SweetSpot: Grant Balfour

A couple articles out there about relief pitchers. Buster Olney wrote today about the Braves' important arbitration case with Craig Kimbrel:
But the gap between what the Braves have offered Kimbrel -- $6.55 million -- and what Kimbrel wants in arbitration -- $9 million -- is enormous, and there’s more at stake for Atlanta in this hearing than the $2.45 million that separates the sides.

If the Braves win the case, they will give themselves a legitimate chance to keep Kimbrel for 2015. If they lose, however, then Kimbrel may be priced off the Atlanta roster sooner than anybody expects. Because arbitration cases are like building blocks, with one decision stacked upon the next.

If Kimbrel wins his case and makes $9 million in 2014, then he will be well-positioned to ask for something in the range of $14 million-$15 million next year -- or, in other words, he could become the highest-paid reliever in baseball in his second year of arbitration eligibility.

The Braves' payroll has remained about the same for the past decade, due in part to an ill-signed local TV contract. Maybe it will increase with the move to the new ballpark in Cobb County, but that's years away. Complicating matters is the Braves will have other young players eventually hitting their arbitration years -- Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Mike Minor (who signed for $3.8 million) this year, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran in 2016.

As dominant as Kimbrel has been, that makes him a possible trade candidate, especially if he wins his arbitration cases. But as Buster points out, "Kimbrel's actual value in the trade market almost certainly will be substantially less than what fans perceive that it should be, because there will be only a small handful of teams willing to pay a closer $15 million or more."

In contrast to the Braves' situation with Kimbrel we've seen the A's and Rays -- the small-market, penny-pinching, study-every-facet-of-the-game-to-find-any-edge-possible A's and Rays -- spend money on their bullpens this offseason. The A's lost closer Grant Balfour, who made $4.5 million in 2013, but traded for Orioles closer Jim Johnson ($10 million salary) and Padres reliever Luke Gregerson ($5.065 million) and signed free agent Eric O'Flaherty ($1.5 million). The Rays lost closer Fernando Rodney, but rather than promote from within, they first acquired Heath Bell (they'll pay $5.5 million of his $10 million salary) and then signed Balfour to a two-year, $12 million deal after the Orioles backed out of their initial agreement with him.

So what gives? Traditionally, sabermetricians have argued that bad teams or small-market teams shouldn't spend money on relief pitchers; if there's one area to scrimp on, make it the bullpen, in part because relievers are notoriously unpredictable from year to year, in part because starting pitchers are more valuable, but also because you can build a cheap but effective pen with young relievers (think of the A's with Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle).

Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus tackled this subject earlier in the week in an article titled, "Why Are Smart Teams Spending Money on Relievers?" The article is behind the BP subscription service, but Russell writes,

I’d argue that WAR(P), as we have defined it, doesn't do a very good job of describing relievers. The disconnect can be summed up by looking first at this chart and then at this one. In case you don't want to click through, the first chart is a listing of the top WARs of 2013, while the second is the top win probability added (WPA) scores of 2013. The WAR chart Top 30 doesn't contain any relievers at all. The WPA chart alternates between elite starters and back-end relievers, mostly closers. There's a lesson in here, if you're careful to look for it.

Basically, WPA will give a closer like Greg Holland a lot of value because he's almost always pitching in high-leverage situations. It's not a perfect metric, but it explains why closers or setup men can be considered more valuable than what WAR describes them to be. As Russell writes, "Holland had a good year, no doubt, but more importantly, he illustrates a point. Because teams have a lot more control over what relievers are placed into what situations, having a good reliever (or a reliever having a fluky good season) for those high-leverage situations can have a big impact on a team's chances of winning games."

I often write that closers are overrated. That's different from saying they aren't important. What I mean when I say that is that the halo effect we tend to put around closers is wrong. Look at the Yankees. Right now, everybody is worried about replacing Mariano Rivera. But David Robertson will be fine in the role because Robertson is an outstanding relief pitcher. The more difficult task for the Yankees will be replacing Robertson's innings (which they've yet to do) than Rivera's innings. Yes, you can find examples of good setup guys who maybe couldn't handle the ninth inning, but nearly all good setup relievers will be good closers if given the opportunity.

Also, relievers are easier to find. Many relievers are failed starters. Put them in the pen and suddenly their fastballs ramp up a couple of mph and they can focus on two pitches instead of three or four. Look at former Rays starter Wade Davis. He wasn't very good in the rotation, but was outstanding when moved to the bullpen in 2012. Traded to the Royals, they tried him again as a starter and he was terrible. Or his Kansas City teammate Luke Hochevar, who never made it as a starter, with a 5.45 ERA over five seasons. Moved to the bullpen in 2013, he posted a 1.92 ERA with outstanding peripherals.

That's what I mean about being overrated. And calling relievers overrated is why Kimbrel's trade value is minimal. Ultimately, teams feel that they can always find a closer, so why give up value and pay Kimbrel a big salary?

You still want a good bullpen, of course. In terms of WPA, the only playoff team not in the top half of the league in 2013 was the Rays, who ranked 18th. Even the much-maligned Tigers pen ranked 15th.

It's also worth mentioning that the deeper your pen is, the less work you'll require from your starting pitchers. In Oakland's case, they don't yet have any proven 200-inning workhorses in the rotation (although Jarrod Parker may get there this year), so a deep bullpen will allow manager Bob Melvin to have quicker hooks with his starters.

The A's and Rays don't have a lot of money to spend on a new cleanup hitter or No. 3 starter. But they can afford relief pitchers and that's why general manager Billy Beane traded for Johnson and the Rays signed Balfour.
Fun with numbers. Best ERA since 2010, minimum 250 innings:

1. David Robertson, 2.36
2. Clayton Kershaw, 2.37
3. Grant Balfour, 2.47

At two years and $12 million, this looks like a solid signing for the Tampa Bay Rays, who were looking to replacing free agent closer Fernando Rodney. Signing more of a sure thing like Balfour is a better risk than giving the job to veteran Heath Bell and it allows manager Joe Maddon to slide Joel Peralta and Jake McGee back into the setup roles where they've excelled the past two seasons. If Bell provides anything of value, it will be a bonus.

Still, the Rays will be paying $6 million for Balfour, $5.5 million for Bell and $3 million for Peralta this season, so those three relievers will account for nearly 20 percent of the team's projected $74 million payroll. It's not that they're overpaying for any of those guys, just that usually small-market teams will attempt to scrimp on payroll. The Rays can get away with it in part because Evan Longoria will make only $7.5 million (he's the second-highest paid player on the team behind David Price), Ben Zobrist is a bargain at $7 million and they still have key contributors like Alex Cobb, Desmond Jennings and Chris Archer in their pre-arbitration years.

The Rays are once again showing why they can continue to win on their limited budget.

As for Balfour, he's not without risk considering he failed his physical with the Orioles (reports were the Orioles were worried about his knee, not his arm). He is 36 years old, but he's been a solid reliever for several years now. He should be fine as the closer, a small upgrade from what Rodney gave them a year ago.
With the deal between the Baltimore Orioles and free-agent closer Grant Balfour now in jeopardy over concerns with his shoulder that showed up in the physical, the Orioles are left with four choices:

1. Sign him anyway. The original deal was for two years and $14 million.

2. Try to sign him for less money, as the Red Sox did a year ago with Mike Napoli when his original three-year deal became an incentive-laden one-year deal after his physical revealed a hip condition. But you also risk losing Balfour to another team.

3. Let Balfour go and sign another closer -- Fernando Rodney being the other one still out there.

4. Use one of the pitchers already on the roster as closer and spend that $14 million elsewhere.

Balfour hasn't missed any time in recent seasons, although he did miss all of 2005 and 2006 with shoulder and elbow surgeries. His fastball velocity was fine at the end of the season, averaging 93.3 mph in the playoffs, the same as the regular season.

Still, he turns 36 at the end of the month, and when you hear things like "36-year-old pitcher" and "shoulder issues" in the same sentence, you have to be worried.

