5 Oakland Athletics Storylines to Follow During Spring Training

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5 Oakland Athletics Storylines to Follow During Spring Training

Josh Donaldson
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The often counted-out, never unpredictable Oakland Athletics are on the brink of another solid season. The A’s typically don’t gain respect from fans and media until they claim a choke-hold on the American League West standings in the final weeks of the season, like they’ve done in 2012 and 2013.

But Oakland’s loveable crew of “money-ballers” aren’t surprising anyone anymore, regardless of how many seemingly no-name prospects they trot onto the field on Opening Day. The A’s were terrific in 2013, crushing apparently ill-informed preseason predictions to win 96 games.

Oakland’s offense ranked near the top of the league in run production, averaging 4.73 runs per contest. They smashed 186 home runs and also recorded an astounding team-wide .745 OPS, ranking third in the AL in both categories.

If the A’s are able to duplicate that kind of run production in 2014, they’re going to be tough to beat in the AL West. The A’s are a well-rounded ball club that does more than just hit the long ball.

Their pitching staff recorded the second-lowest team ERA in the AL (3.56) last season. Oakland’s pitching staff took a few hits over the offseason, losing Bartolo Colon and Grant Balfour, but arguably improved their roster by acquiring Scott Kazmir and Jim Johnson to fill those voids.

The A’s might not have the deep pockets needed to reel in “top-tier” free agents, but general manager Billy Beane appears to have assembled another competitive ball club. This slideshow highlights five Athletics storylines to follow during spring training.

John Shea is a San Francisco Giants writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @cutthroatpicks. “Like” him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.

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5. Sleeper Prospects to Watch

Addison Russell
Mark J Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The most intriguing aspect of Athletics’ camp is watching prospects rise from the minor league ranks to claim 25-man roster spots. At 20-years-old, Addison Russell is the next name in line to become a run-producing machine for the A’s.

Russell isn’t currently listed on Oakland’s 40-man roster, although that could change if he puts forth an impressive performance during spring training. Russell owns a ridiculous .918 OPS across five levels of minor league ball in two seasons. He’s also rated as Oakland’s No. 1 prospect.

Jeremy Barfield is perhaps Oakland’s most exciting prospect to watch this spring, though. Why? The former outfielder is taking the Sean Doolittle route to the big leagues. Barfield registered a .261 batting average in six minor league seasons before taking the bump. Now, the 25-year-old left-hander is attempting to perfect his craft as a pitcher.

According to Jane Lee of MLB.com, Barfield throws a fastball that tops out at 93 mph. It’s unlikely for Barfield to showcase supreme control in his first camp as a pitcher, but it’s possible that he develops into a future staple in Oakland’s bullpen.

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4. Can John Jaso Succeed as a Permanent DH?

John Jaso
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The steady emergence of Derek Norris as a dependable backstop has prompted John Jaso to adopt a more permanent role as Oakland’s designated hitter. Jaso was moderately productive in 70 games for the A’s in 2013, posting a .759 OPS in 249 plate appearances.

Jaso doesn’t possess the prototypical power of the common DH, blasting just 23 home runs in four seasons at the big league level, but he could prove to be a reliable table-setter for the bottom of the Athletics’ lineup. Jaso owns a respectable .364 career on-base percentage.

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3. Is Scott Kazmir a Legitimate Ace?

Scott Kazmir
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Kazmir never developed into the type of pitcher the Tampa Bay Rays expected him to become. The former No. 15 overall pick struggled mightily over years prior, missing the entire 2012 campaign before making a comeback with the Cleveland Indians last season.

After posting respectable numbers (10-9, 4.04 ERA, 162 strikeouts in 158.0 innings), the A’s granted the former top prospect a two-year, $22 million deal. The acquisition essentially fills the void created when Colon opted to sign with the New York Mets.

Can Kazmir assert himself as a legitimate ace in 2014? Spring training will determine whether the two-time All-Star is ready to stake his claim as an elite pitcher.

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2. Is Jim Johnson Better Than Grant Balfour?

Jim Johnson
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson might not be as eccentric and exciting as former Athletics’ closer Balfour, but he’s decisively more effective. Johnson has recorded more saves over the past two seasons (101) than any other closer in baseball.

There’s no doubt that Johnson is good enough to close, but how will he fit into manager Bob Melvin’s bullpen? Johnson is durable, combining to throw 139.0 innings over the past two seasons. He finished 63 games for the Baltimore Orioles last season, ranking No. 1 in the league.

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1. Can Josh Donaldson Repeat His 2013 Performance?

Josh Donaldson
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Donaldson entered camp last season as a question-mark. His 2012 numbers were pedestrian (.249/.289/.398), but the power-hitting third baseman asserted himself as one of the best run-producers in the AL last season, smashing 24 home runs and driving-in 93 runs.

Donaldson finished fourth in MVP voting last season, a feat that seemed virtually impossible in spring training. Now the question becomes whether Donaldson is capable of repeating his exceptional 2013 performance.

The 28-year-old slugger is vital to Oakland’s ability to win games. His 8.0 wins above replacement (WAR) led the team last season. If he’s able to duplicate that kind of production in 2014, the A’s will likely win the AL West for the third consecutive season.

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