2011 season preview -- hitters

By Jason Wojciechowski on March 30, 2011 at 11:10 PM

The real baseball season gets moving tomorrow (finally), so I awake from my long blog slumber to bring you this first post of the 2011 season: a rundown of the 25-man roster plus assorted hangers-on (injured folks, AAA players who will likely make some impact on the season). This won't be the heaviest analytical piece you ever read. It's more in the way of an abbreviated version of something I meant to do over the course of the off-season: player reviews and previews for the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The review part of things has gone by the wayside -- Vin Mazzaro, for instance, is out of sight, out of mind as far as this blog is concerned. Anyway, enough throat-clearing. On to the hitters.

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p>Catcher: The starting catcher remains Kurt Suzuki. His spot might be the most stable on the team -- none of the outfielders are signed past this year, the A's have made numerous runs at shortstops and third basemen, and youneverknow with pitching. Suzuki and Mark Ellis are the rocks of the squad, and Ellis is aging. As befits a rock, you know what you're getting with Suzuki: one of the more athletically oriented backstops around, a guy with a decent enough arm, and a hitter who'll never be mistaken for a lineup force.

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Suzuki's hitting is troublesome: his wRC+ figures (park adjusted runs per plate appearance, scaled so that 100 is average) have been 95, 94, 83 in his three full seasons in the majors, tracking his OBP decline: .346, .313, .303. He hit for power in 2009 (.147 ISO) and had a 7.5% walk rate in 2008, but his average slipped all the way to .242 last night, albeit on just a .245 BABIP.

A's fans may not want to hear this, because they love Suzuki (as does Bob Geren, who batted Suzuki third 59 times last year, leading the team), but Landon Powell, the backup to start the season, might be about the same hitter. ZiPS doesn't like him, pegging him for just a 72 wRC+, but Marcel and Bill James both have Powell at 93 -- Suzuki comes in at 93 in Marcel and 98 from Bill James. The major caveat in those projections is that Powell doesn't play very much. Even in the minors, the most PA he's ever had in a season is 420, and that was in 2006 across High-A and AA. In the 130 or so PAs he'll get this year, he could do pretty much anything. I have no particular insight to add regarding his defensive or offensive abilities, but I do love watching him play -- he's listed around 250 pounds, and that is likely generous. There's a reason his nickname is "Tiny".

The other backup catcher to keep an eye on is Josh Donaldson, who starts the year in Sacramento, where he played 86 games in 2010. (He missed a month with a left MCL sprain, according to Corey Dawkins's Baseball Injury Tool.) Donaldson has had good walk rates (12.9% last year) and good ISOs (.238 last year) in the minors, so if he can keep his contact issues under control (26.9% K-rate in AAA), his stat line says "he has potential." Baseball America's write-ups over the years, while never rating him as a top-notch prospect, have noted his raw power while also questioning whether he'll hit enough to be a big-league catcher. He's a nice third catcher to have around, a guy who could, knock on wood, step in for Suzuki (I assume he'd leapfrog Powell to the starter's spot) if the latter was hurt for any length of time and have a decent chance of keeping the drop-off minimal.

First base: Daric Barton returns as the starter, and as my favorite Athletic. He embodies the things I like about the A's, with his patience at the plate and his excellent (and aesthetically pleasing -- he's no Mark Teixeira) defense. Barton's retained the arm that made him a catcher and retained the plate discipline that made the A's salivate over him in the first place. He hasn't added the power that was supposed to come as he aged (though he is still just 25, and he wouldn't be the first player to not really come into his own power-wise until his late 20s), but his .393 OBP last year translated into an excellent 127 wRC+. He's obviously not in the Votto/Cabrera/Pujols class of first baseman, stick-wise, but his wRC+ last year placed him right in between two far more expensive, far more famous players: the aforementioned Teixeira just above and Ryan Howard just below. Considering Howard's scandalously bad defense, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that Barton is twice the player the big Phillie is.

