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Better Know An Enemy: Pt. 4, Oakland A's.

Wow. It was close, but the A's were the winning team in the poll I attached to my last article. 4-3, so a strong showing to be sure. Anyway, let's pick apart Billy Beane's squad, shall we?

The A's started the offseason with the goal of finding a new manager. Ken Macha was out. Who would be in? Ron Washington seemed like a good candidate (though not exactly Beane's choice) until he was hired by the Rangers. The ideal manager for Billy Beane would be somebody to act as an extension of himself in the clubhouse and dugout. Where could he find a yes-man to accept a job of status and a decent salary? Well, he had to look no further than his bench coach. Bob Geren would take the position. The A's seem a little weaker than last season, though they should still be strong enough to contend in the West or for the wild card if the Rangers or Angels can pass them by this season...

Starting Pitching.

Well, the A's certainly have a hole here. Barry Zito signed across the Bay, landing himself the largest contract ever given to a pitcher. So what's left? Two potentially better pitchers, for starters. Rich Harden is not yet 25. Assuming he can bounce back from an injury-plagued 2006, he should be ready to assume the role of ace for Oakland. Of course, that's been said about some other 25 year old flamethrowers I know of.

I'm pretty high on Danny Haren. The A's recently gave him a multi-year contract, and I think they'll be rewarded. He's probably not as good as Harden or say Bonderman, but he's already proven himself an above-average innings-eater and could become more.

Esteban Loaiza. Where do I begin? Can I end before I begin? Billy Beane shocked the world with this signing which seemed bogus at the time. With a 91 ERA+ over the season with one decent postseason start and one poor one, it would certainly seem like 'bogus' would be the correct term. Beane gets slack a lot, and should, because he makes a lot of low-risk moves. This one doesn't qualify.

Joe Blanton. Joe posted a 92 ERA+ for the A's last season. At least they weren't paying him $7M/yr. Blanton had a good year in 2005, and my guess is that the reality is somewhere in-between his good 2005 and his semi-poor 2006. It's possible that he's just been easier to hit. However, I think his BABIP tends to support my theory.

Joe Kennedy seems the favorite to win the 5th rotation slot. He's been a starter in Tampa Bay(who hasn't?) and Colorado before landing in Oakland. His best season came in Colorado, 2004, when he went 9 and 7 with an ERA+ of 138. Joe was superb as a reliever for Oakland last season, despite a non-amazing WHIP of 1.34.

Competing/waiting for their chance/injury: Brad Halsey seems like a borderline ML, and not just because he was a NYY draftee. I think Kirk Saarloos should get a chance. Just as much of a dice-roll as Kennedy, IMO. He was really only slightly better as a reliever in 2006...though I guess it could be said that I'm ignoring his career splits to suit my point. To me, these are the only two serious candidates on the A's 40-man, though I'd love to be corrected.

Bullpen.

A true strength of the A's, let's start with young closer Huston Street. He had his struggles to begin the season, but settled down and saved 37 games with a WHIP just over 1. I can't find the data at this time, though look at this graph of his BABIP. My guess is that it was well over .300 the first part of the season.

Luckily, the A's have two of the best setup men in the game to turn to when Street's suffering from bad stuff or bad luck. Justin Duchscherer had another outstanding season. We drafted him in 1996. So many missed opportunities. Kiko Calero is a lot older than I thought. Doesn't mean he was any less effective last season, pitching in 70 games out of the bullpen for the A's.

Ron Flores was effective as one of the A's lefties out of the pen last season. The A's are hoping that old friend Alan Embree can give them some quality innings from the left side as well. Saarloos will probably be in the pen if he can't win the 5th starter slot. Halsey may have to spend more time in the minors if he doesn't earn it. Chad Gaudin had some success for the A's last season, but his WHIP of 1.45 and his BABIP of .249 may not bode well for future success.

Infield/Catcher/DH.

Eric Chavez is truly amazing to watch at 3B. Mike Lowell deserved the GG in 2006, but it's fair to say Chavez or Beltre deserved it more, so I'm not too upset over Chavez getting it. That being said, he had a noted down year with the bat. Look for him to rebound a bit next season, especially if he spends most of it healthy.

Bobby Crosby...will he ever be as good as he was in 2004 (note his still meager 91 OPS+ in 2004) and deliver on his promise? Luckily for the A's, they have a decent placeholder in Marco Scutaro while Crosby tends to his many annual injuries.

I'm a noted Mark Grudzielanek fan, but A's fans were justified in thinking Mark Ellis got hosed out of the GG. He certainly didn't get hosed out of the Silver Slugger. As good as Ellis's glove is, they could stand to upgrade here. Maybe Ronnie Belliard could make some sense for them.

I'm going to put Nick Swisher here, as the slight majority of his games were at 1B in 2006. He's got power at the plate, patience, and a general cockiness that rubs a lot of opposing fans the wrong way. As long as he backs it up with an OPS+ around the 126 he had last year, along with 95 RBIs, neither he nor A's fans should be terribly concerned about that particular fact. A resurgent Dan Johnson could push him back to the OF, however. According to their preview writeup on mlb.com he already has. That probably has more to do with Payton's departure than anything else.

I'm surprised Jason Kendall has lasted this long. His SLG has been below his OBP since he left Pittsburgh. He's a great runner for a catcher, but he's not a great runner. He did throw out 30% of potential basestealers last year, and he's certainly durable (at least 143 games per year since 2000). Adam Melhuse is Kendall's backup. Keep moving along...

Billy Beane, after finding an absolute bargain in Frank Thomas last season, wasn't able to find quite as good a bargain this season. However, Mike Piazza should be a useful DH for them next season. More importantly, with the Kendall-Melhuse and Swisher-Johnson duos, he will have a minimum amount of time lowering the quality of the A's defense.

Outfield.

We've covered Swisher, so let's start with Mark Kotsay in CF. His defense is still above-average, but he's been slipping offensively the last couple of years. This could be an interesting position to watch, because it may become evident that even Swisher-Bradley-Kielty could be the best offensive configuration by the ASB. I like Kotsay, so hopefully he can get his OBP back to normal levels and prove a useful #2 hitter again.

Aside from creating a number of high quality board games, Milton Bradley can be an offensive and defensive weapon for the Athletics. He can also be simply offensive (note: look for Alex Cora playing referee, completely unfazed by the danger that is Milton Bradley). Milton was relatively quiet in that sense last season, and he may be finding his niche. I'll try to remain optimistic.

Bobby Kielty. Where to start? Bobby Kielty is a useful corner platoon OF at best. He crushes lefties (.900 career OPS), and is slightly less potent against RHPs. Other possibilities on the 40-man: Hiram Bocachica and Charles Thomas are absolutely non-prospects who probably didn't deserve to have their names typed out just now. Their real prospect at OF, Javier Herrera ran into some bad luck last season. He underwent Tommy John surgery towards the beginning of last season. Poor luck for him, bad "news" for the A's. Hopefully he can contribute soon, because they're somewhat thin in the OF. Letting Payton walk was still the right decision.

Overall.

I'd put the A's as the tentative favorites for the AL West next season, though the Angels and Rangers really aren't that far behind. The Rangers in particular could upset them if Gagne pans out and Ron Washington has an impact. Also, a note to Billy Beane...who I'm sure will read this. Those Blanton-Milledge rumors that have no real steam at all? Heat em up. Milledge could start on this club now, especially if Dan Johnson proves a AAAA player. If Johnson doesn't work out, just think about how many starts someone like Charles Thomas could end up with. I suppose there's always the promise of Daric Barton...