Five questions: Oakland Athletics

What evil lurks in the heart of Beane this year? THT’s five questions knows…

Great bullpen, or greatest bullpen?

Great performances on bad teams are rarely appreciated, so it would be a shame if the A’s bullpen were overlooked again this year.

The relief corps last year accounted for somewhere between six and seven wins, by far the best in the majors (the Yankees were around five wins and everybody else was less than four). For a team that stunk so badly last year, the bullpen was truly outstanding. The core of the bullpen—Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey, Brad Ziegler, Craig Breslow, and Mike Wuertz—is returning this year, and a post-Tommy John Joey Devine will be thrown into the mix. Nobody is expecting these guys to put up a collective 3.35 FIP again, but these are some seriously talented relievers. I’m not positive, but I’m fairly certain the A’s are projected to have the best bullpen in the American League, probably around four and a half or five wins.

The IQ on the mound exceeds the combined IQ in the huddle. (Icon/SMI)

They’re a fun bunch, too. Bailey is the fire-breathing failed starter let loose in the bullpen. Ziegler is the submarining deception artist. Breslow is the intellectual. Wuertz is just some dude until he unleashes the best slider in the majors. The A’s have tons of questions in the rotation—Ben Sheets, Dallas Braden and Justin Duchscherer are coming off major injuries—but if they can get the game to the bullpen, this group will close it out.

If they’re not all injured. Which, apparently, can happen very quickly—in one day last week, Devine, Breslow, Wuertz and Bailey were all injured.

Who’s going to be your boy this year?

Every year, an Athletic is designated “my boy.” When “my boy” does something even marginally good, like reach base on an error, I run around the house screaming “That’s my boy!” It reconfirms to my wife that despite my advanced degree, mature parenting, and calm-but-strong leadership of the househould, I am actually a grade-A buffoon.

I’ve had some pretty embarassing choices in years past—Esteban Loaiza was a disaster of the highest order—but I did well in choosing Braden and his 3.73 FIP last year. So which player will reduce me to sheer idiocy this year? This year, I am going with Daric Barton. Did you know that Barton had laser eye surgery and is being more selective at the plate? Why, it’s almost as if he were in the best shape of his life! There’s no way he won’t come on like gangbusters!

Due to veteran deference, poor roster management, and perhaps a vain attempt at contention, it’s possible that the A’s do something bizarre like platoon Eric Chavez and Jake Fox at first base. That would be foolish, however, since it would require optioning Barton back to Triple-A. With super-prospect Chris Carter rocketing through the system, this is the year for the A’s to see what kind of hitter they have in Barton. If he’s the .400 OBP/40 doubles machine that everybody thought he was a few years ago, then maybe the A’s have to see if Carter can fake a passable left field. The likelihood that Barton is the kind of player that forces a top-15 prospect into a position change is slim. But it’s worth finding out, since Carter-as-firstbaseman renders Barton wholly redundant.

Come on, Barton. You’re my boy!

Shouldn’t the A’s have extended Miguel Tejada instead of Eric Chavez?

The next person who says the A’s should have kept Miguel Tejada over Eric Chavez is going to get a severe poke in the eye from yours truly. I am not inclined to rehash that silly discussion. Nor am I in any mood to discuss in detail the delicate interplay between Chavez’s health and the A’s 25-man roster.

It suffices to say that the A’s stand to lose a useful player on waivers—maybe Jake Fox, maybe Eric Patterson—if they include Chavez on the roster as a utility infielder. Chavez is unlikely to contribute much with the bat or the glove and he’s going to get hurt soon anyway. What’s best for the team is the failed comeback of my favorite player. I find this position so untenable that I prefer to ignore this ugly reality rather than confront it.

I’m not going expend emotional energy hoping for Beulah to reunite and stage a comeback tour, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t still enjoy Emma Blowgun’s Last Stand. In the same vein, there’s no harm in reflecting on Chavez’s career.

This is how I choose to remember Eric Chavez (Icon/SMI)

At the close of 2005 season, Chavez had picked up five consecutive Gold Gloves, consistently hit for a 120-130 OPS+, and had missed significant time only due to an injury sustained on a hit-by-pitch. With normal aging and reasonable health, he would have finished his career as one of the top five position players in Oakland history and even had an outside shot at the Hall of Fame.