If I'm the Orioles, I'd turn my attention to Rodney, who wouldn't cost more than what Balfour originally received. Rodney wasn't able to match his superlative 2012 season, but did finish with a 3.38 ERA and 37 saves while holding opponents to a .211 average and striking out 11.1 batters per nine innings. Rodney did have some control issues in April and May, walking 19 in 22.2 innings, but was consistent thereafter. From June onward, he struck out 53, walked 17 and didn't allow a home run.

Balfour, meanwhile, served up seven home runs with the A's. Put him in Camden Yards and that could translate into a big problem.

As for the fourth option, there isn't an obvious closer candidate in the current bullpen. Left-handed batters hit .294 and slugged 11 home runs off Tommy Hunter; you can't use a guy with such a large platoon split as closer. Same thing with Darren O'Day; lefties hit .309 and slugged .556 against the sidearmer. Both need to be used strategically. Brian Matusz is similar but from the left side; righties hit .302 off him. The guy with the best splits is actually Ryan Webb, signed as a free agent, who allowed a .244 average against both sides. But he lacks the raw stuff you normally see in a closer, relying primarily on a low-90s sinker.

So the Orioles likely will sign a closer -- whether it's Balfour or Rodney.

The Orioles haven't done much this offseason, failing to bring in the outfielder or starting pitcher that O's fans would have liked; this latest situation isn't going to win them over.
This hasn't exactly been the offseason that Baltimore Orioles fans wanted. Basically, the team has traded away closer Jim Johnson … and agreed to a deal with closer Grant Balfour.

Johnson was in the final year of arbitration and will probably make around $10 million. Balfour gets two years and $15 million, so the Orioles traded away a more expensive closer while getting a cheaper one with an extra year guaranteed. Closers aren't the most consistent players around, something Johnson showed the past two seasons, so while the obvious answer is that this seems like an upgrade considering Johnson's 2013 campaign, that's not necessarily the case.

Johnson led the league in saves each of the past two seasons and had similar ERAs, but in 2012 he was a player who received MVP votes, and in 2013 he was a pariah. The difference: when he allowed his runs. The numbers:

2012: 2-1, 2.49 ERA, 51 saves, 3 blown saves
2013: 3-8, 2.94 ERA, 50 saves, 9 blown saves

[+] EnlargeGrant Balfour
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesGrant Balfour converted 38 of 41 save opportunities for the A's in 2013.
As you can see from the eight losses, Johnson didn't just blow leads -- he lost games. The Orioles were 75-1 when leading after eight innings in 2012 and 73-9 in 2013. The Orioles, despite allowing just four more runs overall while scoring 32 more, won eight fewer games.

But that doesn't mean Johnson was going to struggle again in save situations. His strikeout percentage was actually higher than in 2012 and his walk percentage about the same; he allowed only two more home runs, but in 2012, he allowed a .251 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and in 2013, he allowed a .327 BABIP. Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane is betting it was just some bad luck -- some ground balls with eyes. Orioles GM Dan Duquette couldn't look past all those blown saves.

Balfour has spent the past season and a half as the Oakland closer, saving 67 games while blowing five. He throws a mid-90s fastball, a slider and occasional curveball, whereas Johnson relied primarily on a hard sinker that induced a lot of ground balls. While Balfour gets more strikeouts and allows fewer hits, he also walks more batters and gives up more home runs. He's allowed 19 home runs the past three seasons with the A's -- playing in one of the more pitcher-friendly ballparks for home runs in the American League. He goes to Camden Yards; what if those seven home runs become 10 or 11?

After trading Johnson, the Orioles did need a closer, so I'm not bashing the signing. Their other top relievers -- Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz -- all have sizable platoon splits, so none of those three made for a good candidate to be a closer, who needs to be good against both sides. Orioles manager Buck Showalter now has his ninth-inning guy and can use the other three to match up in the seventh and eighth innings.

But the exchange of Johnson for Balfour doesn't really make the Orioles better; the team's ninth-inning record was likely to be a little better anyway in 2014.

Now, to become a legitimate playoff contender, the Orioles need to make another move. They lost Nate McLouth to free agency, so right now their left field/DH combo would come from Nolan Reimold, Steve Pearce, Danny Valencia and Henry Urrutia, which isn't too inspiring. Second base is still a question with Ryan Flaherty, Jemile Weeks (acquired for Johnson) and prospect Jonathan Schoop. Chris Davis probably won't hit 53 home runs again. After Davis, the next-highest OBP among the regulars was Nick Markakis' .329. One returning starter pitched more than 180 innings.

Signing Balfour plugs a hole, but how do the Orioles go from an 85-win team to a 93-win playoff team again? Unless they have some improvements from guys like Matt Wieters and Markakis, I have trouble seeing the Orioles winning 90 without adding an impact hitter and another starter.
As Buster Olney wrote in his Sunday blog, "a lot of the winter work was done" as general managers caught flights out of Orlando. But some big free agents are still out there -- most notably Shin-Soo Choo but also some quality starting pitchers in Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Bronson Arroyo and Ervin Santana.

Buster listed seven teams that could still have a big move left -- the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, Rangers, Tigers, Mariners and Diamondbacks. With that in mind, here are 10 predictions on what will happen the rest of the offseason.

1. The Rangers sign Shin-Soo Choo.


Which team will Shin-Soo Choo sign with?


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The Rangers could go the less expensive route and bring back Nelson Cruz without forfeiting the first-round pick they'd lose for signing Choo, but Texas had a mediocre offense last year with Cruz. Why go down that road again? Choo gets on base more and would give the team another table-setter in front of Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder.

The Tigers signed Rajai Davis and appear willing to move forward with a Davis-Andy Dirks platoon in left field. Don't count out the Mariners -- the outfield is still a mess with the likes of Michael Saunders, Dustin Ackley and possibly Corey Hart or Logan Morrison, although the latter two are best suited for first base or DH duties.

2. The Rays trade David Price to the Mariners.


Which team will David Price be pitching for in 2014?


Discuss (Total votes: 14,476)

The Mariners can't stop with Robinson Cano and two guys coming off injuries. For better or worse, general manager Jack Zduriencik is all in. Cano's best season in a Mariners uniform is likely to be 2014 and not 2016 or 2017, so there is pressure to upgrade the current roster right now.

To get Price, the Mariners will trade Taijuan Walker despite proclamations from Zduriencik that that won't happen. "I don't have intentions of trading Taijuan," he said during the winter meetings. "You listen to any opportunities that present themselves and you go into discussions with a lot of people. And his name will come up. Why wouldn't it? As do a lot of our guys, quite frankly. But Taijuan is high-profile because he's rated our top prospect."

3. The Angels sign Matt Garza.


What team will sign Matt Garza?


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The Mark Trumbo trade gave the Angels some rotation depth with Hector Santiago from the White Sox and young lefty Tyler Skaggs from the Diamondbacks. Those two would slot in behind Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Garrett Richards, but the Angels may not be done looking for a starter. As they learned last year, you can never have enough pitching depth, plus it wouldn't hurt to give the 22-year-old Skaggs more time in the minors to help rediscover the form that made him one of the top prospects in the game in 2012.

Can Garza fit in the payroll? Right now, Baseball-Reference estimates it at about $144 million, up from last year's $129 million. The new national TV money is coming in, but signing Garza means the Angels may need to clear some payroll. Leading to this ...

4. The Angels trade Howie Kendrick to the Braves.


Will the Braves acquire a second baseman to replace Dan Uggla?


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The Braves have been oddly quiet this offseason while losing Brian McCann and Tim Hudson via free agency. No, signing Gavin Floyd -- he's not expected back until at least May after Tommy John surgery -- doesn't qualify as a major move.

Remember, despite winning 96 games, this team still batted Evan Gattis cleanup in a playoff game and started Freddy Garcia with its season on the line. The obvious position to upgrade is second base, where Dan Uggla posted a minus-1.3 WAR and was left off the postseason roster in favor of Elliot Johnson. Uggla is due $13 million each of the next two seasons, but the Braves have to decide whether they want to count on a guy who may be washed up or whether they want to pay $22 million for two second basemen.

