SweetSpot: Josh Reddick

Whenever people say baseball is in trouble I point them to a game like Sunday's Yankees-Brewers contest in Milwaukee, a fun back-and-forth game played before a loud, soldout crowd of over 43,000 fans at Miller Park.

Yes, it was the Yankees and it was Mother's Day, but Milwaukee is the smallest market in the majors and all three games in the series drew 40,000-plus fans. If you put an exciting, quality product on the field you have the potential to bring in baseball-loving fans like the Brewers are doing.

The game came down to the ninth inning and Mark Teixeira tied it with a dramatic, two-out home run off Francisco Rodriguez, the first run K-Rod has allowed in 20 appearances this season. Against Adam Warren in the bottom of the ninth, however, Rickie Weeks doubled with one out. It looks like a line drive in the box score but it was actually a broken-bat chopper down the first-base line that skipped past Teixeira, who was playing off the line against the right-handed Weeks.

After a wild pitch, it appeared Warren might escape the inning when he struck out Lyle Overbay on a nice changeup, but Mark Reynolds grounded an 0-2 slider past a diving Yangervis Solarte at third base for the walk-off hit. Reynolds got the obligatory mob celebration at first base and Brewers fans went home happy.

It was the second straight one-run victory for the Brewers after Saturday's 6-5 win in which they scored off Alfredo Aceves in the seventh inning. They were two nice wins for Milwaukee, which had dropped seven of nine before the victories. If there's a baseball question off those games, it's this: Is the Yankees' middle relief a strength or a weakness?

The retirement of Mariano Rivera and promotion of David Robertson to closer left the rest of the Yankees bullpen a major unknown. So far, I'd give the pen a B-minus grade so far. It's 4-6 with a 3.91 ERA (19th in the majors), although it lost three games this week. The biggest positive is the pen ranks fourth in the majors in strikeout rate, behind only the Braves, Brewers and Diamondbacks. The Yankees have received solid work so far from Warren (0.926 WHIP), one-time prospect Dellin Betances, who has 33 strikeouts in 20 innings, and Mariners cast-off Shawn Kelley, who picked up four saves when Robertson was injured and is now the primary setup guy.

It's kind of a no-name group other than Robertson, but it has the chance to be a surprising part of the Yankees' 2014 success. The pen will be tested a little more in the next two weeks with CC Sabathia landing on the DL with inflammation in his knee. Aceves will likely move into Sabathia's spot in a rotation that is without Ivan Nova for the year, Michael Pineda for another month and now Sabathia. With the rotation suddenly thin, the bullpen has to be good.

Here are five other issues to think about as we approach the quarter pole:

1. Can the Colorado Rockies hit -- and win -- on the road?

The Rockies lost twice in Cincinnati over the weekend, including 4-1 on Sunday as Homer Bailey shut them down. They did score 11 runs on Saturday but they're now 13-5 at home, 10-12 on the road. They're hitting .355/.401/.600 at home (!) and .258/.306/.426 on the road. That's the 12th-best wOBA on the road, a big improvement from last season when the Rockies ranked 25th in road wOBA.

You'll hear people talk about the Rockies' pitchers needing to come through, but I think their key will be scoring runs on the road. Over the past 10 seasons (2004-13), the Rockies have the biggest difference between home wins and road wins in the majors (113 more wins at home). Their problem hasn't been winning at Coors Field but winning on the road, and the statistics show their offense declines more away from Coors than their pitchers improve away from Coors.

2. How is Don Mattingly going to sort out this Dodgers outfield situation?

The presumption with that question, I suppose, is that the Dodgers' outfield has been a problem. Guess what? The Dodgers' outfield ranks third in the majors with a .352 wOBA, behind only the Rockies and Blue Jays. Yasiel Puig has been great, Matt Kemp has been OK and Scott Van Slyke has been terrific in limited action. Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford, however, both have an OPS under .700 and have combined for just three home runs, leading Dodgers fans to wonder if and when prospect Joc Pederson will eventually be given a chance.

Pederson is hitting .373/.481/.679 at Triple-A Alburquerque, with 11 home runs and 10 stolen bases entering Sunday. However, that is Alburquerque, which is a hitters' haven, and Pederson has 41 strikeouts in 35 games, so more time in the minors won't hurt. The other issue is that Kemp appears to be a major liability defensively in center, both by the defensive metrics (-5 defensive runs saved entering Sunday) and the eye test. Come September, it's possible the best Dodgers outfield will be Kemp in left, Pederson in center and Puig in right, with Van Slyke possibly platooning with Pederson (moving Kemp to center). I don't know where that leaves Ethier and Crawford, but GM Ned Colletti may eventually face the difficult dilemma of sitting two veterans (good luck trading either one) for a rookie who may be the better player.

3. Is there anything positive to say about the Rays right now?

Well, let's see: The rotation is 12th in the AL in ERA, the bullpen is 11th, the offense is seventh in wOBA, the defense is at -6 DRS entering Sunday, and Wil Myers and Evan Longoria haven't teed off yet. Oh, and the team's record is 16-22. I'm searching ... OK, Desmond Jennings is playing well. There have been some injuries in the rotation, but still some stuff I can't figure out. Take Chris Archer, Sunday's starter and loser after he allowed eight hits and four walks in five innings. Last year, his slider was one of the nastiest pitches in the game, as right-handers hit .195 with one extra-base hit against. This year, they're hitting .464 against the slider and already have three doubles and three home runs off it. Without that slider, Archer is mostly a two-pitch guy and his changeup isn't good enough yet.

I guess the point in all this: I'm very concerned about the Rays. They always put together a great run at some point during the season, but you have to wonder if the pitching is good enough to do that this season.

4. Which five position players should lose playing time?

OK, let's try these guys:

1. Dan Uggla, Braves (.184/.248/.272): Of course. Over a year of bad baseball now.

2. Pablo Sandoval, Giants (.189/.262/.295): The Giants are doing fine without Pablo producing, but this a team that now relies on its offense more than its rotation.

3. Brad Miller, Mariners (.165/.223/.281): I liked his bat coming into the season but he's been terrible at the plate and made some crucial errors in the field. Nick Franklin may not have the range to play shortstop but he's pounding the ball at Tacoma (.376/.459/.677 entering Sunday), and teammate Chris Taylor, more of a legitimate shortstop, is also hitting at Tacoma (.353/.395/.579). The Mariners are a game over .500 and need some offense.

4. Carlos Santana, Indians (.148/.319/.281): Surprisingly, his defense at third base has been OK, but what's happened to his batting? He's second in the majors in walks so he's still getting on base, but maybe he's taken the whole plate discipline thing a little too far.

5. Josh Reddick, A's (.214/.279/.286): He plays a mean right field but the bat has gone south since his 32-homer season in 2012. The A's are third in the AL in runs even though they're getting nothing from Reddick, their second basemen or part-time first baseman Daric Barton. Expect Craig Gentry to continue to get more time in right field if Reddick continues to struggle.

