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billy-beaneAs a card carrying VORPy, it shouldn’t be a shock to our readers that I always enjoy dissecting the Oakland A’s in an attempt to understand Billy Beane‘s thinking. It’s been over five years now since “Moneyball” was published and its effects are still apparent. Every single ball club now at least seems to understand the value of each out made and acts accordingly (though some more so than others).

Far too many still think that “Moneyball” was about OBP. It wasn’t. The philosophy was rooted in the difference between perceived value and actual value and exploiting it to one’s own advantage. A few years ago, it was hoarding OBP and projectable prospects while selling off easily replaceable parts like “closers”. But other baseball execs have caught on since then, and when this happened, skills that were undervalued became far more expensive to obtain.

And that’s what makes Oakland so interesting. They have to keep finding market inefficiencies and continue evolving to remain competitive. And they do it about as well as anyone.

With that said, 2008 was not a good year for the on-field product. The aforementioned price increase in what was before undervalued commodities (including young pitching) forced Oakland to take steps back to regroup, trading away pitchers Rich Harden and Joe Blanton in exchange for a plethora of good prospects.

matt-hollidayBut the regrouping effort didn’t take very long. One of the worst offensive clubs in baseball last season, the A’s made waves by acquiring Matt Holliday via trade and signing Jason Giambi off the free agent “scrap pile”. Oakland knows that the Angels are vulnerable in 2009 – and this club could be the ones to dethrone them in September.

The impact of Holliday and Giambi’s additions should become clearer by Opening Day. Assuming that the former Rockies OF will be entrenched in left field, what’s yet to be answered is what will become of Jack Cust.

To say that defense is not Cust’s forte would be an understatement. If Holliday is playing left, there are only three options for Jack – RF, 1B and DH.  However, in addition to Giambi, the A’s still have first baseman Daric Barton. Despite struggling far more than I thought he would in 2008, it’s still way too early for Oakland to give up on him. So it’s likely that Cust ends up in RF, which is (albeit only slightly so) a more demanding position than Left.

If this will be the actual scenario, despite Cust’s glove, the A’s improved production from the traditional power spots from Frank Thomas-Barton-Cust-Emil Brown to Giambi-Barton-Holliday-Cust. Plus, the team should get perennially underrated 2B Mark Ellis back towards the beginning of the season, who, if healthy, will add a boost both offensively and defensively.

justin-duchschererThis offensive upgrade will be important since their starting pitching can’t be expected to duplicate their successes from last year. As it currently stands, Justin Duchscherer will be counted on to lead this staff. Duch made his MLB debut back in 2001, but this was the first year in which he was a full time starter converting from the pen. He surprised just about everyone when he posted a 2.54 ERA in 22 starts. Now there are no certainties at this stage of the game, but this isn’t going to happen again. Opponents had a ridiculously low .235 BABIP against Duch last year, which, had he been healthy enough to qualify for the ERA title, would have been the lowest number in all of baseball. Granted, the A’s probably had the best defense in MLB in 2008 so we can attribute a good chunk of that to the gloves behind him. But the rest was luck.

Pitching behind Duchscherer will be a collection of young, talented arms that absolutely need to learn how to limit walks if they are to be successful. Returnee Dana Eveland has walked 4.5 batters per nine innings in his career while former Cub Sean Gallagher comes in at 4.85 BB/9. Gio Gonzalez allowed 61 free passes in 123 minor league innings in while the man with the greatest last name in pitching history, Joshua Outman, walked 45 in 98+IP last year.

The Holliday trade also had major ramifications on the Oakland bullpen which lost Huston Street from its ranks when he was traded to Colorado along with SP Greg Smith and OF Carlos Gonzalez. Plus, Alan Embree and Keith Foulke were lost to free agency. In their place, the A’s signed Russ Springer, Jerome Williams, and just today traded for Mike Wuertz.

Offseason Transactions

ADD: Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, Russ Springer, Jerome Williams, Michael Wuertz

LOST: Emil Brown, Frank Thomas, Huston Street, Greg Smith, Carlos Gonzalez, Andrew Brown

kurt-suzukiProjected Lineup

C: Kurt Suzuki
1B: Daric Barton/Jason Giambi
2B: Mark Ellis
3B: Eric Chavez
SS: Bobby Crosby
LF: Matt Holliday
CF: Ryan Sweeney
RF: Jack Cust/Travis Buck
DH: Jason Giambi/Jack Cust

Pitching:

SP1: Justin Duchscherer
SP2: Sean Gallagher
SP3: Dana Eveland
SP4: Gio Gonzalez
SP5: Josh Outman/Dallas Braden

CL: Joey Devine

GRADE: B-

What interests me right now with the A’s is that they actually have a good amount of pop and offensive depth, which is notable since the A’s have primarily been known as a high-OBP team with very strong pitching. Yes, we all know that Holliday benefitted from Coors. But he’s still a very capable hitter, as is Jason Giambi. Depth-wise, the team still has Travis Buck, Rajai Davis, and Jack Hannahan coming off the bench – and the latter two are among the top defensive players at their positions. IF everyone is healthy, the infield should be among the best in the Majors defensively, taking some of the load off the less-than-stellar pitching staff.

So overall, Oakland’s done a fairly nice job in constructing their 2009 squad. Like I’ve said, the Angels are vulnerable. Although they won 100 games in 2008, I think that they did it with smoke and mirrors since their run differential suggests that they were an 88-win team. And now they’re without Teixeira and K-Rod. 88 wins really may be enough to win the AL West this year, and Oakland’s got a shot at it. And while you may think that this alone should merit a better offseason grade, I don’t think we should be giving Beane extra credit because the Angels failed to improve.

However, due to their rotation, the A’s are a team that is still going to need things to break their way. Billy Beane found himself in a peculiar position of actually being able to afford power this offseason, and consequently has fielded a team that could hit and field their way into contention in 2009.

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