J-SLANTED: And…We’re Back!

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By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Contributor

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Yesterday marked the first official day of spring training. Every year it seems I write about the same thing around this time. Bubbling enthusiasm. Unspoiled optimism. Hope.

Sure, there’s plenty of that going around the rest of the league mid-February. The Giants are thinking repeat. The Red Sox feel they’ve put together a monster squad. The Twins, Brewers, and Rangers all feel great about their youthful talent.

There is certainly optimism.

Take the Oakland Athletics for example. Having added former World Series MVP Hideki Matsui, the “hammer” Josh Willingham and David DeJesus, the A’s feel like they’ve significantly upgraded their roster offensively. With the added bats, they’re hoping to rely less heavily on power production from Kurt Suzuki, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Mark Ellis.

On paper, the A’s have addressed last season’s biggest weakness—power. Matsui can bat cleanup and has averaged between 85-95 RBI over his career. Willingham has power and as a righty will probably go back-to-back with the left-handed Matsui in the middle of the order. Dejesus can either lead off or hit second behind incumbent table setter Coco Crisp. Dejesus is a high-average guy. Matsui is a career .299 hitter with men on base. And Willingham has a career .841 OPS.

“Mark (Ellis) and I talked about that a lot last year,” Suzuki told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We’re confident players, we’d like to think we can handle those spots, but we’re not going to hit 25 to 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs — that almost took us out of our game last year. To have guys in the middle of the order who can do that and redistribute us, we’re going to be better lower in the order. We’ll benefit.”

Of course, Matsui was counted on by the Angels last season to provide the same clutch hitting that Oakland is banking on this year and only delivered once the playoffs were out of reach. Then there’s Willingham, who has never played more than 144 games, and whose best homerun season is half a decade ago. At 32, the odds of either trend reversing itself this year are not good. And then there’s DeJesus who puts up Ichiro Suzuki-like numbers, without the 30 plus stolen bases, minus 30 points from the average, and knocking off around 15-20 games played.

Further clouding the optimism? All three have question marks about their health. The 36-year-old Matsui’s gimpy knees are still gimpy, while DeJesus (thumb) and Willingham (knee) are coming back from season-ending injuries.

Throw in the cavernous outfield of the Coliseum, and even the brightest optimist should remain a bit skeptical of just how much an upgrade the A’s have gotten themselves this season. With a young pitching staff that very well might take a step back in production, talks of winning the West have all the signs of a 2010 Mariners redux.

Remember, exactly a year ago, the Mariners had just gotten Cliff Lee. Optimism was overflowing. Pundits (including this one) were comparing them to the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks and predicting a realistic run at the World Series. Lee, Ichiro and Felix Hernandez were featured on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. Ken Griffey Jr. was talking about November. Ichiro was talking about how much fun he was having.

And Franklin Gutierrez dropped this gem, “On paper, you can look like the best team in the world. But when you go out there, you have to do your job. Because it’s baseball. Anything can happen.”

Eight months later, the team was celebrating its second 101-loss season in three years.

While not as bullish, I can’t help but feel a similar vibe from this year’s Oakland team.

Perhaps somewhat cryptically, Suzuki (Kurt) recently stated, “Everyone says before the season starts that on paper we look great. But with us it’s a matter of who stays healthy. Unfortunately, we’ve hit some bumps in that area the past few years and that’s never a good thing. But as of now, this team looks great. I love the additions.”

“I feel really good,” Suzuki continued. “It will be a fun season.”

While I’m no A’s fan, I can’t help but hope Suzuki is still having fun into September…

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Jordan Ikeda is a former Rafu Sports editor who writes from Torrance. He can be contacted at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo.

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