New additions could help push A's to top
Matsui, DeJesus, Willingham lead Oakland's revamped roster
OAKLAND -- Just months ago, the A's were forced to watch the Rangers celebrate a division title on their own turf.
Suddenly, it's a new year, and they're ready to return to that turf. But this time, they want to drink their own champagne, create their own celebration.
For that to happen, though, several pieces have to fall into place. Health will be key, as will consistency, and the A's believe they have just enough manpower to conquer both courtesy of a revamped roster.
Whether these reveries become realities is unknown, but it's not too early to take a look at some of the questions facing the uncertainties surrounding the 2011 campaign.
1. How have the A's fared since season's end, and are they done making moves?
Appreciable, and not quite. They've subtracted the likes of Rajai Davis, Jack Cust and Vin Mazzaro, while adding pop in the form of Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, along with depth by way of hurlers Brandon McCarthy and familiar face Rich Harden. The offensive additions, though by no means overwhelming, are respectable and figure to lend the A's more runs -- several in the form of long balls -- next season. McCarthy and Harden, meanwhile, give the club leverage in both the rotation and bullpen.
Every facet of this team seemingly appears set when looking at the full 40-man roster, though extra bullpen depth is still a possibility. Oakland's brass would likely contend that it's also still open to continue upgrading the offense -- it has the cash to do it -- but the free-agent market, from which it would have to target rather than trade options, is thinning.
2. So, then, how have they compared with their American League West counterparts this offseason?
In the world of wheeling and dealing, Billy Beane and Co. are leading the pack right now. While the A's proved creatively aggressive from the start, division rival Texas was earnestly spending all of its time and efforts on Cliff Lee. In the end, Lee waived off two AL suitors and opted for Philadelphia, and the Rangers are now plotting their next move to fill their rotation. The Angels, meanwhile, balanced their bullpen but have yet to beef up their offense. And Seattle, while adding bits and pieces (including Cust), hasn't exactly made any major splashes.
3. Is Adrian Beltre still a possibility? If not, does Kevin Kouzmanoff again start at third?
Possibility is a safe word, but don't go holding your breath on this one. There's been no indication that Beltre's agent, Scott Boras, and A's officials have renewed discussions since Oakland pulled its initial offer for the third baseman. While the A's are able and willing to spend big, their version of "big" doesn't exactly correspond to that of Boras'. He would reportedly like to see his client earn $18 million annually over at least five years, and the Angels -- trying to counter with those numbers -- appear to be his strongest suitor at the moment.
Thus, it's safe to assume that Kouzmanoff will be donning green and gold again at the hot corner. The 29-year-old third baseman still offers the A's a good dose of offensive production, and he'll look to bounce back from a rather inconsistent 2010 campaign. He should benefit from the presence of Matsui, DeJesus and Willingham, as it will allow him to hit from a more comfortable No. 6 or 7 slot.
4. What kind of lineup will the A's run out come April?
Decent and improved. Yes, it's still flawed without a 30-home run hitter, but the A's figure to sport speed at the top and bottom of the lineup thanks to Coco Crisp and Cliff Pennington, and the middle of the bunch has the potential to leave behind many woes associated with RISP production. Walkaholic Daric Barton, along with DeJesus, whose bat should make good use of the sprawl of the Coliseum, are key pieces. The same can be said of Kurt Suzuki, who, like Kouzmanoff, is hoping to put aside forgettable 2010 numbers and take advantage of the new acquisitions around him.
One scenario: Crisp CF, Barton 1B, DeJesus RF, Matsui DH, Willingham LF, Suzuki C, Kouzmanoff 3B, Ellis 2B, Pennington SS. There are multiple more, though, with plenty of time to adjust.