Other guys who should get some time at first base (though Barton will likely play 99% of the innings as long as he's healthy) include Landon Powell, Josh Donaldson, and Andy LaRoche, the utility infielder new to the team who beat out Eric Sogard for the job. LaRoche was a 39th round pick who Baseball America rated the Dodgers' second-best prospect coming into 2008, hit for shit in 115 PAs in 2007, for even more shit in 252 PAs in 2008, was about average in a full season in 2009, and then fell off the map in 2010, putting up a shocking 50 wRC+ in 271 trips to the dish. LaRoche had some back troubles in the minors in 2007 (per BA and the Dawkins Tool), and was listed as day-to-day with back soreness twice early in 2010. He's supposed to be a guy with big-time power, and his ISOs in AAA were very good, but it hasn't translated to the majors. It's interesting to see him come in as the utility infielder, because Baseball America 2008 did not speak highly of his defense, saying that his bat would be what carried him. That was at third base, so it does not appear that the A's are rostering any bench player who can handle shortstop. (Not that I'm complaining -- never forget the old Earl Weaver mantra that your backup shortstop belongs at AAA.) Perhaps Mark Ellis is expected to slide over in case of an in-game situation that incapacitates Cliff Pennington?

If Daric Barton were hurt for any significant period, I assume that Chris Carter would return from AAA to beat the American League into submission. Carter's a pretty known unknown at this point: his power potential is absurd (his moon shot in Seattle last year makes that point rather elegantly), his defense is nonexistent, and nobody knows whether he'll make enough contact to be a legit championship player or a second-division starter. The only thing that's going to answer these questions is extended big-league time, and the A's don't have that for him this year, with the outfield stocked up, Hideki Matsui designated as the hitter, and Barton at first. It's pretty neat to have a guy who might just be Ryan Howard waiting to take over if something bad happens, though.

Second base: South Dakota home run king Mark Ellis is back for another year. He'll bring his usual mix of adequate hitting (he's not going .316/.384/.477 again, like 2005 -- yes, Mark Ellis once slugged four freaking seventy seven), stellar defense, and the most grimcaey gritty grindiness this side of David Eckstein. It's a legitimate joy to watch him play second base, gobbling up balls that other guys can't even make a dive at, turning the deuce with impunity, and generally just glaring his way right into every A's fan's heart.

The other major thing Mark Ellis will absolutely do is get hurt. His career-high in games in 154, and that was back in 2003. The A's have a bevy of second basemen at the ready, though, including the aforementioned LaRoche. Eric Sogard will wait at AAA, though it's not entirely clear what he'll do down there -- the A's have Josh Horton, Jemile Weeks, and Adrian Cardenas to cover the infield. Presumably they'll rotate those guys through the DH spot and let Sogard, who played all three infield positions for Sacramento last year (though predominately at second base), rove around. Sogard is not terrifically small, at 5'10" and 185 pounds, so I wonder whether the A's would try him in the outfield at all to try to give him even more flexibility. (For what it's worth, the most recent Baseball America book rates his arm as "fringy", but the 2009 book referred to it as "average". There may be some position adjustment going on, as his arm is perhaps average for second base, but fringy for shortstop and third. This likely precludes him from being an outfielder, though Johnny Damon says hello.)

I won't write up Jemile Weeks and Adrian Cardenas (except to note that Cardenas used Kings of Leon walk-up music in Midland a few years ago) because I don't know much about them, and if they're playing significant roles on the 2011 A's, things have gone horribly awry. It's March 30th, and I'm trying to stay positive. In any case, know that, if Ellis goes down, LaRoche has hit his way out of Oakland (or baseball), and Eric Sogard has become a Buddhist monk, there are other options at AAA, options that at one point or another have been considered very good prospects.

