Billy Beane is a bold man. After the 2014 season, the long-time steward of the Oakland Athletics made drastic changes to a playoff team. Cheryl Wright compares the 2015 A’s to last year’s team to determine if the new club can be more successful than the 2014 version.
If you have just emerged from a 6-month coma, you will likely need a program to identify the players jogging out to the field in Oakland’s green and gold uniforms this season. But the same could have been said many times since Billy Beane took over the team. Billy Beane has revamped the A’s with a drastically different lineup and rotation over the last few months through a number of major trades. Most of Oakland’s starting lineup in 2015 is either new to the team or moving to a new role. So who are these new guys and has Beane accomplished anything by blowing up a playoff team?
This article takes a look at the 2015 roster by comparing each position to last year’s results. Note that 2015 projections are taken from the PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm) system, developed and maintained by Baseball Prospectus. It is known as one of the more accurate predictors of future performance, allowing us to get a sense of what to expect from each player.
Last season’s starter, Derek Norris, was traded to San Diego after an excellent 2014 season, producing a .270/.361/.403 line and earning his first All-Star selection. This trade opened the door for Stephen Vogt, who spent time last year at catcher, first base, outfield, and designated hitter, hitting .264/.337/.430 in 287 plate appearances.
PECOTA is fairly bullish on Vogt’s offense: He is projected at .255/.310/.402 in full-time duty. Those numbers would have placed him 20th in on-base percentage and 15th in slugging percentage among the 30 catchers with at least 300 plate appearances in 2014. Oakland expects at least average offensive production from its catcher position in 2015.
Vogt, like Norris, is considered below average on defense and will be 30 entering this season, so Oakland may be looking for a longer-term solution at catcher over the next few years. Light-hitting Josh Phegley will fill the backup role after being acquired from the White Sox, and should provide excellent defense: “Baseball Prospectus estimates that Phegley’s defensive skills have been worth roughly seven runs per 7,000 pitches received,” which would translate to about a half win per season if he were to start 35-40 games. At age 26, Phegley could be a factor for several years. Vogt almost certainly will not be an All-Star, but if he hits as he has in the past, this is at worst a minor downgrade.
This position was a revolving door last season, featuring appearances by Brandon Moss, Vogt, Kyle Blanks, Nate Freiman, Alberto Callaspo, and Daric Barton. This motley crew combined for an underwhelming .303 on-base percentage (24th in MLB) and .381 slugging percentage (26th), while providing roughly average defense. Of that group, only Vogt and Freiman remain, and Vogt is slated to be the team’s starting catcher.
In 2015, Oakland will turn to newly-acquired Ike Davis, with right-handed hitting Mark Canha filling the backup role. PECOTA anticipates modest improvement over 2014 for Davis, and his projected .235/.331/.414 would be a significant upgrade over last year’s fiasco. Canha, acquired in the Rule 5 draft, will platoon with Davis, and is versatile enough to play the outfield as well. After hitting .303/.384/.505 last year in AAA New Orleans, the 26-year-old has little left to prove in the minors. For the last few years, Billy Beane has settled for minimal production out of his first basemen compared to the rest of the league, but this duo should improve upon last year’s results.
Last year Oakland’s second basemen (Eric Sogard, Nick Punto, Callaspo, and Andy Parrino) provided average to above-average defense – think Omar Infante of the Royals or Dee Gordon of the Dodgers in 2014 – but combined to hit just .233 with a .297 OBP and the combination of Sogard, Callaspo, and Punto combined for one home run and an astoundingly bad .282 slugging percentage.
New arrival Ben Zobrist is past his prime at age 33, but almost guaranteed to improve upon this offensive black hole. Zobrist’s projected .255/.342/.381 and what is, by all defensive metrics like DRS and UZR, above-average defense make this a major upgrade.
Jed Lowrie managed to stay healthy enough to play in over 100 games for just the second time in his career but his offense declined from .290/.344/.446 in 2013 to .249/.321/.355 in 2014. On defense, Lowrie has never been known for having very good range or for having an exceptional arm, and most clubs were looking at him as a second- or third-baseman this offseason.
Instead of seeing what the future holds for Lowrie, Oakland traded for Marcus Semien, a 24-year-old White Sox infielder. Assistant GM David Forst cited Semien’s defense as a reason for making the trade: “We knew with the hole at shortstop with Jed leaving, defense was going to be a priority… [Semien] can be a really good shortstop.” If Semien can reach his projected .239/.321/.390 in 2015, he would easily rank in the top half of shortstops. Semien is a risky proposition in his first full major league season, but if the gamble pays off, Oakland’s need at shortstop will be filled for the next few years at minimal cost.
In perhaps the biggest surprise of the off season, Oakland swapped its star third baseman, Josh Donaldson, to the Blue Jays in exchange for Brett Lawrie. In 2014, Donaldson hit .255/.342/.456, which far surpassed the .247/.301/.421 amassed by Lawrie in yet another injury-marred season for the young hitter.
Meanwhile, Lawrie is projected to improve on his 2014 season slightly to a .262/.317/.411 line in 2015.. Given Lawrie’s pedigree as a former top prospect (as high as #40 on Baseball America’s list in 2011), it is reasonable to assume that he has room for improvement. If Lawrie can stay healthy, this trade could become a substantial victory for the A’s, especially considering that Donaldson is 29 and Lawrie is only 25. However, given Lawrie’s extensive injury history, that is a big “if.”
