The Oakland Athletics were not supposed to be good in 2012. During the off-season, the A’s traded three-forths of their starting rotation (Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, and Guillermo Moscoso) and closer (Andrew Bailey), and even let their best statistical hitter (Josh Willingham) sign with the Minnesota Twins. Heck, they even lost star starter Brett Anderson on June 5, 2011 (he’s only pitched 20 IP in 2012) to Tommy John surgery, and still haven’t seen Dallas Braden pick-up a baseball in 2012 at all. Yet, it’s September, and the 76-60 Athletics are only trailing the Texas Rangers by five games, and are currently one of the two Wild Card leading teams. With their payroll a franchise-low since 2008, and incredibly, the second-lowest in the Major Leagues this season (about a million more than the Pittsburgh Pirates), one truly has to wonder, “How are the Oakland Athletics winning?”
On the surface, the answer is simple: extremely diligent free-agent signings and perfect trade returns. But let’s take a closer look…
FREE AGENT SIGNINGS:
Jonny Gomes: Gomes has more or less made a living off smacking left-handed pitching (career .281/.377/.508). But after hitting a combined .209/.325/.389 line in 2011, there weren’t a ton of suitors for the 31 year-old. Yet, the A’s still saw value (.311/.407/.456 vs. LHP in 2011), and hoped Gomes’ vs. RHP stats would inch back up towards his career averages (career .223/.308/.426). For a mere $1 million, the Athletics have seen Gomes post a whopping 1.6 fWAR season in 2012 (or $7.2 Million). His combined .257/.368/.485 line in 280 PA’s has been extremely productive, most of which–as expected–coming against left-handed pitchers (.283/.389/.543 in 162 PA’s). Needless to say, the platoon of Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith has been one of the most productive and low-cost combinations in baseball (combined .252/.356/.460 line with 28 HR, 84 RBI, 89 R in 652 PA’s for $3.415 Million)
Yoenis Cespedes: Aside from re-signing Coco Crisp, the Athletics inking of Yoenis Cespedes was their most lucrative dip into free agency. Cespedes, the much-ado Cuban import, signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the A’s, which was surprising since the franchise looked as though spending money was the last thing they’d do. The right-handed hitting outfielder was immediately thrust into the A’s lineup, and instantly provided the offense the team needed with the departure of Willingham. The 26 year-old has posted a .290/.348/.481 line with 16 HR, 65 RBI, 52 R, and 14 SB in 425 PA’s so far in 2012. While his fielding hasn’t been too hot (-23.6 UZR/150 between LF and CF), it’s hard to knock him as a Rookie. At a reasonable $6.5 million contract for this season (and other $29.5 million over the next three seasons), Cespedes was an absolute steal–not to mention being an lure to the ballpark for fans.
Brandon Moss: It’s taken Moss about a decade to break-out, but luckily for the Athletics, 2012 apparently is the year. The former big Boston Red Sox prospect–who helped the Red Sox land Jason Bay in 2008–forced his way onto the Major League roster this season by smacking a .286/.371/.582 line in Triple-A. Even though Moss had failed many times at the Major League level in the past, the now 28 year-old finally turned the corner, posting a .258/.322/.558 line with 16 HR, 35 RBI, and 30 R in 208 PA’s for the A’s. Hitting mostly right-handed pitching (168 of 208 PA’s), Moss ranks sixth in the entire Major Leagues (with a minimum of 150 PA’s) with a .605 SLG vs. RHP. And mind you, this is all for league minimum.
Bartolo Colon: With his recent high-testosterone-related suspension, praising the Colon signing might be in bad taste–but it’s still difficult to ignore his 152.6 productive innings for the A’s in 2012. After resurrecting his pitching career with the Yankees in 2011 (4.00 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 3.38 K/BB in 164.3 IP), Colon shockingly found few interested parties during the off-season. Perhaps it was due to his comparatively bad second-half (4.96 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, and 3.11 K/BB) or maybe teams suspected foul play (ahem), but the A’s still forged ahead, and inked Colon to a one-year, $2 million contract. Up until his suspension on August 22, the veteran righty hurled a 3.43 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and career-best 3.96 K/BB (fueled by a league-leading 1.4 BB/9). His 2.3 fWAR had been worth $10.5 million–so tarnished season or not, the A’s made a great signing.
