A's going deep to lead charge for change yet again
A's going deep to lead charge for change (cont.)
Were they another club, Sunday could have been one of those days for the Oakland A's on which the hope that is felt in virtually every major league city at this time of year, save for perhaps Houston, is all at once extinguished.
In a span of five innings against the Astros, Opening Day starter Brett Anderson was twice struck on his pitching hand by batted balls ("It's a little tender, swollen and bloody and gnarly looking; it's like gray, which is a weird color," Anderson would say of his hand) and Josh Reddick, last year's team leader in home runs, crashed into a wall and departed the game clutching his wrist ("I lost feeling in the area for quite a while," Reddick said).
X-rays taken of both men were negative, which was a relief, but Sunday would not have been wholly devastating for the reigning AL West champions even had the scans revealed a pair of jaggedly fractured bones. That is because the A's roster has been constructed not in the hope that x-rays will always come back clean, but with the certainty that sometimes they won't.
During spring training and the early weeks of the regular season, the architects and managers of most teams like to append the same banality to every sentence they utter, when discussing their chances: "If we stay healthy."
The A's know that they will not stay healthy, and that other things will derail their best-laid plans: established players whose performances suddenly and inexplicably fall off, or, as happened last year, players who will be suspended for reasons such as the use of performance enhancing drugs.
To that end, Oakland -- which used 50 players last season and surged to the playoffs despite experiencing extensive in-season damage to much of its roster (only Reddick played in more than 129 games, and only rookies Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker made more than 24 starts) -- spent the winter further fortifying itself against the inevitable. Much of the baseball world watched with bewilderment as the A's traded for former All-Star outfielder Chris Young in October, even though they already had three everyday outfielders; as they re-signed Bartolo Colon in November, even though they already had five strong starting pitchers; and as they traded for infielder Jed Lowrie in February, even though they already had four everyday infielders.
Part of the reason for Oakland's intentional surplus was to try to approximate the production of its deeper-pocketed competitors, on a payroll of about $60 million, by the establishment of platoons. "We said, OK, if we can put together a 25-man roster of depth, maybe you build a platoon in two or three spots that ultimately gives you the production of a $12- to $15 million player," explains assistant general manager David Forst. Bob Melvin, the A's manager, intended to orchestrate at least four lefty-righty platoons every day, with plenty of movement even among them. During their AL-best 6-2 start, the club has already had 12 position players appear in at least three games.
But the central reason for all of the additional starting-caliber regulars was due to a refusal to imagine the best-case scenario, and a commitment to planning for the worst. "I think we're going to be prepared for anything," says Melvin.
To start the season, Hiroyuki Nakajima, who was imported from Japan to play shortstop, landed on the DL with a strained hamstring. In stepped Lowrie, who is hitting .433 with three home runs and six RBIs. Reddick was forced to miss Tuesday's game, and perhaps the next several or more, with his injured wrist, and in stepped Young. Starter Dan Straily struck out 11 Astros as a fill-in for Bartolo Colon, who was finishing out of his PED suspension from last season, and when Colon was activated late last week, Straily was demoted to Triple-A Sacramento, where he will await the next opening in the rotation.
With Straily in Sacramento are a host of other major league caliber position players, edged out of Oakland, who will be ready to speed 80 miles southwest at a moment's notice: infielders Jemile Weeks and Grant Green and outfielders Michael Choice and Michael Taylor.
The A's are not the only team who actively sought depth this winter. "We had our lack of it exposed last year," says Rays GM Andrew Friedman, whose club would have likely made the playoffs if not for the 88 games missed by Evan Longoria, "and the one thing I said we were concerned about heading into the offseason was our lack of position player depth." (The Rays, among other moves, signed free agent infielder Kelly Johnson and traded for top outfield prospect Wil Myers).
The A's, Rays and others surely noticed how last year's champions, the San Francisco Giants, sustained the loss of their leading hitter, Melky Cabrera, to a PED suspension, and the transformation of their staff No. 1, Tim Lincecum, from an ace into one of baseball's most hittable starters, and yet won anyway.
There are a number of reasons why it is more important than ever for clubs to enter the season with in-house depth, even if it can create headaches for managers who must submit ever-changing lineups each day in an effort to keep everyone happy. A central one is that there are not nearly as many external options to which clubs might be able to turn when their roster's shallowness becomes exposed. An increasing number of stars have been locked into long-term deals that make trades unlikely, and the addition of a second wild-card in each league has decreased the number of trade deadline sellers as more teams believe they might just have a chance.
As in the past, the A's might again be showing their far richer competitors the proper way to do things. Many of those big money teams still tend to go all-in with a core group of stars -- but that strategy might only increase their chances of going bust, on a day similar to the one that threatened the A's last Sunday. Perhaps it is better to spread your resources around, to ensure that no matter what happens, you're able to stay in the game.
Here are five contenders who appear, like Oakland, to have the organizational depth to withstand a series of unfortunate events -- and five who might not.
