Saturday, September 1, 2012

Oakland On a Roll

I admit it; I was wrong.

Back during the dark days of February, when I put together my 2012 season projections, I awarded the Oakland Athletics last place in the American League West. 

I won't make you go back into the archives and dig it up.  On February 22nd I stated, in no uncertain terms, that "Oakland has given away all its current talent and is poised to run away with last place." I didn't stop there, either.  I compared them to the Houston Astros, projected them to lose 98 games and deemed Cuban import Yoenis Cespedes to be a "surefire bust" in his hyped MLB debut.


But hindisght is 20/20.  In retrospect, I was clearly being too harsh on them.  My pessimistic prediction resembled more of a worst case scenario, but still accurately reflected how little I thought ot them at the time.  Surely I wasn't the only one lacking faith in them; six months ago, who in their right mind believed these A's would be leading the AL Wild Card at the end of August, 17 games above .500 with the third best record in the American League? If everything broke right, they might win more games than they lost for the first time since 2006.  Maybe. But nobody, and I mean nobody, believed they had this type of season in them. Not even the most optimistic and enthusiastic Athletics fans could have seen their team's magical midseason run coming.

Not in their wildest dreams.

Because six months ago, Oakland's front office readily admitted that they had gone into rebuilding mode, and teams in that state rarely, if ever, contend right away.  Just ask the Houston Astros.  Or the Chicago Cubs.  Rebuilding typically means "don't expect us to make the playoffs anytime soon, but stick with us.  All we need is some rain, sunshine, and a little bit of luck, hopefully we'll be good a few years from now."  Sacrificing the present for the future.  It sucks, but almost every team has to go through it at some point (even the Red Sox and Phillies, to some degree) unless you're the Yankees and have enough money to field an All-Star team every year.

But the Oakland A's are not the New York Yankees.  In fact, they're on completely opposite ends of the spectrum, at least as far as money is concerned.  The Yanks have been outspending everyone else for years and began the season with a payroll scraping $200 million and a roster loaded with marquee talent.  The A's, on the other hand, have the lowest payroll in the American League with a bottom line of 55 million dollars and change.  So the A's are spending 28 cents for every dollar New York pours into their loaded roster, and yet their records are nearly identical.

Billy Beane has done it again.

In the wake of another disappointing season, Beane overhauled the roster last winter. He blew up the starting rotation by flipping starters Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Guillermo Moscoso to the National League, shipped Ryan Sweeney and 2009 AL Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey to Boston, and let his most productive hitter--Josh Willingham--leave via free agency.  In return he bolstered the farm system and netted a treasure chest of major league ready talent that has formed the nucleus of this year's ballclub.  Beane received rookies Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook for Cahill, got Tommy Milone and top pitching prospect A.J. Cole for Gonzalez, and hit the jackpot with Josh Reddick (4.6 bWAR) in the Bailey/Sweeney trade.  He also scored incredible bargains with free agent signings Jonny Gomes (one-year, $1 million dollars, and an .842 OPS), Brandon Moss (.874 OPS) and Big Fat Bartolo Colon (one-year, $2 million dollars for an above average starting pitcher).

It was classic Billy Beane; picking people's pockets and finding cheap, undervalued talent on the free agent market.  Moneyballs philosophies at their finest.  And while his shoestring budget prevented him from making offers to Jose Reyes, C.J. Wilson, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder he did splurge on raw, untested Yoenis Cespedes. Beane invested four years and 36 million dollars on the coveted Cuban outfielder, and so far it looks like money well spent.  His prodigious power manifested itself immediately, and after going through an adjustment period in the spring the freshman quickly developed into a tremendous hitter.  He's maintained his aggressive approach at the plate while simultaneously cutting down on his strikeouts, and is trading power for contact.  No longer swinging from his heels every time up, Cespedes has ditched the feast-or-famine reputation he built in April and has provided steady production all summer long.  Over the past three months he's batted .327/.384/.539, a stat line reminiscent of fellow free-swinger Vladimir Guerrero.  If not for Mike Trout's historic rookie campaign, Cespedes would likely be the favorite to take home AL Rookie of the Year honors despite spending most of May on the Disabled List and missing another two weeks in June.  Provided that he can stay healthy, the 26 year-old still has room to grow and seems poised for several more big seasons in an Oakland uniform.

As expected, it took awhile for the youngsters to hit their stride as the Athletics started slow out of the gate.  Oakland dropped three of four to the Mariners to open the season and treaded water early on. They hovered  around .500 through the season's first quarter before losing nine in a row from May 22nd through June 1st.  Their already slumbering bats went into hibernation, scoring just a dozen runs over that horrendous stretch and coming up empty four times (and this was not an isolated dry spell, either; during their first 54 games, exactly one-third of a season, the A's offense got blanked eleven times and averaged three runs per game).  On June 10th they bottomed out; Arizona swept them, their record plunged to 26-35 and they found themselves in last place. That explains why this team wasn't even considered for my surprise contenders post, published a few days prior.  All signs pointed to another dull summer of baseball for Oakland and their fans, and unfortunately football season was still three months away.

But with interleague play in full swing, the A's took advantage of the inferior NL competition.  They swept the Rockies, took two of three from the Padres, and then swept the Dodgers.  No one knew it at the time, but they were off and running, and when interleague play ended, they kept winning.  The Athletics finished the first half on a high note, climbing back up to .500 after going 6-1 in the week leading up to the All-Star Break.  They picked up where they left off after the Midsummer Classic by sweeping the Twins in Minnesota to kick off the second half.  The  A's were baseball's hottest team, in the midst of a sizzling four week stretch that saw them win 18 of 21 games from July 1st through the 28th. This surge was headlined by a jaw-dropping four game sweep of the Yankees from 7/19-7/22 in which the plucky underdogs prevailed by one run each time.

