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August 27, 2010

On the Beat

Building Something Special

by John Perrotto

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Considering the Athletics were among the very first major-league teams to embrace sabermetrics, it is only fitting that manager Bob Geren believes he has found the formula for success. While Geren's formula is not mathematical in nature, the numbers of the byproduct are quite impressive.

"With the way our starters have been pitching, they've made it pretty simple for us," Geren said. "They go out and give six or seven really good innings every time. If we play good defense behind them and score a few runs, all that's left is finding the most rested relievers to finish the game and it gives us a very good chance to win every night."

Even the best teams don't have a chance to win every game, as they will suffer the occasional blowout loss. However, the Athletics are coming awfully close to automatically being in position to post a victory every day, as their young starting rotation has been nothing short of sensational in recent weeks.

Athletics starters have turned in 18 consecutive quality starts, pitching at least six innings and allowing three earned runs or less. It is the longest streak for any team since the Braves had 21 in a row in 1997 and the most by the Athletics since 1927, when the franchise was based in Philadelphia.

The most interesting part of the streak is that it has come in the aftermath of presumptive ace Ben Sheets undergoing season-ending elbow surgery. Sheets was signed to a one-year, $10 million contract in the offseason to serve as a veteran anchor to a young rotation. Instead, the kids are doing quite well by themselves.

Trevor Cahill is second in the AL with a 5.6 SNLVAR, trailing only Mariners ace Felix Hernandez (6-0), and left-hander Gio Gonzalez is sixth with 4.6. Dallas Braden (3.3) has also had a fine season despite a post-perfect game hangover while left-hander Brett Anderson, perhaps the rotation member with the most upside, has contributed 1.7 in 11 starts after missing significant time with an elbow injury and Vin Mazzaro has 2.0 in 16 starts as he was bumped to Triple-A Sacramento earlier in the season because of Sheets' presence.

The best part of the Athletics' rotation? No one is older than the 27-year-old Braden, as Gonzalez is 24, Mazzaro is 23, and Anderson and Cahill are both 22.

"It's a pleasure to not only watch them keep improving but how they go about their work," Geren said. "They are very consistent in their approach to the game, their practice sessions and their preparation."

The Athletics' rotation has also built camaraderie because of their closeness in age. That has also led to healthy competition among the five pitchers.

"I think it's really pretty neat that we're all around the same age because it gives us a lot in common and we've all become good friends," Cahill said. "We all want to pitch a little better than the guy before us. Our goal is to go out and give a quality start every time out and no one wants to be that weak link in the chain."

Catcher Kurt Suzuki knows the rotation as well as anyone. He has enjoyed watching so many young pitchers blossom.

"Really, I haven't had a whole lot to do with it," Suzuki said. "We're all on the same page as far as the way we want to attack hitters and those guys have been unbelievable. All I have to do is set my target and they hit it, especially lately. It's like I never even have to move the mitt when I'm behind the plate."

Add closer Andrew Bailey (2.092) and a solid set-up crew to the rotation and it is no surprise that the Athletics lead the AL and are fourth in the majors in runs allowed with an average of 3.82 a game. However, an offense that is scoring just 4.04 runs a game, which ranks 11th in the AL and 24th in the majors, is why the Athletics are only .500 at 63-63 despite all the good run prevention.

The lack of offense is the reason why the Athletics, though second in the AL West, are 8 ½ games behind the first-place Rangers. The Athletics will have the chance to try to get into a pennant race when they visit the Rangers for a three-game series at Arlington that beings tonight. The teams also play a four-game set at Oakland from September 23-26.

"We're going to need series wins both times and probably a sweep in the one of them to realistically win the division," Cahill said. "At least we still have a chance, especially if we keep pitching the way we have been. We're not going to put pressure on ourselves, though. We haven't all year. We're just having fun and trying to get people out. We'll keep trying to do that and see what happens."

Even if the Athletics can't make a race of it this season, they seemed primed to be in contention for the next few years with their young rotation.

