Friday, November 16, 2012

Johnson, Melvin Best Managers

Davey Johnson and Bob Melvin were named managers of the year on Tuesday after leading their respective clubs to the postseason. Both were eliminated during the division series, but that disappointing result doesn't take anything away from the phenomenal seasons enjoyed by these two skippers.

Eleven years removed from his last managerial gig, Johnson took over the Washington Nationals halfway through last season three days after Jim Riggleman unexpectedly resigned. The Nats went 40-43 under his command to finish the season one game below .500. Johnson agreed to come back, and the front office deepened his pitching arsenal by signing Edwin Jackson and trading for Gio Gonzalez.

Heading into 2012 the Nationals were viewed as an intriguing team loaded with young talent, but was probably another year or two away from making the leap to bona fide contenders. Certainly nobody expected them to wrestle the division away from the star-studded Phillies, winners of 102 games in 2011. The Braves were going to be tough as always, and the Marlins looked dangerous after adding Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell via free agency. Even though the NL East was shaping up to be a crowded field, it was reasonable to assume the Nats would win more than they would lose. In my own preseason predictions, I projected Washington to win 86 games and finish third in their division. Best case scenario, maybe they would win 90, 92 tops.

But 98 wins? In that division? Not even Washington's slickest politicians could have spun that one to make it sound believable.

But it happened. The new-look Marlins tanked. Philadelphia floundered. The Mets disappointed. Washington saw a golden opportunity and seized it by the throat. The Nats hit the ground running, jumping out to a 14-4 start and never looking back. They held first place in the NL East fot all but 13 games, including every day after May 21st. At no point in the season did they ever fall below second place. When the dust settled at the end of the season, Washington owned the best record in the bigs. This year's vintage brought playoff baseball back to the nation's capitol for the first time since 1933, only to choke away a six run lead in Game 5 of the NLDS.

Washington's dominance can be explained in one word; pitching. Stephen Strasburg was the dominant force everyone thought he would be before he was shut down. Gio Gonzalez led the majors in wins and had a Cy Young-caliber season. Jordan Zimmermann retained his title as the best pitcher nobody talks about. Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson rounded out the rotation. The starting five missed just a dozen starts between them. The bullpen was just as strong despite losing closer Drew Storen for the first half.

The offense survived injuries to Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos, Ian Desmond, and Mike MorseAdam LaRoche rebounded from a lost 2011 to slug 33 home runs and drive in 100 with a huge contract year. NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper had the best season ever by a teenager. Desmond emerged as the league's top shortstop.

Johnson, who turns 70 next year, will manage the Nationals again in 2013 before becoming a consultant. Washington has all the pieces in place and is constructed to contend for years to come. I like their chances of making the World Series next season

Like Johnson, Melvin stepped into the manager's role halfway through last year. He guided the A's to a 47-52 finish, decent enough given their 27-36 start under Bob Geren.

But Billy Beane clearly didn't view his team as a contender in the near future, so he cashed in his established talent for young, unproven prospects. He dealt Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Guillermo Moscoso, Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney for the likes of Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Cole and Seth Smith. He let Hideki Matsui, David Dejesus and Josh Willingham, his best hitter, walk.

Hamstrung by his organization's microscopic payroll, Beane blew up his roster and started from scratch. But, as usual, he managed to stretch the money he did have. Beane splurged on Yoenis Cespedes, his one big signing, then raided the bargain bin. The shrewd GM scooped up Bartolo Colon, Brandon Moss, Jonny Gomes, and Brandon Inge for next to nothing. After a busy winter, Beane had somehow managed to cobble together his usual band of misfits. Best case scenario, they'd finish close to .500.

Oakland was written off before Spring Training. The AL West  a battle for supremacy between the Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Angels, reducing the A's and Seattle Mariners to glorified punching bags. How could Oakland compete against the two-time defending AL champs, who brought back all their key players and added Yu Darvish? How could they possibly beat the Halos, who signed the best hitter (Albert Pujols) and best pitcher (C.J. Wilson) on the market? Surely these two powerhouses would eat the A's alive. Nobody, myself included, gave them a snowball's chance in hell.

For the first half of the season, Oakland was the team everybody thought they would be. In other words, not very good. After losing to the Rangers on June 30th they fell to 37-42. They weren't hitting, and their young players were struggling to find consistency. Then the calendar flipped to July and they became the best team and best story in baseball overnight. From July 1st onward, the Oakland A's went 57-26. That's a .687 winning percentage, folks. They rode this second half surge all the way to the finish line, chasing down the Texas Rangers and stealing the division from them on the season's final day.

The A's racked up 94 wins by squeezing just enough offense out of their lineup to back their outstanding pitching, which ranked second among AL teams in ERA. Cespedes lived up to the hype. Josh Reddick came out of nowhere to become the best all-around rightfielder in the American League. The bullpen, minus Brian Fuentes and Tyson Ross, was untouchable.

But, as Billy Beane's teams are apt to do, the A's folded in the playoffs. They took the Tigers to the brink in the ALDS after falling behind 2-0, but Justin Verlander slammed the door on their Cinderella season with a complete game shutout. Oakland's magical run was over.

By now I should know better than to count them out, but I don't see the A's returning to the postseason next season. I know I said the same thing in the preseason, but the Rangers and Angels are too good. I feel like the A's caught lightning in a bottle this year, like the Mavericks did during their championship run two summers ago. But it's not like everything went right for Oakland, either. Colon was busted for PED use. Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson missed time. Jemile Weeks was terrible. If they can stay healthy next year and perform up to their potential, their contributions should help offset some expected regression to the mean.

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