2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The Oakland Athletics.

The Big Question: Can the A’s reshuffled roster put them in the playoffs for the fourth straight year?

When I was assigned the A’s preview by that jerkwad who assigns the team previews around here, I gotta tell ya, I was a bit concerned. As a team that cruised for months and then collapsed, the A’s were already the sort of team that is the hardest to predict. Then they went and reshuffled the roster this past winter and who in the heck knows what to think? If I had any hair I’d be tearing it out by now.

But then I remembered: the A’s do this kind of crap all the time. Really, they do.

They have been to the playoffs three years in a row, but they’ve done it a bit differently each time. Last year we were asking whether they could survive without Jarrod Parker and Grant Balfour. Heading into 2012 they were the odds-on favorite to be the worst team in the AL West and all they did was win 94 games after shipping out Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey, Gio Gonzalez, Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham and David DeJesus and bringing in Yoenis Cespedes, Bartolo Colon, Seth Smith, Jonny Gomes, Parker, Josh Reddick and Brad Peacock. Nothing is as constant as change in the Oakland A’s clubhouse. And, at least in recent years, the change hasn’t mattered because the same GM is running the show who has seemingly always run the show. And while no one would ever choose to deal with the particular constraints Billy Beane has to deal with, he has literally been written into a history as a guy who mixes and matches whatever is on hand and somehow always makes it work. Or usually makes it work. He certainly makes it work a lot better with Bob Melvin than he did before. The both of them are just good at putting seemingly disparate pieces together.

So you look at the 2015 A’s, who have lost Jeff Samardzija, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Derek Norris, Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, John Jaso and a ton of other guys and who have brought in Ike Davis Ben Zobrist, Jesse Hahn, Billy Butler, Brett Lawrie, Marcus Semien and a ton of other guys and you could totally, reasonably say “damn, this is a mess.” Or, you could realize that the A’s have shuffled the deck like this almost every offseason, that absolutely no one has had a great handle on what the A’s would do from year-to-year the past several seasons and that, lo and behold, they are usually in the playoffs come October and that, maybe, they’ll be just dandy.

I don’t know if they’ll suck or be dandy. I have to answer that Big Question above with “I have no idea.” But neither do most of you. In some ways this makes them among the most interesting teams in baseball this and every year. But what I won’t do, and what no one else should do, is to lazily say “the A’s blew the team up” this past winter and conclude that they’re rebuilding or that they’re toast or something. Because it’s not been the case in recent years, and you sort of have to trust what Beane and company are doing until it stops working, don’t you?

What else is going on?

  • As for the brass tacks of the various parts of this team, it’s fair to say that the rotation will be pretty good. Certainly at the top, as Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir return. Beyond that there are a lot of question marks, but a LOT of arms who could potentially answer them. Drew Pomeranz, Jesse Chavez and Jesse Hahn will likely be the first three up behind Gray and Kazmir, and all three were above-average starters last year. Waiting in the wings is Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and Chris Bassitt. Or maybe Graveman makes it. He’s started four games this spring and has allowed only one earned run. And hell, Barry frickin’ Zito is still banging around. The point is that there is a good bit of quality and depth here, even if the younger dudes are unproven.
  • Lineups? Who needs a set lineup? The A’s haven’t had one in a long time. Sure, they’ve had regulars, but in the past couple of years I’d guess that Bob Melvin has ran out a good one hundred different lineup combinations each season. You do things like that when you have, like, three catchers who can hit. Or, like this year, you have Ben Zobrist who is the player most likely to pull a Bugs Bunny and play all nine positions in a single game. Coco Crisp starts in left, but he could see time in center if things don’t go right. Craig Gentry can likewise play anywhere. The infield is far more unsettled — almost a complete turnover from 2014 — but Zobrist gives them flexibility. Ike Davis and Brett Lawrie are most famous for their status as disappointments, but you don’t become a disappointment without first having promise. If either of these guys even play up to close to their level of potential, the offense could be a huge strength here.
  • Billy Butler is probably the most “famous” import on this year’s club. And his best years — particularly in the power department — seem to be behind him. But he’s actually an improvement over what the A’s trotted out at DH last season. They probably overpaid for him, but the A’s don’t overpay too often. When they do, it’s because they had a big need. And at DH they had a big need.
  • In the pen, Sean Doolittle will get a late start to the year, but he’s expected to be healthy soon and around for most of the season. Tyler Clippard cost Yunel Escobar and will make a lot of money for a setup guy this season, but see above about overpaying for a need. There is a lot of depth here too as many of those guys mentioned above in the rotation section could see time in the bullpen too. As could the aforementioned Barry frickin’ Zito. Flexibility is the key with this club. In every single aspect. One might even say that flexibility is . . . the new inefficiency?

Prediction: With great uncertainty comes great excitement. And fear. And with great flexibility comes potentially great comprises. This A’s team could break in any number of ways. They have the potential to suck or be great. And as recent history in the pre-season prediction business has shown us, teams who are hard to figure in March tend to be way better than the ones who have a set narrative.

But I’m still gonna hedge and say Third Place, American League West. And fully expect to be wrong in one direction or the other.

Dodgers upset with Héctor Neris after Thursday’s game

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July hasn’t treated Phillies closer Héctor Neris well. Entering Thursday, he had allowed runs in three of his last four appearances, blowing two saves in the process. His struggles continued as he allowed a two-out solo home run to Alex Verdugo in the bottom of the ninth inning on Thursday afternoon, closing the deficit to 7-6. Thankfully for the Phillies, he was able to get the final out, getting Justin Turner to fly out to right field. An excited Neris looked into the Dodgers’ dugout and yelled an expletive.

The four-game series between the Dodgers and Phillies had quite some drama. After Matt Beaty hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the top of the ninth inning on Tuesday, Neris threw a pitch at the next batter, David Freese, seemingly in frustration. Neris was suspended three games. He appealed his punishment, which is why he’s been allowed to pitch. In the fourth inning of Thursday’s game, Max Muncy and Beaty stepped on first baseman Rhys Hoskins‘ ankle on consecutive plays. That, along with his own struggles, explains why Neris might’ve been amped up after closing out the ballgame.

The Dodgers were, understandably, not happy about Neris yelling at them. Several players shouted back, including Clayton Kershaw and Russell Martin. An unamused Muncy glared at Neris. Martin suggested to Neris that they meet in the hallway.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after the game, “I think we played this series the right way, played it straight. To look in our dugout and to taunt in any way, I think it’s unacceptable. Look in your own dugout.”

Muncy said, “He’s blown about eight saves against us over the last two years. I guess he was finally excited he got one. Whatever.”

Neris attributed his outburst to emotions, saying, “It’s a great win for my team and just I let my emotion get out.”

In baseball, everyone is pro-showing-emotion when it’s himself and his teammates, and against when it’s players on the other team. Muncy got into a back-and-forth with Giants starter Madison Bumgarner after flipping his bat and watching his long home run at Oracle Park last month. Bumgarner jawed at him and Muncy said, “I just told him if he doesn’t want me to watch the ball, go get it out of the ocean.”

Neris, however, is the last guy on the Phillies who should be antagonizing the Dodgers after his terrible decision to throw at Freese, not to mention his overall poor performance against them. The Phillies were pigs in mud who wanted to wrestle and the Dodgers jumped in with them for some reason. Thankfully, the two teams are done playing each other for the rest of the regular season.