Then, everything fell apart. His back, shoulder, butt and hamstrings all exploded; superstar body parts were scattered all over the disabled list. There was rehab and surgery and whispers of retirement. Chavez managed to keep things together long enough to put together a nice 2006 season, but he has been an unmitigated disaster since then. Chavez and his comebacks have turned into something of a running gag, and while I can’t fault the professional snark peddlers, it’s worth remembering just how good Chavez was when he was on. For that bit of reminiscing, I turn to one of my favorite bloggers, erstwhile proprietor of Catfish Stew Ken Arneson:

The latest jaw-dropper took place last night. With one out, runners on second and third, and Texas one run down, Chavez took a chopper near the bag, and quickly tagged out Mark DeRosa trying to return to third base. Now, I can’t ever remember seeing a 5-unassisted at third base like that before, but Chavez didn’t stop there. After tagging out DeRosa, he jumped over him into foul territory, planted his feet, and fired across the diamond to throw out the batter, Ian Kinsler. Double play, inning over.

Mouth agape.

What can you say after a play like that? Only two words come to mind.

“Time machine”?

Is Ryan Sweeney better than Jacoby Ellsbury?

No, but it’s closer than you think. Over the last two years, Ryan Sweeney has a wOBA of .328 and .330. Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox is at .333 and .354. But wait! Ellsbury plays in a great hitter’s park; Sweeney, not so much. Their park- and team-adjusted linear weights over the last two years, according to Sean Smith’s Baseball Projection, are 4.3 runs/700 PA for Sweeney and -3.3 runs/700 PA for Ellsbury. Put it all together and throw in some regression and Ellsbury and Sweeney have similar values as hitters. Indeed, both the THT forecasts and CHONE project them to be almost identical hitters in 2010.

The defensive numbers say that Sweeney is slightly above average fielder in center field and well above-average in the corners. The opinion on Ellsbury is mixed; he’s had stellar seasons and he’s had awful seasons, depending on the year and the defensive metric. Sweeney’s got a good arm; Ellsbury doesn’t. Tango’s Fan Scouting report suggests they are rough equals in the field. I buy that.

So Sweeney and Ellsbury are pretty much the same player, except for two important differences. First, Ellsbury is massively better on the bases, perhaps by as much as one win. This gives him additional value afield that Sweeney will likely never match. Second—and I’ll bet you’d never guess this—Sweeney is a year-and-a-half younger than Ellsbury. I have this image in my head as Ellsbury as some young buck, but he turned 26 last season. On the other hand, Sweeney seems like a failed prospect trying to build a second life for himself as a role player. He just turned 25.

That doesn’t make Sweeney a better player than Ellsbury, nor am I suggesting that he will be in the future. But Sweeney and Ellsbury are basically the same player at the plate and in the field. And Sweeney’s youth (and build—this guy could sell jeans) suggests that he might have room to grow. His swing, which was defnitely not built for power, doesn’t make me optimistic, but he’s still just a kid.

So what was the point of my comparison? I’m not really sure. But you know what? Ryan Sweeney is better than you think he is.

Will the A’s make the playoffs?

It’s possible, but they’re far from the favorites. The AL West is going to be close this year. Texas and Anaheim are probably 85-90 win teams, Seattle between 83-88, and Oakland just a tick behind. That’s close enough that unexpectedly good performances—c’mon Barton, you’re my boy!—and just plain dumb luck can drag any team to the top. Oakland is an interesting case, though. If the A’s are playing well enough to challenge for the division—an unlikely but not ridiculous hypothetical—there is a good chance that the team playing down the stretch is not the team that is projected to be around .500 at this moment.

Why? Because if the A’s are contending late into the season, it will almost certainly be because Sheets is healthy and ace-like, the only anxiety surrounding Duchscherer is that of opposing batters, and players not on the Opening Day roster are making key contributions. In other words, if the A’s are playing well late in the year, they will be a 85-90 win true talent team. To some extent, this is true for many teams. But I imagine this effect is greater for the A’s given the injured pitchers with the potential for high-end performance and the star prospects waiting in the minor leagues.

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Matt Lentzner
12 years ago

Nice writeup, Sal.