The most likely outcome is a downgrade for the A’s on offense because Lawrie has never produced an on-base percentage or slugging percentage as high as Donaldson did in 2014. Additionally, Lawrie has never played in more than 125 games in a single season. However, Lawrie is younger, cheaper, and cost controlled, all of which undoubtedly appeal to Beane.
Oakland’s 2014 outfield featured Yoenis Cespedes and Brandon Moss in left; Coco Crisp, Sam Fuld, and Craig Gentry in center; and Josh Reddick and Moss in right; cumulatively, a group that was 13th in baseball with a .327 on-base percentage and 12th in slugging percentage (.403). However, Moss and Cespedes contributed 28 of the 52 home runs hit by Oakland outfielders, and both were traded.
At age 35, Crisp is no longer a defensive asset in center field and Oakland will play him in left this year, moving Crisp down the defensive spectrum to increase the likelihood that he returns to being a plus defender. Crisp has had trouble staying healthy, averaging just 106 games per season over the last six years, and he will spend the first 6-8 weeks of this season on the disabled list after having elbow surgery to remove bone chips. To fill in for Crisp, Oakland has utilized Canha and Cody Ross. Meanwhile, the combination of Fuld or Gentry in center and Reddick in right will give the A’s excellent outfield defense.
In 2014, the A’s featured the likes of Brandon Moss, Jonny Gomes, and Yoenis Cespedes in the outfield, so the defensive upgrade could be substantial. However, the outfield of Crisp/Fuld or Gentry/Reddick is highly unlikely to produce anything close to last season’s offensive production.
Last year, Oakland employed 15 different DH’s, with Alberto Callaspo, John Jaso, Yoenis Cespedes, and Adam Dunn combining for about half of these plate appearances. The results were unimpressive. Among American League teams, Oakland was 13th out of 15 teams in both on-base percentage (.294) and slugging percentage (.343).
This year, Oakland has settled on a regular DH, as they signed Billy Butler to a 3-year, $30 million deal in the offseason. Butler produced a .271/.323/.379 line, well below his career norms, but PECOTA expects him to bounce back to .276./.347/.413 in 2015. However, even his 2014 season would be an upgrade on what Oakland got from its designated hitters last year.
Seven pitchers made more than 10 starts for Oakland last year: Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez, Jeff Samardzija, Tommy Milone, Jason Hammel, and Jon Lester. Of that list, only Gray, Kazmir, and Chavez ‒ who combined for 86 outings ‒ remain with the team. Gray and Kazmir will fill the first two slots.
Twenty-five-year-old Jesse Hahn ‒ acquired from San Diego in the Norris trade ‒ had an impressive rookie season for the Padres in 2014 and will be Oakland’s third starter this year. The fourth spot will be filled by Drew Pomeranz, who started three games for Oakland last year. And newcomer Kendall Graveman, acquired in the Donaldson/Lawrie trade, won the fifth starting spot with an outstanding spring (3-1 with a 0.36 ERA). A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker are both recovering from Tommy John surgeries and could be contributors later in the season.
There is a lot of uncertainty here, but the Oakland staff has the potential to be almost as good as in 2014, given that Gray and Graveman are only 24, Hahn is 25, and Pomeranz is 26, and that Lester and Samardzija combined for just 27 starts for Oakland last year. Even if the rotation performs worse in 2015, it is still likely to be a strength for the A’s compared to the rest of the league.
This is the one area of Oakland’s roster in which the talent remains virtually unchanged. Luke Gregerson left via free agency and Beane quickly found a replacement by picking up Tyler Clippard from the Nationals. Returning bullpen members include Eric O’Flaherty, Dan Otero, Andy Abad, Sean Cook, and closer Sean Doolittle. R.J. Alvarez, acquired from San Diego in the Derek Norris trade, throws a 95 to 97-mph fastball with great movement.
Additionally, one or two of the starting pitcher candidates could bolster the bullpen if they fail to win a spot in the rotation. In 2014, Oakland’s bullpen ranked third in the majors in ERA (behind San Diego and Seattle). If Doolittle can return quickly from injury, the bullpen should be an asset again this year.
Billy Beane opens the 2015 season with an almost entirely new lineup, as well as a young but talented pitching staff. He is gambling with younger and cheaper players with more years of team control, while sacrificing proven MLB talent. The “good news,” if one can call it that, is that Oakland’s 2014 performance at several positions was so atrocious that it will be relatively easy to improve upon them. For example, Oakland’s offense at first base, second base, shortstop, and designated hitter all ranked near the bottom of the league. Thus, the combined additions of Davis, Zobrist, Semien, and Butler will help to boost Oakland’s lineup. Four positions (catcher, third base, and the corner outfield spots) are likely to decline in 2015. Center field should see improved defensive but less offense. Oakland’s rotation is young and talented, and the bullpen remains an asset.
At the beginning of the season, PECOTA projected Oakland to give up the fourth-fewest runs (658) in the American League. However, they are also projected to produce the AL’s lowest slugging percentage, resulting in the third-fewest runs scored (682) in the AL. PECOTA projected an 84-78 record, placing Oakland third in the division (behind LA and Seattle) but within two games of a wildcard berth. In short, Oakland has probably taken a small step back from their 88 wins in 2014. However, they should compete for a wild card playoff spot again. They have also given themselves the opportunity to continue to compete in future years as they have acquired lots of young, cheap players who are just entering their primes.
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Thanks to Baseball-Reference for providing 2014 stats and splits by position/team and to Baseball Prospectus for its 2015 PECOTA projections.