Ryan Ludwick's Opening Day torn shoulder left the Reds without an outfielder who slugged 26 home runs last year, but they were seamlessly able to replace him with Chris Heisey, a capable four-year veteran and superior defender -- and if Heisey doesn't cut it, there's always Billy Hamilton, the Triple-A track star. Pitching-wise, the name to know is Tony Cingriani, who has 266 strikeouts in 203 1/3 minor league innings and is waiting in Triple-A to replace any injured or faltering starter. There's also, of course, Aroldis Chapman, whose impact is currently being limited in his role as the closer.
The Rays, like the A's, have a major league overload of everyday-caliber players (Ryan Roberts and Sean Rodriguez mostly play against lefties, but can fill in virtually everywhere full-time, if need be) -- and they have Myers waiting to give them a power boost in a month or so, which might be needed as they've hit just four home runs so far. Jeff Niemann is lost for the season with a shoulder injury but that shouldn't impact their pitching staff much, because if Roberto Hernandez doesn't cut it as the No. 5 starter -- and with a 6.08 ERA after two starts, he might not -- they've got a pair of premium prospects at Triple-A Durham, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi, ready to step in to restore the rotation to one-through-five dominance.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have already lost starter Chris Carpenter, closer Jason Motte and shortstop Rafael Furcal, all very likely for the season, but they are built to withstand those negative developments, and even more of them. Not only did they have Shelby Miller (No. 6 on Baseball America's Top 100) ready to replace Carpenter, they have a loaded bullpen with multiple replacements for Motte, and Pete Kozma to play short. And they still have a full bench (including the proven Matt Adams, Daniel Descalso and Ty Wigginton) and the remaining fruits of the game's best farm system -- including, not least, BA No. 3 Oscar Taveras, should something happen to an outfielder, and BA No. 84 Kolten Wong, should they want to shore up their middle infield.
The Nationals' big league team appears to have no weakness, including a bench that features starting-caliber talent like Kurt Suzuki, Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi and Roger Bernardina. They've also got even better players in the high minors (Chris Marrero and Anthony Rendon), as well as fill-in starting pitching options (the other Chris Young, Yunesky Maya). It doesn't seem quite fair.
If the Mariners find themselves in contention ahead of schedule -- that is, this year -- they have all sorts of options just 40 miles away at Triple-A Tacoma, any of whom can be called upon to give them that final boost. The Rainers' roster currently includes four members of BA's Top 100 -- catcher Mike Zunino (17th), starters Danny Hultzen (29th) and James Paxton (87th) and infielder Nick Franklin (79th) -- and that quartet should soon be joined by the player who might be the best of them all, 18th-ranked 20-year-old starter Taijuan Walker.
The pitching staff runs deep, thanks largely to versatile swingman David Phelps, but the Yankees were forced to trade for Vernon Wells -- who, to his credit, has performed well, with two home runs, four RBIs and a .360 batting average through eight games -- not only because of an early season rash of injuries for which they had no good bench replacements, but because their minor leagues features no hitter who seems ready. Not one member of the club's very good trio of outfield prospects -- Tyler Austin, Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams -- is older than 22, nor has played more than a half dozen games in Double-A.
Jered Weaver's broken elbow has already forced the Angels to tap into their limited pitching reserve -- Garrett Richards, a former top prospect who had a 1.45 ERA in 18 1/3 innings this spring, will slide into the rotation -- but the club will be in bad shape should one its everyday regulars go down. The bench consists of a 32-year-old utilityman, Brendan Harris, who hadn't played in the majors since 2010, and three others (Hank Conger, Andrew Romine and J.B. Shuck) who have a combined 357 major league at-bats, and there won't be much help in a farm system that both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranks as the game's worst. None of the organization's top five hitting prospects, according to BA's list, has played in a league higher than Single-A before this season.
San Francisco Giants
Last year's champs might have trouble replacing Cabrera for a whole season -- light-hitting leftfield platoon partners Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres are hitting .207 with one extra base hit -- and they have no great option on the bench nor in the system. Nor does the organization have a ready replacement if Lincecum continues to struggle (he allowed six earned runs in six innings on Tuesday night), as their only player among Baseball America's Top 100 prospects is Kyle Crick, a 20-year-old righty in Single-A.
Yes, their 7-1 record made them baseball's best team through Tuesday, even with catchers Brian McCann, first baseman Freddie Freeman, starter Brandon Beachy and setup man Jonny Venters on the DL. Already, though, they are giving more at-bats than seems prudent to Juan Francisco (.234 batting average last year), and with catcher Evan Gattis earning increasing starts, they don't have much on the bench. They had to sacrifice further organizational depth (particularly in the form of starter Randall Delgado) to make the very worthy acquisition of Justin Upton. They should be fine once their injured players return to health, assuming they do, but at the moment the Braves' roster might be stretched as thin as it can be without snapping.
It is difficult to imagine that the Brewers' second half surge last season, during which they scored more runs than any club save the A's to inject themselves into the wild-card race, will be carried over into 2013. They've already suffered a rash of injuries -- to first baseman Mat Gamel, outfielder Corey Hart, third baseman Aramis Ramirez and starter Chris Narveson -- and a brutal start by staff No. 1 Yovani Gallardo (5.73 ERA) and closer John Axford (20.25). A lack of ready replacements means that Milwaukee has recently played Alex Gonzalez and Yuniesky Betancourt at the infield corners, a situation that, quite simply, could hardly be less desirable.