Thursday, April 28, 2011

AL West Preview - Part III

Oakland Jake Rhodes is the silver lining behind last year’s Blown Opportunities

What does a guy need to do to be considered for Rookie of the Year?

The Athletics’ starting catcher Jake Rhodes hit .343 to finish fourth in the league in batting average while smacking 25 homeruns and slugging .531 – but in perhaps a crowded field his name failed to show up on the ballot. Not that Rhodes went completely unnoticed: the catcher’s bat was rewarded with a Silver Slugger. That hardware was not an uncommon sight in the AL West last season, where all four teams in the division sported a silver splinter in their lineup.

Rhodes will once again be the centerpiece of the Athletics’ offense, backed up by a bevy of long-ball hitters. The club collectively went yard 241 times last year, good for 8th overall in the league. DH/1B Nate Cunningham had the dubious distinction of collecting exactly as many hits (123) as strikeouts, but an amazing 46 of his 123 connections found the cheap seats! He remains in the lineup, while promising young Al Reynoso (.262/.335/.435) hopes to live up to fan expectations in his sophomore season. There’s no shortage of opportunities for these rising stars to prove themselves.

Speaking of opportunities, blown ones were the story of Oakland’s season last year. The bullpen converted on just 30 of its 58 save opportunities, or a major league worst 51.7%. The Athletics’ spent much of the season searching for an answer, as no one reliever working out of the bullpen had more than 13 tries, and of the trio who had at least ten cracks at holding a lead, the best one (Don Martin) only converted on half his tries.

Further evidence of the lack of solid relief pitching could be seen in one telling statistic: the Athletics’ were just 16-29 in games decided by one run. Only the Rockies fared worse statistically in these contests.

No permanent solution to the bullpen woes was found in the offseason either, so the A’s opted to sign two aging short relievers as stop-gap measures instead. Clyde Becker is a welcome sight from the Marlins and throws effective stuff, but he tires easily and had limited appearances (less than 40 IP) for Florida last year. Another veteran, Wayne Randolph, swam across the bay from the dreaded rival national league franchise, but Oakland has to be hoping he also left his 1.76 WHIP in the cold water.

The starting pitching is expected to be boosted by the promotions of rookie starters Mario Polcovich and Larry Wells at some point this season. As a result, the rotation will be stronger and could possibly take some of the heat off of the pen.

Defensively, the team is average with the exception of All-Star center fielder Mitch Thornton, who appears regularly on ESPN highlight reels. In fact, the AL West is not home to one but two of the best defensive center fielders in MLB, and many say Anaheim’s Pascual Solano is the one player stopping Thornton from acquiring a Gold Glove. Thornton converted on nearly all his chances (.997) and made 19 spectacular defensive plays while committing only one error last season.

The acquisition of utility infielder Abdul Sweeney (.298/.367/.430) from the Reds in exchange for COF Steve Parrish and starter Vinny Weatherford should improve the team offensively, as the Athletics’ no longer need trot out Gold Glove winner Vinny Kingland (.212/.272/.272) and suffer through his bat.

dwb’s take: Oakland’s offense packs some punch but lacks the well-roundedness of Anaheim’s and Seattle’s attack. Look for Oakland to improve on its win totals from last season and tighten up the division race somewhat, as the string of bad luck in one-run games won’t continue even if only minor tweaks to the bullpen were made. The team lacks a true ace however and in the end will continue to play for next season.

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