"You never know what can happen in baseball and staying healthy is always a big key," Cahill said. "But if we stay healthy and keep pitching to our potential, I don't see any reason why we can't be in the running for the playoffs year in and year out."

---

Few baseball figures are more polarizing than Commissioner Bud Selig. People either love him or hate him. However, everyone can agree that the old commish has a sense of humor.

Selig was immortalized in bronze as the Brewers unveiled a seven-foot high statue of him outside Miller Park. Selig brought baseball back to Milwaukee in 1970, four years after the Braves moved to Atlanta, by buying the Seattle Pilots out of bankruptcy court and renaming them the Brewers.

When asked to sum up the events of his big day, Selig drolly said, "Somebody told me, now you know what they're going to say at your funeral."

It was an A-list guest list for the ceremony as 20 of the 30 major-league clubs sent representatives. Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Robin Yount, Frank Robinsoin, Ernie Banks, and Al Kaline were on hand along with political columnist George Will and Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie Robinson.

Aaron and Young, who also have been honored with statues at Miller Park, were two of the speakers; other speakers were Senator Herb Kohl, owner of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks and Selig's lifelong friend, and Mark Attanasio, who bought the Brewers from the Selig family before the start of the 2005 season.

Aaron, Young, and Attanasio pulled the curtain to reveal the statue. It depicts a younger Selig, wearing a suit with his left hand in his pocket and his right hand clutching a baseball.

"Given the guy didn't have much to work with, considering I've never been confused with Clark Gable, I thought he did a masterful job," Selig said.

The self-deprecating jokes aside, Selig gave a 15-minute speech that brought tears to the eyes of many in the audience.

"It was tough for me," Selig said. "Near the end of my speech, I was really emotional. This is one of those really unique times when a kid had a dream and it came true."

---

The Padres may be baseball's best story this season, as they have built a six-game lead over the Giants in the National League West after going 75-87 a year ago. However, the story doesn't seem to be a big deal to San Diego fans as a combined 63,068 attended the three-game series with the Diamondbacks at Petco Park that ended Thursday night.

"I believe this weekend with the Phillies coming to town, they're in the wild-card chase, so there should be 30,000 to 40,000 every game," Padres closer Heath Bell said, referring to a three-game series that begins tonight. "If there aren't, then I think more guys are going to be like, 'Man!' But this is a weekday, school is back in session, parents want to get their kids to bed early. We are playing the Diamondbacks and they are not a big draw."

The Padres, on the whole, aren't drawing commensurate to a first-place team as their average attendance of 24,395 ranks just 21st among the 30 major-league clubs. However, in fairness, most teams that improve markedly in the win-loss column usually don't enjoy a significant attendance bump until the following season.

"Obviously, it's more fun playing in front of a big crowd," third baseman Chase Headley said. "But there are other things going on with the economy and school."

Added Bell, "The 20,000 who are here are real fans and make a lot of noise. I'd rather have 20,000 who really care than 30,000 who don't."

---

While Mets ownership has said that general manager Omar Minaya will return next season, rumors are swirling that things could change. The prevailing thought is that Minaya will either be out as GM or reassigned if the Mets don't finish strong, although he has two years remaining on his contract.

Minaya, though, says he is not concerned about his job status. The Mets are a disappointing 63-64, putting them 10 games behind the Braves in the NL East and 7 ½ games in back of the Giants in the wild-card standings.

"When you're on a team in New York and you have a situation where last year did not go well, those things are going to come up," Minaya said. "The bottom line is I know I have a job in front of me and I have to continue to do my job to the best of my abilities."

The Mets are sending mixed signals about their direction. They are playing three rookies regularly in catcher Josh Thole, first baseman Ike Davis, and second Ruben Tejada but also say they are trying to win now. Third baseman David Wright has questioned whether the youth movement is taking hold.

"You want to win," Minaya said. "We're, if I'm not mistaken, seven games out of the wild card and we're still in August so we're trying to win. That's what we're trying to do. Like anything else, we feel like we're still in this hunt and we see the past couple years teams that have made runs and I feel we have a run in us. And we're trying to win all the games."

