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Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Athletics' misfits make run at relevance

By Christina Kahrl



The Oakland A's beat the Texas Rangers Wednesday in the ninth on Brandon Hicks' first big league home run. A former Atlanta Braves’ shortstop prospect, Hicks was claimed off waivers this spring and is just the latest refugee from someplace else to wash up in Oakland, and potentially provide a solution in a long-shot bid for contention.

In a season that has seen its share of improbable runs -- the Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles being the poster children for surprise starts -- the A’s might be more surprising still. In their first full season after the release of the movie Moneyball, they’re winning despite ranking next-to-last in the league in OBP (bettering only the Seattle Mariners) and last in scoring. And while the movie didn’t get into the other really big reason those old A’s teams won, this club lacks the strong rotation that made Oakland a contender a decade ago.

Brandon Hicks
Behind a patchwork offense, the Athletics are surprisingly in contention nearing the trade deadline.
The rotation’s been a surprise thanks to the contributions of trade pick-ups Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone; two completely different prospects. Parker was the highly touted teen phenom in the D-backs’ system, while Milone is a finesse lefty with burglar’s guts and precise command. They’re not alone, though, as the A’s rank third in the league in quality starts thanks also to the contributions from the well-traveled Bartolo Colon and the discard duo of Brandon McCarthy (when healthy) and Travis Blackley. The only brag-worthy home-grown hurler starting games for the A’s has been A.J. Griffin. If there were questions about the A’s front office losing its touch in trades and scraping up talent, this is a group doing plenty to redeem that reputation.

To look at the offense, the problem isn’t the absence of walks or power, so they’re not really an anti-Moneyball offense. They’re fourth in the league in walk rate, after all. While key sluggers such as Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick don’t contribute much OBP, they’re generating plenty of power. This is why the A’s Isolated Power (slugging minus batting average) rates ninth in the AL, directly behind the much-vaunted Tigers’ attack.

What’s killing the A’s is a dearth of help from their up-the-middle quartet: catcher Kurt Suzuki, second baseman Jemile Weeks, shortstop Cliff Pennington and center fielder Coco Crisp. At .620, Weeks has the highest OPS in the group. Add third base to the problem list with Brandon Inge providing nothing better than slack-batted temp work (.616 OPS). Unlike the luckless Mariners, the A’s home park isn't really hurting them -- with a .659/.689 home/road OPS split.

They’re just bad at getting base hits. Because they’re one of the most free-swinging teams in baseball (striking out 21.4 percent of the time), their shortage of singles isn’t going to get that much better. Fewer balls in play means fewer chances to see that number “regress” up to league average.

So they need to be a bit aggressive about fixes, and to their credit, they have been. Five weeks ago, the A’s lineup had a problem at first base problem. They had cycled through bunting fool Daric Barton. What other term is there for a first baseman who bunts on his own, and sets the highest single-season mark for players at that power position since bunt-happy Gene Mauch ordered Rod Carew to lay down 16 sac bunts in 1982? They’d also looked at and laughed off the Kila Monster. Kila Ka'aihue proved to be another somebody who wasn’t going to be the next Ken Phelps -- the minor league slugger immortalized by Bill James in the ’80s and by the Mariners by their belated recognition that the guy had a hammer.

Instead, the A’s have once again turned to something as anti-Moneyball as it gets. Brandon Moss, former Boston Red Sox prospect before he became a Pittsburgh Pirates washout, got sucked into the first-base job simply because nature abhors a vacuum. His unintentional walk rate in the minor leagues is below 9 percent. So what does he do? Rip 11 homers in less than a month. Of course, because that’s exactly what you expect from a guy who put a .667 OPS with the Pirates.

Rather than let that ride, they finally brought up Chris Carter, something A’s fans have been waiting for at least three years, if not longer. Ever since Carter was picked up in the deal that sent Dan Haren to the D-backs, their fans have wondered what the payoff was supposed to be. With four of the six players the A’s got in that deal (including Carlos Gonzalez) long since in other uniforms, it’s down to Carter and the occasionally healthy Brett Anderson.

So, after making Carter spend parts of four seasons in Sacramento, enough time to get streets named for him, what did he do? Not let himself be outshone by the likes of Moss: He has clouted five homers in little more than a week’s worth of games.

Now sure, in a month we won’t be talking about how this quick-fix platoon is slugging more than .600. Moss might outperform his Pirates seasons, but he’s still just Moss. But Carter ought to start absorbing more of the job. At a high-offense position it’s a fix akin to what the A’s success did with their DH platoon of Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes this season. You can hope or wonder whether they'll be similarly creative in addressing their other lineup issues, because if even a shot at the one-and-done wild card is going to last, they'll need to be.

It’s a reflection of this season’s mayhem that the A’s -- the A’s! -- might very well be buyers at the deadline. Given the presumably parlous state of their finances, they may be shopping with little more than pennies and good intentions, but for a franchise some people were pegging for 100 or more losses back in February, it’s a surprisingly happy state of affairs.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Will Ferrell and Ryan Dempster
What's a first-pitch hurler like Will Ferrell to do, if not eat the world's best pizza in Chicago too?
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.