5. OK, how about five pitchers on the hot seat?

1. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (2-3, 6.44 ERA): His average fastball velocity is down 1 mph, but does that explain why his batting average allowed is .329? Maybe, as his fastball is getting tattooed at a .413 clip and he's averaging barely five innings per start.

2. Francisco Liriano, Pirates (0-3, 4.64 ERA): He's never been known for his consistency. It all came together last year, but wild Liriano is back with 21 walks in 42⅔ innings, part of the reason the Pirates' rotation is last in the majors in WAR.

3. Homer Bailey, Reds (3-2, 4.72 ERA): I'm not that worried about him and he rebounded with a strong effort against the Rockies on Sunday. Still, added pressure comes with that big contract and he'll be expected to get that ERA into the low-to-mid 3s sooner rather than later.

4. Tim Lincecum, Giants (2-2, 5.55 ERA): Fifty hits and six home runs in 35⅔ innings. Those who questioned the two-year, $35 million contract appear to be correct so far.

5. CC Sabathia, Yankees (3-4, 5.28): As mentioned, he just landed on the DL for at least two weeks. Can he still win with diminished velocity? We'll see.
Christina Kahrl, Buster Olney and Jim Bowden covered the Miguel Cabrera contract, so there isn't really much more to add. The timing is definitely odd with Cabrera two years from free agency, the money seems extreme and who knows how Cabrera will age once he get into his mid-30s. On the other hand, it's not our money and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is 84 years old and probably not too worried about about what happens in seven or eight years.

Other stuff ...
  • Righty Jordan Zimmermann tossed five scoreless innings for the Nationals against the Mets in his final spring tune-up. He's been as good as any pitcher this spring, allowing one run in 18 innings with just one walk. Clayton Kershaw -- sore back and all (he'll miss his start on Sunday night) -- is clearly the Cy Young favorite in the National League, but Zimmermann is a solid sleeper choice if Kershaw falters. Compare Zimmermann over the past two seasons to his more-hyped teammate, Stephen Strasburg. Zimmermann is 31-17 with a 3.10 ERA and 409 innings; Strasburg is 23-15 with a 3.08 ERA and 342 1/3 innings. You may look at Zimmermann's strikeout rate (161 in 213 1/3 innings) and think he doesn't throw hard, but that's not the case. His fastball averaged 93.9 mph last season. Even though he pitches up in the zone with it he induces a lot of weak contact and ground balls thanks to good movement. He mixes in a slider, curve and occasional change. The one thing he has to improve on to go to the next level is limit the blow-up outings; he had games last year with eight, seven, seven and six runs allowed, giving up 10 of his 19 home runs in those four starts.
  • Even with the injury to Patrick Corbin, the Diamondbacks sent down Archie Bradley, the hard-throwing right-hander many rank as the top pitching prospect in the minors. I think it's the right decision. Bradley still has to improve his fastball command -- he walked 59 batters in 123 1/3 innings in Double-A -- to succeed consistently at the major league level. A month or two in the minors won't hurt, although it won't surprise me if he's back sooner than that if somebody in the Arizona rotation falters or gets injured.
  • The A's and Giants are playing a three-game Bay Bridge series back home and the A's had to be happy to see Scott Kazmir toss 5 1/3 scoreless innings. He did walk three with four strikeouts but allowed only two hits. With the loss of Bartolo Colon as a free agent and Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery, the A's have to find nearly 400 new innings in the rotation. Kazmir threw 150 last year for Cleveland. Josh Reddick homered for the A's. While the rotation may take a hit, the Oakland offense should be better if Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes rebound from mediocre seasons. Remember, the A's were third in the AL in runs even though Reddick posted a .307 OBP in 441 PAs, Cespedes a .294 OBP in 574 PAs and the departed Chris Young a .280 OBP in 375 PAs. It wouldn't surprise me if the A's have the best offense in the AL, leaping over the Tigers and Red Sox.
  • Speedster Billy Hamilton went 3-for-4 with two triples for the Reds and is hitting .327/.381/.527 in 55 spring at-bats. There are still a lot of doubts on whether he'll hit at the major league level and his lack of power means he'll see a lot of hard stuff inside, but there have been positive signs this spring, including the willingness to take some pitches and draw a few walks (six in 18 games). He walked a lot in Double-A, not nearly enough in Triple-A, but that needs to become a bigger element of his game. I do like his chances to hit just enough -- say .250 with a .310 OBP -- to keep his job in center field and swipe 60-plus bases.
  • The Phillies released 40-year-old vet Bobby Abreu and if you can't make the Phillies ... Abreu didn't play in the majors last year and looked pretty done in 2012 (he posted a .350 OBP but with little power). Twenty-five years ago there would be room for Abreu somewhere as a pinch-hitter/DH/very occasional outfielder, but teams don't carry those guys any more on rosters stocked with so many relievers. The guy had a great career and was a very underrated player during his prime years with the Phillies, hitting .305/.416/.513 from 1998 to 2006 while averaging 29 steals and 5.4 WAR per season. His timing wasn't quite right; he left the Phillies before they become a perennial playoff team and he left the Yankees the year before they won a World Series in 2009. With 60.5 career WAR via Baseball-Reference, he compares in value to other outfielders like Billy Williams (63.6), Richie Asbhurn (63.4), Zack Wheat (60.2), Jim Edmonds (60.3), Gary Sheffield (60.2), Vladimir Guerrero (59.3) and Sammy Sosa (58.4).
  • So the Mariners didn't want to pay Randy Wolf a guaranteed $1 million but then gave a guaranteed $1.25 million contract to Chris Young (the pitcher, not the outfielder). Go figure. Young had been in camp with the Nationals but couldn't crack their rotation. Reports, however, had him throwing 88 and healthy, much better than the 83-85 he was throwing when he was last in the majors in 2012. You can argue that the Mariners made a baseball decision here and that Young is a better bet to perform than Wolf, but that's not really what happened. Wolf had made the team before they decided to screw him with a 45-day contract offer, which Wolf turned down, leaving the Mariners with no option but to give Young a guaranteed deal even though he's hardly a sure thing to last all season in the rotation.
Thoughts on a game that was about a million times more exciting than even the 8-6 final score would indicate -- a win for the Detroit Tigers over the Oakland Athletics that sends this series back to Oakland for Game 5.

1. Max Scherzer, pitching in relief, with the ultimate Wallenda-Houdini act in the eighth inning, loading the bases with no outs and then striking out Josh Reddick and Stephen Vogt and getting Albert Callaspo to line out to Austin Jackson in center field. It could be one of those innings that Tigers fans will remember for a lifetime. (Check back in three weeks.)

