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July 7, 2010

On the Beat

Wednesday Update: The A's Uphill Climb

by John Perrotto

The Athletics for the span of eight seasons from 1999-2006, defied the idea that a small-market team could not consistently contend. They won four American League West titles during that time and made the playoffs as the wild card on two other occasions. General manager Billy Beane's ability to build a team by finding economic inefficiencies in the player market became immortalized in Moneyball, Michael Lewis' seminal book.

However, Moneyball has been replaced by Losingball since the Athletics won the AL West in 2006 and beat the Twins in the ALDS before being swept by the Tigers in the ALCS. The Athletics have had three straight losing seasons, winning no more than 76 games in any of them, and are 41-44 this year, which puts them third in the division and nine games behind the first-place Rangers.

With the recent track record of losing, it is fair to question whether the Athletics can get back to those days where they spent nearly a decade as a power despite having a small payroll and playing in one of the major leagues' worst venues. That the Athletics are still hanging around .500 as the All-Star break approaches gives reason for optimism says second baseman Mark Ellis, the lone holdover from the '06 team on the active roster as right-hander Justin Duchscherer and infielder Eric Chavez are on the disabled list and likely to miss the remainder of the season.

"There are some really good pieces to build a team around," Ellis said. "We certainly have the makings of a very good team."

Ellis is referring to the Athletics' pitching staff and left-handed starters Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez, right-handed starter Trevor Cahill, and closer Andrew Bailey. Cahill has 2.9 SNLVAR and Gonzalez has 2.7 while Anderson has been limited to six starts this season because of an elbow injury. Bailey has 1.584 WXRL after being the AL Rookie of the Year last season. Anderson and Cahill are just 22, Gonzalez is 24, and Bailey is 26.

The young pitching goes beyond those four as left-hander Dallas Braden, on the disabled list with a sore elbow, threw a perfect game in May and is 26 and right-handed starter Vin Mazzaro is 24. The Athletics also have four players in their lineup 26 or younger who are performing decently in first baseman Daric Barton (.297 TAv), shortstop Cliff Pennington (.274), catcher Kurt Suzuki (.269), and right fielder Ryan Sweeney (.267).

"We have three top-of-the-line young starting pitchers in Anderson, Cahill, and Gonzalez, and this franchise has shown in the past that you can go a long way with three above-average starting pitchers," Ellis said, referring to the former Big Three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. "We have a very good closer and some good players who hit at the top or bottom of the lineup. So there are some pieces."

Yet Ellis readily points outs that the Athletics don't have all the pieces necessary to complete the puzzle of a contending team. They are last in the AL with 52 home runs, and Suzuki is the team leader with 10.

"We just don't have the No. 3 and No. 4 hitters you need in the middle of the order," Ellis said. "You need those kinds of guys if you're going to win a championship. It's just too hard to win ballgames without any power. Those type of guys cost a lot of money, so if we can develop some then I really think we have a chance to be very good again."

The Athletics hope they have two boppers on the doorstep of the majors at Triple-A Sacramento in first baseman Chris Carter and right fielder Michael Taylor. Carter has hit 17 home runs in 343 plate appearances, but Taylor has gone deep just three times in 276 trips to the plate. Carter's translated TAv is a pedestrian .265 while Taylor's is just .227.

Athletics manager Bob Geren realizes he is working under the handicap of not having a legitimate power hitter. However, he feels his team has held its own by excelling in other areas.

"Our strength is our young pitchers and I see those guys continuing to make good strides, and we'll have an even stronger staff when Brett Anderson gets back healthy," Geren said. "We struggled to score runs last month in interleague play, but we also went through a stretch where we faced guys like (Tim) Lincecum, (Matt) Cain and Zito with the Giants, (Ryan) Dempster and (Carlos) Zambrano when we went to Chicago, and (Chris) Carpenter and (Adam) Wainwright when we went into St. Louis. Nobody scores many runs off any of those guys.

"Other than that stretch, I really think we've held our own this season, and I think we're only going to get better. We're moving in the right direction."

---

Kirk Gibson was one of the more fiery players in the game back in his days as an outfielder that included winning the National League Most Valuable Player award in 1988. Thus, he always seemed out of place in his role as the Diamondbacks' bench coach, sitting passively in the dugout beside former managers Bob Melvin and A.J. Hinch.

Gibson admits he did not always like what he saw during the past three seasons when the Diamondbacks were often playing poorly. However, he also thought it was his place to keep quiet publicly in deference to the manager.

