Springtime Storylines: Who are the 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 2012 season. Up next: the Somewhere in the Bay Area Probably Oakland A’s.

The Big Question: Who are these guys?

To say the A’s have undergone a lot of changes since last season is more than a bit of an understatement.  Out are Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey, Gio Gonzalez, Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham and David DeJesus. In are Yoenis Cespedes, Bartolo Colon, Seth Smith, Jonny Gomes, Jarrod Parker, Josh Reddick and Brad Peacock.  But more significant than the net value of the changes themselves is what those changes represent.

Mostly, it represents more sadness for A’s fans who bought into the rebuild-on-the-cheap-and-surprise-everyone storylines for the past decade.  It worked pretty well. Pretty darn well, actually. But now, rather than see the big names go when they hit free agency, the A’s are jettisoning players before they actually get expensive.  Rather than saying, hey, we can compete next year with some no-names, the A’s are basically saying that this year, next year and maybe the year after are irrelevant. Call us back in three years. Maybe.

All of this is a function of their stadium situation, of course. Stuck in limbo between Oakland and San Jose, the A’s have decided to basically punt on the here and now and hope that maybe someday they can move into a new park and actually spend some money (though, it should be noted, they didn’t save that much money shipping off all those players this winter due to signing Yoenis Cespedes and bringing back Coco Crisp).  In the meantime, they have done less than the minimum to even attempt to maintain fan excitement in Oakland.

None of which has a ton of bearing on how the team will actually do. More on that below.  But existentially speaking, the Oakland A’s are … no one. A team that is neither here nor there.

What else is going on?

  • The rotation is … different.  With Cahill and Gonzalez gone and Brett Anderson injured, the rotation is Brandon McCarthy and a lot of questions. Bartolo Colon was a pleasant surprise for the Yankees last season, but his durability and effectiveness in 2012 is nothing certain. Dallas Braden is coming off shoulder surgery and won’t be ready until at least mid-May, if that. Tom Milone, Tyson Ross and Graham Godfrey are no sure things.
  • The lineup is going to be a weakness, and that’s the case even if Cespedes exceeds expectations and provides some punch in the middle of the lineup. They get Manny Ramirez after 50 games, but what can he really be expected to do after more than a year off and at the age of 40? There’s not much else exciting in this lineup.
  • What about Cespedes? He’s certainly gotten a lot of press — and God knows I was taken by him when I saw him in spring training — but let’s be realistic here: is he going to come from Cuba in his mid-20s and immediately become a serious offensive threat? Or is it more likely that he’ll be a low average, moderate power, lots of strikeouts kind of guy who plays a decent enough centerfield to pass this year and maybe next, but who is really destined for a corner?  If I’m a betting man I go with the latter.
  • The real excitement in this franchise: the farm system.  Those trades of Gonzalez, Bailey and Cahill netted the A’s a ton of minor league talent. That’s great for, say, 2014, but for now it doesn’t help. Still, if you’re a prospect hound, the A’s are a fun team to watch.

How are they gonna do?

The days of the A’s being a surprise contender in a weak AL West are long gone. Even if everything breaks perfectly, they don’t compete with Texas or Anaheim.  This is a third place team if I ever saw one.

Bryce Harper will participate in the Home Run Derby if he makes the All-Star team

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Bryce Harper has, in recent years, declined participation in the Home Run Derby, with his last go at it coming in 2013, losing to Yoenis Cespedes in the final round. With the All-Star Game taking place at Nationals Park in Washington, however, he has changed his mind, saying today that he will compete if he is selected for the All-Star team.

Harper is currently second in voting among National League outfielders, so he stands a pretty good chance of making it. Even if he falls off in the voting, you have to assume that the powers that be will nudge NL manager A.J. Hinch to select Harper as a reserve, partially because of his actual power — he does have 19 homers so far this year — but mostly for his star power.

Simply put, you know dang well that both Major League Baseball and the Nationals want a home town guy with big time star power in the Derby, even if he’s not having as good a year as he’s capable of. As such, figure to see Harper hitting long balls in D.C. on July 16.