There probably hasn't been a bigger gap between real value and fantasy value than the most recent vintage of the Oakland Athletics. That, of course, is a fancy way of saying the A's have found their success without a bunch of stars, but the earlier sentence sounds more mathematical.
The A's best player in 2012 was pretty obviously third baseman Josh Donaldson, who had the best year of his career by any measure, including, almost certainly, baseball card prices. Brian Creagh recently tackled Donaldson in his excellent "Progress, Regress, Anyone's Guess" series, so I won't go deep on the player here, but rest assured that it's hard to imagine a 28-year-old in 2014 who had a .666 career OPS through age 26 doesn't necessarily herald great things.
So Donaldson is a key player for the 2014 Athletics, but is he their top fantasy player? Or is it one of their plethora of top pitchers? Or maybe the old man in the lineup? I'm breaking down the top five Oakland A's for fantasy today, but as you read it, realize that the A's No. 1 is lower than probably any other contender's, while their No. 5 is kind of a crapshoot between a handful of good players.
And here we go:
1. Sonny Gray, SP
With no ready-made top draft pick in Oakland, and - with the possible exception of shortstop Jed Lowrie - no big-time player at a shallow position, Gray shapes up as the Athletic with the best ceiling on the roster. Even better, few Oakland players have a lower floor, even considering Gray's inexperience entering 2014. Gray exhausted his rookie eligibility in 2013, but was good in the regular season and dominant in the postseason. He struck out 9.42 batter per nine innings in the major leagues, which was higher than his rate at any minor-league stop; we can expect a bit of regression there. That said, Gray shapes up as a big-time young pitcher, and he gets to ply his trade in the dream ballpark that is the Oakland home stadium. Ultimately, some youth hound is going to jump on Gray before his optimal value - I'm guessing he goes in the sixth or seventh round, and I'd slot him as an eighth- or ninth-round guy. But it's weird - while I think that person will draft Gray too high, I don't think they'll regret the pick.
2. Brandon Moss, 1B
Moss regressed a bit in 2013 from his 2012 highs, a product of becoming a full-time player with Chris Carter moving to Houston. Even then, he produced a 139 OPS+ and hit 30 home runs, leading an A's team that doesn't hit a lot of home runs. His .256/.337/.522 slash line in 2013 is a strong group, especially considering his home park, and first base is rapidly becoming a shallower position than it has a reputation for being, meaning Moss - who went in the 11th round in our crazy-early mock with Fantasy Assembly - has a fair amount of built-in positional value to him. Moss is being taken a bit after first-base eligible guys like Matt Adams and Daniel Murphy, and he's going to outproduce both of them. I'd take him in the ninth round and feel good about it.
3. Josh Donaldson, 3B
Donaldson will always have his MVP-candidate 2013 season to put on his mantle and reminisce about; it's hard to imagine anything like it ever happening again. He managed a 148 OPS+ in 158 games after only playing in 89 career games through age 26. Third base has gotten deeper and deeper - 12 different third basemen finished in the top 12 in offense in Yahoo! rankings, and that doesn't include guys like Kyle Seager, Martin Prado, Chris Johnson, and Pablo Sandoval. Third base is deep, y'all. That means that any regression from Donaldson will take him from super-premium value to a middle-of-the-road guy. He went in the sixth round of our Fantasy Assembly mock, which seems about right for where he's most likely to go, but between regression and position depth, I find it hard to imagine he'll be more valuable than a tenth- or eleventh-round pick.
4. Yoenis Cespedes, OF
Cespedes' great rookie campaign in 2012 had him in the top 30 or 40 on most draft boards entering 2013, and he returned very little of that value, with his OPS+ dropping from 139 to 105, and his oWAR falling from 4.5 to 1.6. His BABIP dropping 50 points from 2012 to 2013, which could hint at some bad luck, but his K% rose five percent, while his BB% fell 1.6. Simply put, pitchers figured him out to an extent, and unless and until Cespedes makes the necessary adjustments, he will struggle to get back to his 2012 value. Those adjustments weren't there - or at least weren't obvious - over the course of 2013. His OBP rose as the season went on, but at the expense of his slugging percentage, which dropped late in the season. It's hard to know what Cespedes will be in 2014, but I'm not buying in at anything close to 2012. He's got the name value to go inside the top seven or eight round, but I'd be comfortable waiting until the teens. What that really means is that I just won't have Cespedes in 2014, but you know what? I'm comfortable with that.
5. Bartolo Colon, SP
Nope, I don't understand either. Colon had, by some measures, his best season in 2013, as a 40-year-old who throws basically one pitch. He doesn't strike people out at the rate he did in his overrated Cleveland days, but Colon walks basically nobody and led the league in shutouts. His 2.65 ERA was the lowest of his career, and it was his lowest by almost 30 points. We'll see where Colon pitches in 2014, as he is a free agent, and moving to a new team (and out of Oakland) could hurt Colon overall, but for now, he's going to go in the late-teen rounds, but is safe enough that he could return value from several rounds higher.
Why Colon over other top Athletics, like Jed Lowrie, Dan Straily, Grant Balfour, Coco Crisp, and Josh Reddick? I'll take those one by one:
Lowrie - Lowrie had the first healthy season of his career in 2013, staying on the field for 154 games and returning good performance in that time. Still, though, Lowrie is going to be 30 in 2014 and has one season of more than 100 games played in his career. There's potential, but drafting Lowrie will require you to draft another shortstop as insurance, so you have to build that concern in.
Straily - Straily wasn't even a prospect at the start of 2012, but he shot up the ranks with dominant minor-league performance. He's been decent in the bigs, with a 3.94 career ERA and 7.3 K/9 through 34 career starts. But he has done that despite a 4.54 career FIP, a 4.60 career xFIP. He's a nice story, but the other shoe could drop soon enough.
Balfour - He's a soon-to-be 36-year-old free agent, and he might not have a closer job next season. If I were doing this list in March, and we knew where Balfour was going to play and what role he would fill, this could change, but for now, without the knowledge that he'll provide saves, Balfour is hard to rely on.
Crisp - Crisp's 22 home runs in 2013 were his career high by six, and he hadn't topped 11 since 2005. He did it in Oakland, too, so no, I don't understand anything at all. Regardless, the bigger takeaway with Crisp, to me, is that he went from 49 steals in 2011 to 39 in 2012 to 21 in 2013. That seems like a more likely transition for a 33-year-old outfielder than a sudden discovery of a power bat. I'm likely not touching Crisp in 2014.
Reddick - Reddick's 2012 season was actually a bit overrated - 32 home runs were nice, but a .305 on-base percentage is pretty lousy. That number rose to .307 in 2013, but his slugging percentage plummeted almost 100 points as he battled injury all year. Reddick might have more power potential than any Oakland player other than Moss, but he also has one of the lowest floors.