|Oakland's core? In large part, it's the import slugger and the GM. (Getty Images/EOB)|
Our Core Values series nears a conclusion as we now focus on the Oakland Athletics, who in 2012 achieved one of the most pleasantly surprising seasons in memory. Can they repeat the miracles of a season ago? Their core will in large part answer that question.
As for our somewhat arbitrary definition of "core," here's a reminder. Feel free to skip over the blockquotes if you've been with us since the start.
What's a core? For our purposes, a team's core comprises a "cornerstone player," a "face of the franchise" and then the "future face of the franchise."
So what's a "cornerstone player"? For starters, it's one of the best players on the roster and perhaps the very best player on the roster. Beyond that, though, it's the player whom the organization has identified as the talent around which to build by signing him to a long-term deal. In other words, they've backed their faith in the player's abilities with the most powerful statement of all: lots of redeemable U.S. currency. Not only do they see this player as central to their current aims but also to their designs on future contention.
What's a "face of the franchise"? He -- and we're getting subjective here -- is the player who most prominently embodies the franchise in question. He's that player whom you think about when you think about this team. Is he the same guy as the "cornerstone"? Sometimes. But the cornerstone is primarily a financial designation. The "face" is, for lack of a better term, a cultural identifier. They're not mutually exclusive, but they're not not mutually exclusive, either. What about the word "values" that you see in the headline above? After we identify and evaluate the three elements of the core, we're going to slap a letter grade on the whole thing.
And now on to the core of the Oakland Athletics ...
Cornerstone player(s): Yoenis Cespedes
At present, the A's have five multiyear contracts on the books, and one of those pacts -- Chris Young's -- they assumed in trade. So it's Cespedes' four-year, $36 million deal that stands as Oakland's signature commitment.
Forging an agreement with the free-agent Cuban slugger was of course a coup for Oakland, and given that the deal will cover his age-26 through age-29 seasons, they might be getting the best of Cespedes, even if he's elsewhere in 2016.
So far, that investment is looking like a good one from the Athletics' standpoint. In 129 games last season, Cespedes batted .292/.356/.505 (137 OPS+) and averaged an extra-base hit every 9.2 at-bats. As well, Cespedes's contact and fly-ball rates improved markedly as the season wore on, which suggests he was the one making successful adjustments and not the pitchers of the American League. Those trends bode well moving forward.
There's every reason to believe the A's, after a long time without one, finally have a true power threat in their lineup.
Face(s) of the franchise: Billy Beane
Think of the A's, and you're sure to think of their ballyhooed "operator." Paradigm shifts, playoff berths, playoff disappointments, Moneyball (and media misapplications thereof), Brad Pitt -- Beane embodies the Athletics in the post-La Russa, post-Bash Brothers era.
Where Beane ranks among his peers is a subjective matter, but among American League GMs, he's been with his team the longest (he's been on the job, uninterrupted, since October of 1997). He's also the GM most readily associated with his team. Given the budgetary limitations in place, Beane's resourcefulness is the hallmark of the organization. More often than not, it works in their favor. While roster churn is an inevitable part of baseball in Oakland, Beane is the steady ballast.
Face(s) of the future: Cespedes, Brett Anderson and Jarrod Parker
As mentioned above, Cespedes is and figures to continue being a core run producer. If the A's are going to repeat the miracles of 2012 in the seasons to come, then Cespedes' bat will play a vital role. So will Anderson and Parker.
In some ways, Anderson and Parker are the embodiment of the contemporary A's -- they're pitchers (the A's are built on run prevention these days), and they were both acquired in trade (both from Arizona). They're also young and very good.
The lefty Anderson, 25, will be entering his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery in July of 2011. So long as Anderson stays healthy, his ground-ball tendencies, excellent control (he's walked just 5.8 percent of opposing hitters in his career) and impressive fastball-slider combo will make him a strong presence at the front of the Oakland rotation.
The right-handed Parker, 24, is also a Tommy John veteran (he underwent the procedure in October of 2009). Also like Anderson, he's very good: 118 ERA+ across one season and change at the major-league level. If the control improves a bit, then he's going to be a genuine ace. Parker's fastball averaged 92.4 mph last season, and his changeup is a plus offering. So he's got the stuff to take the next step. The elbow of each remains a worry, though.
Grading the Athletics' core: C
Cespedes is legit, but when two young pitchers with spotty health histories are central to your future, then you have some concerns. And as an engaging and skilled as Beane is, you'd prefer to have, you know, an actual player as the face.
Elsewhere, Josh Reddick will need to overcome his severe second-half collapse, and the farm system is light on positional prospects in the higher levels. Addison Russell, while promising, is 19 and hasn't played above the Midwest League. Outfielder Michael Choice was inconsistent at Double-A last season and saw his season end with a broken hand.
Never doubt those plucky A's, but repeating the miracles of 2012 is going to be difficult given the merely solid state of the core.
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