Kendrick is signed for two more years and would cost a couple of prospects, but maybe the Braves could toss in Uggla while picking up the majority of his salary.

5. The Reds re-sign Bronson Arroyo.


Which team will sign Bronson Arroyo?


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Several teams have expressed interest in Arroyo, not only because of his durability but also because Cincinnati didn't give him a qualifying offer, so you don't lose a draft pick if you sign him. The Reds seemed focused on trying to sign Homer Bailey to a long-term extension, but that hasn't happened. So they may shift their priorities back to Arroyo, who has been with them since 2006.

Even though the Twins have signed Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey, they reportedly still want to sign one more guy as they revamp their rotation. Arroyo is a classic Twins-type pitcher: control over velocity. He's looking for a three-year contract, which may price out the Pirates, but Arroyo would be a nice fit to replace A.J. Burnett if he doesn't return to Pittsburgh.

6. The Dodgers do not trade Matt Kemp.


Do the Dodgers end up trading an outfielder?


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After two injury-plagued seasons, it's easy to understand the desire to trade him. But ESPN Insider Dave Cameron wrote this week that we shouldn't assume Kemp's days as an elite-level player are over:
There's some good news for Kemp and the Dodgers, however; age-28 regressions are actually pretty common, even for good young players who had established themselves as high-quality players at a young age. In most of the cases, the guys who took a year off from hitting well bounced back to perform at a high level again.

Selling now on Kemp means selling low. Yes, he has that monster contract, but the Dodgers would be wiser to hold on to Kemp and hope he rebounds and gives them a huge middle of the order with Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez. There is the concern that he shouldn't be playing center field, but it's not like Andre Ethier is that all much better out there. Puig is probably the best option for center if the Dodgers want to move him.

As for Ethier, maybe a trade market develops for him once Choo and Cruz sign. The Dodgers can afford to be patient.

7. The Mariners sign Nelson Cruz.


Which team signs Nelson Cruz?


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The Rangers gave Cruz a qualifying offer, so the market for a guy who will turn 34 in July, has posted mediocre OBPs in recent years and has little defensive value will be slim. But, hey, the Mariners have developed a fetish for this type of player, and their first-round pick is protected. Looks like a three-year marriage in the making.

What would the Mariners look like with Cruz and Price? Something like this:

SS Brad Miller
LF/1B Corey Hart
2B Robinson Cano
RF Nelson Cruz
3B Kyle Seager
DH Logan Morrison
1B Justin Smoak
C Mike Zunino
CF Michael Saunders/Dustin Ackley

SP Felix Hernandez
SP David Price
SP Hisashi Iwakuma
SP James Paxton
SP Erasmo Ramirez

8. The Orioles sign Grant Balfour.


Which team signs Grant Balfour?


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The Orioles have a hole at closer after trading Jim Johnson, a hole in left field after losing Nate McLouth, and no obvious candidate to take most of the DH at-bats. It appears they are most concerned with finding a closer.

Several teams still need (or desire) a closer, but it could come to AL East rivals. While the Yankees can ultimately just put David Robertson in the ninth-inning role, the Orioles' top relievers (Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz) all have platoon issues. Balfour will turn 36 later this month but is seeking a three-year contract. My bet is the Orioles give it to him.

9. The Dodgers sign Ervin Santana.


Which team signs Ervin Santana?


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The Dodgers have been rumored to be involved in David Price trade rumors, and they would certainly be in on Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka if he's posted. But they also don't want to deplete their farm system, and the Rakuten Golden Eagles may just decide to keep Tanaka.

Even if the Eagles do post Tanaka -- he's an unrestricted free agent in two years, so they may just decide to cash in regardless -- the Dodgers also have to sign Clayton Kershaw to a long-term contract. With Zack Greinke and eventually Kershaw, do they want three starters being paid mega-millions? Probably not. So look for them to seek a cheaper alternative like Santana, who would fill out the rotation as a durable No. 4-type starter.

10.The Cubs will keep Jeff Samardzija.


Which team will Jeff Samardzija be pitching for in 2014?


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Are you as tired of Samardzija trade rumors as I am? At this point, he's been tied to nearly every team in one rumor or another. The Blue Jays are the latest possible destination, but the Cubs reportedly asked for two top prospects plus a third player. Samardzija has two seasons left until free agency, and while he struck out 214 in 213 2/3 innings, his ERA was also 4.34, and 4.72 in the second half.

So maybe he just remains with the Cubs because of the high asking price. And then the Cubs will hopefully sign him to a 10-year extension so we don't have to go listen to all these rumors again in July.

Playoff watch: Thoughts of the day

September, 2, 2013

Some quick thoughts on the most important results and plays of the day and a look forward to Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeMat Latos
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMat Latos is a big part of the reason why September could be good for the Reds.
Pitching performance of the day: Mat Latos, Reds. Don't count the Reds out just yet in the NL Central race. For the second start in a row, the Reds battered Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, but Latos stepped up with his first complete game of 2013 and just the fourth of his career. Dusty Baker rarely lets Latos get to 110 pitches (his season high is 111, twice) so Latos rarely gets past the seventh. But he threw an efficient 100 pitches, striking out two while allowing four hits. If the Reds don't win the division, it could be Latos who gets the ball in the wild-card game.

Key at-bat of the day: Jurickson Profar versus Grant Balfour. With a 4-2 lead and Oakland closer Balfour pitching for the fourth time in five days -- he said after the game he was "pitching on fumes" -- he walked David Murphy on four pitches to start the ninth and gave up a Leonys Martin single to left. That brought up the rookie, Profar. The Rangers are second in the AL in sacrifice bunts (although with 34, they're hardly Gene Mauch-ish about it) and Ron Washington decided to play for the tie rather than a win against a tired reliever. Except Profar squared around twice and took two strikes. Swinging away, he ended up bouncing out to first, so he at least advanced the runners. But what if he had been allowed to hit away? Balfour escaped the inning as Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre both swung at first pitches and flew out.

Most important win: Oakland's win over Texas, giving them a tie for first rather than a two-game deficit.

Most important loss: The Indians not only dropped behind the Yankees (not to mention the Rays and Orioles) for the second wild-card spot, but lost rotation ace Justin Masterson after just one inning with soreness in his side. He'll undergo an MRI and other tests on Tuesday.

Awards watch: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is pushing his way onto the short list of NL MVP candidates. He homered, doubled and drove in five runs in Atlanta's 13-5 thrashing of the Mets and now ranks fourth in the NL with 93 RBIs. And there's nothing MVP voters love more than an RBI guy on a playoff team.

Tuesday's best pitching matchup: Detroit's Max Scherzer versus Boston's Jon Lester. Scherzer is going for his 20th win but faces Lester, who has allowed more than three runs just once in his past nine starts. Scherzer escaped his second defeat in his last start when the Tigers rallied in the ninth inning. Considering the Tigers' remaining schedule, if he gets past this one without a loss we could be looking at the best single-season win-loss percentage in history.

Tuesday's most important pitching matchup: St. Louis' Michael Wacha versus Cincinnati's Homer Bailey. Wacha pitched out of the bullpen in August and the rookie will be making his first major league start since June. He did throw four scoreless innings in relief against the Reds on August 28, but the Cardinals rotation is scuffling right now: Since Aug. 15, it has the second-worst ERA in the majors (5.14). The St. Louis rotation is why I think the Pirates can win the division -- or why the Reds could catch the Cardinals and Pirates, even though everyone still seems to be picking St. Louis. Wacha has talent, but he's also pitching in Cincinnati, where the Reds are 42-23. Look for more angst in St. Louis after Bailey beats the Cards.

