Are the Oakland Athletics for real?
That will be one of the most intriguing questions heading into spring. Following five consecutive non-winning seasons, the A's rode a rookie-infused pitching staff, won 94 games (20 more than 2011) and came within one dropped fly ball of possibly beating the Detroit Tigers to reach the ALCS.
Can they do it again? One general way I like to examine a question like this is to look at teams similar to the A's. So who were the 2012 A's? They were a team that came out of nowhere to surprise everyone with a big improvement in the win column. By "out of nowhere" we mean a team that had struggled for a period of years.
I went back through the wild-card era and initially looked for all teams that improved by at least 15 wins and finished above .500, and then further cut that list to teams that did so after suffering at least three straight non-winning seasons. I "losing seasons" since the A's were 81-81 in 2010.
This provided the list below of 14 teams. One thing I was curious to see is if the A's registered as a young team and to see if there is any correlation with age and future success. The teams are sorted from youngest to oldest, based on the average weighted age of the position players and pitching staff, from Baseball-Reference.com.
The first observation is that three teams above the A's all had good runs of success following their breakout seasons (with Tampa Bay's still continuing). The youngest team on the list, the 2001 Twins, didn't make the playoffs that year, but won 94 games and the AL Central in 2002, beginning a stretch of six playoff seasons in nine years. Obviously, to keep winning like that, you're slowly turning over your roster, but it's a sign that the initial foundation to build from was a strong one. The 2000 White Sox remained competitive for a period of years, finally winning the World Series in 2005, although that team had essentially been completely rebuilt.
Two of the teams below had better long-term success than the chart may indicate. The 2001 Phillies did fall back to 80 wins in 2002, but then began a stretch of nine consecutive winning seasons in 2003, a streak that just ended with a .500 mark in 2012. The Tigers followed up 2006 with four winning seasons (and one .500 season) out of six.
While there was nothing statistically abnormal about the A's final record -- unlike the Orioles exceeding their projected record by 10 wins thanks to their stunning record in one-run games -- they did win 94 games despite not having a big season from any one player. They won with depth and balance. In the rotation, only three pitchers made as many as 20 starts. In the lineup, Yoenis Cespedes was the team's best player, the only hitter or pitcher to record at least 4.0 WAR (via Baseball-Reference). Most teams that win 94 games do so in part because of a superstar or two.
But I don't believe that is necessarily a strike against the A's. It does put more pressure on Billy Beane to continue adding valuable secondary parts and spare players, to ensure the 25-man roster remains as deep as 2012's. There is a young core to build around, however. Here are the 2013 seasonal ages for the team's top players, along with their 2012 WAR:
Cespedes, 27: 4.5 WAR
Josh Reddick, 26: 3.4 WAR
Coco Crisp, 33: 2.7 WAR
Brandon Moss, 29: 1.9 WAR
Chris Young, 29: 1.9 WAR (with Arizona)
Jarrod Parker, 24: 3.8 WAR
Bartolo Colon, 40: 2.6 WAR
Ryan Cook, 26: 2.6 WAR
Grant Balfour, 35: 2.2 WAR
A.J. Griffin, 25: 2.1 WAR
Tom Milone, 26: 2.0 WAR
Not listed: Brett Anderson, who pitched well in his return from Tommy John surgery.
I think the A's will need several players to step up to star status for them to remain a 90-win club. They have players with the talent to do so. Cespedes is already close to that level and would have been a five-win player if not for a DL stint. Considering how far he exceeded expectations as a rookie, his ceiling could be extremely high. Reddick had a breakout season with 32 homers, but needs to improve his .305 OBP to rise to the next level. Beane stole Chris Young -- a guy who was a five-win player in 2010 and 2011 -- from the Diamondbacks. He gives the A's flexibility in the outfield with Crisp joining Cespedes and Reddick to form what could be the best four-man group in the American League.
On the pitching staff, Parker and Anderson have ace potential, or at least No. 2-level ability. Throw in a deep mix of young, good arms (and old man Colon) and the rotation projects to be strong once again. Cook, Balfour and Sean Doolittle add three power arms in the bullpen, and while Cook and Balfour may be hard-pressed to match their 2012 dominance, the bullpen should be above average as well.
I think the A's are a 90-win team again in 2013, although that will be difficult in the tough AL West (though, those games against the Astros will help). As to them becoming the West Coast version of the Rays, Beane will have to keep working his magic to maintain success on Oakland's limited budget. And maybe this time -- unlike the original "Moneyball" team -- they can go all the way.