Are the Oakland A's better than last year?

Ezra Shaw

The A's have been wheeling and dealing this offseason, upgrading their lineup in several spots. But do they have a better chance to win in 2013 than last season?

Last week I wrote about the least active teams this offseason. There wasn't a companion piece about the most active teams because I figured it would have been 800 words about how the Toronto Blue Jays. With Monday's trade for Jed Lowrie, though, the A's have at least a partial claim to the title. A list of their major acquisitions:

  • Chris Young, CF
  • Hiroyuki Nakajima, SS
  • Jed Lowrie, SS
  • John Jaso, C

Busy, busy, busy. The interesting thing about those four is that none of them is guaranteed a full-time job. Young is there to mash lefties and roam the outfield when needed, and Jaso will split time with Derek Norris. Lowrie struggles against right-handed pitching, which means Nakajima is sort of a weird platoon mate. Though maybe Nakajima will play second, but that leaves Scott Sizemore out in the cold. Unless Sizemore takes over for Josh Donaldson at third, which …

The A's have options. And it seems that was the whole point of the offseason: to build a ridiculous amount of depth and platoon options for Bob Melvin. It was an interesting strategy, and it leaves us with the obvious question: Are the A's better now than they were last September?

Before we can answer that, we should note they've suffered a few losses, too. Stephen Drew is in Boston now, which means the A's, Diamondbacks, and Red Sox have been re-gifting each other's shortstops. Brandon McCarthy is gone, and that will hurt, but you can almost count Brett Anderson as another addition to balance that out. Jonny Gomes is gone, but the addition of Young makes that a moot point.

I'd say that with those moves up there, the 25 men on the A's roster this April will be a more talented bunch than the 25 men on the roster in September, 2012. Give me Jaso over George Kottaras, Young over Gomes, and the Lowrie/Nakajima duo over Drew and Cliff Pennington. Yes, the A's are somehow better, despite being an art-house organization in a Hollywood league when it comes to budget.

But before you start pumping your fists, A's fans, there's probably an addendum that should go with that. And it has to do with how the team was successful last year. The A's had 10 different pitchers start a game for them. Now, that's not unusual -- it puts them right in the middle of the 30 teams. What's unusual about it is that the A's leaned on almost all of those pitchers at some point during the season. The Mets used 13 starters in 2012, but a few of them were random spot starters. Miguel Batista started a few games, and younger pitchers like Colin McHugh and Chris Schwinden got a start toward the end of the year. Even Jeurys Familia got a start despite being an obscure legal principle instead of a person.

Of those 10 Athletic starters, though, every one of them got at least four starts. And here's how they fared:

Rk Pos Age ERA GS ERA+
1 SP Tommy Milone* 25 3.74 31 106
2 SP Jarrod Parker 23 3.47 29 114
3 SP Bartolo Colon 39 3.43 24 116
4 SP Brandon McCarthy 28 3.24 18 123
5 SP Travis Blackley* 29 3.86 15 103
6 SP A.J. Griffin 24 3.06 15 130
7 Tyson Ross 25 6.50 13 61
8 Dan Straily 23 3.89 7 103
9 Brett Anderson* 24 2.57 6 156
10 Graham Godfrey 27 6.43 4 63

Somehow, The A's found eight quality pitchers in a league where it's nearly impossible to find four. When Dallas Braden didn't come back, when Bartolo Colon was suspended, when McCarthy was injured, the A's kept digging into their utility belt and implausibly pulling out bat-rookies whenever they needed to. It was almost deux ex machina how they found replacements whenever they needed to.

That won't happen again.

It feels like we haven't marveled enough at the A's run. It's not so much that they were supposed to be bad-to-average, though that's part of it. It's that they somehow made five different rookies work at exactly the right time.

Here's the thing: young pitchers don't automatically get better. The progression is natural for hitters. Come up, struggle, get at-bats, put work in with your hitting coaches, adjust, get more at-bats, adjust to the readjustments that pitchers adjusted to, and get better and better until 27 or so. With pitchers, it isn't so simple. Extra innings aren't necessarily good for a young pitcher, at least not like extra at-bats are good for a young hitter. More wear and tear could mean reduced velocity, which would minimize the gains realized from extra experience.

There's a strong chance that one of the five starters for the A's will struggle with ineffectiveness or injury, just because that's what young pitchers do. And when that happens, the Travis Blackley-led backup plans can't be nearly as effective as the rookie cavalry last year. They just can't -- it's ludicrously optimistic to expect a repeat of that kind of depth. That goes for the 2013 A's, the 2019 Yankees, the 2098 Hovercats, or the 3932 Ω≈∂øππs. What the A's did last year was historic.

So are the A's better now? Maybe. But don't undersell just how hard it will be to repeat their luck with young pitching in 2013. And if anything happens to those young pitchers, don't undersell how impossible it will be to repeat their freaky, fluky depth. Expecting the A's to be even better kind of sells their amazing 2012 short.

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