2013 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 2013 season. Up next: The Oakland Athletics.

The Big Question: How in the heck did the A’s do it in 2012, and can they do it again?

I hate to look back in a preview, but I think everyone is still sort of wondering what in the heck happened in Oakland last season. The odds-in favorite to finish in the AL West cellar after totally revamping their pitching staff the previous offseason, the A’s shocked everyone by winning the division. Fourteen walkoff wins helped, but so did everything Billy Beane and Bob Melvin tried going right. Plugging in rookies. Trading for Brandon Inge and seeing him, for a while at least, become an RBI machine. Great bullpen work. Seeing Chris Carter and Brandon Moss combine fo 37 homers. Really, the entire power display was impressive and kinda unexpected.

Which is what makes guessing what these guys will do this year so hard. Just about all of the guys who performed so well last season have just as long a track record of, well, not performing as well.  Given their ages we may very well have seen a logical and sustainable step forward. But we also could have seen everyone having career years which will be followed by regression. So much was dependent on the home run last year and unsupported by strong on-base numbers. That’s a hard trick to pull from year to year.  As a result, I feel like the A’s are a near impossible team to predict heading into 2013.  Which, as frustrating as that may be, is kinda fun.

So what else is going on?

While everything broke right for the A’s last year, Billy Beane was not content to rest on his laurels. He made multiple moves this offseason to address weak spots at catcher, acquiring John Jaso, infield, getting Jed Lowrie and  Hiroyuki Nakajima, and outfield/DH, acquiring Chris Young. I like the moves for the most part and feel like this team will need that kind of plate-spinning in order to keep up last year’s momentum.

The rotation shapes up thusly:  Brett Anderson, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin and maybe Bartolo Colon or Dan Straily. Colon is old, has been using PEDs and has gotten beat up this spring, but the rest of them are young, good and promising. One worries about health — Brett Anderson has not exactly been an Iron man — but this is a great young core and a possible source of strength for the team, even if a lot of people have gone nuts, broke and have been driven to dispair depending on young pitching in the past.

Yoenis Cespedes exceeded expectations last season. Now, with a year of comfort and familiarity with the league under his belt, and with a weight off his mind now that his family has made it to the United States after an extended period of uncertainty in their lives, you have to figure he’s gonna settle in and rake.

A prospect to watch: Shane Peterson. He hit the cover off the ball in 87 games between the Texas League and the PCL last season, tattooed it again in winter ball and has been killing it in Phoenix this spring. If there is trouble in the outfield or at DH, Billy Beane has some extra ammo he can call on.

So how are they gonna do?

Man, that’s hard to say. If everything breaks right I can see them winning the division again, and quite easily. If everything breaks wrong I could see them landing in fourth place (though maybe third is their floor, realistically). That can be said about any team, but with Oakland, that break right/break wrong thing seems way harder to anticipate. I feel like I’m underselling them and falling back into the same habit that had everyone else underselling them last season, but here goes:

Third place, AL West.

Marlins, Giants get into heated beanball war

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You may have heard that Giants closer Hunter Strickland broke his hand punching a door in frustration after Monday night’s subpar performance. He’ll miss six to eight weeks as a result. Strickland came in to protect a 4-2 lead but ended up giving up three runs. The tying run was knocked in by Lewis Brinson on a single to right field. Brinson moved to third base on a go-ahead single by Miguel Rojas, which prompted manager Bruce Bochy to take Strickland out of the game.

On his way to the dugout, Strickland started chirping at Brinson. Much like Bryce Harper and Strickland, Brinson and Strickland have a bit of a history. Last Thursday, Brinson handed Strickland a blown save with a sacrifice fly to deep center field. Brinson was happy to help his team tie the game, pumping his fast and saying, “Let’s go” at no one in particular. That rubbed Strickland the wrong way. Everything seems to rub Strickland the wrong way.

During Tuesday night’s game, Giants starter Dereck Rodriguez threw at Brinson with the first pitch, a 92 MPH fastball. Home plate umpire Andy Fletcher issued warnings to both benches. Manager Don Mattingly came out to argue, suggesting that his team hadn’t done anything wrong so it was unfair to essentially take the inside part of the plate away from his pitchers. On his way back to the dugout, Mattingly could be seen saying, “You’re next” to catcher Buster Posey.

The Giants scored twice in the bottom of the second against Dan Straily to extend their lead to 3-0. Posey came to the plate with a runner on first base and one out. Straily hit Posey with a 91 MPH fastball on the first pitch, prompting ejections of both Straily and Mattingly. Posey was hit on the arm. If the pitch had come in a bit lower and hit Posey on the wrist or hand, Posey might have had to go on the disabled list for a couple months. Or if the pitch had hit Posey a couple of inches higher, in the head, then who knows what would have happened.

Things calmed down from there, thankfully. The two clubs have one more game against each other in San Francisco on Wednesday and that will be the final time they meet this season. If anything further is going to happen — and hopefully, nothing happens — then it will come tomorrow.

Straily will almost certainly be facing a suspension and a fine, as will Mattingly. It’s less clear if Rodriguez and/or Bochy will be reprimanded for throwing at Brinson, even though it was fairly obvious the pitch was intentional. Regardless, the punishments amount to just one missed start for the pitchers, which isn’t nearly enough of a detriment to deter beanball wars.