2. Reddick would love to have another shot at the 3-2 fastball he fouled off. With Scherzer's changeup darting all over the place like a rabid cat, Reddick was sitting fastball and got it -- but just missed it. Scherzer's next pitch was a changeup that was way low and inside, but it was like Reddick's brain couldn't comprehend a pitch he wasn't looking for and he swung wildly at ball four. Great pitch or bad swing? Both. Certainly a gutsy pitch by Scherzer to go away from dead red there.
[+] EnlargeJosh Reddick
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonCould Josh Reddick have caught that? It doesn't seem that likely, to A's fans' chagrin.

3. After Vogt struck out on a 98-mph fastball, pinch-hitter Callaspo had a great at-bat. He just missed a double down the left-field, laid off the changeup, worked the count full and lined out to Jackson. Unlike Reddick, he did everything right and gets credit for only three runners left on base.

4. Callaspo is one of the best contact hitters in the game -- fifth-toughest guy in the majors to struck out. Considering the A's needed a run to tie, Bob Melvin probably should have hit him before there were two outs. If not for Reddick, then definitely for the inexperienced Vogt.

5. It would have been easy for Leyland to lift Scherzer, in his second inning of relief, after giving up those first two baserunners in the eighth. Love that he just went with his best, win or lose. (Unlike, say, Fredi Gonzalez.)

6. Victor Martinez's controversial game-tying home run. Reddick had a shot at it. The fan definitely leaned over the railing (but not over the yellow home run line at the top of the fence). There was no unanimous opinion on Twitter -- Reddick would have caught, Reddick wouldn't have caught, the trajectory would have cleared the wall, the trajectory wouldn't have cleared the wall. With no definitive answer, the umpires made the right call, especially since you certainly could not have assumed Reddick would have caught the ball (unlike Tony Tarasco of the Orioles on the famous Derek Jeter home run in the 1996 ALCS). A's fans will disagree.

7. After Martinez's homer, the Tigers scored the go-ahead when Jackson's two-out shattered-bat single landed just in front of Reddick, who was unable to corral the bounce. If he comes up with it cleanly, with his cannon arm he has a good shot to throw out Jose Iglesias at home plate. Inches.

8. Seth Smith's final at-bat. The Tigers scored three runs with two outs and nobody on in the eighth to seemingly put the game away. Not this game. The A's scored twice off Joaquin Benoit and had the tying run at the plate. Smith fouled off three fastballs with two strikes before Benoit finally got him chase a changeup in the dirt.

8. Dan Straily made one awful mistake on Jhonny Peralta's three-run homer. Right-handed batters hit just .181 off Straily's slider, the best swing-and-miss offering he has in his arsenal (he was 18th in the majors in his miss percentage on his slider). Not sure why he threw a 2-2 fastball to Peralta.

9. Great game by Martinez. He singled ahead of Peralta's homered. He hit his home run. His two-out single in the eighth got that rally going.

10. Miguel Cabrera has four singles and no walks in the series. Still doesn't look like an asset.

11. Rany Jazayerli pointed out on Twitter that the A's have never lost a division series in fewer than five games. But they're 0-5 in Game 5s.

12. Justin Verlander versus Bartolo Colon on Thursday. I hate to predict this one, but Verlander has dominated the A's two postseasons in a row, with three lockdown starts. Colon will likely have to pitch lights-out baseball to match him.

13. Do we have to wait a day for the game?

14. Scherzer. Reddick. That changeup. Sleep well, A's and Tigers. You'll need your rest.
As Eric Karabell wrote today on his blog, Josh Reddick had a huge weekend for the Oakland A's, hitting five home runs over two games. Reddick, of course, had been struggling all season. Considering the recently A's lost a 6-game lead on the Rangers in just seven days and are now in second place, they need more hot hitting from Reddick.

In fact, the amazing thing about the A's is that they're in this race despite Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes -- their two best position players last year -- both having much worse seasons.

Reddick: 4.8 WAR in 2012, 1.6 WAR in 2013
Cespedes: 3.7 WAR in 2012, 1.2 WAR in 2013

Despite the decline in production of the two outfielders, the A's have actually scored just as many runs as 2012 -- 4.47 runs per game in 2013 compared to 4.40 last year. One reason I was high on the A's heading into this season was that they received terrible production from three-quarters of their infield last year and were still a league-average offense (or slightly above when factoring in park effects). As expected, with the likes of Josh Donaldson and Jed Lowrie, the A's production from third base and shortstop has been much improved; but that's been erased by the declines from Reddick (.215/.299/.385) and Cespedes (.227/.295/.428).

It's near impossible to be a playoff team with two starting outfielders postings on-base percentages below .300 (not to mention part-timer Chris Young and his .282 OBP in 277 plate appearances). I have a feeling the A's playoff chances rest not on Sonny Gray's addition to the rotation but on Reddick and Cespedes.

The A's need to get hot right now because the Rangers' next 18 games are against sub-.500 teams. The A's have one more game with the Blue Jays followed by series against the Astros, Indians and Mariners. But then comes a tough stretch of Baltimore, Detroit, Tampa and Texas.

Reddick showed signs of heating up over the weekend. Now the A's need him to do it over the final 46 games.
In case you missed it, the White Sox recently released Lars Anderson, who was hitting .194/.302/.251 in 66 games at Triple-A Charlotte. You may remember him as a highly rated prospect with the Red Sox; after hitting .317 with 18 home runs between Class A and Double-A in 2008 -- reaching Double-A at age 20 -- Baseball America ranked the first baseman as the No. 18 prospect in the minors before the 2009 season.

Anderson never developed from there, and although he received a couple sips of decaffeinated tea with the Red Sox, his professional career is now in jeopardy at the age of 25. Former major leaguer Gabe Kapler, who managed Anderson at Class A Greenville in 2007, had an interesting article on WEEI, titled: "Understanding Lars Anderson: A study in baseball makeup."

While raving about Anderson's approach and swing plane, Kapler ultimately attributes Anderson's struggles to a lack of confidence and belief in his own abilities. He compared Anderson to Josh Reddick, a teammate on that Greenvile team:
Josh Reddick, who hit in front of or behind him in the lineup, had an athletic attitude that I’d seen in every clubhouse I’d occupied. Josh thought nobody could beat him and if that they did, he’d win the next time. His was a self-fulfilling prophecy advantageous for a baseball player. For Lars, it seemed to work in the opposite manner.

The Reddick/Anderson study has some implications beyond confidence and mental toughness. While there is no question that Josh was the most assertive hitter I had in Greenville that year, he didn’t have a traditionally "smart" approach to hitting. He walked up to the plate, identified a ball he thought he could drive -- which was a pitch anywhere in the general vicinity of the state of South Carolina and at any speed — and swung as hard as he could.


It's a terrific insight into a player and Anderson himself says in the piece that he now has more confidence in his fielding than his hitting. But I also wonder if there's something else going on here. In a recent excerpt in Sports Illustrated from David Epstein's new book, "The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance," Epstein writes how the best hitters in the major leagues weren't able to hit softball pitcher Jennie Finch -- even though her fastball took about the same time to reach home plate as a 95-mph fastball.