Player to watch: Matt Moore. The Tampa Bay lefty returns to the rotation for his first start since July 28 following a DL stint with elbow soreness. He made one rehab start in Triple-A, allowing eight hits and two walks with two strikeouts in four innings.
It looked like the Oakland A's were going to complete one of the most impressive sweeps of the season, going into Detroit and beating the Tigers in four games started by Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer by scores of 8-6, 6-3, 14-4 and 6-3. On Thursday, they knocked out Scherzer after five innings -- as they also did with Sanchez, Verlander and Fister -- appearing to hand him just his second loss of the season.

A's closer Grant Balfour had blown just one save opportunity all season and entered the ninth with that 6-3 lead. He was facing the top of the Tigers' lineup, but Miguel Cabrera had been removed two innings earlier after discomfort in his abdominal region. In other words, Jim Leyland had decided he'd weaken his chances of winning by removing Cabrera, probably to ensure that he'd be ready for Friday's division showdown with Cleveland.

Entering Thursday, teams were 1,654-92 when leading after eight innings, a winning percentage of 94.7 percent. Teams had scored four or more runs in the ninth just 43 times all season -- 1.4 percent of all half innings. While FanGraphs pegged the Tigers' Win Expectancy at 4.1 percent at the start of the inning, it seems like it would actually be a little lower than that, especially with a closer as solid as Balfour on the mound and no Cabrera in the lineup.

Austin Jackson walked on four pitches -- all outside. But Andy Dirks popped out to shortstop and Alex Avila, hitting in Cabrera's spot, struck out (Win Expectancy down to 1.5 percent). Prince Fielder walked on four pitches -- all up in the zone, three inside off the plate and one high and outside. Considering Balfour had also fallen behind Dirks and Avila, it was pretty clear by now he had no command, particularly with the fastball.

He did get ahead of Victor Martinez with a slider, and a foul ball on another slider made it 0-2. Before Thursday, when Balfour got to 0-2 on a hitter, batters were hitting .162 off him, with 22 strikeouts in 39 plate appearances. Martinez was hitting .161 after falling behind 0-2. The next pitch was a curveball that didn't break and ended up high and outside. Balfour is a high-energy, hyperactive pitcher on the mound, and he was up to 21 pitches now, tugging at his jersey, his cap and the two chains around his neck between. The TV camera flashed to A's manager Bob Melvin in the dugout. He turned to somebody and smiled.

Martinez is one of the tougher hitters to punch out, however, and he then fouled off another curve and then a fastball into the third-base stands. The sixth pitch was a fastball, high and inside -- a pretty good pitch actually -- but Martinez fisted it into shallow center for a bloop single. It was his 11th hit of the series and it scored a run, bringing the winning run to the plate in Torii Hunter. Martinez didn't have a line-drive single, but rather a tough, grind-it-out base hit by a hitter who knows how to grind out at-bats against good pitchers.

The A's had a visit to the mound. Pitching coach Curt Young had a long discussion with Balfour and catcher Stephen Vogt. The camera panned to Melvin. He was not smiling.

Balfour opened with a slider off the plate that Hunter lunged at and fouled off. The 0-1 pitch was a fastball up -- perhaps leaving Hunter to guess slider on the next pitch, considering Balfour's lack of fastball command. The next pitch was a slider on the outside corner, but it was letter high and Hunter crushed it to left-center for the dramatic walk-off home run. Balfour exited to a string of expletives as Hunter was mobbed at home plate by the happy Tigers, who, trailing 6-1 earlier in the game, had pulled off their biggest comeback win of the season.

While obviously an exciting win for the Tigers, it was probably more of a huge defeat for the A's. Detroit has a comfortable six-game lead over the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, pending the Indians' result Thursday night against the Braves. The A's are chasing the Texas Rangers in the AL West, now down three games instead of two.

Baseball players are trained to forget about defeats. Closers, of course, have to have short memories, and I'm sure Balfour will be fine in his next outing. But this one hurts. The A's have to face David Price on Friday, but my guess is this loss will linger longer than most.

As for the Tigers, it's proof that this lineup is deeper than just Cabrera and a nice lift heading into the Cleveland series.

Scherzer is still 19-1. He just knows how to win … and, apparently, how to avoid losses.

Major League Baseball began handing out the Manager of the Year award in 1983, and Bobby Cox of the 2004-05 Atlanta Braves is the only man to win it in consecutive seasons. If the lineup the Oakland Athletics fielded Wednesday night is a snapshot of the tools at Bob Melvin’s disposal, he should be a strong candidate to replicate that feat.

Yes, John Farrell has changed the mindset in Boston a year after that 69-win Bobby Valentine-led debacle. Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays deserves to win the award every year, and Terry Francona has done a wonderful job keeping the Cleveland Indians in postseason contention despite the team’s flaws. But have any of them done a noticeably better job than Melvin, who has taken a star-free team with the 26th-highest payroll in baseball and put it in the mix for a wild-card spot and possibly a second straight American League West title?
[+] EnlargeBrandon Moss
AP Photo/Paul SancyaBrandon Moss is the perfect Oakland A: Discarded by others, but he comes to play.

With a 14-4 laugher in Detroit on Wednesday that featured six RBIs from Brandon Moss, the A’s raised their record to 75-57. They’re 2 games behind Texas in the division and four games ahead of Cleveland in the race for the second wild-card spot, and they’re starting to get some important pitching reinforcements. Bartolo Colon returns from the disabled list to face Max Scherzer in a Thursday matinee at Comerica Park, and Brett Anderson is back and pitching in the bullpen for now after missing four months with a foot injury.

The lineup requires some cobbling together on a lot of nights. Coco Crisp has contributed some monster moments this season, but he brings a .330 career on-base percentage in the leadoff spot. Eric Sogard, the second baseman, looks like the kid selling you an iPad at Best Buy. Daric Barton continues to hang around at first base despite being on the Russ Canzler-Eli Whiteside designated-for-assignment plan. And the A’s recently had to scramble to reacquire old friend Kurt Suzuki from Washington when injuries to Derek Norris and John Jaso put a serious crimp in their catching contingent.

When the season began, the outfield looked like Oakland’s strong suit. But it hasn’t turned out that way. Chris Young and Seth Smith are both having disappointing seasons. Worse yet, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes haven’t come close to their performances in 2012, when they combined for 55 home runs in the three and four spots in the order. Reddick has a .658 OPS and just went on the DL with a wrist injury. Cespedes has been too pull-happy and prone to chasing breaking balls out of the strike zone, and it’s reflected in his .289 OBP and increased strikeout total.

As Athletics beat writer John Hickey pointed out earlier this week, Jason Kubel might be a good fit in Oakland after getting designated for assignment by Arizona. For late-August trade buffs, Justin Morneau is also still out there and readily available.

Only three Oakland hitters -- Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie and Moss -- have performed to or beyond expectations this season, and they all project a certain dirtbag quality befitting the team persona. So why are the A’s so good? They grind out at-bats (they lead the majors with 476 walks and average a lofty 3.96 pitches per plate appearance). They’re 24-16 in one-run games, and they’re tied with Pittsburgh for the major league lead with 13 victories when trailing after six innings.

The A’s also pitch. A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker and the other starters have gone deep into games consistently enough that the bullpen has logged only the 11th-heaviest workload in the league. That means closer Grant Balfour and his relief-mates won’t be running on fumes in September.

Oddly enough, a few hours before Oakland took the field and banged out a season-high 21 hits against Doug Fister and the Detroit bullpen Wednesday, Donaldson was candid in his assessment of what the A’s have to do to survive the final month.
[+] EnlargeBob Melvin
AP Photo/Paul SancyaHas Bob Melvin earned his second straight manager of the year award?

“We know how we’re built, and we’re built to pitch and play defense,” he said. “Anytime one of those gets out of whack is when we start faltering a little bit. I don’t feel like we’re going to bang with teams like the Tigers and Rangers every day.”

Even the departure of Jonny Gomes to Boston through free agency hasn’t put a crimp in the esprit de corps in Oakland. That’s largely a tribute to Melvin, a manager whose approach wears well over six months and 162 games. Players love him because of his even temperament, fairness and attention to detail -- but he can be tough when the situation warrants. After the A’s failed to show much spark against Houston and Seattle during their last homestand, Melvin let the players know things had to change in a hurry. It appears he got their attention.

