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.

Bartolo Colon ain’t doing so hot this year

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If he wasn’t 44 years-old we’d just call it a slump, but the way Bartolo Colon is pitching right now makes you wonder if the end is nigh.

Colon was shelled this afternoon, giving up seven runs on ten hits and walking three in five innings of work to take the loss against the Pirates. That brings his ERA up to 6.96 on the year. He’s allowed five or more runs in five of his ten starts and opposing batters are hitting .320 against him. One of the big reasons he had been so effective into his 40s had been his low walk rate — he led the NL in this category for the past two seasons — but he’s walking more guys this year than last.

The Braves picked up Colon for the reasons a lot of rebuilding teams pick up veteran starters: to provide innings and stability until the younger arms of the future can mature. Colon, however, has been the weakest link of the Braves rotation.

At some point, every baseball player reaches the end. Almost all of them do it before the age of 44. One hopes, given his history and popularity that Colon is just experiencing a rough patch and that, by mid season, he’ll be reliably pumping strikes into the zone the way he has the past few seasons. But with each bad start he registers this year, that’s seeming like more and more of a stretch.

Braves designate Josh Collmenter for assignment

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Last night Braves reliever Josh Collmenter surrendered three homers and seven runs in the 10th inning of a loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. He came into the game when it was tied 5-5 so, yeah, ouch. Today Collmenter is on his way to no longer being a Braves reliever as he has been designated for assignment.

Collmenter made 11 appearances for the Braves, going 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in 17 innings. If he doesn’t latch on someplace else he can take heart that his final act in the big leagues was striking out former MVP Andrew McCutchen. If only he hadn’t surrendered consecutive homers to David Freese, Jose Osuna and Jordy Mercer just before that. Oh well. Take the good with the bad.

Right-hander Matt Wisler, who has been no great shakes in the bigs himself, was called up from Triple-A Gwinnett before today’s series finale against the Pirates. He’s currently throwing mopup duty for Bartolo Colon, who got shelled for seven runs in four innings.

Given how Colon is going, maybe the Braves will be thinking about some more transactions soon.