Shortstop: Sir Cliff Pennington returns for his second full season as the starter. His offensive line from 2010 surprises me: he wound up with just a 97 wRC+, and I thought he'd been better than that. My guess is that's because my main memories of his offense come from a period in the middle of the year when his wOBA graph shows a sharp positive slope. Less well-remembered are the long downward moves in the first and last thirds of the year. In any case, Corpus Christi's own (poor guy) wound up a very good hitter for the position (fifth-best in the majors by wRC+, but you'd never know it, would you?). Furthermore, all the defensive rating systems listed on Fangraphs agree that he's basically a win above average with the glove. Add it all up and you get a player who, by fWAR, was top-20 in the AL last season. You read that right.

As mentioned above, Pennington's backup is at AAA, though it's unclear whether that would be Sogard or Josh Horton if there was a long-term need at the position. Horton did not make Baseball America's top-30 for Oakland. Let's keep Sir Cliff healthy and productive this year.

Third base: Beaneball bete noire Kevin Kouzmanoff is back again, despite all Oakland efforts to make him go away and play Adrian Beltre in his stead. Hell, the A's were even rumored to be after Chone Figgins, and no Oakland fan even blinked an eye in protest. GEICO, as I've promised to call him, brings a strong arm and surprisingly sure hands to the position ("surprisingly" because there's a reason I call him GEICO -- he looks like a just-unfrozen caveman on the field, all stiff and awkward), though there's good reason to suspect that UZR's +16 rating for his defense last year is not quite what we should expect going forward. (Not for any reason involving my eyes disagreeing with the rating -- just because any +16 in UZR ought to draw a skeptical eye, both descriptively and predictively.) Kouzmanoff probably isn't the awful hitter he showed last year, but he's also a great bet to finish below a .300 OBP. Still, the awful aesthetics aside (I hold pillows when he bats for fear that I will injure myself when he chases another slider six inches low and three feet outside.), he's probably above-league-average overall thanks to solid power (his ISOs are slipping, but he was still just below .150 last year -- as a righty in Oakland, that's not sneezable) and good defense. His fWARs have been 2.5-2.9 the last four years, though it should be noted that if you downgrade his defense (his Total Zone numbers aren't nearly as good as his UZR), he's a below-average player.

Third base was Andy LaRoche's position coming up, so he's probably the guy who steps in, assuming again that he doesn't fail his way into retirement, if Kouzmanoff gets eaten by a mammoth.

Outfield: I'm lumping all the A's outfielders into one mushy group for two related reasons: first, all the outfielders have injury issues; second, many of the outfielders have flexibility regarding which outfield spots they can handle. When second is combined with first, you get a significant amount of uncertainty regarding who's going to play where in whose absence. Does Ryan Sweeney play center when Coco Crisp is hurt, or does DeJesus slide in, leaving Sweeney in right? Does DeJesus move to left when Willingham is hurt, or do you just slot in Conor Jackson or Sweeney directly into that spot? What about when two guys are hurt at once?

First, then, welcome to town, Josh "Groundskeeper" Willingham. The ex-National is all-bat, no-glove, a rarity on this squad. The main question is whether his power (ISOs ranging from .192 to .237 in the last five years) will survive the move to Oakland. The obvious answer is that it will not. Nobody else's has, not even Matt Holliday's. I don't know why we'd expect Willingham to slug anything like the .496 that stands as his career high (2009), or even the .459 mark from last year. The Coliseum is just not going to allow that. The key is understanding that the additional outs, the warning track flies, the doubles off the giant fence in left center that used to be homers elsewhere, don't matter, because they work against the other team, too. Willingham's bat has been his bat for five years now, and while he's on the wrong side of 30, he's not exactly old. Willingham is going to be a 2.5 WAR player, and for the price, and given the A's lineup dynamics, that's just dandy.

David DeJesus is the other newcomer, a surprise addition via trade with the Royals. DeJesus is more erratic as a hitter, as his power has come and gone, but he's likely an excellent fielder, one who logged 155 innings in center last year, and he's been a very solid OBP source in his career. As with Willingham, his superficial numbers will take a drop in the move to Oakland, but as with Willingham, fans will have to fight through the temptation to believe that he is underachieving. If he hits .285/.350/.430, he'll be hitting almost exactly the same wRC+ as he did when he went .307/.366/.452 in 2008.