When the Detroit series concludes, the A’s will head home for six games against Tampa Bay and Texas, at which point the schedule gets less taxing. Of Oakland’s final 23 games, 20 are against Houston, Minnesota, the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle.

The young A’s learned a lot about perseverance last year when they went on a 51-25 roll after the All-Star break to overtake Texas for the division title. Expectations were higher this year, but that doesn’t minimize the job that Melvin and his coaching staff have done squeezing the most out of the roster.

Melvin’s name should be in the middle of the Manager of the Year conversation again in November. But as long as he has the chance to keep making out lineup cards in October, the rest is gravy.
Craig Kimbrel Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesCraig Kimbrel led the NL in saves last season and is considered the most dominant closer in baseball.

The Tigers need one. The Brewers thought they had one. The Cubs already have a new one. Some teams probably wish they had a different one. Closers are already melting down in rapid fashion.

On Monday afternoon, with closer Jason Motte sidelined with a sore elbow (he'll get a new MRI on Tuesday), the Cardinals' bullpen imploded in a 13-4 loss to the Reds, led by Mitchell Boggs giving up seven runs in the ninth inning. Now they might have closer issues as well. Rookie Trevor Rosenthal blew a 4-3 lead in the eighth, his second blown "save" of the young season, so he's not necessarily the answer if manager Mike Matheny has lost faith in Boggs.

The Tigers will apparently give Joaquin Benoit their next save opportunity, but many think they need to make a trade for a Proven Closer (tm). The problem ... well, there aren’t really that many Proven Closers out there. And the truth is, most closers weren’t preordained to be closers anyway, many arriving at the role only after failing as starters or finally getting the opportunity in their late 20s. Let’s rank all 30 closers and you’ll see what I mean.

Proven Closers
These are guys who have done the job for more than one season, thus earning the coveted title of Proven Closer.

1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
The best ninth-inning guy in the business, coming off maybe the most dominant relief season ever -- he fanned over half the batters he faced -- in the modern era, or what Goose Gossage likes to refer to as "After I retired."

Before becoming a closer: Groomed as a closer, he's never started a game in pro ball and became Atlanta's closer as a rookie in 2011.

2. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
I'm actually breaking my own rule here since Chapman has only been a closer for less than one season. But unless his control suddenly abandons him, he's obviously the real deal after striking out 122 in 71.2 innings last season.

Before becoming a closer: Lacked the secondary pitches and stamina to make it as a starter.

3. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
He's old, he basically has one pitch and he's coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Anyone want to bet against him?

Before becoming a closer: Failed starting pitcher prospect.

4. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
Starting his eighth year as a closer, which is entering elevated territory. (Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, for example, only had seven dominant seasons as a closer.) Papelbon had some not-so-clutch moments last season, however, finishing with four blown saves and six losses.

Before becoming a closer: Forty-eight of his 58 appearances in the minors and his first three major league appearances came as a starter, but Red Sox converted him to relief.

5. Joe Nathan, Rangers
Not quite the Rivera-like force he was during his Twins days, but still pretty good. Picked up his 300th career save Monday, becoming the 23rd reliever to hit that mark.

Before becoming a closer: Had a 4.70 ERA in two seasons as a part-time starter for the Giants in 1999-2000, had a 7.29 ERA in the minors in 2001 (5.60 in 2002), made it back, traded to the Twins, then became a closer at age 29.

6. Rafael Soriano, Nationals
Has three seasons as a closer with three different teams, so this will be his fourth year as a closer with his fourth different teams, making him the best example of Proven Closer, Will Travel.

Before becoming a closer: Spent parts of seven seasons in the majors (starting as a rookie with Seattle), many parts of which were spent on the disabled list.

7. Huston Street, Padres
Now entering his ninth season as a closer, Street has recorded 30-plus saves just twice, as he's often hurt and hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2009.

Before becoming a closer: Groomed as a closer since Oakland made him the 40th pick in the 2004 draft out of Texas.

8. Chris Perez, Indians
Now entering his fourth season as Cleveland's closer, he's been an All-Star the past two seasons despite a less-than-awe-inspiring 3.45 ERA and 4-11 record.

Before becoming a closer: Mediocre middle reliever with St. Louis and Cleveland for two years. Fell into the closer role in 2010 because Kerry Wood was injured at the start of the season.

9. J.J. Putz, Diamondbacks
He's had four seasons of 30-plus saves, although he spent three years in between closer jobs. He's another guy who isn't the most durable pitcher around and hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2007.

Before becoming a closer: Started for three years in the minors for Seattle, moved to the bullpen, spent two years as a mediocre middle guy, but learned the splitter and became a closer at age 29 after Proven Closer Eddie Guardado imploded early in 2006.

10. Joel Hanrahan, Red Sox
All-Star closer with the Pirates the past two seasons, but he walked 36 and allowed eight home runs in 59.2 innings last year. Could easily lose the job to former Proven Closer Andrew Bailey.

Before becoming a closer: Didn't make it as a starter with the Dodgers, traded to the Nationals and then to the Pirates. Spent three years as a middle reliever.

One-year wonders

These guys became closers last year, and several of them had dominant seasons. But beware the John Axford lesson: One season does not make you a Proven Closer. Do it again and we'll start believing.

11. Fernando Rodney, Rays
After years as basically a bad reliever (22-38 career record., 4.29 ERA), he signed with Tampa Bay and lucked into getting a save in the season's second game as the fourth reliever of the ninth inning in a game against the Yankees. Went on to have one of the greatest relief seasons ever, with a 0.60 ERA and five earned runs allowed. He's already allowed three earned runs in 2013. Was last year a fluke?

Before becoming a closer: See above. Did save 37 games (with a 4.40 ERA) for the Tigers in 2009.

[+] EnlargeSergio Romo
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty Images)After many seasons as a middle reliever, Sergio Romo finally got the chance to close and got the last out in the 2012 World Series.
12. Sergio Romo, Giants
The slider specialist replaced Santiago Casilla, who had replaced the injured Brian Wilson. Saved 14 games and then allowed one run in 10.2 postseason innings.

Before becoming a closer: Not much of a prospect as a 28th-round pick who didn't throw hard, but Romo was an excellent middle guy for four seasons.

13. Ernesto Frieri, Angels
The hard-throwing righty came over after an early-season trade with the Padres, got the closer job after Jordan Walden struggled and had a terrific season. Might lose his job anyway if former Journeyman Made Good Ryan Madson gets healthy.

Before becoming a closer: Moved to the bullpen after posting a 3.59 ERA in Double-A in 2009.

14. Jason Motte, Cardinals
Took over the closer role late in 2011 and helped the Cards win the World Series. Saved 42 games with 2.75 ERA last year. Currently injured.

Before becoming a closer: Spent first three pro seasons as a catcher.

15. Jim Johnson, Orioles
In his first full year as closer he saved 51 games. Rare among closers, he's a ground ball specialist who doesn't register many whiffs (41 in 68.2 innings in 2012).

Before becoming a closer: A not-very-good minor league starter.

16. Tom Wilhelmsen, Mariners
In his first full year in the majors, he replaced a struggling Brandon League. Did just fine with his mid-90s fastball and hammer curve.

Before becoming a closer: Was bartending. No, seriously.

17. Addison Reed, White Sox
Saved 29 games as a rookie, although his 4.75 ERA wasn't exactly Rivera-ish.

Before becoming a closer: Drafted in the third round out of San Diego State in 2010, he had a dominant relief season in the minors in 2011 (1.26 ERA) that pushed him quickly to the majors.

18. Greg Holland, Royals
Had 16 saves last season, but his job could be in jeopardy after four walks in his first two innings of 2013. Aaron Crow saved Monday's win for the Royals.

Before becoming a closer: Came out of nowhere to post a 1.80 ERA with the Royals in 2011.