Oakland finally cooled off in the first two weeks of August, but didn't go away. Instead, they rattled off another remarkable run by going 13-2 over their past 15.  Instead of wearing down during the dog days of August, they've gained strength and become an uppstoppable late summer hurricane.  Brett Anderson has been magnificent since returning from Tommy John surgery and  A.J. Griffin comes back today.  Both hurlers arrived just in time for the crucial playoff push and will supply fresh arms for a rotation that just lost Colon to a positive drug test.

But they must contribute.  Skipper Bob Melvin is counting on his pitchers to hold up over the next month, because if they falter the offense doesn't have the firepower to outslug their opponents.  The anemic A's rate second to last in both batting average and on-base percentage, third to last in OPS and fourth to last in runs scored among AL teams.  The infield deserves the majority of the blame for this collective ineptitude.  Look at how each position has fared thus far in 2012:

C   .202/.257/.306
1B .231/.331/.451
2B .220/.300/.305
3B .220/.270/.387
SS  .191/.260/.291

Ouch. Catcher Kurt Suzuki (since traded to the Nationals) hit one home run in 278 plate appearances with a comically bad 49 OPS+.  Shortstop Cliff Pennington was just as ineffective with a 54 OPS+, necessitating a late summer trade for Stephen Drew (who looks headed down the same path of injury prone disappointment traveled by big brother J.D. Drew). Jemile Weeks has managed to hit even worse than his older brother Rickie Weeks by batting .220 with no power.  Brandon Inge had a big week in early May (overshadowed by Josh Hamilton's home run exploits) but has since returned to playing like, well, Brandon Inge.  Oakland's first basemen, mostly Moss, Chris Carter and Daric Barton, have at least managed to pop 25 home runs, more than Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez.

So with the infield hitting .213/.284/.347 as a whole, it's a miracle this team doesn't get shutout three times a week.  Thankfully the outfield is batting a much more potent .267/.334/.470, mainly because Cespedes (.864 OPS) and Reddick (28 home runs) have emerged as legitimate middle of the order threats. The revolving door of Designated Hitters has chipped in a solid .777 OPS as well.  There's just enough talent here to outproduce the Seattle Mariners. Overall, the lineup compensates for its glaring weaknesses by manufacturing runs.  They rank third in walks, fifth in steals, and rise to the occasion with timely hitting; as a team their OPS is .685 when the bases are empty, .799 with runners in scoring position, and pinch-hitters are batting .306/.408/.516--essentially Edgar Martinez's career triple slash stats.  It's also worth noting that the offense has ramped it up in the second half with a .778 OPS, more than 100 points higher than its .667 first half mark, and has averaged nearly five runs per game since the beginning of June.

Still, it's hardly a surprise that the key to their success has been run prevention.  Oakland's pitching staff, led by a strong rotation and deep bullpen, ranks second in the American League in ERA, behind only the Tampa Bay Rays.  The starters have thrived despite a 6.2 K/9 rate because they limit walks and home runs.  The relief corps doesn't feature a shutdown closer but has still thrived, holding opponents to a .208 batting average and maintaining a 2.82 ERA.  The defense is decent, too.  Reddick is the best defensive rightfielder in the league (better, even, than Ichiro Suzuki) with Inge, Pennington and Coco Crisp also rating as plus defenders at key positions.  Their fielding prowess is somewhat negated by atrocious glovework from Cespedes and Weeks, but every team has its share of defensive liabilities.  All in all, Billy Beane has built a balanced team.

While the A's have exceeded any reasonable expectation, their 74-57 Pythagorean record is identical to their real record, an indication their success is not a fluke.  The sad thing is, even with all this winning the Coliseum is still half full on most nights.  Attendance has jumped for the third consecutive year but only 20,348 fans show up for the typical game (seating capacity is 35,067), even with Oakland in the thick of a pennant race.  As recently as August 20th there were little more than 10,000 on hand for a series opener against the Twins.  Oakland ranks second to last among AL teams in attendance--only the Tampa Bay Rays draw fewer fans--and haven't finishEd Higher than twelfth since 2005.  No star power and constant roster turnover have taken their tolls, but the biggest culprit remains the Coliseum itself.  Even when you put a winning product on the field, it's not easy to put a lot of butts in the seats when the park around that field is a soulless, carvernous football stadium pushing 50 years old.  If winning baseball games isn't enough, then a new state of the art stadium in San Jose seems to be the only solution.

But can the A's keep winning?  After bludgeoning Boston 20-2 last night, gives them an 83.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, better than every team not named the Yankees or Rangers, but a postseason berth is far from secure.  After this series with the Red Sox their September schedule gets brutal.  Seven games against the Angels, seven with the Rangers, three in Detroit, three versus the Orioles, and three more in New York.  That's 23 games against top teams, the cream of the American League crop.  And with Seattle on a second half roll of their own (28-17 dating back to July 16th), those six matchups against the Mariners don't look as appetizing as they did a few months ago.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. We're going to find out what this Oakland team is made of in September, whether they are contenders or pretenders.  If the pitching holds steady and the offense doesn't revert to its April/May level of futility, they should be fine.  But if their young pitchers hit the wall and the bats cool off, they're going to get eaten alive.

The last time I looked into my crystal ball, I couldn't have been more wrong.  Like most people, I don't handle failure well.  So this time around, I'm going to keep my mouth shut

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