---

MLB Rumors & Rumblings: The Dodgers will wait until next Tuesday, just before waivers expire, before deciding to trade right fielder Manny Ramirez. If he is dealt, the White Sox are the most likely destination, though the Rays and Rangers also have significant interest. … Bobby Parnell is expected to get some save opportunities in the season's final weeks while the Mets try to determine if he could enter into the closer's mix next season. Second baseman Luis Castillo plans to ask the Mets to trade him to a team where he can play regularly next season. … The Reds are leaning toward shutting down right-hander Mike Leake for the season as the rookie has pitched 138 1/3 innings. … Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli will split time at first base for the Angels for the rest of the season. … Right-hander Charlie Morton is expected to be recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and take injured Ross Ohlendorf's place in the Pirates' rotation for the remainder of the season. … The Diamondbacks will play Ryan Roberts every day, albeit at various positions, to see how he fits into their plans for next season. … The Indians plan to make right-hander Carlos Carrasco a September call-up and give him a regular turn in the rotation. … The Braves plan to recall right-hander Kenshin Kawakami from Triple-A Gwinnett when the roster limit expands to 40 next Wednesday and use him as a long reliever. … Rocco Baldelli stands a decent chance to get regular at-bats as the Rays' designated hitter as he now seems certain to be a September call-up from Triple-A Durham. … Giants first base prospect Brandon Belt is expected to get a September call-up after recently being promoted to Triple-A Fresno. … The Padres plan to give right-hander Mat Latos extra rest between starts throughout the rest of the regular season.

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MLB Injury Report: Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg (elbow) is likely done for the season as the club wants to take no chances with his $15.1 million arm. Right-hander Ross Detwiler (hip) will begin a rehab assignment this weekend. … Mets left fielder Jason Bay (concussion) is experiencing regular bouts of nausea and is unlikely to return this season. … Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia (boot) will wear a walking boot through next Thursday then be re-evaluated as season-ending surgery remains a very realistic possibility. Right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka (back) has been scratched from tonight's scheduled start and is listed as day-to-day. Center fielder Mike Cameron (lower abdomen) is scheduled for season-ending surgery today. … Rockies center fielder Carlos Gonzalez seems to be favoring his recently-injured left knee, according to scouts. Right-hander Aaron Cook is expected to make one more minor-league rehab start and return to the rotation next Thursday to face the Phillies. Reliever Manuel Corpas (elbow) will be placed on the disabled list today. Reliever Rafael Betancourt (abdomen) will also go on the DL today if he is unable to throw.

Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal (back) felt pain when he tried to hit off a tee Wednesday. Right-hander Vicente Padilla made 40 throws from 120 feet and remains on course to return sometime in September. … Mets shortstop Jose Reyes (oblique) was injured in Thursday night's game and is day-to-day. … Orioles center fielder Adam Jones (shoulder) missed his second straight game Thursday after being hit by a pitch and remains day-to-day. Reliever Jim Johnson (elbow) will be activated tonight after being on the DL since April 30. Reliever David Hernandez (ankle) will throw live batting practice next Wednesday.  … Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips (hand) was hit by a pitch Wednesday but x-rays taken Thursday were negative and he might be ready to play tonight. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera (oblique) is expected to be activated today. Outfielder Laynce Nix (ankle) may not be available this weekend  … Royals designated hitter Billy Butler (hand) is expected to sit out the weekend. … Marlins right-hander Ricky Nolasco (knee) will start Saturday after missing his last turn in the rotation.