19. Steve Cishek, Marlins
Saved 15 games after expensive Proven Closer Heath Bell gakked up several memorable save opportunities.

Before becoming a closer: The sidearmer was never on prospect radar lists because sidearmers are never on prospect radar lists.

20. Brandon League, Dodgers
Saved 37 games for Seattle in 2011, but lost his job early last season due to general lack of impressiveness. Throws a hard sinker so he gets ground balls but not many K's. Pitched better in 27 innings for the Dodgers last season so they gave him a bunch of money. Control was fine in 2011, not so fine last year.

Before becoming a closer: Didn't make it as a starter in the minors despite high-90s fastball.

Journeymen Made Good
These guys became closers essentially because their teams didn't have anyone else. Perseverance pays off!

21. Grant Balfour, A's
Hard-throwing Aussie became a closer last year for the first time at age 34.

Before becoming a closer: Played Australian rules football. OK, not really. Went from Twins to Reds to Brewers before finally having some good years with Tampa Bay.

22. Glen Perkins, Twins
The rare lefty closer had 16 saves a year ago.

Before becoming a closer: Career 5.06 ERA as a starter in 44 games before moving to the bullpen.

23. Rafael Betancourt, Rockies
At 37 years old, he became a closer for the first time and saved 31 games for Rockies in 2012.

Before becoming a closer: Has a career 3.13 ERA, so he'd been a good reliever for a lot of years.

24. Jason Grilli, Pirates
The veteran reliever had a career year last year at age 35 with 90 K's in 58.2 innings and took over the closer role when Hanrahan was traded.

Before becoming a closer: Played for five major league teams before Pittsburgh.

25. Casey Janssen, Blue Jays
Another late bloomer, he got the ninth-inning job after Sergio Santos was injured last year.

Before becoming a closer: The former starter didn't really have a wipeout pitch so he got pushed to the pen.

26. Bobby Parnell, Mets
He's long been heralded as a closer candidate due to his high-octane fastball. Now he'll finally get the opportunity.

Before becoming a closer: One-time minor league starter has spent past four seasons in the Mets' bullpen.

The Import
27. Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs
The new Cubs' closer could be good, bad or something in-between. I think he'll be pretty good.

Looking for help
28. Tigers. The problem with Phil Coke as a closer is that Phil Coke just isn't a very good reliever. Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal have better stuff but not much experience.

29. Brewers. Axford was signed out of independent ball and had a monster 46-save season for the Brewers in 2011. He's allowed four home runs in 2.2 innings this season and the Brewers may sign Rollie Fingers.

Might not get a save opportunity until May

30. Jose Veras, Astros.
Now 32, he's pitched for the Yankees, Indians, Marlins, Pirates and Brewers and has five career saves.

Before becoming a closer: The Brewers had the worst bullpen in the majors last year and even they didn't want him back.

Teams should go with youth in bullpens

February, 16, 2013
When you think of the best bullpens, you likely think of the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves first and foremost. The two teams featured, by measure of ERA, the highest-quality bullpens in 2012 behind 24-year-old closers Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. As you may expect, both teams did very little over the winter to bolster their bullpens: the Reds signed Jonathan Broxton to a three-year, $21 million deal while the Braves acquired Jordan Walden from the Angels in a trade for starter Tommy Hanson.

Other teams spent a lot of money fixing up their bullpens. In total, nearly $206 million was spent on major league deals for 31 relievers, an average of about $6.6 million per player.

While the Chapmans and Kimbrels of the baseball world are few and far between, many more teams should be following the youth model. Aside from their star closers, the Reds and Braves featured the following players in their bullpens during 2012:

The Reds learned first-hand the risk of spending money on older relievers. They guaranteed $8.5 million to 31-year-old Ryan Madson, but he missed all of 2012 with an elbow injury. Nick Masset, 30, also earned $2.4 million last season and spent the year on the sidelines with a shoulder injury. In total, the Reds spent $21 million of their $88 million payroll on the bullpen, but the aforementioned six earned just over $10 million. The Braves spent $7.2 million of their $93.5 million payroll on the bullpen, with the aforementioned six earning $5.5 million of that.

Even the Washington Nationals, who handed out the most money to a reliever this offseason (Rafael Soriano: two years, $28 million), will be utilizing a young and cheap bullpen with Tyler Clippard (28), Drew Storen (25) and Ryan Mattheus (29) among those eating up high-leverage innings. At present, the Nationals have $106.6 million committed, but less than $25 million is devoted to the bullpen.

Staying in the NL East but looking at it from the other side, the Phillies illustrate how superfluous veteran relievers are. The Phillies featured the sixth-best bullpen in baseball by defense-independent standards (that is, looking only at strikeouts, walks, and the rate of groundballs and flyballs). Philadelphia Daily News writer David Murphy pointed out on Twitter that three of their young left-handers -- Antonio Bastardo, Jeremy Horst, and Jake Diekman -- ranked No. 2 through 4 behind Chapman in strikeout rate per nine innings among lefty relievers. Bastardo, who had commonly pitched in the eighth inning, was demoted when the Phillies added two veterans in Mike Adams and Chad Durbin over the winter, which also effectively pushed Horst and Diekman down a peg as well. Adams and Durbin posted strikeout rates well below the Phillies' three lefties last season.

While the Phillies aren't devoting as high a percentage of their payroll to relievers as some other teams, it is most of that money is very heavily weighted toward veteran relievers Jonathan Papelbon and Adams, meaning that they will be hoping they can stay healthy just like the Reds did with Madson and Masset -- gambling, more or less. In reality, the Phillies could have stood pat, invested no more money in their bullpen, and been in equal or better standing.

For one more example, look at the Oakland Athletics last year. They had the second-best bullpen ERA in the American League at 2.94. After 34-year-old Grant Balfour, the bullpen was comprised almost exclusively of players in their mid-20s. The only relievers they paid $1 million or more to were Balfour ($4 million) and 36-year-old Brian Fuentes ($5 million), who was injured and ineffective. They acquired exactly zero free-agent relievers over the winter and should be expected to have one of the better bullpens in the league once again.

One need not find and cultivate a Kimbrel or Chapman in the minors to have an extremely effective yet young and cheap bullpen (although the Tigers are hoping hard-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon turns into a young and cheap closer). Teams can feature a revolving door by devoting low-leverage innings to younger players early on, then promoting them into more important situations later in the season as their performance merits. This is a much more cost-effective, less risky method than simply signing a veteran and handing him high-leverage innings no matter what, simply based on their experience. Remember, even Kimbrel had to be auditioned as he pitched in the seventh inning or earlier in seven of his 21 appearances in 2010, the year he made his debut.

Teams are looking for edges any way they can, however small or seemingly insignificant. The bullpen is one very obvious area where teams can become smarter and more efficient.

Bill Baer runs the Phillies blog Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter @CrashburnAlley.

Offseason report card: A's

February, 8, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 94-68 (92-70 Pythagorean)
713 runs scored (8th in American League)
614 runs allowed (2nd in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Traded Cliff Pennington and Yordy Cabrera to Arizona for Chris Young. Re-signed free agent Bartolo Colon. Signed Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. Acquired John Jaso in three-way deal that sent A.J. Cole to Washington. Traded Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi to Houston for Jed Lowrie and Fernando Rodriguez. Lost free agents Brandon McCarthy, Stephen Drew and Jonny Gomes.

More than anything, Billy Beane improved Oakland's athleticism and versatility. He lost two designated-hitter types in Carter and Gomes, but acquired an elite defensive center fielder in Young and picked up two infielders to go along with the return of Scott Sizemore (the team's best hitter in 2011 who missed all of 2012). Nakajima was a star player in Japan and since Lowrie's range at short is limited, the A's are counting on Nakajima to live up to his defensive reputation. The loss of McCarthy will hurt, but re-signing Colon helps maintain their rotation depth. For the tight-budgeted A's, a solid offseason that gives manager Bob Melvin multiple options around the diamond.