In explaining Albert Pujols' failure to hit her, Epstein writes, "Since Pujols had no mental database of Finch's body movements, her pitch tendencies or even the spin of a softball, he could not predict what was coming, and he was left reacting at the last moment. And Pujols's simple reaction speed is downright quotidian. When scientists at Washington University in St. Louis tested him, perhaps the greatest hitter of his era was in the 66th percentile for simple reaction time compared with a random sample of college students."

Basically, it's not reaction time that makes Pujols or other major league hitters so good, but their experience in facing certain pitches and ability to read on opponents' body language and thus better anticipate, for example, if the pitch is a fastball or curveball or whatever. It's what makes hitting Mariano Rivera's cutter so difficult: It breaks so late compared to what hitters are used to that they can't anticipate the ultimate location of the pitch. Same thing with facing Finch.

As Epstein writes, "No one is born with the anticipatory skills required of an elite athlete."

In the case of Anderson, I wonder if the separation between him and Reddick isn't just confidence but that ability to anticipate or predict pitch patterns. Anderson had the better swing, the better approach and similar raw bat speed and power, and that was enough to get him through Class A ball, against mediocre breaking balls and mediocre fastballs. At higher levels, it takes more than a pretty swing. Maybe some guys are just "better" at somehow reading what the pitch is going to be. Reddick may have a poor approach and swings at too many pitches out of the strike zone, but he learned to anticipate the correct pitch often enough to become a major leaguer.

I see the same thing going on right now with Dustin Ackley of the Mariners. The raw ability is there -- he was the second overall pick in the draft -- but he looks completely confused at the plate -- unable, apparently, to successfully discern what the pitch is going to be, leading to him taking fastballs down the middle and being labeled passive by his organization. Some guys learn and get better with experience. Some players just have "it'; Kapler refers to a Pudge Rodriguez incident where Pudge couldn't even tell you what pitch he hit. Somehow, though, Rodriguez knew what was coming.

You can't teach that. And while Anderson is no doubt suffering from a crisis in confidence it could be that his brain just doesn't work at the level needed to be a major league hitter.





 
Jesse Chavez is essentially the 25th man on the Oakland A's roster. He started the year in Triple-A, got called up, got sent down, got called back up and is working as the low-leverage guy out of the bullpen. Before Thursday, he hadn't pitched since June 5, and the final scores of games he'd appeared in (without a decision) were 6-1, 10-2, 11-5, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3, 10-2, 9-6 and 8-1.

Chavez is the definition of a journeyman right-hander, having pitched for the Pirates, Braves, Royals and Blue Jays before the A's purchased him from Toronto last August. He was a typical Billy Beane acquisition: He has a pretty good arm, fastball in the low 90s, but what Chavez hadn't had was much success at the major league level, with a 5.74 ERA over 191 career innings.

But sometimes you need that 25th guy to come through, and Chavez's other asset is that he had started for Triple-A Sacramento. That ability to pitch multiple innings came into play in Thursday's 18-inning marathon in Oakland, the A's finally pushing across the winning run with a blooper and broken-bat flare off Mariano Rivera, winning 3-2. Chavez was the big hero, however, pitching 5.2 innings of one-hit, scoreless relief. He has a starter's repertoire, with a cutter, curve and changeup. He got two big outs when he entered with two runners on in the 13th, striking out Kevin Youkilis and Vernon Wells on curveballs.

In the 14th, A's manager Bob Melvin had the guts to intentionally walk Robinson Cano with runners on first and second; Mark Teixeira popped out to shortstop, missing a hittable fastball. From there it was smooth sailing, as Chavez retired the side in order in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th innings. Not bad for your garbage-time reliever.

[+] EnlargeJesse Chavez
AP Photo/Eric RisbergJesse Chavez got the win for the A's in 5.2 innings of scoreless relief, with one hit and seven strikeouts.
"The last guy they threw was the best guy we faced all day," Teixeira told MLB.com. "That guy is nasty."

It's one of those games that will be remembered if the A's end up winning the American League West. It's that kind of bullpen depth that fueled their second-half surge last season and has fueled their strong start this season. The A's are 33-0 when leading heading into the ninth inning. They're 6-2 in extra innings. When tied through seven innings they're 8-1. This is a tough team to beat late in a game.

The A's have won 11 consecutive games at home and 21 of their past 26, and while they were 7 games behind the Rangers in mid-May, they now lead the division by two games, after the Blue Jays beat Yu Darvish and the Rangers 3-1, dropping the Rangers to 4-8 in June. Injuries to Ian Kinsler and Mitch Moreland have hurt, but that gets us back to roster depth.

Who is the favorite to win the West? Here's a quick rundown comparing the two teams.

Lineups
Oakland: .246/.328/.397
Texas: .264/.327/.436

Entering Thursday's games, the Rangers had the higher wOBA, but the A's had the slightly better park-adjusted offense. The A's have gotten huge performances from Josh Donaldson and Coco Crisp, and while some regression might be in order, Donaldson also looks like a much-improved hitter from last season, as Jerry Crasnick wrote. On the other hand, Josh Reddick (.187) and Chris Young (.169) should improve.

For the Rangers, the offense is trending downward. In 2011, they averaged 5.3 runs per game; in 2012, 5.0; this year, 4.4. Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz are doing Adrian Beltre- and Nelson Cruz-type things, but Elvis Andrus and David Murphy are struggling right now. If Murphy doesn't pick it up, the Rangers might look to add an outfielder.

Advantage: A's.

Starting pitching
Oakland: 29-24, 4.01 ERA; .249/.298/.398; 6.1 innings per start
Texas: 25-21, 3.77 ERA; .251/.311/.391; 5.9 innings per start

The rotations have posted similar numbers, but once you adjust for ballpark, the Rangers' staff has performed better, led by Darvish and Derek Holland. FanGraphs WAR rates the Rangers' starters at 8.6 Wins Above Replacement, third-best in the majors, and the A's 12th-best at 5.0.

The good news for the A's is that Jarrod Parker pitched well again Thursday. After posting a 7.34 ERA through his first seven starts, he's gone 4-1 with a 2.40 ERA over his past seven, with a .183 average allowed and WHIP under 1.00. His changeup is back to the deadly weapon it was last year, as batters have hit .118 against it in those most recent seven games.

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Which team will win the AL West

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Discuss (Total votes: 2,957)

The Rangers have succeeded even though Matt Harrison has spent most of the season and the disabled list and Colby Lewis all of it. Alexi Ogando is also out again with shoulder inflammation. The Rangers received some solid work from Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm early on, but those two haven't been quite as strong lately, and you have to wonder if the injuries won't catch up to the rotation at some point, at least until Lewis and Harrison return.

Edge: Even. The Rangers have been better so far, but moving forward I think the A's close the gap.

