Before I jump into the pitchers I want to talk about the defense. Strong defense is en vogue now, with the Mariners and Red Sox being the most obvious examples of teams embracing players who can cover ground in the field. The A's are taking this approach as well. I'm not sure if analysts will ever be able to wholly separate pitching from fielding, but perhaps the emergence of seemingly strong defensive metrics are helping make the push.
I'm not sure if we'll ever be able to completely divorce pitching from fielding, and I'm not going to do so here. While it makes perfect sense to be able to separate out what pitchers can't control when looking at individual players, it makes less sense to do so when evaluating an entire team. As I did with the offense, I want to briefly sketch out whether or not this year's A's look to be better on defense than last year's team.
In the infield, the A's look to improve substantially. Jason Giambi's 58 horrific games in the field will be gone and replaced with Daric Barton on a more or less full time basis. According to UZR, Mark Ellis had a down year in the field last year, posting roughly average numbers and Adam Kennedy played poorly in Ellis' absence. A healthy Ellis will defend outperform the Ellis/Kennedy duo from last year. If Ellis misses time, we'll see how Eric Patterson and Adam Rosales respond. Even though Patterson is not known for his defense at 2B, the combination of Ellis, Patterson, and Rosales should be able to be stronger defensively than Ellis' down year and Kennedy's -4.7 UZR.
The biggest changes to the A's infield come on the left side, where the A's will get a full season of Cliff Pennington instead of Orlando Cabrera and Kevin Kouzmanoff replaces Kennedy, Crosby, and Hannahan at third. Kouz is a roughly average defender at the hot corner, while Kennedy, who was new to the position, and Hannahan, who played it extremely well, combined to be about average on the whole. Thus, despite the personnel change, the overall quality will be the same (though the distribution will likely be even instead of half a season of great and half a season of bad). Pennington, however, is a huge upgrade over Cabrera. Although he projects to be a roughly average shortstop, the aging Cabrera was one of the worst last season.
The A's also look to improve in the outfield. The A's are employing three guys who could play center field for most teams in Davis, Crisp, and Sweeney. Throw in a 4th outfielder in Gabe Gross and you've got what is probably the strongest defensive outfield in the league. The main benefit of having these four guys is not seeing Jack Cust in the outfield. Cust made 50 starts in the outfield last season and I'd be surprised if he got as many as 20 this year. The A's outfield defense was a strength last year and could be even stronger in 2010.
The direct beneficiaries of the strong defense will be the A's pitching staff. To the extent that a strong defense helped the A's pitchers last year, this year's defense should be even stronger.
The other factor that will help the A's staff is its depth, a strength that is counterbalanced by its one glaring weakness - it's health. As I mentioned in this post, the A's are likely to have eight pitchers make more than a handful of starts and we can expect a couple more starts to be scattered among two or three other pitchers. Although it's a fools errand to predict how any team will end up dividing its innings, I've gone ahead and done just that to try to determine how many runs the A's will give up this year.
The A's will need to get between 1400 and 1450 regular season innings out of their pitchers this year. I'll also assume that about 950 (about 2/3) will go to starters. The rest (between 450 and 500), obviously, will go to relievers.
Using CHONE projections and my own guess as to how innings will be divvied up, here's what I came up with for the rotation:
*CHONE does not have a projection for Sheets, so I used his ZIPS projection
**I used Clayton Mortensen's projection the Others (something, something Lost reference)
Here's what I expect from the bullpen:
Combining the totals we get 653 earned runs allowed in 1,446 innings for an ERA of 4.06. We're only talking about earned runs here, but a 4.06 ERA would have been the second best in the AL in 2009.
I'll assign them an average amount or unearned runs as there's no reason to think that the A's would give up an inordinate amount of unearned runs. The average AL team had a RA 0.35 runs higher than its ERA last year, so I'll assume the A's RA will be 4.41. In 1,446 innings this would translate to 709 runs allowed.
709 runs allowed seems like a reasonable estimate, especially given the conservative playing time estimates I assigned to Sheets and Duchscherer. What jumps out at me from these charts is the depth of the A's staff. Of the nine guys slated to spend time in the rotation this year, none have projected ERAs over 4.75 (and only one is under 4.00). Their top 9 bullpen arms are similarly strong. When the A's front office talks about utilizing its best 32-33 man roster, it really looks smart with respect to the pitching staff.
I see more upside here than downside and there's a decent chance that the A's will beat that projection. Duchscherer and Sheets could be healthier and more productive than CHONE expects. Anderson could emerge as a true ace and Cahill or Gonzalez could have breakout years. The A's chances at winning the West this year lay heavily on the backs of the pitching staff. Luckily, this staff could be one of the top in the league and may approach its success of the Big Three days.