After proving that they had the talent and perseverance to Bernie Lean their way to the AL West title in 2012, the Oakland Athletics are currently down in Arizona gearing up for another shot at the playoffs in 2013.
It’s been an interesting offseason so far. While the players have been busy acquiring championship belts and undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, management has been hard at work trying to figure out how they’re going to replicate the success of last year’s team.
So what will that entail? Let’s take a look.
1. Confidence is Key
The 2012 A’s were a tight-knit group that believed in themselves when many card-carrying members of the baseball establishment wouldn’t even pick them to beat out the Seattle Mariners — the MARINERS! — for third place in the division. They’re going to need to maintain that level of confidence in order to keep the wins coming.
It’s the confidence that comes with not knowing (or caring) how bad you’re supposed to be on paper, and the youthful energy that comes along with it means the A’s are going to compete until the final out no matter who they’re playing. That’s especially important when you consider the roster adjustments the Angels and Rangers made this offseason.
Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, outspend ‘em until it at least looks like you made an effort. (In all seriousness, the Rangers had a need to make up for the loss of Josh Hamilton, but the Angels? They just gave a second slugger on the wrong side of 30 a nine-digit contract, a move that reeked of the following thought process: “Never again will we say we didn’t make the playoffs because we didn’t spend enough money”).
The good news is Oakland has the personalities in the clubhouse to integrate the new guys and maintain that special chemistry that was a key element in their run to the playoffs last season. Between veterans like Coco Crisp and Grant Balfour and younger guys like Josh Reddick growing into leadership roles, Oakland won’t ever be down on themselves to the point that it hinders their performance.
Add another experienced player like Chris Young and factor in the lead-by-crushing-home-runs style that Yoenis Cespedes employs, and the A’s players shouldn’t miss a beat.
2. Starting Pitching Must Hold Up
Everything the A’s accomplished last year was predicated on one constant that the team had to fall back on: reliable starting pitching. Generally speaking, each starter could be relied on to go at least six innings, after which Melvin would choose from his arsenal of relief pitchers in the bullpen to shore things up before handing the ball to Balfour or Ryan Cook to close things out.
With that said, no one saw pitching as an asset going into last season. Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker proved to be up to the task early on in the year, and Bartolo Colon was having a comeback season and doing things like this before getting suspended for testing positive for testosterone. Journeyman Brandon McCarthy provided a stable, veteran presence before a line drive to the head ended his season and threatened his life.
A.J. Griffin was truly a revelation after making his major league debut in June, proving just how lucky the A’s were that a competitive pitching staff came together on the fly. Brett Anderson came back from the disabled list in August to contribute until straining an oblique in September, after which Travis Blackley was called upon to fill his spot in the rotation, performing admirably for someone who had appeared in all of 8 major league games before 2012.
Expectations will be different this year. Anderson will look to take on the role of staff ace, while Milone and Parker will try to build upon the success
they had last year. Colon will attempt to pick up where he left off, and his teammates are ready to rally around him as a key part of the rotation. Griffin will likely be the fifth starter, but he’ll have to hold off Dan Straily and earn the job outright.
With the exception of Colon, this is a very young staff with a high ceiling in terms of talent. The Oakland coaching staff knows what they have, and after relying heavily on those young arms last year they have made a concerted effort to let them rest up over the winter so they’re fresh for the start of the season in April.
Fending off injury and fatigue may be the most important thing for this group over the course of the season. No staff in the league goes through the season without a few hiccups, and the A’s might be able to overcome an extended period without one of these guys, but there isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room here. If someone gets off to a slow start or another player goes through an extended rough patch, it could mean the difference between being in contention for the division or being 10 games out and hoping the team(s) ahead of them stumble like last year.
3. Players Must Make the Most of the Opportunities They Get
The depth of Oakland’s roster has been well documented, and every single position will likely be occupied by multiple players throughout the season.
Bob Melvin is very upfront with his strategy of mixing up the lineup to take advantage of certain matchups and cater to game situations, and by now ever player should be aware that they’re going to have to learn to contribute without the luxury of consistent playing time.
Whether it’s new additions like Chris Young and Jed Lowrie or guys working their way back onto the field like Scott Sizemore, some of these players simply aren’t accustomed to not having a secure, everyday spot in the lineup.
If there’s one certainty they can rely on, it’s that if they can’t adapt to Melvin’s style and produce with the time they do get, they won’t be seeing much time in games that matter.
There are several things that work to the player’s advantage here. Melvin is always honest with players, letting them know exactly when and where they will play going into each and every series. Splitting time also hypothetically gives players more energy when they do play, as they won’t get as worn down by the grind of a 162-game season.
But let’s be honest, not every player thrives in such a situation. In addition to piecing things together in spring training, Melvin will use the first half of the season to determine which lineups stick and give the team the best chance to win.
Oakland will have much more of a defined identity after the All-Star break, and players will have to make sure they hit the ground running in April to make an impression and prove their worth to Melvin and Beane.
Overall there’s a lot of “what-ifs” floating around this team, but if everyone plays up to their potential and accepts their respective roles, there’s no reason the A’s shouldn’t be in contention for the division down the stretch. As always with this ball club, it’ll be a work-in-progress that fans will be happy to support.