Bullpen
Oakland: 12-3, 2.89 ERA; .227/.289/.358
Texas: 13-7, 3.29 ERA; .240/.313/.368

The Texas bullpen has also been outstanding, especially the back three of Joe Nathan, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross. Neal Cotts has added some depth as well. Scheppers has been the big surprise, with a fastball that sits at 94-96 mph and touches 98; he's always had a good arm but might finally be putting it together. He doesn't have a big strikeout rate (21 in 32.1 innings), and I do wonder if he keeps pitching this well. Batters are hitting just .170 off his fastball even though Scheppers' strikeout/walk ratio with the pitch is just 10.9.

Edge: A's. The Rangers have a good pen, but once you get into the fifth, sixth and seventh guys, I think the A's have the advantage.

Defense
Oakland: minus-20 Defensive Runs Saved
Texas: plus-8 Defensive Runs Saved

Ultimate Zone Rating has the clubs essentially even -- Texas at minus-0.3, Oakland at minus-1.3. The big problem area for the A's has been shortstop Jed Lowrie at minus-8 DRS. Chris Young, who usually rates very well in the outfield, has also rated poorly at minus-5 DRS. Of course, if he doesn't start hitting, he's not going to get much playing anyway behind Crisp, Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes.

Edge: Rangers.

The A's were my preseason pick to win the division, and they look like the better team right now. What do you think?

A year ago, the Cleveland Indians allowed the most runs in the American League, a pretty remarkable achievement considering the Minnesota Twins had a historically awful rotation. The Indians, however, combined bad pitchers and bad defense -- their -51 Defensive Runs Saved ranked 28th in the majors.

Like the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, the Indians decided to make their pitching better by improving their defense. First they traded impending free agent Shin-Soo Choo, who graded out as -12 DRS in right field, and landed Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs in the deal, pushing Michael Brantley to left. Then they signed free agent Nick Swisher to replace Choo; Swisher is a better right fielder than Choo. But when Michael Bourn remained unsigned into February, the Indians swooped in and signed the two-time Gold Glove center fielder. That pushed Swisher primarily to first base and gave the Indians an outfield of three guys who played center field last year.

The Indians' outfield collectively rated as -17 a year ago, and it's conceivable this group could rate at +30 runs -- a 47-run difference worth nearly five wins. Not to mention maybe some added confidence to the pitching staff.

The Red Sox, likewise, signed Shane Victorino to play right field and promoted rookie Jackie Bradley to play left. They join Jacoby Ellsbury to give them an outfield of three center fielders; Bradley defers to the veteran Ellsbury for now, but scouting reports suggest he's an elite defender.

The Angels, who rated as the second-best defensive outfield a year ago at +46 runs (behind Atlanta's +55), could be even better this year, with Peter Bourjos getting more time in center, Mike Trout playing left, and Josh Hamilton, who played a lot of center field for Texas, in right. Essentially, the Angels decided to replace Kendrys Morales' bat with Bourjos' glove, with Mark Trumbo playing more DH and less outfield.

If Bill James and then "Moneyball" popularized the importance of on-base percentage, then that sort of makes outfield defense the new OBP. Of course, just because emphasizing outfield defense appears to be a new trend doesn't really make it new. Just like Branch Rickey was talking about the importance of OBP over batting average in the 1950s.

For example, look at Whitey Herzog's Royals of the late '70s and then his Cardinals in the 1980s. Playing on turf in both places, he always emphasized speed in the outfield. His 1985 Cardinals, for example, had an outfield of Vince Coleman, Willie McGee and Andy Van Slyke, three guys who could play center field (although Coleman had a poor arm). Van Slyke later paired with Barry Bonds in Pittsburgh to give the Pirates two Gold Glove outfielders as they won three NL East titles in a row. The A's of the early '80s had the great trio of Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas. The 2001 Mariners won 116 games in part by employing three great defenders in Mike Cameron, Ichiro Suzuki and part-timer Stan Javier.

But I would suggest that it seems we are deep in outstanding defensive outfields right now. Here's how I would rank the top five -- remember, we're talking only about defense here.

1. Angels: LF Mike Trout, CF Peter Bourjos, RF Josh Hamilton
Trout and Bourjos are arguably the two best outfielders in the American League, and Hamilton is at least adequate with a strong arm.

2. Athletics: LF Yoenis Cespedes, CF Coco Crisp, RF Josh Reddick
The A's were fifth in DRS last year at +17, but that includes Cespedes' time in center, where he rated poorly. He should be solid in left (he made a nice play on Hamilton the other night, running down a deep drive in left-center and doubling Albert Pujols off first) with a strong arm, Reddick is outstanding in right (+19 last year) and Crisp average in center. And backing up is Chris Young, who always had excellent defensive metrics with Arizona.

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Which team has the best defensive outfield?

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3. Indians: LF Michael Brantley, CF Michael Bourn, RF Drew Stubbs
Bourn's +24 DRS last year tied him with Alex Gordon for the best total of any outfielder in the majors. He can run everything down in center, and now you flank him with two decent center fielders who should rate above-average in the corners. The only question here: Will Stubbs hit enough to remain in the lineup?

4. Brewers: LF Ryan Braun, CF Carlos Gomez, RF Norichika Aoki
The Brewers ranked third at +24 DRS a year ago and should be very good once again. All three are above-average defenders.

5. Red Sox: LF Jackie Bradley Jr., CF Jacoby Ellsbury, RF Shane Victorino
Victorino's metrics have dropped a bit in the past couple seasons as a center fielder, but he can still run and has a chance to be outstanding in right. Bradley won't get to show off his range at Fenway Park, but that doesn't mean he won't add defensive value. Ellsbury was +7 DRS back in 2011.

Worth considering: Nationals (Bryce Harper, Denard Span, Jayson Werth). Span is very good and Harper actually rated very good in center last year, despite some bad routes at times. Werth appears to have lost a step from his Phillies days.

Worth considering but overrated: Braves (Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward). It will be interesting to see what happens here. Since Baseball Info Solutions began their Defensive Runs Saved metric in 2003, the +55 the Braves were evaluated at last year was the third-highest by any outfield (behind two other Braves teams in 2005 and 2007 that featured Andruw Jones). But Bourn and Martin Prado are gone, replaced by the Upton brothers. Some consider B.J. an elite center fielder, but I've never thought that and his metrics aren't great (-30 runs over the past three years). Heyward is terrific in right (+20 last year and a deserving Gold Glove winner) while Justin has been solid (+14 total over the past three years) if prone to throwing errors.

Sleeper: Tigers (Andy Dirks, Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter). Jackson is terrific in center, and Hunter continues to age gracefully.

The defensive metrics don't like them: Orioles (Nate McLouth, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis). Jones won the AL Gold Glove for center field, but DRS considers him below average. Just a few games into the season, the Orioles are at -5 runs ... although, to be fair, so are the Angels (Trout is -2 and Hamilton -4). Maybe Trout is fat.

Offseason report card: A's

February, 8, 2013
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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

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How many games will the A's win?

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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.

Vote: Who has baseball's best outfield?

