by Jim Turvey
Despite the fact that the A’s are the two-time defending AL West champions, 2014 appears to be yet another stiff test for the club. The improvements to the AL West have been discussed ad nauseam, so instead of looking at what the other teams in the AL West could do, let’s focus on what the A’s need to do to retain their place atop the division. The A’s have always been a club that relies on every player one through twenty-five; however, there are inevitably more important players in the grand scheme of the season. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the five potentially most important players in the upcoming season:
5) Craig Gentry – projected starting left fielder
Gentry was acquired from divisional foe, Texas, in a package deal that focused on Michael Choice. Choice was one of the top prospects in the A’s organization, but Gentry opens up a lot of options for the A’s. In the last two seasons, Gentry has totaled 556 plate appearances, a number he could very well approach in his expanded role with the A’s this season. In those two seasons, Gentry totaled 6.4 wins above replacement (WAR), and 3.3 defensive WAR. Those totals would both be among the league leaders, and to expect that this season would be a bit naïve (for one, Gentry was used as a defensive replacement in many games, which helped boost that dWAR total). However, Gentry could easily be worth two wins with his glove, and another two wins with his bat. A four-win player is a very valuable commodity (only Donaldson and Crisp reached that number on last year’s A’s team), and his addition to the team also helps in a more subtle way.
By playing Gentry in left field, Bob Melvin can move Yoenis Cespedes to the DH position. In his career, Yoenis is an 8 percent more effective hitter from the DH spot, and while this may not seem like much, every edge in this tight AL West battle will be important. Cespedes has played 53 games at DH in his career so if we triple the numbers to get a rough estimate of his projected 2014 season, he would have 84/36/105 R/HR/RBI and .273/.323/.512 BA/OBP/SLG. This is without accounting for the hopefully natural progression of a player who is about to enter into his age-27 season.
4) Josh Reddick – projected starting right fielder
Reddick finished 2014 with only 12 home runs after hitting 32 long balls in 2013. Reddick suffered this severe drop despite all of the peripherals of what should have actually been a better season. Reddick managed to lower his strikeout rate, down from 22.4 percent to 19.5 percent; he also raised his walk rate from 8.2 percent to 10.4 percent; and he increased his line drive percentage from 20 percent to 26 percent in 2013. His batting average on balls in play did slip slightly, from .269 to .255, but it was not a catastrophic drop. So to what was the huge drop in production due? It seems like one statistic – home runs/fly ball. Reddick went from clearing the fence, to a “warning track power” hitter.
So was this the manifestation of decreasing power, tough luck, or simply part of his swing that he had to adjust? Given his age (also due for his age-27 season this year), and his numbers in the his final 32 games of the season (seven home runs with a .284 average and a .514 slugging percentage), A’s fans can hope for the final scenario with reasonable confidence. The A’s were able to win 96 games with a less than average Reddick, so a return to form could be a huge benefit.
3) Josh Donaldson – starting third baseman
Donaldson was the most important A’s player in 2013, trailing only four players in all of baseball in WAR for the season, and posting the highest single-season WAR total for an Oakland A since Jason Giambi in 2001. While expecting another season at this level may be too high an expectation, Donaldson could certainly be the A’s most valuable player again in 2014. He plays an essential position, and defends it well. He is able to draw walks and can hit for average as well as power. His numbers may have been a bit inflated by a high batting average on balls in play (.333), and that last season was his age-27 season is a phenomenon that is entirely unsurprising. For the A’s, one of the biggest keys to their season will be canceling out the (hopefully) minor regression to the norm that Donaldson (as well as possibly Brandon Moss and Coco Crisp) will see, with the positive regressions to the norm that Reddick, Cespedes, and the upgrade to Gentry will provide the A’s with. If the A’s come out of all this regression to the norm on the positive side, they will be looking at yet another excellent season.
2) Alberto Callaspo/ Eric Sogard/ potential free agent signing/ trade
If the A’s have a hole on the roster the way it is currently constructed, it is at second base. Eric Sogard posted a respectable 94 OPS+ (meaning he produced just six percent less than the average ballplayer with his bat last season), and Callaspo managed to post an on-base percentage of .350 in his 50 games with the club last season, but neither player seems to be the long-term solution.
There are no real legitimate second baseman remaining in free agency, but don’t assume that means the A’s are going to rest on their laurels. Billy Beane has been extremely aggressive via trades this offseason, and has been pinpointing the possible weaknesses of the A’s to fix. The A’s always seem to have assets stock-piled to make these moves possible, and bringing in a legitimate second baseman could well be the move that puts the A’s in the running for best team in baseball.
1) Sonny Gray/ Jarrod Parker
Yes, this is cheating by putting two players as the most important, but it’s not really the pitchers themselves that are important, but rather that one of them emerges as a go-to ace. During the regular season the term “ace” is way overused, and to be honest doesn’t really mean shit, but once the playoffs come around an “ace” is a must. With the A’s having bowed out to the Justin Verlander-led Tigers the last two seasons, they can attest to this notion as well as anybody. Of these two pitchers, Gray seems to be much more of the wild card – in both a good and bad way. Gray is much wetter behind the ears than Parker, having only pitched 64.0 regular season innings in his career, and as such is the less proven commodity. This could mean that he was a flash in the pan last season, but far more likely, it could mean that he has not even reached his full potential yet. Watching Gray pitch is a treat for A’s fans, as he combines poise, skill, and “stuff” at an incredible level for such a young pitcher.
While Parker seems like an established MLB player at this point, he is barely a year older than Gray, and could very well still establish himself as an essential part of the top of the A’s rotation. For Parker, consistency will be the key, as his month-to-month ERAs last season reveal the Dr. Jekly and Mr. Hyde nature of Parker’s career with the A’s so far.
Hopefully these two young guns can push each forward in their progression as Major League pitchers, and one of the two can emerge as a legitimate ace if the A’s are able to reach the postseason once again.