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Oakland Athletics Season Preview

Starless yet Promising

Is this the best team in baseball? After a "re-building" year that saw them win 88 games, that's the question the Oakland A's are going to have to answer this year. They picked up some potentially big bats in Frank Thomas and Milton Bradley, got themselves eight starting pitchers, put together the best defense in the majors and can expect some real growth from a number of young regulars. Injuries typically haven't been a huge problem for the A's, and that's no different this year -- rather than concentrating their production in a few players like the Cardinals, Braves, Yankees or Red Sox, the A's spread it around. So many A's players will turn in a good season this coming year that your guess is as good as mine as to who their best player will be in 2006.

But their main problem from 2004 and 2005 remains: no star players. There's no one position where the A's can expect the huge returns that they once got from Jason Giambi, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. Not one player has the upside to crack the top 20 in the majors. So if the A's don't depend on any one player for their success and have enough depth to make up for injuries, why is it a problem that they don't have a star?

Unfortunately, without a star player who makes a team 10 wins better on his own, it's nearly impossible to win more than 95 games and get into the elite group that has a chance to win the World Series every year. Billy Beane knew this after losing the 2003 AL Division Series: "Give me $50 million more, and we'll do it," was his insightful but perhaps ill-timed comment. With $50 million more, he could replace Dan Johnson with Albert Pujols and Esteban Loaiza with Roger Clemens, and instead of being a 92-94-win team, the A's could be a 99-win team. They could even restructure their pitching staff to have the best three-man rotation for the playoffs, in addition to putting together the best five-man unit in the majors.

It has become cliché to call the playoffs a crapshoot, and while luck plays a bigger role in the present playoff format than during the regular season, the best team usually does win. Since 1995, the team that won the Championship Series has, on average, won 97 games during the regular season, while the Division Series winner won 96 games, and the loser averaged 94-68. It's not a big difference, but it's a difference nonetheless. The secret isn't bunting or the hit-and-run, it's this: it's no longer a crapshoot if your team is so good that your odds of winning are much higher than 50%. (Think Cards-Padres in last year's NLDS.)

So, in their present form, are the A's good enough to win it all? The biggest barrier to the A's success the past two years hasn't been the Yankees, Red Sox and White Sox, it's been the Angels. Before we start buying our World Series tickets, the A's are going to have to win the AL West. Fortunately, their opponents have made that a lot easier for them this year.

The Angels (wherever they're located) remain a good team, but their main weakness shows up the second you look at their starting lineup. Here are the OPS (on-base plus slugging) projections for the starters, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus:

3B Chone Figgins: 696
SS Orlando Cabrera: 688
LF Garret Anderson: 775
RF Vlad Guerrero: 917
CF Darin Erstad: 696
DH Tim Salmon: no projection, hasn't played for almost two years
1B Casey Kotchman: 739
C Jose Molina: 590
2B Adam Kennedy: 733

Remember, anything under 800 isn't likely to strike fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers. There are some useful players in there -- Figgins can play any position, which offers the Angels better protection against injuries than any other team in the division. Kotchman is 23 and should offer better production at first base than Darin Erstad did the last few years. And Anderson -- if he can hit .300 -- can be a real offensive threat. But that's the upside.

The downside for this team -- like what happened last year -- is injuries at every position. Thanks to a weaker-than-usual A's team in 2005, they still won the division, but they can't count on that this year, and they aren't going to beat out Cleveland or the Yankees for the Wild Card. The 2007 Angels will be better thanks to the arrival of a much-vaunted set of young players, but this season they don't look like a playoff team.

What about Texas and Seattle? The Rangers have improved substantially since Jon Daniels became the GM at the end of last season. Some of his moves would qualify as vintage Billy Beane. Not only did he fleece the Washington Nationals for Brad Wilkerson, improving the outfield offense and defense, but he also moved the vastly-overrated Alfonso Soriano in the process, thereby freeing up second base for 24-year-old Ian Kinsler, who will already put more runs on the board than Soriano.

The pitching staff, long the bane of Texas' existence, is also better this year thanks to the additions of Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, among others, but taken together, this team isn't going to improve by the 15 wins necessary to win the division. Seattle needs to improve by 25 wins and hasn't rearranged their roster anywhere near as impressively as Texas and Oakland have -- unless you think Carl Everett is better than Frank Thomas -- making their 2006 season, like 2005 and 2004, a near-total write-off.

In last year's pre-season projections, I pegged the A's 2005 record exactly at 88-74. I'd like to say that was due to some inherent skill on my part, but it was almost all luck, and I'm making no offer of similar accuracy this year. With that warning out of the way, I'm projecting the A's to go 92-70 this year and win the AL West, giving me the chance to watch some Oakland-brand playoff baseball for the first time in years.