January, 27, 2013
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Justin Upton has been in the news all offseason, especially once the Arizona Diamondbacks needed to fix their outfield logjam after signing free agent Cody Ross. Rumors throughout the winter included both Upton and Jason Kubel, but Braves acquired the 25-year-old to improve their already strong outfield.

There is no debate: Upton has been one of baseball's best outfielders over the past four years. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Upton has compiled the 10th-most Wins Above Replacement among corner outfielders since 2009, at 13.0. He ranks ahead of players like Giancarlo Stanton, Hunter Pence and Jayson Werth. Now part of an outfield that already includes brother B.J. Upton and another young phenom in Jason Heyward, the Braves arguably lay claim to one of baseball's best outfields.

That leads us to the obvious question: Which teams are in the mix for baseball's best outfield right now? I've come up with four candidates that could challenge the Braves:

Los Angeles Angels
Mike Trout carries most of the weight here, as he alone gives the Angels one of the best outfields around. His 10.7 WAR last year was the most in a single season since Barry Bonds' 11.6 in 2002 and one of only 47 seasons of 10-plus WAR in baseball history, according to Baseball-Reference (but not good enough for the AL MVP award, somehow). Trout does it all: hit for average (.326), hit for power (.238 isolated power), run (49 stolen bases in 54 attempts) and play incredible defense (he robbed hitters of at least three homers last season by my cursory research).

If this is starting to sound like an infomercial for the Angels' outfield, let me do my best Billy Mays impression: But wait, there's more! The Halos signed mercurial Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million contract during the offseason. Hamilton has been one of baseball's most feared hitters since joining the Rangers in 2008. Among hitters with at least 2,000 plate appearances over the last five years, Hamilton's .386 weighted on-base average is 10th best, just a hair behind players such as Jose Bautista and Matt Holliday. The AL average wOBA in that span ranged between .315 and .330, showing how truly prolific Hamilton's bat has been. While Hamilton isn't much in the field or on the bases, he more than makes up for it with his offense.

Peter Bourjos will be splitting Trout and Hamilton in center field. While many think Trout should have remained the Angels' center fielder, no one denies Bourjos has the athletic tools to thrive as the captain of the outfield. In limited playing time, the speedster has already stolen 35 bases and showed offensive potential during the 2011 season in which he finished with a .271/.327/.438 slash line. In a full season, Bourjos projects to be an above-average player with a very high ceiling. Should he realize his potential, the Angels could very well have an outfield that combines for 15 WAR.

St. Louis Cardinals
Hard to argue against an outfield that has two potential Hall of Famers in Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday, and one of the United States' founding fathers in Jon Jay. Holliday hasn't finished a season with an adjusted OPS under 138 since 2005 in Colorado. The only other player with a 135 or better adjusted OPS in every season since 2006 is former teammate Albert Pujols.

Beltran had problems staying healthy in 2009-10, but has logged 500-plus plate appearances in each of the past two seasons at the ages of 34 and 35. Beltran's 128 OPS+ last season was one of only eight such seasons in the past four years by a player 35 years old or older. Beltran isn't close to finished yet, and along with Holliday will make up not only one of the most fearsome corner outfield combos, but also one of the most fearsome 3-4 duos as well.

Jay has turned into one of the game's better contact hitters. In three seasons, he has hit .300, .297, and .305, which has led to an aggregate on-base percentage of .359. He has also stolen 27 bases, 19 of which came last season. While he may not have the power of his outfield compatriots, he complements them perfectly and plays a solid center field, giving the Cardinals one of the more formidable outfields in the game.

Let's say Beltran can't stay healthy, or an unfortunate injury keeps Holliday or Jay out of the lineup. Then 20-year-old outfield prospect Oscar Taveras will be ready to step in and provide help. Last year with Double-A Springfield, Taveras posted a .321/.380/.572 slash line with 10 stolen bases, 23 homers and 94 RBIs. While there is no guarantee that Taveras would enjoy the same amount of success facing major league pitching, he is looking like one of baseball's few can't-miss prospects.

Washington Nationals
List of 19-year-olds to post a 5-WAR season in baseball history, according to Baseball-Reference:

Bryce Harper.

Yes, Harper is the only player to have had such a productive season at such a young age. Expand the age threshold to 20 and he is joined by a plethora of current and future Hall of Famers, including Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. The sky isn't even the limit for Harper; the expanse of the Milky Way galaxy seems to be, in much the same way it is for Trout. Like Trout, Harper does it all, and he does it all very well, which is why he went home with the NL Rookie of the Year award.

Werth, the $126 million man, works opposite Harper in right field. In the first year of his deal with the Nats, his production declined precipitously, leading many to declare his contract a failure. When he was healthy last season, he was extremely productive, finishing with a .300 average and a 125 adjusted OPS, numbers similar to those that made him such a good player in Philadelphia from 2007-10. While the days of him being a 35-plus homer threat, as he was in 2009, may be over, he still provides more production than most corner outfielders, which should make the Nationals plenty happy.

Rounding out the trio of outfielders in Nats Town is the recently acquired Denard Span, who will push Harper out of center field. Like Cardinals center fielder Jay, Span doesn't have the aesthetically-pleasing offense of his corner outfield teammates, but complements them well simply by getting on base, running the bases well, and playing competent defense. Span has finished with 3 or more WAR in three of his five seasons, making him one of the more valuable -- and underrated -- center fielders in recent years.

Oakland Athletics
Believe it or not, Athletics outfielders combined for the second-most home runs in the AL last season, trailing the New York Yankees 89 to 83. Josh Reddick led the way with 32 dingers as he broke out at the age of 25. He was one of nine players with 30-plus home runs and 10-plus stolen bases, joining the likes of Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen. While his low average and plethora of strikeouts depressed some of his offensive value, there was not much more the A's could have asked of him.

The Athletics were the surprising victors in the Yoenis Cespedes sweepstakes last offseason, signing the Cuban phenom to a four-year, $36 million deal. It looks like a mighty bargain right now. The 26-year-old finished with a 137 adjusted OPS, making him one of the game's most valuable hitters. Of course, Cespedes lost value spending 26 games at DH, spending a couple weeks on the DL and playing below-average defense when he was in the field. As he becomes ever more familiar with AL pitching, he will become better with age and he should develop into a consistent All-Star talent.

Coco Crisp patrolled center field at O.co Coliseum last year, but that position may fall to Chris Young, acquired from the Diamondbacks. Crisp has developed into a consistent 2-3 WAR player since coming to Oakland in 2010. In those three years, he has stolen 120 bases in 136 attempts (88 percent), hit at about the league average (which is great coming from a premium position), and played above-average defense in center field. Young missed time last year with a shoulder injury, but averaged 4.8 WAR in 2010 and 2011, when he hit 47 home runs and played a great center field. Look for Reddick and Cespedes to play every day, although they could be rotated through the DH spot as well.

SportsNation

Which team has baseball's best outfield?