Padres right-hander Chris Young (shoulder) threw 55 pitches in a simulated game Thursday and remains on course to make some September starts. … Cardinals center fielder Colby Rasmus (calf) continues to recover slowly but is not expected to be placed on the DL. Left-handed reliever Dennys Reyes (elbow) is expected to be activated next Wednesday. … Mariners closer David Aardsma (ribs) is expected to be able to pitch by tonight. … Astros right-hander Brian Moehler (groin) is done for the season as he is scheduled to have surgery on his lower abdomen on next Wednesday. Second baseman Jeff Keppinger (toe) has resumed baseball activities and should be activated next Wednesday. Infielder Geoff Blum (neck) will be available to play tonight. … Tigers infielder Danny Worth (heel) will miss the remainder of the season. … Indians right-hander Aaron Laffey (shoulder) is struggling to regain velocity on his pitches during his rehab assignment. Right-hander Anthony Reyes (elbow) is likely going to be shut down for the season after posting a 25.41 ERA in three starts on his rehab assignment at Double-A Akron.

Rays reliever Grant Balfour (ribs) is expected to make two rehab appearances with High-A Charlotte then be activated next Wednesday. … Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz (hamstring) began a rehab assignment with Double-A Frisco on Thursday and is expected to be activated on Monday. Reliever Dustin Nippert (head) began a rehab assignment with Triple-A Oklahoma on Thursday and will remain there at least until the roster limit expands next Wednesday. Reliever Frank Francisco (ribcage) is expected to be available to pitch tonight after having a cortisone shot earlier in the week. … Yankees designated hitter Nick Johnson (wrist) has had his season officially ended as he will require a second surgery. Left-handed reliever Damaso Marte (shoulder) is looking like he might miss the rest of the season. Right fielder Nick Swisher (knee) is expected to return to action tonight after missing one game. Reliever Alfredo Aceves (back) is scheduled to pitch tonight for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and will likely be activated once the minor-league season ends on Labor Day.

White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy (back) has started a rehab program and is scheduled to start to start throwing January 1, which would put him in line to be ready by Opening Day. … Cubs right-hander Carlos Silva (heart) will make his first rehab start tonight for Low-A Peoria and will need a second start before being activated. … Braves reliever Takashi Saito is having problems with his vision in night games. … Athletics outfielder Conor Jackson (hernia) expects to return before the end of the season despite having surgery Wednesday. Pitching prospect Michael Ynoa (elbow) had Tommy John surgery on Tuesday.

---

Scouts' views of various major-league players:

Athletics closer Andrew Bailey: The A's have been pitching so well that they haven't really missed him, but it's always good to get back a closer who not only throws 97 mph but throws strikes. He makes that pitching staff that much better."

Padres infielder Jerry Hairston Jr.: "He's back in his right role as a bench player now that they have (Miguel) Tejada playing shortstop, but the guy was a great stopgap and one of the reasons why they are in first place. He'll never knock your socks off, but one thing about him is that he'll always give you a good effort."

White Sox closer Bobby Jenks: "It seems like he is always in danger of losing his job but he still manages to get it done. Everyone always says that he's out of shape and doesn't throw enough strikes, but there are a lot of teams that would like to have him in their bullpen."

Mets catcher Josh Thole: "This kid has made great strides this season offensively and defensively. He still has a ways to go. He needs to develop some pop and tighten up some things behind the plate. But he's a quick learner and a hard worker, and guys like that always have a chance to keep getting better."

Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton: "He went through a long spell without hitting a home run recently but I wouldn't be worried. He's still one of the best young hitters in the game. It seems like he hits the ball hard every time he makes contact, real hard."

---

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

Red Sox (73-55) at Rays (78-49), Friday-Sunday August 27-29
Jon Lester vs. David Price, 7:10 p.m.; Clay Buchholz vs. Matt Garza, 7:10 p.m.; John Lackey vs. James Shields, 8:05 p.m.

Athletics (63-63) at Rangers (72-55), Friday-Sunday August 27-29
Brett Anderson vs. Tommy Hunter, 8:05 p.m.; Dallas Braden vs. Rich Harden, 8:05 p.m.; Gio Gonzalez vs. Colby Lewis, 3:05 p.m.

Phillies (70-57) at Padres (76-50), Friday-Sunday August 27-29
Roy Oswalt vs. Mat Latos, 10:05 p.m.; Joe Blanton vs. Jon Garland, 4:10 p.m.; Cole Hamels vs. Clayton Richard, 4:05 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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