Will the Real A's Please Stand Up?
What’s happening? It’s called baseball, the most unpredictable of our major professional sports. A team can score 12 runs one game, none the second. The best pitcher can be knocked out in three innings, and the best hitter can strike out four times in a game. That’s why they play such a long schedule because, in 162 games, the best and worst will average out.
Frankly, I expected the A’s hot stretch to end before it did. In a sport where only the best teams top .600 for a season – the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox are the only teams likely to finish that high this year – it was incredible that the A’s played at such a high level for more than two months.
Now, we have to look at the highs and lows and assess the kind of team the A’s really are.
The makeup of the team is not likely to change. General manager Billy Beane said at midseason that he liked the team as it was, and his position hasn’t changed.
With the A’s, you always have to realize that their budget requires them to operate the way they do, developing players through their farm system who are either brought up to the major league team or are traded for players who can help. When they’re brought up, it’s to play. The A’s are currently starting two rookies, Nick Swisher and Dan Johnson, and they will continue to play. The only position that could be strengthened would be left field, though Jay Payton has played well and had some very key hits since he was obtained. Bobby Kielty has tailed off after a good stretch, and he obviously needs some rest.
The A’s could use more punch from the Designated Hitter slot. Scott Hatteberg has never been a power hitter, and he’s declined this year.
Eric Chavez has been campaigning for another big hitter for some time, probably because he isn’t up to the burden of being the A’s big threat. He’s been hitting around the .240 level with runners in scoring position, which is not what you want from your cleanup hitter.
Lew Wolff said when he was introduced as head of the ownership group that there would be more payroll available if the A’s needed to make a move in the stretch drive, but players who might be available because they’re on clubs out of contention – Ken Griffey Jr, Mike Sweeney, Todd Helton – not only have big contracts this year but also beyond this year, which the A’s have tried to avoid. Manny Ramirez? Forget it. The Red Sox aren’t going to break up the Ramirez-David Ortiz combination which is the biggest factor in their Eastern Division leading position. I think it’s unlikely the Mets would let Mike Piazza go, either, because they’re only 2 ½ back in the very competitive NL wild card race.
ASSUMING THERE are no major changes, what kind of team do the A’s really have?
The most encouraging sign is their pitching staff, which may be the best balanced staff in the Beane era.
The starting rotation is excellent. Though his season record doesn’t reflect it because he was out with injury, Rich Harden may be the best starter in the league right now. He has a fast ball which has hit 102 on the radar gun at the Coliseum, a devastating split-finger and a changeup which freezes hitters who are looking for his heater. Barry Zito, after a slow start, has been pitching as well as in his Cy Young year. Joe Blanton, though poor run support has given him a losing record, has recovered from a slow start to pitch very well. Dan Haren, who also had a slow start, has taken command since then and can usually be counted on to pitch deep into the game. Kirk Saarloos has given the A’s more than they could have expected from a No. 5 starter; if he were traded to the Cincinnati Reds, he’d shoot to the top of their rotation.
The bullpen is deeper than it’s been in the last few years. Setup men Justin Duchscherer and the newly-acquired Joe Kennedy and Jay Witasick have all been starters, so they can pitch 2-3 innings if that’s necessary. Kiko Calero has been effective when he’s been healthy. Huston Street keeps drawing comparisons with Dennis Eckersley as a closer, because of his pitching motion and his success.
Significantly, the pitching didn’t fall off in this latest cold spell: The ERA for that six-game stretch is 2.50. It’s the lack of hitting that has killed the A’s.
The A’s lineup is not one that scares you with its power; Chavez leads the team with 20. When they were playing well, though, the A’s scored runs because of the balance of their lineup. From 1-9, there are hitters who can start a rally or drive in runs, much like the Angels in 2002.
At their best, the A’s hitters work the count, get the pitch count up for starters and then pounce; often during their hot stretch, they’d be quiet for four innings and then have rallies in the fifth and sixth innings to win the games.
They need to get back to that, and with the Royals coming to town, they have a chance to get back on their game.
ONE OTHER advantage the A’s have: team character. It’s not possible to quantify that, but the fact that they didn’t get down on themselves when they had that bad stretch early in the season makes me think they’ll get past this latest slump and resume their drive for the postseason. No, they won’t be playing .750 ball, but they should be in contention for a playoff spot the rest of the way.
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