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With the Upton brothers and Heyward, where does Atlanta's outfield rank among the other four listed above? I'd put Atlanta's outfield at No. 2, behind the Angels.

1. Angels
2. Braves
3. Cardinals
4. Nationals
5. Athletics

The Dodgers' outfield (Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier) was omitted because of health concerns. Due to defensive concerns, the Cincinnati outfield (Ryan Ludwick, Shin-Soo Choo, Jay Bruce) was also omitted, and the Milwaukee outfield (Braun, Carlos Gomez, Norichika Aoki) was a close runner-up to the A's.

How would you rank baseball's best outfields?
Some guys fly under the radar. Here are five weapons to watch on potential playoff teams:

1. Brandon Crawford's defense. I know, I get it. Maybe you live on the East Coast. You don't watch much baseball from the left side of the country. So maybe you were surprised watching the Giants in the postseason and seeing Crawford's D, especially his cannon of an arm. Crawford ranked third among NL shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved at plus-12 and it's going to be fun watching him and Atlanta's Andrelton Simmons compete for Gold Gloves in upcoming years.

2. Oakland's outfield defense. The Braves may have had one of the best outfield defenses in decades last year with Michael Bourn, Jason Heyward and Martin Prado, but with Bourn a free agent my pick for best outfield in 2013 goes to the A's. In Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, the A's have two of the best arms in the business. Cespedes was inconsistent in center but will move full time to left field, clearing the way for Chris Young to take over in center. He was an elite defender with the Diamondbacks (fourth among outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved over the past three seasons) and should be an improvement over Coco Crisp, who will presumably shift to a backup role, but he can fill in at all three spots and provide average defense. There's a reason Oakland's young pitching staff was good last year and a reason it should be good once again.

3. David Hernandez's slider. I mentioned Hernandez on my Team USA roster piece Monday and how he quietly developed into one of the game's premier relief pitchers in 2012. Hernandez sets up his slider with a mid-90s fastball and if he gets ahead in the count, the slider is deadly. In 112 plate appearances ending with a slider in 2012, batters hit just .088 ... with 71 punchouts. J.J. Putz is back as closer but Hernandez is the big weapon in Arizona's bullpen.

4. Steve Delabar's splitter. The Blue Jays picked up Delabar in midseason last year from the Mariners for backup outfielder Eric Thames. Delabar -- you may know him as the former school teacher with a steel plate and screws in his arm -- held opponents to a .193 average and fanned 92 in 66 innings. Like Hernandez, a mid-90s fastball sets up his off-speed pitch and batters hit just .148 off his split. Delabar's fastball is pretty straight and he needs to curb his home runs -- he allowed 12, although just three after joining the Jays -- to become an elite reliever in Hernandez's class, but if he does that the Toronto bullpen will be much improved.

5. Ross Detwiler's fastball. The Nationals are the best team in baseball entering the season in large part because of the depth of their rotation. Detwiler would be a No. 2 on many teams, but in Washington he's the No. 4 or 5 guy. He went 10-8 with a 3.40 ERA in his first full season in the rotation. He throws his fastball more than any starter in baseball, about 80 percent of the time. It's really a hard sinker, so while Detwiler may not generate the big strikeout totals he does induce groundballs -- just over 50 percent last year. Detwiler crushed lefties -- .170/.255/.259 -- so if he can improve his curveball and changeup against right-handers, he can take his game to the next level. And make the Nats that much tougher.

Can the Oakland A's do it again?

December, 30, 2012
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Yoenis CespedesRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesYoenis Cespedes is one of the reasons the A's should sustain their success in 2013.

Are the Oakland Athletics for real?

That will be one of the most intriguing questions heading into spring. Following five consecutive non-winning seasons, the A's rode a rookie-infused pitching staff, won 94 games (20 more than 2011) and came within one dropped fly ball of possibly beating the Detroit Tigers to reach the ALCS.

Can they do it again? One general way I like to examine a question like this is to look at teams similar to the A's. So who were the 2012 A's? They were a team that came out of nowhere to surprise everyone with a big improvement in the win column. By "out of nowhere" we mean a team that had struggled for a period of years.

I went back through the wild-card era and initially looked for all teams that improved by at least 15 wins and finished above .500, and then further cut that list to teams that did so after suffering at least three straight non-winning seasons. I "losing seasons" since the A's were 81-81 in 2010.

This provided the list below of 14 teams. One thing I was curious to see is if the A's registered as a young team and to see if there is any correlation with age and future success. The teams are sorted from youngest to oldest, based on the average weighted age of the position players and pitching staff, from Baseball-Reference.com.

The first observation is that three teams above the A's all had good runs of success following their breakout seasons (with Tampa Bay's still continuing). The youngest team on the list, the 2001 Twins, didn't make the playoffs that year, but won 94 games and the AL Central in 2002, beginning a stretch of six playoff seasons in nine years. Obviously, to keep winning like that, you're slowly turning over your roster, but it's a sign that the initial foundation to build from was a strong one. The 2000 White Sox remained competitive for a period of years, finally winning the World Series in 2005, although that team had essentially been completely rebuilt.

Two of the teams below had better long-term success than the chart may indicate. The 2001 Phillies did fall back to 80 wins in 2002, but then began a stretch of nine consecutive winning seasons in 2003, a streak that just ended with a .500 mark in 2012. The Tigers followed up 2006 with four winning seasons (and one .500 season) out of six.

While there was nothing statistically abnormal about the A's final record -- unlike the Orioles exceeding their projected record by 10 wins thanks to their stunning record in one-run games -- they did win 94 games despite not having a big season from any one player. They won with depth and balance. In the rotation, only three pitchers made as many as 20 starts. In the lineup, Yoenis Cespedes was the team's best player, the only hitter or pitcher to record at least 4.0 WAR (via Baseball-Reference). Most teams that win 94 games do so in part because of a superstar or two.

But I don't believe that is necessarily a strike against the A's. It does put more pressure on Billy Beane to continue adding valuable secondary parts and spare players, to ensure the 25-man roster remains as deep as 2012's. There is a young core to build around, however. Here are the 2013 seasonal ages for the team's top players, along with their 2012 WAR:

Cespedes, 27: 4.5 WAR
Josh Reddick, 26: 3.4 WAR
Coco Crisp, 33: 2.7 WAR
Brandon Moss, 29: 1.9 WAR
Chris Young, 29: 1.9 WAR (with Arizona)

Jarrod Parker, 24: 3.8 WAR
Bartolo Colon, 40: 2.6 WAR
Ryan Cook, 26: 2.6 WAR
Grant Balfour, 35: 2.2 WAR
A.J. Griffin, 25: 2.1 WAR
Tom Milone, 26: 2.0 WAR

Not listed: Brett Anderson, who pitched well in his return from Tommy John surgery.