Now, Gibson is the manager, at least on an interim basis, after Hinch was fired last week. Gibson vows that things will be different now that he is in charge.

"We've got a lot of real good ballplayers but (we) don't win ballgames," Gibson said. "I'd rather have a lot of bad ballplayers that win ballgames. That's kind of what I'm looking forward to doing. To see a fiery team on the field playing with fire, that will not make me mad."

Gibson wants his team to play with more of an edge and to improve its understanding of what it takes to win games. He also wants to remedy the fact that the Diamondbacks have the highest relief ERA and batters' strikeouts in the major leagues.

"We're not just going to keep doing the same thing that's not being successful," Gibson said.

While Gibson played with a lot of intensity as a player, he won't necessarily be getting ejected from games three times a week as the manager. He is 53 and knows how to keep his emotions more in check.

"You learn how to compose yourself as you mature, and I'd like to say I've matured," Gibson said. "You get savvy, and there's different ways of delivering your intensity. Certain people can deal with it, some can't. But you utilize all your skills for the given situation. That's not to say I won't have a blow up. Time will tell. I don't expect it, but it certainly may happen."

---

The Padres were 48-33 at the midpoint of their season, quite a contrast from their 35-46 mark at the same time last year and not bad for a team that most prognosticators thought would win no more than 75 games this season. Yet, the Padres are on top of the National League West despite a $37 million payroll that is the second-lowest in the major leagues, ahead of only the Pirates' $34 million.

"We pitch well and play good defense," Padres manager Bud Black. "We're playing good baseball. We're not beating ourselves. And someone always gets a hit. There are a lot of guys on the highlight film."

The Padres are first in the major leagues in runs allowed (3.28 a game), second in defensive efficiency (.713) but just 23rd in runs scored (4.13) after finishing ninth, 12th, and 28th in those categories last season. They have also won 13 games in their final at-bat in 2010, including nine walk-offs.

First baseman Adrian Gonzalez is the only Padres player on the NL All-Star team, though. That does not sit particularly well with the Padres, especially in light of their fine pitching as they feel rookie right-handed starter Mat Latos, closer Heath Bell, and set-up man Luke Gregerson are all deserving of participating in the July 13 Midsummer Classic at Anaheim.

"It's insulting," Bell said. "I don't think it's insulting to me, it's insulting to our pitching staff, the best staff in the National League. And insulting to the Padres organization. We've been in first place for how long this season?"

On the other end of the spectrum, the Yankees were expected to be the best team in baseball this season. Thus, it was no surprise that they reached the midpoint of their season with a majors-best 50-31 record. However, manager Joe Girardi thinks the best is yet to come.

"We're in first place," he said. "We're on pace to win 100 games, but I feel we can play better. I don't think we've hit on all cylinders yet. Our starting pitching has been really influential in our record, but we can pitch better in the bullpen and I think we can hit more. But that being said, we still have the best record in baseball."

---

The Twins, like the Athletics, used to be looked at as a model small-market franchise as they won five division titles in the last eight seasons. However, the perception is different now that the Twins have moved into Target Field this season and sport a club-record payroll of $97 million. Thus, the fan base is not happy that the Twins have fallen out first place in the AL Central with nine losses in their last 14 games, putting them one-half game behind the Tigers.

"You can find a negative in anything; you can find a positive in anything," Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said. "I've learned over the course of my career the more often you look at the positive, the better off you're going to be. You can find something negative every single day. You can win a ballgame and come out with something negative. But if you focus on the positive, it doesn't wear you out mentally as much."

Still, so much was expected of the Twins coming into this season. Furthermore, they held a 4 ½-game lead on June 11.

"We're definitely not playing great baseball right now," center fielder Denard Span said. "It doesn't take a genius to see that."

The Royals, meanwhile, are a distant fourth in the AL Central and trail the Tigers by eight games. Yet as a team that has not been to the postseason since winning the franchise's lone World Series title in 1985, the Royals are ecstatic to at least be within sight of the top three teams after winning four straight series and nine of their last 12 games.

"We're in it," manager Ned Yost said. "Things happen. Yeah, I really believe it. Why can't we make a run? We've made a little bit of a run. We keep winning series, we keep playing the way that we're playing, who knows what can happen?"

Yost replaced the fired Trey Hillman on May 14. The Royals have gone 26-23 under Yost after starting off 12-23 under Hillman.