Position Players

As you can see from the projected lineup, there is a lot of unsettled aspect to Oakland's starting nine, but in a good way. Melvin will be able to mix and match and the depth gives the A's injury insurance.

But how good is the lineup? The A's set an all-time strikeout record last season and hit just .238. They did hit better with runners in scoring position -- .265 -- which is one reason they ranked eighth in runs despite finishing 12th in on-base percentage and ninth in slugging percentage. Three reasons to like Oakland's chances to score more runs this year, however: The second basemen hit .228 with five home runs; the third basemen had a .280 OBP, lowest in the AL; and the shortstops had a .272 OBP, again lowest in the AL.

And a fourth reason: Yoenis Cespedes surprised everyone by hitting .292/.356/.505. Very nice numbers. Those could be big numbers this year.

Pitching Staff

Either you believe in Oakland's young starters or you don't. I'm a believer. Remember that the best of the group might be Brett Anderson, and he made just seven starts in 2012 after returning from Tommy John surgery. Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone and A.J. Griffin enter their second seasons with playoff experience under their belts and Colon returns after his suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. Dan Straily and Travis Blackley provide depth.

If we're going to nitpick, it's that it's not a big strikeout rotation. The A's ranked 10th in the AL strikeout rate among starting pitchers at 16.6 percent -- more than 5 percent less than Tampa Bay's 21.9 mark. But guess which staff tied for the lowest walk rate? The A's won't beat themselves and they pitch to their big home ballpark -- where Young, Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick have the speed to run down a lot of flyballs.

If you watched the A's down the stretch, you saw the hard-throwing trio of Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle dominate the late innings. Those three combined for a 2.49 ERA over 195 innings; not bad for a minor free-agent signing, a throw-in in the Trevor Cahill trade and a guy playing first base in the minors in 2011. All told, opponents hit .206 off the Oakland pen, second-lowest in the league to the Rays' .205 mark. There's depth behind those three guys as well.

Good rotation. Good pen. Some will predict regression from this group, but I expect another solid season in which the A's once again rank among the AL leaders in fewest runs allowed.

Jarrod ParkerESPN Stats & InformationJarrod Parker's 3.8 WAR ranked 10th among AL pitchers in 2012.
Heat Map to Watch
Beane acquired Parker from the Diamondbacks and the rookie right-hander showed why he was highly rated coming up through the Arizona system. His changeup made many left-handed hitters look foolish at the plate -- in 140 plate appearances ending with that pitch, they hit .163/.216/.194, with just three extra-base hits (two doubles, one triple). It's one of the best pitches in the game and the reason I expect Parker to have another solid season.

Overall Grade


How many games will the A's win?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,643)

Many won't believe in the A's simply because they were such a big surprise a year ago. But I'm trying to find reasons to expect a decline and am having trouble identifying them. OK, the offense was sort of one-dimensional last season; but the A's basically received nothing from three positions and they have likely upgrades at all three spots. I didn't even mention Jaso above; if he hits like he did with Seattle, he's another plus at the plate (though the Mariners clearly didn't like his defense behind the plate).

OK, maybe you don't believe in Reddick and Cespedes and Brandon Moss. I do. I think they return to the playoffs.
The Oakland A’s didn’t really know what to expect from Brett Anderson, who hadn’t pitched in 20 days since suffering an oblique strain.

But here’s the one thing about Anderson: He can roll out of bed and throw the ball over the plate. He returned from last summer’s Tommy John surgery Aug. 21 and made six starts before the oblique injury. In those six starts, he walked just seven batters, displaying the control the 24-year-old had shown since reaching the big leagues at age 21.

Manager Bob Melvin was hoping to get five innings from Anderson on Tuesday. Anderson delivered six shutout frames, throwing 80 pitches and allowing just two hits. His final two pitches might have been his best: a 2-1 slider to Miguel Cabrera that broke sharply into the strike zone for a called strike, and then a 2-2 slider that dove down and in and on which Cabrera swung over the top.

Asked what his expectations were after Oakland’s bullpen locked down the 2-0 win, Anderson said, "Just go out there and give us a chance to win," citing the performances of Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone in the first two games of the series with the Tigers. "You couldn’t really script it, but it worked out. ... Coco [Crisp] robbing the home run sort of set the tone. You can’t say enough about the defense," he said.

On a day when we had two games and saw a combined total of 16 hits, pitching did rule the day. And instead of two games Wednesday, now we get four. Good for everyone (except maybe Reds and Tigers fans).

[+] EnlargeBrett Anderson
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezIn his first start since September, left-hander Brett Anderson pitched six shutout innings.
A few other thoughts:

  • Crisp’s second-inning robbery of Prince Fielder is one of the greatest postseason catches I can remember, right up there with Willie Mays, Kirby Puckett in the 1991 World Series, Devon White in the 1992 World Series and Endy Chavez in the 2006 National League Championship Series. Fielder got robbed again when Yoenis Cespedes made a diving catch of his liner in the seventh. When the ball was hit, it looked like a sure single and maybe a double in the gap; it hung up just long enough for Cespedes to appear from nowhere. Josh Donaldson also started a nice 5-4-3 double play off Omar Infante’s hard smash to end the third.
  • I loved the way Melvin handled the seventh and eighth innings, first using Ryan Cook and then Sean Doolittle, even though he usually uses Doolittle and then Cook. He brought in Cook to face Fielder, when he could have either left in Anderson for one more batter, brought in Doolittle or brought in Jerry Blevins, who had been warming up in the sixth. I think he wanted to give Fielder a different look than a third shot at Anderson, so he brought in the hard-throwing Cook. That meant Cook would also face right-handers Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta (who did single), and Melvin wouldn't waste Blevins for one batter. But it also meant Doolittle faced rookie Avisail Garcia and catcher Gerald Laird in the eighth. If Cook had pitched the eighth, Jim Leyland would have pinch hit lefty swingers Quintin Berry and Alex Avila, a better duo than Garcia and Laird.
  • It’s going to be difficult for the Tigers to go all the way with Young batting fifth. Only Josh Hamilton swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone among qualified batters this season. Yes, Young hit five home runs in last year’s postseason. He also hit .133 in the American League Championship Series. He had 112 strikeouts and 20 walks this year. He is not good. As a No. 5 hitter for a team aspiring to win a title, he’s a joke.
  • Strong outing by Anibal Sanchez. Seth Smith turned on an inside fastball for his fifth-inning home run to dead center, but the Tigers couldn't have asked for more than the 6.1 solid innings he gave them.
  • Cabrera singled with one out in the ninth, bringing up Fielder against Grant Balfour as the tying run. Balfour got a break on the first pitch, a fastball outside called a strike by plate ump Dana DeMuth. After a fastball outside, Balfour threw a tough 94 mph heater at the knees that Fielder took for strike two. Another fastball, this one at 95, and Fielder grounded into a 6-3 double play. Guess which team led the AL in double plays grounded into?
  • Max Scherzer versus A.J. Griffin in Game 4. Scherzer left a start Sept. 18 after two innings due to a sore shoulder and returned Sept. 23 but then didn't pitch again until Oct. 3, when he pitched four scoreless innings against the Royals. If he's healthy, he's certainly capable of dominating, after ranking second in the AL in strikeouts to his teammate Justin Verlander and posting a 2.69 ERA in the second half. Following a great run, Griffin struggled in three of his final four starts, with 26 hits and 15 runs in 17.1 innings. Look for a quick hook.

The last few innings won’t exactly go down as textbook October baseball, but the Detroit Tigers will happily take the 5-4 walk-off win over the A’s, the 2-0 series lead and the plane ride to Oakland knowing they need to win only one of three games.

It was a game in which some of Detroit’s little guys stepped up: Omar Infante had two key hits, Don Kelly delivered the winning sacrifice fly and backup shortstop Danny Worth made a nice play in the ninth.

In the end, the A’s have nobody to blame but themselves. Tommy Milone, after looking like he wouldn’t last past the third inning early on, settled down and allowed just one run over six innings. When the A’s took a 2-1 lead in the seventh off Doug Fister, Bob Melvin had the game exactly where he wanted: The chance to hand the ball to his final three relievers with a lead.

Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour had been dominant down the stretch for the A’s when they surged to win the division title. Check out their numbers:

Doolittle since Sept. 7: 15 IP, 8 H, 3 BB, 13 SO, 1.80 ERA, .154 AVG
Cook since Sept. 7: 15 IP, 8 H, 1 BB, 16 SO, 0.00 ERA, .154 AVG
Balfour since Sept. 14: 11 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 14 SO, 0.00 ERA, .086 AVG

It’s worth noting that Melvin pushed all three hard in the final week -- Cook and Balfour each appeared in the final five games and Doolittle the final four. None had appeared in more than three consecutive games all season prior to that. The A’s had three days off since clinching and all three had excellent velocity, but you do wonder how much they have left in the tanks.

The key play came with Doolittle pitching in the seventh. After Austin Jackson and Infante singled, Miguel Cabrera hit a fly ball to somewhat shallow center field. Coco Crisp, playing in Saginaw, got a late jump and then tried to Willie Mays it, but dropped it, and two runs scored on the error. It wasn’t that difficult of a play, even from where Crisp started. You can’t make errors like that and win postseason games.

But the A’s actually took the lead in the eighth when Yoenis Cespedes created a run all by himself, singling, stealing second and third and scoring on a wild pitch. When Josh Reddick then lofted a 3-2 changeup from Joaquin Benoit over the right-field fence to make it 4-3 (batters had previously hit .174 off Benoit’s changeup, with 47 strikeouts and three walks), the A’s once again looked good.

But in the bottom half, Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta singled off Cook and Andy Dirks laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt. Pinch-hitter Quintin Berry struck out, but Cook then threw a pitch in the dirt, catcher George Kottaras made an unsuccessful backhand stab and pinch-runner Kelly scored the tying run.

In the ninth, Al Alburquerque relieved Phil Coke with two runners on and got Cespedes on a bouncer back to the mound to end the threat. Balfour, the hyper Australian, came on in the bottom of the ninth having retired the previous 26 batters he faced. But Infante singled to right with one out, Cabrera dumped a flare into center to send Infante to third, and after Prince Fielder was intentionally walked, Kelly lofted an 0-1 pitch to right, easily scoring the winner.

Despite the back-and-forth nature of the game, there weren’t too many managerial moves to question. I’m not a fan of loading the bases since it forces the pitcher to throw strikes, but you can’t argue with putting on a hitter such as Fielder to pitch to Kelly. Fielder did ground into 17 double plays, but Balfour is a fly-ball pitcher and Kelly was hitting .186 (although his strikeout rate of 17 percent isn’t terrible). All things considered, you’re much more likely to get a strikeout there than a double play with Fielder.

I did think Melvin missed a chance to get power-hitting Chris Carter in the game when Leyland brought in Coke to start the ninth to face Kottaras. Melvin instead pinch-hit his other catcher, Derek Norris, who struck out.

Melvin also chose not to sacrifice bunt with Stephen Drew in the third inning after the first two batters reached. I didn’t have a problem with that. Even though the score was 0-0 at the time, Milone had been shaky, escaping a bases-loaded jam in the second, so Melvin was correct in thinking he should go for a big inning instead of one run. Drew struck out and the A’s scored just one run, as the Tigers ended the threat when rookie Avisail Garcia gunned down Crisp at home plate with a perfect throw from right field.

So it's a huge win for the Tigers and a frustrating loss for the A’s. The one clear advantage Oakland had going into the series was the bullpen, and now the 'pen has a mark on the wrong side of the ledger. The A’s do head home, where they’ve won eight of nine, but even if they pull out the next two games, you know who is staring down at them for a possible Game 5: Justin Verlander.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

Atlanta Braves
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

Cincinnati Reds
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

Washington Nationals
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
--David Schoenfield

Baltimore Orioles
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

Texas Rangers
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland Athletics
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

Detroit Tigers
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
--David Schoenfield

Jumping on the Oakland A's bandwagon

October, 3, 2012
Josh Reddick Brad Mangin/MLB/Getty ImagesBack on June 30, Josh Reddick and the A's were 13 games behind the Rangers in the AL West.
"Bandwagon." Sometimes the very sight or utterance of this word draws a sneer or a look of disgust from sports fans. To some, the word implies a lesser fanhood, a quality of root-root-rooting that somehow falls below that of fans who have staked more time into watching a team than others throughout the course of a season.

To me, "bandwagon" is no dirty word, no derisive term meant to discourage fans -- for whatever reason and motive -- from cheering for a given team. This applies to me, personally, more than ever now that I have no personal stake in these playoffs, my hometown Phillies sitting out a World Series chase for the first time since 2006. In a way, it makes things easier; no premature aging or heart problems from stressing over every pitch will be wonderful. Normally, I'd just hope these playoffs feature great games with high drama, not really caring who wins it all in the end. Except maybe the Yankees.

But something about this year is different. No, not the Yankees part. This year, I feel a calling, a pull that started out gently in the summer and has grown ever stronger as the days have cooled and grown shorter: I have to root for the Oakland Athletics.

Maybe even saying the pull only started in the summer is selling the draw and attraction short. It probably started back when news broke that the A's had signed Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, star of one of the most over-the-top promotional videos ever seen. Oakland was an unexpected destination, and that made the A's more intriguing.

But really, even after adding Cespedes, who thought about Oakland as a legitimate playoff contender? They had traded away Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill and lost Josh Willingham to the Twins in free agency, three players who had accounted for 8.3 of the team's 25.2 cumulative WAR in 2011. Additionally, Brett Anderson, another of the team's promising young pitchers, would be missing a vast chunk of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

What about this team screamed "playoffs"? Seemingly little, at least on paper. The Angels had stocked up with premium talent, the Rangers were the incumbent American League champions, and even the addition of a second wild card likely just meant competing with another team from the AL East. But you know how the saying goes: That's why they play the games.

At the close of business on June 30, though, the games weren't going so well. The A's sat 37-42, 13 games back in the division and 6 back of the second wild-card spot, after trotting out a lineup with five players OPSing below .700 and failing to score more than four runs for the 11th time in 13 games. It wasn't the best of times.

That was the season's nadir, because since then? The Athletics have gone 56-26, the best record in baseball by 3 games over the Reds. They've compiled six extra-inning, walk-off wins in that stretch alone and Cespedes has hit .296 with an .862 OPS and 14 home runs and 12 stolen bases. Josh Reddick dressed up as Spider-Man and pied Coco Crisp after one of those walk-offs. They've even turned the "Bernie Lean" into a thing.

But above all else, the A's have been more fun to watch than I can possibly quantify. It's Cespedes and Reddick, but it's also Chris Carter and Brandon Moss. It's an unheralded pitching staff that featured the team's lone All-Star: reliever Ryan Cook. It's the personalities of pitcher Brandon McCarthy and his wife Amanda, and Brandon's recovery from taking a line drive to the head. It's the fans in the right-field bleachers, shamelessly into every swing of the bat and rampaging through every pitching change that brings Grant Balfour to the mound.

This isn't about "Moneyball," not in the least. This is a tale being written by a group of underdogs -- in tandem with the Baltimore Orioles, in a sense -- looking to turn the tables on both preseason and perennial postseason favorites in the American League, all while doing it with flair, personality and accessibility not often seen on a baseball diamond. Perhaps you haven't been able to watch much of them this year, whether it be the West Coast start times or simply not knowing what was unfolding out in the Bay Area, but Oakland's time in the national spotlight is at hand.

Their postseason run might only last one game, it might last 20, but however this page-turner of a season concludes, the Oakland Athletics have easily earned my respect and admiration, as well as my allegiance for the duration of this October run. Give them a chance, and they'll do the same to you.

Paul Boye usually writes about the Phillies for the Crashburn Alley blog. Follow him on Twitter @Phrontiersman. Follow the A's throughout the postseason at Beaneball.