5. Will Matsui really represent a noticeable upgrade over Cust?
The Matsui vs. Cust debate is a popular one, no doubt. Both are on-base machines, and both are capable of hitting 20-plus homers. But Cust didn't do the latter last season -- for all intents and purposes, it can be noted that he was awarded 133 fewer at-bats than Matsui (who hit 21) in 2010. But, more than anything, the A's were in need of new blood. Matsui strikes out far less than Cust, and he'll add some momentum as a gap-to-gap guy. He hits plenty balls the other way, which could result in a large handful of run-scoring doubles to offset the club's lack of home run-hitting ways.
So, yes, the move marks an upgrade. How much of one remains to be seen.
6. Where does Chris Carter fit into the 2011 picture?
That's a mystery at this point. At the end of the 2010 season, Carter figured to be a prime candidate to earn the starting job in left field. But then the A's went on an outfield shopping spree and acquired Willingham and DeJesus and also tendered contracts to Ryan Sweeney and Conor Jackson. The latter two are expected to act as the club's fourth and fifth outfielders. With a solid group of five outfielders when including Crisp, Carter is the odd man out -- not only in the outfield but on the 25-man roster should the A's stick with 12 pitchers, five infielders, two catchers and Matsui as the primary DH.
Keep in mind, though, that this club is prone to injuries. Crisp, Willingham, DeJesus, Sweeney and Jackson were all derailed by lengthy DL stints in 2010, so we can't assume each and every one will break camp healthy. Carter, still a defensive work in progress but boasting of power potential at the plate, could easily find himself a roster spot in the event of an injury or two. Otherwise, he may start the year at Triple-A Sacramento.
7. That precocious pitching staff should only get better, right?
If healthy, by all means yes. Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden bear close watch after a season in which each logged 190-plus innings. But the A's staff was careful not to push them, and will continue to monitor them. Plenty eyes will also be on Brett Anderson, who made just 19 starts because of an elbow injury. But these four, backed by what's arguably the most underrated defense in the game, figure to head the best young rotation in the AL. Each made huge leaps and bounds in the maturity department last year, and that process should only continue under the leadership of new pitching coach and former bullpen coach Ron Romanick.
8. Who will be the fifth starter?
There's no definitive answer but also no lack of options, which is how the oft-injured A's like it. Josh Outman, Tyson Ross and Bobby Cramer gathered some competition for the spot mid-offseason thanks to the signings of McCarthy and Harden. The most recent additions, along with Outman, could be the front-runners, as the club is in no hurry to rush Ross and could start him at Sacramento. Cramer proved to be a welcoming September surprise, but he'd likely have to endure something close to a perfect spring to beat out the others. McCarthy, if healthy, is a strong option, as is Harden. But Harden could just as easily transform into a bullpen threat. Outman, meanwhile, could come out the winner if able to prove health and a repertoire reminiscent of his 2008 days.
9. Can the bullpen stay healthy?
This question doesn't come with an immediate answer, but it's surely one worth proposing given the large number of intriguing -- and injury-prone -- names lingering in the bullpen. Craig Breslow proved to be the team's workhorse, especially down the stretch, last year, and the A's are hoping a healthy Michael Wuertz and Jerry Blevins can ease the southpaw's load in 2011. That trio represents a high-caliber setup team for closer Andrew Bailey, whose 2010 injuries proved costly for the club. Joey Devine, if healthy, could handle the closer role if need be as well. There's also Brad Ziegler, as well as options in Harden, McCarthy and fellow newcomers Philip Humber and Trystan Magnuson. All in all, the A's are hoping their depth -- which could continue to grow throughout the winter -- leads to a way of combating fewer injuries.
10. Will this team be a legitimate playoff contender?
If they can stay on the field and out of the trainer's room, the A's have a realistic shot at wearing the AL West crown in 2011. With the pitching and defense in hand and an upgraded offensive supporting cast on board, Oakland has potential to stay in contention every step of the way. That's not to say Texas and Los Angeles, or even Seattle, will make it easy on them. But this is a young team oozing with confidence, and it's got the talent to match.