While Opening Day (a personal holiday of mine) stirs the emotions and challenges fans’ faith in their favorite team at the beginning of the baseball season, the popular belief about its precursor has remained: Spring Training means nothing.
Each and every year, Major League Baseball flies south for 37 days to prepare their players for a rigorous 162 game season. Both the Cactus and Grapefruit League feature an abundance of talent, whether it be veterans using the warm weather to tune up their game or unproven youth striving to prove they belong.
In the case of this years Oakland Athletics, it would without a doubt be the latter.
This particular spring has shown promise for an A’s squad that experienced one of the more hectic offseason’s in the history of offseason’s. With the departure of four All-Stars (Derek Norris, Jeff Samardzija, Josh Donaldson, and Brandon Moss) along with others, the dismantling of the 2014 roster has now allowed a variety of fresh new faces to emerge from what seemed like the house of sticks that the big bad wolf blew down.
While Billy Beane (the big bad wolf) managed to flip his ballclub in order to get younger – much like he did in 2011 – this Spring Training has shown that there just might be some method to the madness.
The A’s led all teams in runs scored through March with some impressive individual performances as well. Most notably, outfielder Billy Burns is leading all hitters with 31 hits (.397 average) and his 21 runs beat the previous record held by an Athletic by the name of Nick Swisher, who had 19 in 2006.
Now while Burns torching the MLB for an entire season is simply unrealistic, strong showings from newcomers Marcus Semien, Brett Lawrie, Ben Zobrist, Billy Butler, Ike Davis, Mark Cahna, Tyler Ladendorf, and Josh Phegley, make reasonable to think that Oaktown can exceed the head-scratchingly low expectations that almost every “MLB expert” has for them damn near every season.
However, this leads us back to question at hand, what does Spring Training really mean?
Statistically, this team actually looks quite similar to last years in terms of their Arizona play. As of a couple of days ago, their HR% sits at 2.4% compared to 2.5% from 2014, which is relatively important considering the amount of “power hitters” Beane got rid of. On defense, the team’s error percentage has dropped from 1.0 in 2014 to .678 in 2015 and I, for one, am ecstatic about this considering the fact I will never have to watch Jed Lowrie nor Nick Punto field another ground ball in an Oakland uniform.
From an offensive standpoint, the A’s are more or less banking on potential and I think Spring Training is a solid measure of it. Although a 20-8 record in the Cactus League does not translate to the regular season, it should reassure “The Town” that its ballclub did not receive a bunch of scrubs in return for its horde of All-Stars.
Pitching, on the other hand, is more difficult to evaluate. At the beginning of Spring Training, it was all about whether or not Barry Zito would have a resurgence. And for those who are still hanging on to that here’s a news flash: the odds of him making the starting rotation are about as good as the Raiders winning the Super Bowl this year (subtle shot fired).
Anyway, if you look the probable starting rotation, there is plenty of potential.
Sonny Gray, R
Jesse Hahn, R
Scott Kazmir, L
Kendall Graveman, R
Drew Pomeranz, L
And again, if you compare this group along with the bullpen (which looks to be just as solid as last season’s) to last years, it is worth noting that the ERA for the team has dropped 0.72 in comparison to 2014 and home runs allowed by A’s pitchers have dropped to 8.5% from 2014’s 15.1%.
Now here is where it gets tricky, because even with big name starters – albeit big names in Oakland don’t carry much weight – Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir, every one of these throwers has questions surrounding them.
Will Sonny Gray become the dominant ace everyone expects him to be? Will Scott Kazmir fade off in the second half of the season like he did last year? Will Drew Pomeranz be able to go more than six innings in an outing? Who the hell are Jesse Hahn and Ken Graveman?
These are legitimate questions!
But again, what does it all mean?
Already having touched on the fact that Spring Training can evaluate potential; I’ll go a step further. The everyday dance in the desert for each team lets them know what kind of shape their roster is in – health wise. If your team can’t keep guys on the field in order to get them tuned up in the preseason, then it’s difficult to assume that they will be able to perform at a high level (if at all) for the next five, and for some teams, six months.
This can be particularly disruptive among pitching staffs. The obvious one is the Texas Rangers losing Yu Darvish to Tommy John, but I think a more interesting one is Marcus Stroman for the Toronto Blue Jays who tore his ACL. Now granted Toronto might have the offensive firepower to make up for the loss of any pitcher, but losing a talented arm like Stroman not only takes away his individual impact on the bump, but it also puts unwarranted pressure on those who are forced to replace him.
The concept of depth is what the exhibition games are capable of calculating and that is one thing Oakland has a plethora of.
If you revert back to the original rotation, not only is it deep, but it doesn’t even factor in the midseason additions of Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin that are expected to come in early June. Now while neither of these righties is a Catfish Hunter (go watch some film), they will supply the reinforcement necessary to revamp a young and inexperienced rotation right around the midseason mark. This not only makes the team better due to their abilities to pitch well, but also takes innings away from untested and fatigued arms that cannot withstand the underappreciated rigors of taking the hill every five days.
So (hypothetically) let’s check pitching off the list. The next group needing a physical examination would be the outfield. Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick are hurt and will likely miss the beginning of the season, however the A’s have multiple options in filling that void.
But before I discuss those, lets get some things straight:
1) The 35-year old Crisp who’s been playing one of the most physically demanding positions in all of sports — for 15+ years — getting hurt should be about as shocking as Stephen Curry getting the green light when the Warriors are down 3.
2) Those that talk about Josh Reddick’s 2012 campaign (32 HR/85 RBI) like it’s supposed to be a common occurrence are probably the same people that continue to believe that Jamarcus Russell will quarterback an NFL team again (subtle shot fired).
Don’t get me wrong, I love both Coco and “Georgia’s Gideon” (Judges 7:4—7), but I’ll be damned if just two players are going to make or break the A’s season.
With the hot hitting Burns, and the raw power of Cahna, along with the platoon punishing pair of Craig Gentry/Sam Fuld, and not to mention no-name Tyler Ladendorf, it seems like the green and gold continue to pull contributors out of an infinitely incessant Beane pocket-full of quality talent.
Now, as for the Bible verse I bolded AND italicized, “The Lord said to Gideon, ‘I will deliver you with the 300 men who lapped and will give the Midianites into your hands …’”
Forget the Midianites, the A’s may only need 25 men to deliver the AL West crown to Oakland.