teammate Luis Valbuena after scoring a run during the first inning in Game 1 of baseball's American League Division Series against the Kansas City Royals, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

After shutting out the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday, the Astros beat the Royals 5-2 in Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium. Road teams are now 4-0 to begin the 2015 postseason.

The Astros grabbed an early 3-0 lead against Yordano Ventura through two innings. Chris Young took over for the Royals after a 47-minute rain delay and was very effective for the most part, allowing just a solo homer to George Springer over four innings while striking out seven batters. Colby Rasmus, who homered in the Wild Card game, took Ryan Madson deep in the eighth inning to give the Astros’ bullpen some extra breathing room.

Collin McHugh stayed in after the rain delay and ended up tossing six innings while allowing just four hits and one walk. Kendrys Morales did all the damage against him with a pair of solo homers. He’s the first Royals player to hit two home runs in a postseason game since George Brett in the 1985 ALCS.

The Royals’ offense showed some signs of life in the bottom of the eighth inning with back-to-back two-out hits against Will Harris, but Oliver Perez got Eric Hosmer to foul out to end the threat. Luke Gregerson tossed a scoreless ninth inning to finish off the victory.

Consistent with their identity during the regular season, the Astros won despite striking out 14 times. The same goes for the Royals, as they struck out just four times. Despite putting the ball into play more often, the Kansas City lineup wasn’t able to muster anything aside from the home runs by Morales.

Game 2 of the ALDS will begin Friday at 3:45 p.m. ET. Scott Kazmir will pitch for the Astros and Johnny Cueto will get the ball for the Royals.

George Springer homers to extend Astros’ lead over Royals

Houston Astros' George Springer (4) celebrates with teammates after scoring a run in the first inning in Game 1 of baseball's American League Division Series against the Kansas City Royals, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
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After Kendrys Morales brought the Royals within one run in the bottom of the fourth inning with his second solo home run of the game, George Springer took Chris Young deep in the top of the fifth to extend the Astros’ lead to 4-2 in Game 1 of the ALDS.

According to Statcast, the ball traveled an estimated 422 feet and left Springer’s bat at 109 mph. Royals fans are happy it was just a solo home run. It could have been worse, as Jose Altuve singled to lead off the fifth inning before being thrown out trying to steal second base during Springer’s at-bat.

The Royals will try to answer as we move to the bottom of the fifth inning at Kauffman Stadium.