The new guy
Any question of how Jim Johnson would fit in with his new teammates in Oakland was likely answered midway through spring training – by the closer’s organizational skills.
Johnson, acquired from Baltimore to replace Grant Balfour, coordinated a clubhouse talent show that revealed Addison Russell’s dance moves, Jake Elmore’s singing voice and Billy Burns’ ability to juggle bats. It was a good team-building exercise for a group that thrives on chemistry, along with a way to break up the monotony of mid-spring.
The A’s are hoping Johnson makes as smooth a transition on the mound, where the right-hander has saved 101 games the past two seasons. If nothing else, ninth innings at O.co Coliseum should have a different tone with the 6-foot-6 Johnson cutting a more stoic and composed figure on the mound than the man he’s replacing.
Johnson also is a different kind of pitcher than Balfour, who got most of his outs via strikeout or fly ball. Johnson had a lower strikeout rate than Balfour last season (7.17 per nine innings compared to Balfour’s 10.35) but keeps hitters on the ground – 58 percent of balls in play against him were grounders, on par with his career average of 57.7, according to the website FanGraphs.
That’ will require the A’s infield to be solid behind Johnson, who’s coming from an Orioles team that set a major-league record for fewest errors last season. His defense there included a highlight-reel third baseman in Manny Machado. Fortunately, that’s one of Josh Donaldson’s talents, too.
Can he do it again?
In the estimation of A’s manager Bob Melvin, Donaldson’s potential was unlocked in 2013 by one key factor.
“It was the opportunity for him,” Melvin said this spring, “and the opportunity with knowing that this isn’t going to be a two-week trial.”
Donaldson came into camp last year as the A’s undisputed third baseman and responded with a breakout season, batting .301 with 24 homers and 93 RBIs in 158 games and finishing fourth in American League MVP voting. He also played strong defense and showed a knack for hitting in clutch situations, batting .364 with runners on base and going 8 for 12 with the bases loaded.
Along with his average, Donaldson’s on-base and slugging percentages in 2013 (.384 and .499) were slightly higher than his averages over six minor-league seasons (.275/.365/.470). More than half of Donaldson’s career big-league at-bats came last year, so there’s some question of how the 28-year-old responds in his second full season.
Not in doubt is the fact Donaldson will be a daily fixture in the A’s lineup, likely hitting either second or third. And Melvin sounded confident about his third baseman’s ability to deliver an encore.
“He’s a very gritty player., He comes up big in clutch situations, and there’s a lot of tenacity to his game,” Melvin said. “Couple that with an opportunity at a position he’s that much more comfortable with, and you see the results.”
The cleanup man
Yoenis Cespedes said at FanFest in February he spent the offseason adding muscle and cutting down his swing. The Cuban slugger was aiming for a more compact stroke after his batting average dropped from .292 in his rookie season to .240 last year and his strikeouts rose from 102 to 137.
The makeover is a work in progress. When the A’s broke camp, Cespedes, their projected Opening Day cleanup hitter, was batting .167 in the Cactus League with four extra-base hits and 14 strikeouts in 60 at-bats.
Though his raw power was still evident last season – he hit 26 home runs, drove in 80 runs and had a memorable showing in the Home Run Derby – Cespedes felt he didn’t respond well to opposing pitchers’ adjustments. And when Cespedeshe struggled, he said, he didn’t handle the frustration well and let things spiral.
That omnipresent power and Cespedes’ flair for the dramatic should keep him in the middle of the lineup as the season begins. How he handles his slow start to spring, and how long he and the A’s continue the swing experiment, are two things to keep an eye on in April.
Health is key
After playing in 154 games last year and avoiding injuries, which derailed several of his previous big-league seasons, shortstop Jed Lowrie said he often fielded the same question over the winter.
“People ask me, ‘Did you change your routine last year?’ ” Lowrie said. “And my answer is simply no.”
Lowrie credits the training program he follows from Tampa-based Performance Compound and trainer Jason Riley with helping him get back on the field after injuries limited him to no more than 97 games in any major-league season before 2013.
Lowrie batted .290 with 15 homers, 75 RBIs and 45 doubles and seized the everyday role at shortstop, where the A’s intended to platoon. Rather than an emergence, Lowrie said he considered it the realization of his potential over a full season.
“It’s bad statistics to look at what someone does for a half a season and project what they’d do with a full season of at-bats,” Lowrie said. “But that’s always what I did, because I knew that what I was doing when I was getting my games was sustainable.”
Lowrie’s slash line of .290/.344/.446 last year was slightly higher than his career averages of .264/.332/.427, though he flashed power in 2012 with 16 homers in 97 games for Houston. Lowrie said his goal this year is simple: “It’s just staying on the field.”
The message sent
While watching a flurry of activity by the A’s front office in December, first baseman Brandon Moss said his first thought was: “Man, our starters are only going to have to throw four innings every night.”
The A’s bullpen, already a strength of the team, looks stronger with the additions of Johnson, set-up man Luke Gregerson and left-hander Fernando Abad.
But the additions of veteran infielder Nick Punto and speedy Craig Gentry added to Moss’ optimism.
“Obviously, you could see what their thought process was,” he said of A’s management. “They like the team we have in place, but there were some pieces they thought we could get better at, and they went out and got those pieces.”
The A’s, who won 96 games and captured the A.L. West for the second year in a row, kept their young core intact while adding versatility. Punto can play several positions. Gentry can back up Coco Crisp in center field but will start the season on the disabled list.
The addition of Scott Kazmir to the starting rotation is crucial now with Jarrod Parker lost for the season and A.J. Griffin battling arm issues. Before those losses, though, Lowrie was among the players who agreed management made a statement about a team that has come within one win over Justin Verlander of reaching the A.L. Championship Series in each of the past two years.
“They made aggressive moves,” Lowrie said. “From the player’s perspective, I think they made moves that clearly show they have confidence in this team.”