A's Fool Their Critics
The season isn’t quite at the halfway mark, but the Mulder trade is looking good for the A’s right now. Dan Haren has a six-game winning streak and he appears to be a pitcher who can be a solid starter for years. Kiko Calero has pitched well in relief when he’s been healthy, as he is now. Daric Barton is only 19 and is a couple of years away, but everybody who’s seen him says he’s a top hitting prospect. He’s been shifted from catcher to first base but the A’s think he can play the outfield, too, which would improve his major league opportunities because Dan Johnson looks more and more like a fixture at first for several years.
Meanwhile, Mulder has fallen into the same type of inconsistent pattern that plagued him the last couple of years when he was with the A’s, which is the reason Beane was willing to trade him with two years left on his contract.
The A’s have yet to reap any dividends from the Tim Hudson trade, in which they got pitchers Dan Meyer and Juan Cruz and outfielder Charles Thomas, but again, I caution against premature evaluations of young players.
Meyer had a poor spring and went on the disabled list with Sacramento, but the A’s still have hopes he’ll develop into a solid starting pitcher. Cruz pitched well for Atlanta last season, yielding only 59 hits in 72 innings of relief, while striking out 70. He has a live arm but, for whatever reasons, he couldn’t get comfortable with the A’s in early season. He was sent to Sacramento to start, not because the A’s envision him as a starter but to give him a chance to pitch more innings. Charles Thomas looked lost at the plate with the A’s and has been sent down to Sacramento, where he has regained his stroke.
I would expect both Cruz and Thomas to be part of the mix for the A’s by next season at the latest; both may be back up this season. Meyer won’t be brought up because the A’s don’t need him now, with their starters pitching so well.
Meanwhile, Hudson is back on the DL with the same oblique muscle pull he had the last two seasons with the A’s. He’s a great pitcher, but his body just isn’t big enough to hold up under the strain he puts on it with his motion.
ANOTHER MISTAKE, which I made, was to write off the A’s prematurely. With their great June, they’re just two games below .500 and only five games behind in the wild card race.
Because there are so many games in a baseball season, it’s possible to make too much of stretches when a team plays very well or when it plays poorly. Lon Simmons said it best: When you’re on a winning streak, you don’t think you’re ever going to lose again; when you’re on a losing streak, you don’t think you’re ever going to win again.
The A’s looked just awful in May, winning only seven games. They turned it around dramatically in June, going 19-8 and ending the month with a seven-game winning streak. They weren’t as bad as they looked in May and they’re not as good as they’ve looked in June, but the turnaround has been encouraging.
The A’s play the Chicago White Sox, who have the best record in baseball, in a weekend series here and then go to Chicago for a weekend series just before the All-Star break. Their play in those games will give us a clearer idea of what kind of team they really are than we could get from either of the two previous months.
Still, I like the look of this team now. Their starting pitching has been outstanding. It’s surprised me that the young pitchers like Haren and Joe Blanton have improved so rapidly because there’s really no way to predict when young pitchers will realize what they have to do to win. It happened last year with Rich Harden, this year with Haren and Blanton, and pitching coach Curt Young deserves credit for that. When that light goes on for young pitchers, it usually stays on. With Chad Bradford coming off the DL to bolster the bullpen after the All-Star break, the A’s pitching looks very solid – and that’s always the basis for a strong playoff run.
The hitting has also come around. Eric Chavez has come out of his usual early season slumber. Not coincidentally, Bobby Crosby’s return has given the A’s a strong hitter in the middle of the lineup and taken the pressure off Chavez. Despite his talent, Chavez is not comfortable as the main man. Crosby is.
Johnson is starting to find his groove at the plate, and he continues to sparkle defensively; he made a great catch of a foul popup in Thursday’s game, sliding into the Mariners dugout. Overall, the A’s have been playing excellent defense.
THERE’S A long way to go in the season, and I’ve learned my lesson: no more premature evaluations. Except for one: The second half of the season is going to be much more interesting than any of us could have anticipated in May.
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