I think the A's will need several players to step up to star status for them to remain a 90-win club. They have players with the talent to do so. Cespedes is already close to that level and would have been a five-win player if not for a DL stint. Considering how far he exceeded expectations as a rookie, his ceiling could be extremely high. Reddick had a breakout season with 32 homers, but needs to improve his .305 OBP to rise to the next level. Beane stole Chris Young -- a guy who was a five-win player in 2010 and 2011 -- from the Diamondbacks. He gives the A's flexibility in the outfield with Crisp joining Cespedes and Reddick to form what could be the best four-man group in the American League.

On the pitching staff, Parker and Anderson have ace potential, or at least No. 2-level ability. Throw in a deep mix of young, good arms (and old man Colon) and the rotation projects to be strong once again. Cook, Balfour and Sean Doolittle add three power arms in the bullpen, and while Cook and Balfour may be hard-pressed to match their 2012 dominance, the bullpen should be above average as well.

I think the A's are a 90-win team again in 2013, although that will be difficult in the tough AL West (though, those games against the Astros will help). As to them becoming the West Coast version of the Rays, Beane will have to keep working his magic to maintain success on Oakland's limited budget. And maybe this time -- unlike the original "Moneyball" team -- they can go all the way.

Winter's discontent -- why not go for it?

November, 12, 2012
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OK, we know: This year’s free-agent market is not like last year’s. It isn’t like the market will yield many or any easy choices for who to throw a six- or 10-year contract at. You can probably set this winter’s over-under on nine-figure free-agent deals at 1.5, to see how many folks think both Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton will both get there.

So if you’re a baseball executive, even if you do pursue either of them, you can probably skip looking for that single-signing splash on the open market this winter. So far as that goes, the defining adjective for this winter’s free agents is “weak.”

So what do you do if you’re a fat-cat owner or an ambitious GM? You could listen to an argument for following in the Astros’ footsteps and blasting to the foundations like there are no consequences to that. But what if you really are the Indians and what if you already saw your attendance drop by 3,000 paying customers per game? Do you really want to drive even more of them away, now and for years into the future? And hurt your local media revenue potential to boot? That doesn’t sound like a great way to do business, and getting top prospects in trade might be the hardest thing to achieve in the prospect-worshipping present.

Meanwhile, we’re in a time in the game’s history where competitive balance is as strong as it has ever been. In the past 10 years, 26 of the 30 teams have made it to the postseason, with the Pirates, Royals, Blue Jays and Mariners representing the exceptions. While that in itself is not an argument to spend, it is a pretty strong suggestion that you shouldn’t just throw in the towel. It isn’t like there’s some unbeatable Goliath awaiting the postseason entrants year after year -- both leagues have sent six different teams to the World Series in the past decade, and nobody’s won more than twice. You want to get in on that.

(Read full post)



More baseball!

On a day that featured a quadruple-header of baseball playoff action, a game in which a starting pitcher who didn’t win a game all season gets a W, a game with a demoted former two-time Cy Young winner coming out of the bullpen for a clutch relief outing, an once-in-a-lifetime performance by Raul Ibanez (and I mean all of our lifetimes), the Oakland A’s completed the night with a bottom-of-the-ninth three-run rally to beat the Detroit Tigers 4-3 to keep their American League Division Series alive and force a fifth game.

It also gives us a fourth game on Thursday.

More baseball? Yes, please.

Justin Verlander in a decisive game? The frenzied A’s crowd with one more game to cheer on their heroes? Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder? Coco Crisp doing Coco Crisp stuff? The A’s swinging from their heels? I can’t wait.

Where did this rally come from? It appeared that Joaquin Benoit had snuffed out the last-gasp Oakland rally in the bottom of the eighth when he struck out Brandon Moss on a lovely, low-and-away changeup with two runners on.

In the bottom of the ninth, Jim Leyland turned to his closer, Jose Valverde. We remember his perfect season a year ago, when he seemingly walked the tightrope in every save situation but always managed to escape. Well, he fell off a few times this year.

The A’s had led the majors with 14 walk-off wins during the regular season, so even though Benoit had just pitched through Yoenis Cespedes and Moss in the order, you know the A’s believed. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a magical season in Oakland.

[+] EnlargeCoco Crisp
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezPlating the winning run got Coco Crisp a face full -- to say nothing of another game Thursday.
Josh Reddick pulled a base hit into right field past a diving Omar Infante. Josh Donaldson crushed a first-pitch, four-seam fastball off the wall in left-center for a double. When he’s on, Valverde throws 92-95 mpg and then goes to his splitter to put hitters away. That fastball registered 90. The four pitches to Reddick clocked 90, 91, 91 and 92. Seth Smith stepped in and took a ball, swung through a high-and-away fastball, then drilled another fastball away into right-center. The game was tied and, even though Austin Jackson cut the ball off before it got to the wall, Smith beat the throw for a double.

The three pitches to Smith: 92, 92, 92. Valverde didn’t have his good heat on this night and he had to throw an off-speed pitch. Valverde throwing 95 is a major league reliever. Valverde throwing 90-92 without a wrinkle is batting practice.

George Kottaras then pinch-hit and Bob Melvin eschewed the sacrifice bunt and let Kottaras swing away. According to conventional wisdom, the situation called for a bunt -- heck, I’m pretty sure even Earl Weaver would have bunted there -- but given the A’s propensity to strike out, I understand Melvin’s strategy: Give the A’s three chances to get the hit.

Kottaras popped out to Cabrera on the first pitch, a 93-mph fastball.

Cliff Pennington struck out on four pitches, taking a splitter for a called strike on a pitch that registered a bit outside.

Up came Crisp. Game 2 goat. Game 3 hero. Valverde throws a first-pitch splitter. Hard ground ball pulled past Infante into right field, and when Avisail Garcia couldn’t pick up the ball (with his strong arm, he might have had a shot to get Smith if he comes up with it cleanly), the A’s had the win.

More baseball.

Leyland, after the game: "This is baseball. This is why this is the greatest game of all. ... You get tested all the time in this game and this is a good test."

Before the ninth inning, the A’s had been hitting .185 in the series (22-for-119). They went 4-for-6 in the ninth. Valverde had not allowed four hits in an appearance all season. He had allowed three runs just twice.

Before the series, I suspected the key element in the series might end up being the Tigers' bullpen. When Benoit blew a lead in Game 2 -- only to see the A’s bullpen lose the lead when Detroit scored runs in the eighth and ninth -- I figured the A’s had lost their chance to steal a win. You may get one late-inning comeback in a short series, but it’s hard to get two.

But the A’s got this one. A fifth game. They’ll get Verlander and you have to suspect the over/under on his pitch count might be 150. If you’re Leyland, do you want to give the ball to Valverde again with a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth? Next time you think you can manage a major league team, put yourself in that possible situation.

The A’s will send rookie Jarrod Parker to the mound. On paper, the edge still goes to the Tigers, with the best pitcher in baseball on the mound.

In the postseason, paper means nothing.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
9:07
PM ET
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
10/03/12
3:27
PM ET
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.

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