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Oakland Athletics 2005

Season Preview

You can be excused if you forgot that the Oakland Athletics won 91 games last year and were in playoff contention until the last day of the season. Despite exceeding pre-season expectations for the fifth-straight year, when they fell short of the World Series, it was once again an indictment of the organization. The A's off-season moves were met with the same derision as their refusal to sign Jason Giambi to a seven-year $120 million contract, but who's laughing now? Ok, losing a healthy Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson is huge, and the A's don't have the arms to replace that. But last year, neither was healthy, and they still won 91 games, so it stands to reason that lesser pitchers could replace the Big Two's not-so-big 2004 performance.

The A's scored 793 runs and allowed 742 last year, which baseball mathematics says should have been good for an 86-76 record, and we'd blame the 91-71 record on their lucky 29-18 record in one-run games. But to be fair to be fair to their sabermetric origins, we need to look at the components of run scoring. From their Runs Created for and against, they should have won 90 games, so the A's weren't really lucky after all, and we can start with a 91-win team.

The A's new hitters are better than last year's. Six starters return, including a healthy Eric Chavez, and improved Rookie of the Year Bobby Crosby, while Jason Kendall, Nick Swisher and the Mark Ellis/Keith Ginter power-sharing arrangement are an improvement over Damian Miller, Jermaine Dye and Marco Scutaro.

The bullpen won't repeat last year's quasi-fiasco. Octavio Dotel is one of the best short relievers in the majors, even if he gave up four runs in his first Oakland appearance, against the Giants no less. With winter acquisitions Juan Cruz and Kiko Calero, college star Huston Street, and returnees Ricardo Rincon, Justin Duchscherer, the rest of the pen is deeper than it has been in years, and should cause fewer heart attacks in the stands.

The starting rotation is the sorest spot. Plenty of pundits misread the Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson trades and predicted the A's to finish last, while deluding themselves with visions of a Mariners rebound from their disastrous 63-99 season to playoff contention. The Vegas line, always an indicator of rational behavior, favors the A's by 7 games over the M's. But I digress -- here's how the starting rotation is shaping up:

#1: Barry Zito (4.36 ERA) vs Tim Hudson (3.53 ERA in 188 IP in 2004)
#2: Rich Harden (4.43 ERA) vs Mark Mulder (4.43 ERA in 225 IP in 2004)
#3: Danny Haren (4.42 ERA) vs Barry Zito (4.48 ERA in 213 IP in 2004)
#4: Joe Blanton (4.59 ERA) vs Rich Harden (3.99 ERA in 189 IP in 2004)
#5: Keiichi Yabu (4.80 ERA) or Dan Meyer (4.67 ERA) vs Mark Redman (4.71 ERA in 191 IP in 2004)

For this year's starters, I've listed the Baseball Prospectus projected ERA. There's a tendency to remember Hudson's 2000 or Mulder's 2001 campaign, but in 2004, they weren't Cy Young vintage. Yes, the #1 and #4 spots have been downgraded, but if Zito has a breakout year, the trades will hardly be noticed. The A's are deeper than their opponents, and should Yabu and/or Meyer falter, there are several major-league caliber starters ready to take their place. Overall, improved hitting and relief pitching won't overcome the loss Hudson and Mulder. My projection: 88-74, and no guarantees.

The Orange County Angels of Irvine are favored to win the division, and while they have huff and bluster like the Giants, their commitment to aging personnel doesn't necessarily serve them well and injuries have put them in a tight spot -- also like the Giants. Their opening day lineup looks like this:

2B Chone Figgins
DH Jeff DaVanon
CF Steve Finley
RF Vlad Guerrero
LF Garret Anderson
1B Darin Erstad
SS Orlando Cabrera
3B Rob Quinlan
C Bengie Molina

Angels owner Arte Moreno is an insecure new billionaire owner. He's already got the declining Erstad at $8 million a year through 2006, and in the off-season, he picked up Garret Anderson, Orlando Cabrera and Steve Finley for $27 million a year (4 years for Anderson and Cabrera, and two for Finley.) But Cabrera is just an average shortstop, and Finley is 40 years old. Even worse, Anderson's hitting fell off a cliff last year at age 32 to match his poor fielding in center. Now, he'll move to left, where his hitting will be even more of a drain on the team. Can things be worse? Anderson still had a year to go before free agency, which would have been a great time to part company, no hard feelings. In all, that's $35 million to four players who will combine to be just average in 2005 and worse in 2006. Yes, Moreno wanted to make a big SoCal P.R. splash, but he should have done it with more Guerreros ($11 million in 2004) and fewer Andersons before even he decides to cut payroll.

To make matters worse, the Angels have injuries to contend with - Adam Kennedy tore two different knee ligaments, and Dallas "Third Baseman of the Future" McPherson is on the DL for that foreseeable future. Yes, Guerrero is an amazing player, but he's anchoring a lineup that can't touch the A's. Even with a solid rotation and a very good bullpen, the Angels are, unlike last year, a weaker team than the A's. If they get serious and start using Darin Erstad properly, they'll win the division, but that's not likely to happen.

The Texas Rangers didn't cover up the foul stench of their pitching staff, so they'll offset Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira home runs with many more home runs from the opposing team. 40-year-old Kenny Rogers is the only starter with a projected ERA below 5.00. Not good news.

Seattle has made some very expensive improvements over last year's dismal team. Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson bring much needed power (and in Sexson's case, walks) to the corners of last year's horrendous infield. The Mariners could be good, especially if Sexson stays healthy (a big if) but it's going to be hard to turn a 99-game loser into a 90-game winner. Making it to .500 will be a big accomplishment.

So what will happen in the AL West? It should be a dogfight between the A's and Angels. The Angels have so many "established veterans" that they'll win at least 85 games (isn't that what we said about last year's Seattle team?) but at the same time, they don't have a 95-win upside. The A's, on the other hand, could have everything go wrong and finish below .500. Or they could end up with the division title. This is the problem with depending on not one or two big stars but on the contributions of 25 players -- but as Giants fans can tell you, the alternative can be even worse.