The A’s and Giants finished the 2014 regular season with identical records of 88-74 – but the routes they took could hardly have been more different.
The A’s were 25 games over .500 at the end of July before going 22-33 over the season’s final two months, watching the Los Angeles Angels run away with the American League West and suffering a gut-wrenching, extra-innings loss to the Kansas City Royals in the wild-card game.
The Giants, one of the worst teams in baseball in June and July, recovered to go 29-24 down the stretch and sneak into the wild-card game, where they defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first step toward their third World Series title in five seasons.
Their finishes influenced their offseason activity. In Oakland, general manager Billy Beane tore down the roster whose core had produced three consecutive trips to the playoffs, dealing four All-Stars and building a new team through trades. Across the Bay, the Giants mostly return intact, losing fan favorite Pablo Sandoval to free agency but re-signing several familiar faces on the pitching staff.
As pitchers and catchers report to Arizona this week for spring training, a different theme tinges the question of whether each team can contend again in 2015.
Will Beane’s reconstruction project produce enough to challenge the Angels and the reloaded Seattle Mariners in the A.L. West?
And can the Giants, with their core intact but their stalwart pitching staff a year older, rebound from another short offseason to defend their title?
Beane’s early-winter moves were met with skepticism from pundits and some fans, who wondered if the A’s were entering rebuilding mode.
“I have an Internet connection, so I could see what was going on,” assistant GM David Forst said. “But I think we set out at the end of the season with a plan, and it wasn’t going to be swayed by public opinion.”
The result is a younger team that will need contributions from players largely unknown compared to those they’re replacing. The powerful bats of Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson no longer anchor the lineup, and All-Star pitchers Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija are gone. Manager Bob Melvin has likened the turnover to 2012, when the A’s, after dealing several big names in the offseason, suprised baseball by winning the division title.
“I like our team; our expectations don’t change,” Melvin said. “Little similar to ’12, but I think there might be a little more talent here as far as a wider group.”
Depth and versatility again are the watchwords, and Melvin said there may be even more “moving parts” for platoons and matchups than in recent seasons. The A’s lost power, but Melvin said they “may be a little more of a group that tries to run a little bit more, hit and run, do some things we have in the past.”
The amount of change, Melvin said, is “a little different.”
“But it’s refreshing, too,” he said. “You know you’re going to have some turnover here. We’ve done it in the past; we’ve been successful. It keeps you on your toes as a staff. But anytime you have an infusion of younger guys, there’s a lot of energy that goes along with that. So it’s my job to be able to acclimate.”
While Melvin is busy learning his new players, Giants manager Bruce Bochy will be catching up with some of his old ones.
Center fielder Angel Pagan is returning from surgery, as are starting pitchers Matt Cain and Tim Hudson in a rotation that, after an uncharacteristic 2014 season in which it ranked 10th in the National League in ERA, returns with several glaring questions.
After losing in the free-agent bidding for Lester, the Giants brought back Jake Peavy and Ryan Vogelsong for some depth in the rotation, where Tim Lincecum is coming off of a disappointing season and Madison Bumgarner from a season in which he threw 270 innings.
Another question is how the Giants will deal with losing Sandoval and Michael Morse, two of their major power threats from 2014. The Giants have argued that power is not a prerequisite to winning – especially at AT&T Park. But they also hope the maturation of Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford as hitters helps mitigate those losses, along with a lineup that with the additions of on-base artists Nori Aoki and Casey McGehee looks designed to build more big innings.
“The team’s, I think, a little bit deeper,” Giants general manager Brian Sabean said, “and I think we’re a little more flexible to where our starting eight can hit in the lineup.”
Bochy agreed “nothing is set in stone” going into spring training. But he has the comfort of working with many of the familiar pieces – such as Buster Posey, Belt, Hunter Pence and presumably Pagan – who have helped form a dynasty in San Francisco. One dubious fact remains, though: Following their first two World Series titles in 2010 and 2012, the Giants missed the playoffs altogether the ensuing season.
At FanFest earlier this month, the Giants’ first event together since their victory parade on Market Street in October, Bochy vowed the team would “come into spring training ready to work.”
“We’ll enjoy this; we’ll still do a little celebrating,” he said. “But once this is over, it’s time to get over it.”