Raise your hand if you predicted that the Oakland Athletics would win the AL West before the season began? Look around the room. There likely aren’t too many hands in the air. If there is one being held high, find out what tomorrow’s lottery number are for me.
Oakland was easily one of the biggest surprises of the 2012 season, ranking right up there on the list of Cinderella stories alongside the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals. The Athletics, in their own fitting way, underwent their success with a little flair for the dramatic, however, spending the season chasing first place rather than sitting comfortably in it. For a team that sat as far back as 13 games on June 30th, it was only on the season’s final days that the division was won, part thanks to a “Little Engine That Could” mentality and partly thanks to a Texas Rangers team that just simply ran out of gas. Oakland was a team constructed on a budget that took advantage of the opportunities when they became available and made the most of their limited chances.
The results speak for themselves. Oakland finished the year with a 94-68 record, good enough for second best in the American League (just a game behind the New York Yankees). The A’s were 50-31 at home. 51-25 across the season’s second half. 11-5 in games that went to extra innings. And they held winning records against each of their division rivals (10-9 vs. the Angels, 12-7 vs. the Mariners, and 11-8 vs. the Rangers).
We’ve all heard the Moneyball mantra at this point. It may no longer be the perfect term to explain the Oakland way of building a franchise, as things are certainly now than they were ten years ago. The game’s just simply changed. But many of the practices hold true, particularly the need for young players to contribute in big ways. Oakland’s rookie class was pivotal this season, led the way by a pair of pitchers who the organization acquired just this past winter.
Few questioned Billy Beane’s decision last winter to move two key members of his starting rotation for a collection of prospects. Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill would not be easy to replace in one fell swoop, but the organization had reason to believe that in time some of the pitchers they were developing in the system would be able to step up and help out. Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker didn’t see any reason to wait, as the two filled the void and led the Athletics in innings pitched in their first seasons with the organization. Milone, part of the package Washington gave up for Gonzalez, made 31 starts and pitched 190.0 innings for the A’s, posting a 13-10 record and 3.74 ERA to go along with 137 K and just 36 BB. He kept the ball down, inducing ground balls in a pitcher’s park and letting his defense keep him in games. Parker, acquired from Arizona for Cahill, would nearly match his left-handed counterpart, making 29 starts and pitching 181.1 innings, going 13-8 with a 3.47 ERA, 140 K, and 63 BB. They combined for 26 of the team’s 55 wins that went to rookie pitchers this season. A.J. Griffin arrived in late June and went 7-1 in 15 starts. Dan Straily led all minor league pitchers in strikeouts before going 2-1 in 7 late season starts after an August callup. Plus, Ryan Cook posted a 6-2 record and saved 14 games with a 2.09 ERA out of the bullpen, earning an All Star Game selection, after joining Parker as part of the team’s bounty for Cahill.
While pitching has always been the key to success in Oakland, the team’s offense played their part this season as well and were once again paced by a rookie. Upon hitting the free agent market it would have been easy to expect a bidding war for Cuban outfielder Yoenes Cespedes, though few can say that the A’s would have been one of the favorites. But once the A’s came away from the table with a new center fielder it was a move we all expected would be important for this team. Cespedes appeared in 129 games for the A’s this season, batting .292/.356/.505 over 540 plate appearances with 23 HR and 82 RBI. He’d likely be the recipient of the AL Rookie of the Year Award if it weren’t for the historic season that Mike Trout had in Los Angeles.
Josh Reddick, yet another piece picked up last winter in the trade sending Andrew Bailey to Boston, blossomed into a solid corner outfielder – showing some impressive flashes on defense to go along with a surprising 32 home runs. Chris Carter added 16 of his own in just 260 plate appearances. Johnny Gomes surprised with a .262/.377/.491 line. Brandon Moss batted .291/.358/.596 with 21 HR of his own. Coco Crisp proved he can come through in the clutch and proved pivotal on defense, while stealing 39 bases and hitting .259/.325/.418.
While 2012 was a bigger success than expected, continuing that run next season is no certainty and the organization has their share of items that will need to be addressed this offseason.
Exercising their team option for Grant Balfour, the team’s enigmatic closer who helped energize a fanbase towards the season’s end, is likely a no-brainer decision. Bringing him back also means that the team’s bullpen will remain largely in tact barring an unexpected addition over the winter. On the starting front, a decision will have to be made with regards to right-hander Brandon McCarthy. The team’s veteran option will hit the free agent market and could potentially draw a fair amount of interest giving the demand for starting pitching. He went 8-6 on the year with a 3.24 ERA over 111.0 innings of work before having his season cut short from taking a line drive off the head. McCarthy’s recovering from the injuries suffered in the horrific accident and by all accounts is expected to be fine by Spring Training. Oakland’s expected to make an effort to keep him in town, but if McCarthy starts to see large offers on the open market it may be tough for the A’s to make him the most competitive one and keep him in green and gold.
Offensively the team will need to decide if there’s enough reason to bring back Gomes for another go around, but by many accounts the two sides have already stated a desire to work something out. Stephen Drew is the lone other big-name free agent, pending the team’s decision with regards to his $10 Million option. They could decline it and sign him to a two or three year deal instead.
Pending the outcome of some of these decisions, Oakland could be in the market for upgrades at first base, third base, and possibly shortstop in addition to finding some starting rotation help this winter. Managing to address each area without compromising the rest of the roster may prove to be tricky given the limited financial window that the organization is forced to operate within. Somehow Billy Beane always seems to find a way, however, so don’t be surprised if he manages to do more of the same this winter with some creative and under-the-radar moves that will eventually prove big in the long run.