Travis Blackley: The love for Travis Blackley is hardly a new agenda for The Beanball, but regardless of this blog’s man-crush, the A’s deserve a lot of credit for inking the journey-man pitcher. Shuttling between eight franchises (six different ones) in twelve seasons, Blackley’s determination to find success at the Major League level is not only uncanny, but also, almost Disney-esq. In his second round with the San Francisco Giants, the 29 year-old posted a microscopic 0.39 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, and 6.33 K/BB in 23.3 IP for their Triple-A squad. Forcing his way onto the roster, the native-Australian didn’t fare particularly well in a short 5 inning stint for the Giants, posting an atrocious 9.00 ERA, 1.80 WHIP, and 1.00 K/BB. After just 13 days in the Majors with the Giants, the team placed the lefty on waivers, enabling the A’s the scoop him up. In both starting (3.97 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 2.72 K/BB) and relief (2.93 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 2.00 K/BB) situations, Blackley has been invaluable for the Athletics, posting a combined 3.39 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 2.63 K/BB over 93 IP. His 4.23 xFIP vs. seasonal 3.67 ERA (between Giants/A’s) suggests there could be some minor regression next season, but as a back-of-the-rotation or bullpen filler, a team could do a heck of a lot worse.
Pat Neshek: Neshek has had his share of injury problems over the past three-plus seasons, but when the 31 year-old reliever posted a 2.66 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 7.00 K/BB in 44 IP for the Baltimore Orioles Triple-A squad, there should have been a lot of teams interested in his services. Not to toot my own horn, but even I suggested my New York Mets make a move to acquire him back in late-June. But, of course, Billy Beane beat Sandy Alderson to the punch (or, ahem, read my article). On August 3, Beane purchased Neshek’s contract from the Orioles, and promoted him to the Major Leagues. The result? Pure dominance. The former Twins-reliever has pitched to the tune of a 0.73 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, and 4.67 K/BB in 12.3 IP for the A’s. It’s unrealistic to think that Neshek would continue this caliber of dominance in 2013, as he’s been sporting a .179 BABIP (vs. career .229 BABIP), and 100% LOB%, but as a late-season, peanuts-salaried acquisition, you can’t really do much better.
ACQUIRED VIA TRADE:
Seth Smith: When the Athletics traded Guillermo Moscoso (and Josh Outman) for Seth Smith, a lot of people poo-pooed the move. First of all, the A’s already had plenty of mediocre-to-average outfielders: Collin Cowgill (via Trevor Cahill trade), Josh Reddick (via Andrew Bailey trade), Coco Crisp (via free agency), as well as Chris Carter (some Minor League outfield experience) and Michael Taylor waiting in the wings at Triple-A. Second of all, the 27 year-old Moscoso had just spun a 3.38 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 1.95 K/BB in 128 IP season for the A’s in 2011, proving to at least–seemingly–be a solid back-of-the-rotation starter. Third of all, Smith was/is a typical, and replaceable platoon player (career .285/.364/.510 vs. RHP, .194/.267/.311 vs. LHP). Essentially, why on earth would the A’s make such a move? As Moscoso’s 5.02 xFIP and .221 BABIP suggested, his 2011 season would be a tough one to replicate. And like clockwork, for the Rockies this season, the right-handed pitcher’s ERA has ballooned from 3.38 to 7.25 (vs. 4.11 xFIP). On the flip side, Smith has joined forces with Jonny Gomes in one of the game’s most productive platoons (I need not repeat the stats I already cited in Gomes’ section). The 29 year-old is also still under team control, so if the Athletics are willing to raise his $2.415 million salary, the team could have themselves another steady righty-mashing season of Seth Smith in 2013.
Josh Reddick: Plucking Reddick from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney was not only Beane’s best off-season move, but also perhaps the best trade any General Manager made during the off-season. The 25 year-old Reddick seemed like he had the tools to become a solid power hitter in 2011 (.280/.327/.457 with 7 HR in 278 PA’s), but as a full-fledged starting outfielder for the A’s in 2012, Reddick has truly taken off. In 563 PA’s, the left-handed hitter has posted a .256/.322/.491 line with 28 HR, 75 RBI, 72 R, and 10 SB. Even though Reddick’s BB% doesn’t quite fit the usual A’s mold, it’s hard not to like his power, the fact he hits righties (.258/.334/.491) and lefties (.254/.299/.492) evenly, and his very cheap/controllable contract. As exciting as Reddick is and will be, it’s very possible that Miles Head, a third base prospect who was also thrown into the deal, could be the even bigger steal of this trade (.333/.391/.577 line with 23 HR, 84 RBI, 82 R, and 3 SB in 528 PA’s between Advanced-A and Double-A). This trade could get even more lopsided in the coming years.
