The Oakland Athletics are armed and ready to compete for the AL West crown, but it will be their bats that will determine their ultimate fate.
The Athletics (81-81) finished second in the AL West last year, nine games behind Texas and one ahead of the L.A. Angels. They were 43-46 before the All-Star break and 38-35 after, never mounting a serious division challenge.
Oddsmakers at Bookmaker.com have the AL West as a three-way race between Texas (minus 120), the Angels (plus 220) and Oakland (plus 230). Seattle is an afterthought at plus 2100.
Oakland is also plus 1500 to win the American League with a regular season win total of 83.5.
The key to meeting any of the season goals is the pitching staff. It ranked first in the AL in ERA (3.56), with the starters (3.47, ranked first) outshining the relievers (3.83, ranked sixth).
The top four starters return from last season and all are 27-years-old or younger. They are Trevor Cahill (18-8, 2.97 ERA), Dallas Braden (11-14, 3.50 ERA), Gio Gonzalez (15-9, 3.23 ERA) and Brett Anderson (7-6, 2.80 ERA).
The fifth starter spot is up for grabs with Rich Harden and Brandon McCarthy two intriguing veterans in the mix.
Cahill is the ace of the staff despite not turning 23 until tomorrow. He’s the only right-hander of the group. The 23-year-old Anderson also has to prove he can stay healthy after just 112 1/3 innings last year.
There is some concern that Cahill (5.40), Braden (5.28) and Anderson (6.01) had mediocre strikeout rates last year. Gonzalez was at 7.67. The Athletics pitchers were bailed out some by above average defense and will need that again.
The bullpen is a solid group on paper, although closer Andrew Bailey (25 saves, 1.47 ERA) also needs to stay healthy. Veterans Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes were brought aboard this year and will compete with Michael Wuertz, Brad Ziegler, Jerry Blevins and Craig Breslow.
The Athletics finished 11th in the AL in runs scored last year (663). Third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff led them in both home runs (16) and RBIs (tied with 71), which showed their overall power outage.
The Athletics tied to address the issue in the offseason, bringing in outfielders Josh Willingham and David DeJesus, plus DH Hideki Matsui. Those three are penciled in for the middle of the order, with center fielder Coco Crisp and first baseman Daric Barton at the top. Barton could also bat third with DeJesus second.
Kouzmanoff and catcher Kurt Suzuki (71 RBIs as well) are scheduled to hit sixth and seventh, which is pretty good lineup depth. Second baseman Mark Ellis and shortstop Cliff Pennington will man the bottom of the order.
The Athletics were 47-34 at home and one of the AL’s top moneyline teams (plus 6.7 units). The road record was the inverse (34-47), translating into minus 9.3 units.
Oakland also struggled mightily as an underdog (minus 12.6 units), while flourishing as a favorite (plus 10 units).
The ‘under’ (83-68-11) not surprisingly had a significant advantage. The ‘under’ was 42-32-7 at home and 41-36-4 away.
The Athletics always seem to be in flux with aggressive GM Billy Beane. He’s all about building value with the lowest payroll in the division (around 65 million). There’s a good mix of youngsters and veterans, but the pitching staff can’t afford any drop-off, with the offense only projected to have modest improvement.
One thing for sure, Beane won’t be afraid to make a move at the July 31 trading deadline if a playoff spot is in reach.
Prediction: ‘under’ 83 ½-wins.
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