"If you think you're out of it, you're out of it," Yost said. "There's not a guy in that clubhouse that thinks we're out of it. I mean, we're not even at the All-Star break and we're eight games out. There's no telling what can happen. But we have to continue to pitch the way we've pitched. We've got to continue doing what we've been doing. There are a lot of things that have got to go right for us, but, heck yeah, we still think we're in it."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Rangers' chances of landing Mariners left-hander Cliff Lee or Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt are dimming because the sale of the club is unlikely to take place before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline. … If the Mets are unable to work out a trade for Lee, they will consider staying with their current rotation and instead try to shore up the bullpen. The Mets will not make a play for Oswalt because they do not want to commit to any player signed beyond this season due to their financial difficulties. … Add the Rockies to the list of teams interested in Orioles infielder Ty Wigginton. … Left-hander Dontrelle Willis is said to be leaning toward sitting out the rest of the season after being designated for assignment by the Diamondbacks than attempting to sign with someone—the Marlins are the early-line favorites—as a free agent in the off-season. … If Rick Porcello gets back on track at Triple-A Toledo, the Tigers would consider trading a starting  pitcher, either Jeremy Bonderman or Armando Galarraga. … Buck Showalter has emerged as the clear favorite over Eric Wedge to become the Orioles' next manager. … The Astros plan to go with a combination of Oswaldo Navarro and Angel Sanchez at shortstop with Tommy Manzella and Geoff Blum on the disabled list. … Brent Lillibridge is emerging as the regular second baseman for the White Sox despite manager Ozzie Guillen's insistence that Gordon Beckham is still the starter. … Jayson Nix has taken over the Indians' second base job. … The Mariners plan to limit right-hander Jason Vargas' workload in the second half of the season as he has already pitched 101 innings. He worked a combined 143 1/3 innings between the majors and minors last year after sitting out the 2008 season while recovering from hip surgery.

---

Scouts' views on various major leaguers:

White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham: "I really think the White Sox need to send the kid down to the minors. He's really struggling, and he's pressing more and more. The kid has talent, and I wouldn't give up on him. He wouldn't be the first guy to come up to the majors, have some success then need to go back down for a refresher course."

Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler: "He looks like a totally different hitter than before they sent him down to the minors this year. He's letting the ball travel farther into the strike zone, and he's not jumping at everything. He just seems very comfortable now."

Pirates reliever Evan Meek: "I know some people are complaining that he's on the National League All-Star team, but the kid has pitched as well as any reliever in the league. He throws 95 mph with movement, and his slider just kind of disappears when it gets to the plate. For me, he's a closer in waiting, and I think he's ready to move into that role if they trade Octavio Dotel.

Mets right-hander Mike Pelfrey: "He's really made great strides this year, but he still can come unglued at times when things go wrong. He has the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation guy, but he needs to learn to keep his composure better."

Marlins right fielder Mike Stanton: "He's struggling and that's not surprising because he was a high strikeout guy in the minor leagues, but you can see the tools and you've got to remember that he is 20 years old. He might not be tearing it up right now, but you can see the ability and he'll make the adjustments as the season goes on."

Yankees right-hander Javier Vazquez: "Remember when everyone in New York was in a panic over the guy? He is what he is, a guy who throws strikes and attacks hitters' weaknesses. He isn't going to make your jaw drop, but he is going to win his fair share of games. Pitchers like him are going to have the occasional bad start. His came early in the season, and to his credit, he didn't get buried by all the pressure that the media and fans were putting on him."

---

Three series to watch with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

Braves (49-35) at Mets (47-37), Friday-Sunday July 9-11
Tommy Hanson vs. R.A. Dickey, 7:10; Tim Hudson vs. Mike Pelfrey, 4:10 p.m.; Derek Lowe vs. Johan Santana, 1:10 p.m.

Padres (49-34) at Rockies (45-38), Friday-Sunday July 9-11
Kevin Correia vs. Ubaldo Jimenez, 9:10 p.m.; Wade LeBlanc vs. Jason Hammel, 8:10 p.m.; Clayton Richard vs. Jeff Francis, 3:10 p.m.

Twins (45-38) at Tigers (45-37), Friday-Sunday July 9-11
Francisco  Liriano vs. Justin Verlander, 7:05 p.m.; Nick Blackburn vs. Jeremy Bonderman, 4:10 p.m.; Carl Pavano vs. Armando Galarraga, 1:05 p.m.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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