The third Opening Day starter will be the man in the middle, Coco Crisp. He's colorful, he's fast, his defense is excellent and occasionally amazing, and he brings surprising pop for his stature and swing. He had an excellent year in 2010, putting up 3.3 fWAR in just 75 games, thanks to a ridiculous +8 UZR and a 128 wRC+. The hitting was likely an aberration, and who even has any idea where his fielding will grade out, but even if Crisp manages just 110 games in 2011, between his dazzling base-path derring-do, his hitting, and his defense, he's likely to be an excellent, valuable player for the good guys. His Twitter accounts contains too many exclamation points and not enough sarcasm for my tastes, but other people seem to like it.

Ryan Sweeney and Conor Jackson form an offense/defense outfield reserve situation. Jackson is a solid first baseman who masquerades as a left fielder and handled potent lumber from '06 to '08 before he was felled by a variety of maladies for the next two years. We might optimistically expect him to provide a reasonable facsimile of his heyday (as Bill James does), or we might think he'll hit 25% below average (as ZiPS does). I'm a pessimist and lean toward the latter, but at least he's not a Melky Cabrera-like figure: there is upside here, and the A's aren't counting on him to push them to a championship. He's a four-and-a-halfth outfielder.

It's probably unfair to call Sweeney the defensive reserve, because he's likely at least the hitter Jackson is. His calling card has become the absurd +20 UZR he put up in 2009, though. Where Jackson masquerades as an outfielder, Sweeney is a center fielder slumming it in right. He's what people mean when they talk about line-drive hitters (.330 BABIP the last three years, give or take), but you take the bad with the good -- he hits .290, but he slugs .390. Sweeney was "supposed" to be more than this, and he's got the body for it, at 6'4" and 225 pounds, but you can't make a guy something he's not. Sweeney isn't going to suddenly start swinging like Jack Cust. On the other hand, he also isn't going to start running and defending like Jack Cust, either. If Sweeney were the everyday right fielder, I feel quite confident that he'd wind up a league average player. That's a nice thing to have as a fourth (and a half) outfielder. His knees might be going, though.

Designated hitter: Hideki Matsui's prime is through, and I'm not going to reiterate what I said in the DeJesus and Willingham paragraphs about changing parks, but his patient, high-contact, solid-power approach will be welcome. Not welcome as a relief from Jack Cust, who is every bit the player Matsui is in a broad sense, but welcome in the context of an A's offense that could really use some singles and doubles to drive home Coco Crisp, Daric Barton, and David DeJesus. The high bar set for the position means that Matsui isn't going to be a world-beater value-wise, but he does have the virtue of probably being the only guy who I feel happy to have on the A's after he wore a Yankee uniform and an Angels jersey. High praise from me, I tell you.

Overall, I feel optimistic about the offense. The presence of Willingham, Matsui, and DeJesus and the retention of Daric Barton and Coco Crisp means that a solid top five is set. Kevin Kouzmanoff should not hit fourth this year, and Kurt Suzuki should not hit third. Those players, along with Cliff Pennington and Mark Ellis, have their virtues, but those virtues are best expressed in the bottom half of the lineup (with Pennington being that neat "second leadoff man" type, with an OBP too low to play in the top of the order, but bringing speed to the base-paths in front of the boppers when he does manage to reach the sacks). The team won't outslug anybody, and swapping Sweeney in for any of the starting outfielders will hurt, but this isn't the midget-A's of 2010, either.

On defense, the only hole is left field. All of the other positions for which we have at least a decent idea of how to evaluate gloves (i.e. not catcher) range from above-average to stellar. Swapping in Ryan Sweeney for Josh Willingham in late game or injury situations creates a defense that makes me think that even I could pitch for this team (and gives me hope that my significant bet on Dallas Braden (owning him in all three of my fantasy leagues) will pay dividends).

It is March 30th, and I am optimistic about the A's.

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