Derek Norris: Despite displaying rare pop and patience for a catcher, the Nationals decided to include 22 year-old Derek Norris in the mega-deal that landed them Gio Gonzalez. Norris, who had posted a .210/.367/.446 line with 20 HR, 46 RBI, 75 R, and 13 SB in 423 PA’s for the Nationals’ Double-A squad in 2011, got thrust into a starting gig for the A’s in 2012 due to the horrid play and subsequent trade of Kurt Suzuki. The 23 year-old has hardly been “outstanding” for the A’s so far in 2012 (.201/.287/.340 line), but his .138 ISO stands up to the likes of A.J. Ellis (.144), Jesus Montero (.138), Alex Avila (.134), and Joe Mauer (.126), and his 10.1% BB% rivals Russell Martin‘s (11.1%, Matt Wieters‘ (10.0%), Brian McCann‘s (9.1%), and Geovany Soto‘s (9.1%). In addition, Norris has also shown some defensive prowess (30% CS%, and 3 PB’s), and the ability to handle a big league staff (3.09 ERA). When Norris’ bat comes around as soon as next season, the burn of losing Gio Gonzalez will most certainly lessen.
Tommy Milone: Along with Norris, Milone was also one of the key youngsters included in the Gio Gonzalez trade. The southpaw seemed to have exhibited more dominance in the Minors (career 8.1 K/9, and a 9.4 K/9 in Triple-A), but more importantly, Milone’s great success so far as a Major League starter can be attributed to his immaculate 1.7 BB/9 control. In 162.3 IP for the A’s this season, the 25 year-old has posted a 3.94 ERA (vs. 4.01 xFIP), 1.23 WHIP, and 3.81 K/BB. Yes, if you want to directly compare Gio Gonzalez’s 2.98 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 2.94 K/BB in 2012, Gonzalez has been more dominant, and probably the better pitcher. However, the combination of Milone, Norris, Brad Peacock, and A.J. Cole could–in the near future–be a heck of a lot more valuable than just one very good starting pitcher like Gonzalez.
Jarrod Parker: Parker has been rated a Baseball America “top prospect” every year since pre-2008, so success is certainly expected. After posting a 2.18 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 3.50 K/BB in 20.6 IP for Triple-A to begin the season, the A’s wasted little time promoting the 23 year-old to the Major Leagues. While the righty’s seasonal stats haven’t been particularly ace-worthy (3.67 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, and 2.04 K/BB in 147.3 IP), they have been eerily similar to Trevor Cahill’s (3.98 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 1.97 K/BB in 172 IP), the guy he was traded for. The only real difference is that Cahill will earn $30.5 million over the next five seasons, he pitches in the more pitcher-friendly National League (for the Arizona Diamondbacks) and the Athletics also acquired Ryan Cook, who has racked up 13 Saves in the A’s closer-by-committee bullpen in 2012.
Ryan Cook: As stated above, the 25 year-old reliever has accomplished a lot in his first full-season in the Major Leagues. Despite pitching to the tune of a 7.04 ERA, 2.47 WHIP, and 0.88 K/BB in 7.6 IP for the Diamondbacks last season, Cook assumed the closer role for the A’s in 2012 when all their other options got injured or faltered. In 58.3 IP, the right-handed pitcher has posted a 2.62 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 13 Saves, and 2.46 K/BB. Heck, he was even selected to the All-Star game this season. Granted, while being an All-Star isn’t quite what it used to be, Cook must have impressed a lot of people with the 1.41 ERA and 0.88 WHIP he posted during the first half. With Cook’s success in the closer role–and just as a late-inning reliever in general–don’t be surprised to see the righty being given a shot at the closer’s job going into 2013.
When you look at this list of players, it is both incredible and impressive that the team has stuck together, and performed so well. But given the type of roster overhaul Billy Beane put the Athletics through–and their sooner-than-expected success–the future looks very bright for Oakland.