Sources of Offensive Optimism for the 2013 A’s

Jason Wojciechowski has a look at why A’s fans may be overoptimistic about the A’s this year. His analysis is reasonable. But I, too, find myself slightly more optimistic than the projections. I want to explore why I feel this way.

The A’s ended the season with five rookies in their starting rotation. Except for Travis Blackley, those rookies all return, joined by Brett Anderson and Bartolo Colon. The bullpen will basically be the same. I have some concerns about the starting pitcher depth — the 7th-9th pitchers in Sacramento are all big question marks — but that’s true for a lot of teams.

I expect the pitching to be roughly the same as last year. The big changes are on offense.

Despite winning their division, the A’s got below-average OBP in 2012 from six of the nine positions on the team, and were the worst in the league in three of them:

C: .262 (30th of 30)
1B: .340 (12th)
2B: .303 (24th)
SS: .272 (30th)
3B: .280 (30th)
LF: .370 (4th)
CF: .324 (20th)
RF: .298 (27th)
DH: .345 (4th of 15)

With slugging percentage, it was a similar story:
C: .325 (28th of 30)
1B: .461 (10th)
2B: .316 (28th)
SS: .313 (26th)
3B: .391 (23rd)
LF: .502 (3rd)
CF: .453 (8th)
RF: .437 (16th)
DH: .437 (7th of 15)

The A’s offense last year depended heavily on Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon Moss and the Smith/Gomes platoon at DH. You look at that list and think, well maybe they’ll regress at three spots in the lineup, but there’s lots of room for improvement at six!

And the A’s did make moves to improve the worst of these positions. Jemile Weeks held down second base for most of the year, and was awful, both offensively and defensively. A platoon of Sizemore and Sogard should be able to best Weeks’ numbers. John Jaso at catchers should easily surpass the pitiful numbers Kurt Suzuki put up before he was traded. And Jed Lowrie will surely outhit Cliff Pennington, although he may not be quite as good defensively.

For the players who were not replaced, I expect improvement from several of them. Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson were both a bit overwhelmed early in the year, but improved dramatically as the year went on. I’ve never seen a player learn to adjust so visibly and impressively as Cespedes. He tends to get fooled with off-speed pitches the first time he sees a pitcher, but the next time, he either lays off the pitch that fooled him, or he crushes it. I can’t wait to see what he does his second time through the league. Donaldson was learning to play third base at the beginning of the year, and seemed to take his defensive struggles to the plate with him. But his defense went from being awful in April to fantastic in September, and as his defense came around, he began to hit about what you’d expect from his minor league numbers in the past.

So that leaves basically Moss, Reddick and the DH platoon as sources for regression. Gomes has basically been replaced by Chris Young. Young, like Gomes, has strong platoon splits, and if Melvin can use Young like he used Gomes, I think the DH platoon can hold up. Young’s strong defense may tempt Melvin to play him more against right-handed pitchers than he played Gomes, with someone like Cespedes moving to DH. That would improve the defense, but hurt the offense. A wash? Maybe.

We might not expect Reddick to hit 32 homers next year, but he was awful for long stretches last year, particularly with men on base. He hit .283/.332/.540 with bases empty, but only .191/.273/.368 with men on base. If both of those splits regress revert to his personal mean, he’ll have more impact in 2013, because so much of his 2012 output was empty.

That leaves Brandon Moss, who to me is the key to the A’s season. If he produces anything like he did last year, the A’s make the playoffs. He out-OPSed (1.123) both Mike Trout (.900) and Miguel Cabrera (1.071) in September/October last year. But he’s a career .251/.317/.442 hitter. If he hits like his career numbers in 2013, the A’s may disappoint. The projection systems mostly regard his 2012 as a mirage, and expect numbers closer to his mediocre past.

Moss also has a big platoon split. Part of his 2012 success was being platooned with Chris Carter, who hit .241/.404/.494 in his half of the platoon. Carter was traded away to get Lowrie. Replacing Carter as a right-handed first baseman is Nate Freiman, a rule-5 player who has to stay on the roster all year, or be returned to the Padres. Freiman has power, but he can hardly be expected to put up an OBP over .400, even if strictly platooned against LHPs.

Billy Beane built a roster with a lot of depth and versatility, and if any hitters get hurt or underproduce, there are other players at the same positions who can step in and produce — except at first base. There really isn’t a good replacement for Moss if he gets hurt or reverts to pre-2012 form. But what I’ve seen in the five spring training games I watched, his swing looks good. I feel optimistic about Moss, which makes me optimistic about the A’s as a whole.

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