The Thursday Takeaway
Few general managers love to wheel and deal as much as the A’s Billy Beane, but charting the right course for this year’s team may prove a challenging task for the man who has been at the helm since October 1997.
Exactly one year ago today, the A’s were 43-55, and 11 days later, reliever Brad Ziegler was shipped to Arizona. On July 20, 2009, Oakland was 39-52, and within the next two weeks, Matt Holliday was sent to St. Louis and Orlando Cabrera to Minnesota. A year before that, the A’s were hovering around the .500 mark as the All-Star break passed, and Beane cleaned out the veterans in his rotation, trading Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin to the Cubs, then dealing Joe Blanton to Philadelphia.
This year, for the first time since 2006, Beane may actually feel tempted to buy. Even in 2010, when the A’s were 52-51 at the deadline and Beane largely stood pat, the decision to shy away from trading prospects for short-term upgrades was clear: Oakland trailed first-place Texas by 8 ½ games and was buried even deeper in the wild-card race by the Yankees and Rays. The costs outweighed the possible benefits.
For better or worse, the new, two-wild-card playoff format has thrown a wrench into the decision-making process for teams like the A’s, who are 48-44 after last night’s 4-3 win over the Yankees and sit in a virtual three-way tie for the second wild-card spot. Our playoff odds still give Oakland less than a 1-in-10 shot of outgunning Detroit, Boston, Cleveland, and company—and a glance at the names on the A’s roster suggests that a second-half fade is in store. But considering the current standings, the team’s fans may struggle to swallow a decision to stand pat, much less to continue the recent trend of summer sales.
In many ways, the A’s are an ideal high-stakes test case for how teams will balance the chance to participate in a one-game playoff with the desire to retain their prospects. With a recent history replete with disappointment, a constant struggle to attract fans to a poor facility, and relocation—to San Jose or elsewhere—almost inevitably in the not-too-distant future, a rare taste of September excitement is difficult to pass up. On the other hand, the farm system is only now, on the heels of the off-season trades that sent Gio Gonzalez to Washington and Andrew Bailey to Boston, beginning to produce the cost-controlled players that could join forces with first-years Yoenis Cespedes and Jarrod Parker to lead the next A’s contender. Factor in Oakland’s long odds, and the decision to buy has one step forward, two steps back written all over it. (And it’s worth noting that another losing season could bolster the franchise’s leverage as it seeks a new ballpark in a new hometown.)
But tell that to the fans who have watched the team win 11 of its last 13 games, watched Cespedes—who is 13-for-24 (.542) with three home runs since the All-Star break—blossom into the first young slugger the A’s have had since Nick Swisher, and watched a group of promising young arms combine with the American League’s best defense to take advantage of their ballpark and lead the junior circuit in ERA.
The A’s will see nothing but American League East competition for the rest of the month, with three games remaining against the Yankees, followed by three each in Toronto and Baltimore, and then the series opener at home versus the Rays. By the time those nine games are in the books, Beane will be forced to render a verdict. And, barring a complete collapse or a stunning surge, whichever way he decides to go, he may have some explaining to do.
What to Watch for This Weekend
- The Braves trail the Nationals by 3 ½ games as they travel to the nation’s capital for a four-game series that could either widen the gap or set the stage for a thrilling race down the stretch. It has been a tale of two seasons for Ryan Zimmerman—before cortisone (B.C.) and after cortisone—beginning with a cold spell that lasted through June 23, when an anti-inflammatory shot relieved the pain in his shoulder and brought the power back to his swing. Since June 24, Zimmerman has gone 29-for-83 (.349) with seven doubles and nine home runs. He will look to reverse his fortunes against Tommy Hanson—who has previously held him to a 3-for-21 line with seven strikeouts—in the series opener (Friday, 7:05 p.m. ET).
- Don’t expect many relievers to be used in the first game of the American League Central battle between the White Sox and the Tigers at Comerica Park. The scheduled starters, Jake Peavy and Justin Verlander, rank fourth and first, respectively, in innings pitched this season. Verlander has not yet faced Chicago in 2012, while Peavy has a 5.03 ERA in 19 2/3 innings over three starts against Detroit. Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera combined to go 8-for-18 versus Peavy in those three games (Friday, 7:05 p.m. ET).
- Matt Cain, a would-be free agent after the 2012 season, got his payday this past winter, when the Giants inked him to a six-year, $127.5 million deal. Cole Hamels, his opponent in the second game of the upcoming series at Citizens Bank Park, is still mulling his future in Philadelphia, with extension talks heating up rapidly, according to ESPN’s Jayson Stark. Cain outdueled Hamels in Game Three of the 2010 National League Championship Series, but the lefty got some revenge last August, when he earned a complete-game win. Don't miss this duel between two of the National League’s best on Saturday afternoon (Saturday, 4:05 p.m. ET).
- The Rangers and Angels have evenly split their six meetings to date, and with 5 ½ games currently separating them in the American League West standings, the 12 head-to-head contests remaining on their schedules could decide the division. Three of those 12 will take place this weekend at Angel Stadium, where the Halos are 25-18 entering the series. Mike Trout is 10-for-24 (.417) against the Rangers this season, and 3-for-6 with a home run against Saturday’s Texas starter, Yu Darvish (Saturday, 4:05 p.m. ET).
- Aaron Cook has made five starts for the Red Sox this season, tossing 29 2/3 innings and recording a measly two strikeouts, neither of which came in his three outings at Fenway Park. The 33-year-old has nonetheless managed to log a 3.34 ERA by walking only two batters and serving up only two home runs. He will try to dazzle the home crowd for the first time in the middle match of the weekend series with the Blue Jays. Former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell will counter with Carlos Villanueva, who is working on a 12-inning scoreless streak and is unbeaten in three starts this year (Saturday, 7:10 p.m. ET).
- The Yankees’ 42-game streak of scoring three or more runs was in grave danger last night, before Nick Swisher delivered the first major-league home run that Ryan Cook had ever surrendered with one out in the ninth inning to bring the score to 4-3 and bump the streak to 43. Meanwhile, the grounds crew in Oakland might want to add some reinforcements to the Coliseum mound before Sunday’s series finale between the Yankees and the A’s, because scheduled starters CC Sabathia and Bartolo Colon have a combined (listed) weight of 560 pounds. Sabathia is 8-8 with a 4.84 ERA in 23 career starts against Oakland, but he has allowed only six earned runs over 30 innings (1.80 ERA) in the most recent four (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET).