Let’s start the season right now

Taking a break from an increasingly busy life to contemplate all things green and gold in A’s Musings …

Spring training is about a month away and I have to admit that I’m starting to get all fired up about the Oakland A’s 2011 season and it isn’t just because they’re going to give away MC Hammer bobbleheads on July 17.

Watching general manager Billy Beane strike out in his run at free agent Adrian Beltre and Japanese starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma were definitely the low points of the offseason but now that the dust has settled there’s a lot to like about this club.

Grant Balfour, Brian Fuentes, Rich Harden and Brandon McCarthy have been added to the pitching staff.

David DeJesus, Hideki Matsui and Josh Willingham have been added to the chronically punchless offense.

Trust me, I know those aren’t exactly sexy names but as the Giants proved last season when they won the World Series if you make enough incremental improvements to your lineup it can pay off big if you have the pitching staff to make the extra runs you score count.

Hold on a second, did I really just cite the Giants as a blueprint to winning something?  Yeah, I did and I think I threw up a little in my mouth while typing the previous paragraph.

Let’s move on to sizing up the 2011 Oakland A’s.

The Good

*  Pitching, pitching and more pitching. The A’s arguably have the best pitching staff in baseball from top to bottom.  Great young starters are backed up by a deep, talented bullpen. Hard to ask for more than that.  Oakland should be competitive in almost every game just on the strength of their arms.

*  The lineup is better than last season. Of course, it’d be hard not to improve on last season’s impotent lineup but there should be more than enough upgrades in place to finally throw some run support behind the stellar pitching staff.

*  This team actually seems to have some depth for once.  For a team that’s always ravaged by injuries this is a promising development. Ryan Sweeney used to be a starting outfielder and No. 3 hitter for the A’s and now he’s the No. 4 outfielder.  Young slugger Chris Carter, who at one point looked like a major part of Oakland’s plans in 2011, is slated to open the year in Sacramento.  The bullpen is deep enough to handle losing closer Andrew Bailey for a long stretch and there are more than enough viable candidates for the No. 5 spot in the rotation to cover any injuries in the rotation for a few weeks.

*  There’s still money to burn. Missing out on Beltre allowed the A’s to keep more than $75 million in their pockets. Missing out on Lance Berkman probably saved them about $4 million and failing to work out a contract with Iwakuma allowed Oakland to recoup a $19 million posting fee. At least some of that money will be in play at the trade deadline if the A’s are in the playoff race and need one more piece to get over the top. Combine that money with the depth on the roster and you have all you need for a difference-making trade.

*  No one else in the division did anything worth worrying about this winter.

The Mariners?  Their most notable addition is Jack Cust. Good luck with that one. The Angels? They struck out on Beltre and Carl Crawford. The Halos are clearly expecting a lot out of Kendry Morales’ return from a broken leg. The Rangers?  They lost Cliff Lee and added Beltre. Can’t say I’m too worried about that one.  They’ve always had hitting and it’s usually never been enough to win the division.  They needed premium starting pitching and didn’t get it.

That’s not to say that the AL West is going to roll over and play dead for the A’s but the Angels and Rangers don’t look anywhere near as intimidating as they could have if all their free-agent wishes had come true. The A’s managed to finish in second place last season and while their competitors either stood pat or lost ground in the offseason Oakland moved aggressively to improve their team.

The Bad

*  There still isn’t a single 30-homer guy in the lineup. Look as hard as you want and you won’t find any great hitters in the prime of their careers in green and gold.  Matsui and Willingham are nice upgrades to the middle of the lineup but Oakland doesn’t have anyone an opposing pitcher would genuinely fear with the game on the line right now.

That’s what made third baseman Beltre such an appealing free agent target. He plays the one position easily open to an upgrade in Oakland and he has more than enough power to go deep at any moment.  But he has about as much interest in playing in Oakland as Scarlett Johansson has in dating me.

*  One more bad thing hanging over the 2011 A’s: The specter of the injury bug.

Is it just me or does it feel like about half the roster is on the disabled list by the All-Star Break every season?  Until the A’s finally make it through an entire season without being decimated by injuries it’s hard not to feel like they’re doomed to repeat the past.

The Ugly

*  Even though it looks like all the pieces are in place for the A’s to make a strong run at the AL West crown, Bob Geren is still the manager which has to temper the expectations of any die-hard A’s fan.

I’ll admit that bashing the man is a little unfair because the A’s have been in teardown/rebuild mode for most of his tenure as manager in Oakland but quite frankly the man doesn’t inspire much confidence.

He was never on anyone’s radar as a big-league managerial candidate while he was running the A’s Triple A club and he hasn’t exactly established himself as a master motivator or tactician over the past several years.

Geren’s been handed an outstanding pitching staff and it’ll be interesting to see if he can make the right moves with the bullpen.

*  If the A’s are miles out of the playoff race at the trade deadline get ready to see the roster shredded. DeJesus, Matsui and Willingham are just a few of the players in Oakland working on 1-year contracts. Expect to see them hit the trading block with a little money thrown in to sweeten the deal if it gets the A’s a prospect they deem a little more valuable than the draft pick they might get in return for their pending free agents if they hit the open market. And don’t think Balfour and Fuentes wouldn’t be in play either if the season goes south. Teams are always looking for shutdown relievers at the trade deadline.

As usual there’s no point falling head over heels in love with any A’s player because one way or another they won’t be in Oakland for very long.

The Verdict

So what’s my outlook for the A’s in 2011?

This is totally based on my gut feeling (anything that big has to know something, right?) rather than the kind of impressive number crunching that far sharper bloggers at sites such as Fangraphs or Baseball Prospectus could produce, but I think the A’s are in shape to either win the AL West by a few games or lose it by a few games this year.

Bold call, huh?  I don’t think they have enough offense to run away from the pack in the AL West but they have too much pitching to be out of the hunt by the time September rolls around.

The priority for Beane heading into the offseason was to add offense to the team and he’s done that.  But even he knows the new hitters aren’t enough to turn the A’s into a run-scoring juggernaut so he rolled with the punches and threw some money at relief pitchers to augment Oakland’s ability to keep runs off the board.  Hopefully it all adds up to  90 wins or more in 2011.

I think it’ll all come down to the team staying healthy and Geren doing his best to stay out of his own way and let the roster Beane and Co. assembled do its thing.

Can’t wait to see how it all plays out and if my dreams of the A’s playing ball into late October falls flat at least I’ll get an MC Hammer bobblehead out of the 2011 season.

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