Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Oakland Athletics were the biggest surprise in baseball last season, winning 94 games and the American League West due to a late surge.
While they lost the ALDS in five games just like they did in four of their previous five playoff appearances, 94 wins was still quite an accomplishment for a team that was supposed to be in rebuilding mode.
A's general manager Billy Beane was once again responsible for turning his expensive assets into valuable young players, just like he did in trades of Mark Mulder and Dan Haren in the past.
He received lefty Tommy Milone (13-10, 3.74 ERA) from the Washington Nationals for Gio Gonzalez, righties Jarrod Parker (13-8, 3.47 ERA) and Ryan Cook (14 saves, 2.09 ERA) from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Trevor Cahill and 2012 Gold Glove outfielder Josh Reddick (32 homers, 85 RBIs) from the Boston Red Sox for Andrew Bailey.
The Athletics were active on the trade market again this offseason, dealing shortstop Cliff Pennington to Arizona for outfielder Chris Young and first baseman Chris Carter (16 HRs) to the Houston Astros for shortstop Jed Lowrie.
Oakland finished seventh in the majors in home runs last season, mainly due to the efforts of castoffs like Brandon Moss (21 HRs), Seth Smith (14 HRs), Jonny Gomes (18 HRs) and Brandon Inge (11 HRs).
Moss had just 15 homers over 678 major league at-bats with three organizations prior to bopping 21 in 265 at-bats last season, so he'll have to prove that wasn't a major fluke if he wants to hold onto Oakland's starting first base job.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2013 edition of the Oakland Athletics, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (94-68) - First Place (AL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: John Jaso (C); Jed Lowrie (SS); Hiroyuki Nakajima (SS); Chris Young (OF)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Chris Carter (1B); Cliff Pennington (SS); Jonny Gomes (DH); Brandon McCarthy (RHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Coco Crisp (CF); Jed Lowrie (3B); Yoenis Cespedes (LF); Brandon Moss (1B); Josh Reddick (RF); Seth Smith (DH); Scott Sizemore (2B); John Jaso (C); Hiroyuki Nakajima (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Brett Anderson (LHP); Jarrod Parker (RHP); Tommy Milone (LHP); Bartolo Colon (RHP); A.J. Griffin (RHP)/Dan Straily (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Grant Balfour
MANAGER: Bob Melvin
HOW WILL THE YOUNG ARMS PROGRESS?
In order for the Athletics to contend with the Rangers and Angels for the AL West crown again, they will need their young pitching to take a step forward.
Jarrod Parker is the most important of these pitchers since he profiles as a future ace with his 92 mph fastball and plus slider and changeup.
The right-hander had a 2.96 ERA in the first half but he slumped in July and August with a 5.34 ERA and 4.71 ERA, respectively. However, he showed the ability to adjust and went 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA over 41 innings in September and October. He also held Detroit to six runs while posting an 11/2 K/BB in 12 2/3 postseason innings.
Tommy Milone has an underwhelming fastball (87.4 mph average) but he gets by with excellent command (3.81 K/BB).
The lefty is a neutral GB/FB pitcher who pitched much better at home last season as he gave up six homers at O.co Coliseum, compared to 18 on the road. He had a 2.74/4.83 home/road ERA split.
A.J. Griffin, who went 7-1 with a 3.06 ERA in 15 starts last season, and Dan Straily, who led the minor leagues in strikeouts but struggled in a brief stint with the A's, are the wild cards.
Neither player was a highly touted prospect from the jump before having some minor league success.
Success from their young pitchers will be even more imperative for the A's in 2013 after Oakland let Brandon McCarthy (3.29 ERA last two years) sign with Arizona this offseason.
The rotation's lone veteran Bartolo Colon, who is coming off a 50-game suspension for testosterone use, is unlikely to duplicate last season's 3.43 ERA. Colon had the highest contact rate in baseball last season at 89 percent and the lowest swing-and-miss percentage at eight percent.
WILL BRETT ANDERSON STAY HEALTHY?
Speaking of young arms, Brett Anderson, whom Beane acquired from Arizona in 2010 in the aforementioned Dan Haren trade, has a 3.57 ERA in 406 major league innings and he is still just 25 years old.
However, the lefty was limited to 112.1 innings in 2010 due to elbow inflammation and has thrown 118.1 innings over the past two seasons due to Tommy John surgery in 2011.
He returned last season and went 4-2 with a 2.57 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 35 innings, but suffered an oblique strain and missed his final two starts before returning for one playoff start.
The odds are against Anderson getting through 200 innings without suffering some kind of injury.
HOW WILL THE INFIELD SHAKE OUT?
The Athletics are holding competitions at three of the four infield spots, with Scott Sizemore, Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie, Hiroyuki Nakajima and Jemile Weeks all in play.
Weeks, last year's Opening Day starting second baseman, hit .221 in 444 at- bats last season and has already been optioned to Triple-A.
Sizemore is coming off a torn ACL, but he is the favorite to win the second base job after batting .249 with 11 homers and a .345 OBP in 93 games with Oakland in 2011.
Donaldson, a converted catcher, could start at third, but he hit .241 with a .289 OBP in 274 at-bats last season.
Nakajima hit .302 with 162 homers across 4,562 at-bats in Japan, but he is hitting under .200 this spring and has four errors at shortstop.
Lowrie, who blasted 16 homers in just 97 games last season, could pass him on the depth chart or start at third himself. The problem: the 97 games represented a new career high for the oft-injured infielder.
Amazingly, the only infielder with a guaranteed role is the 29-year-old Brandon Moss, who was nothing but minor league depth until last June.
X-FACTOR: YOENIS CESPEDES: Good pitching is important, but the Athletics ranked in the top five in the American League in ERA every year from 2008-11, including No. 1 in 2010, and had zero playoff appearances to show for it. That's because their American League ranks for runs scored during that span were 14th, 9th, 11th and 12th, respectively. Last season, Cespedes gave Oakland a legitimate middle-of-the-order threat to go with the pitching. Cespedes hit .292 with 23 homers, 82 RBIs and an .861 OPS in 129 games, and he improved mightily as the year went on. The outfielder had a 3.0 K/BB and batted .263 prior to the All-Star break, but he improved that K/BB to 2.0 post-break and hit .311.
The Athletics have consistently been one of the top teams in the American League when it comes to preventing runs; they just haven't been able to score.
Even though it finished seventh in the majors in homers last season, Oakland hit just .238, which ranked 28th in baseball.
And most of those home runs came from unexpected places or from players who are no longer with the team. If Oakland doesn't get close to 200 home runs again, its going to be tough to win more than 84 games.
The A's will be helped by the addition of the lowly Houston Astros to the American League West, but remember that so will the other three teams in the division.
Texas lost Josh Hamilton, but he stayed in the AL West by going to the Angels. Los Angeles will have Hamilton, a full season of Mike Trout and a more comfortable Albert Pujols in 2013.
Letting Hamilton go will hurt Texas offense, but it softened the blow by adding catcher A.J. Pierzynski and DH Lance Berkman, and it still has Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus and Nelson Cruz.
At this point, the As seems closer to the Seattle Mariners, who also beefed up their offense by picking up Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales, than the Angels or Rangers.
Of course, thats where they were in spring 2012 as well, and we saw how the season played out.