Barton’s “my boy” as well. I have a feeling he is doomed to be traded no matter what happens. However well he does will determine how nice the prospect return will be. There’s only a few scenarios where he would stick around.

1. Carter has a revelation in left field
2. Carter is so bad at first he’s a career DH
3. Barton turns into Will Clark (the top end of his comps)

Sal Baxamusa
12 years ago

yeah, I’m hoping for 3, but it’s unlikely that any of them happen.  It is possible that Barton plays acceptably at first and the A’s DH carter, but that would be an awfully early slide to the bottom of the defensive spectrum for Carter.

Ken Arneson
12 years ago

Help!  I’ve been locked inside a time capsule with Eric Chavez!

12 years ago

Ken – let me know where you are, so I can join you and never come out.

12 years ago

I much enjoyed your write-up, Sal.

And Barton is my boy too! I think he and Sweeney have the potential to really wow people this year if they put it all together. They’re both under 25 with a good track record, skill, and favorable projections; hopefully the time is now for the success to follow.

It will be a fun division to watch this season, for sure.

Especially in my house (it’s 2-1 Angels fans v. me).

12 years ago

Barton is also my boy! He’s got to get it together this season!

12 years ago

Thumbs up for the Beulah reference.

12 years ago

Well, nearly 3 seasons of pop ups, SO’s with MOB and just an occasional bloop single here and there – generally w/o runners ISP – does not merit Barton mention on anyone’s “that’s my boy” list.  Perhaps his recent laser surgery will change my perspective, but methinks that, if past is prologue, your boy Daric is just not the hitter you all were expecting out of the Mulder deal.

12 years ago

Richard – there’s no point in anointing a player “my boy” if there isn’t a high likelihood of failure.  Otherwise, they’d be “the man!”

Seriously though, I’m not sanguine on Barton’s chances.  We have a lot of data saying he’s not that great, and his high minors numbers are nothing eye-popping.  But, here’s to wishcasting.

Matt Lentzner
12 years ago

Right, the only reason that Barton and Sweeney are being discussed is because they are still relatively young. There’s still a chance that they could take a big step forward since the tools are there. Of course, probably they won’t.

It does happen. Carlos Pena was one of those guys who finally put it together.

Stepping back a bit, I like Beane’s recent acquisition strategy. You get prospects who are damaged goods in one way or another. Each one represents a lottery ticket. It’s a volume game.

Barton’s not a good example of this, but Sweeney, Donaldson, and Carter are. Carter is looking like a winner.

Sal Baxamusa
12 years ago

Well, Sweeney is already an average to above average player, depending on what you think of his defense.  So the ROI, unlike with lottery tickets, isn’t simply boom or bust.  Sometimes you get a perfectly reasonable player. 

You still have to hope that one or two of them become elite players.  I think Brett Anderson is on his way, and Chris Carter and Michael Taylor look like they have the most potential to do so of any of the high minors prospects.

Matt Lentzner
12 years ago

I agree about Sweeney’s value although I see his best value as a great 4th OF and not as an average starter. My point was that he was seen as a disappointment in Chicago. At the time the A’s acquired him, it seemed like he was more of a throw-in in the Swisher trade. So maybe he’s a small pot winner with a long shot to be something special.

Sal Baxamusa
12 years ago

Matt- Sweeney’s value is his value.  Whether he’s a great 4th OF or an average starter depends entirely on his teammates, not him.

But yeah, I agree that he was seen as a disappointment in Chicago, which is why I said above that I still view him as a failed prospect trying to salvage a career.  I agree with you that he’s a small pot winner with a long shot (a *very* long shot) to be anything more than that.

12 years ago

Nothing against a Beulah reunion, but Miles Kurosky’s new solo album (‘the Desert of Shallow Effects’) is getting very favorable reviews. Surely that beats a total disappearance?

Jeff Wilbur
12 years ago

Sal – I swear I was either your TA at Berkeley (unit ops or thermo labs, maybe?) or maybe we went to high school together.  I suck at matching names with people but I definitely remember your name.  How the hell do I know you?

Sal Baxamusa
12 years ago

Jeff, you were my TA for unit ops lab.  You went to Yale, right?  Send me an email – link at the bottom of the article – I’d love to catch up.  I just finished grad school, we can exchange horror stories.