The Athletics have unquestionably been one of the biggest disappointments in baseball, as just about everything general manager Billy Beane did in the offseason has blown up in his face. Although the biggest winter acquisition, left fielder Matt Holliday, has been productive, a .289 Equivalent Average after being acquired from the Rockies reflects that he hasn’t played at the superstar level Beane hoped would either lift the Athletics back to the postseason for the first time since 2006 or make the free agent-to-be attractive enough to get a bundle in return in a deadline deal. First baseman Jason Giambi (.259 EqA), infielder Nomar Garciaparra (.242), and shortstop Orlando Cabrera (.224) haven’t lived up to expectations as free-agent signings.
Thus, the Athletics are 35-47, in last place in the American League West, and 11 games behind the division-leading Angels and Rangers. The Athletics are also 23rd in the major leagues with an average of 4.20 runs scored a game, and dead last in the majors in team EqA with a .240 mark.
Yet the situation is not quite as gloomy as one might suspect around the Athletics, even though they are on their way to a fourth straight losing season following a run of eight consecutive finishes above .500. The consistent winning belied the Athletics’ low-budget pedigree and made Beane a cult figure, particularly when Moneyball was written and centered on his use of statistical analysis, and how it helped him find market inefficiencies to build a contending club.
Now, everyone except the defending World Series-champion Phillies has a full-time statistical analyst on the payroll. When the Athletics were having success, many teams copied them and began drafting college pitchers. Thus, Beane again started going against the grain and began relying on his scouts to find high school pitcher, because he felt that they had become undervalued.
These days, the Athletics are excited about the young pitcher staff they are building. “When you look at the talent we’re assembling, both at the major league level and with the guys coming up through the farm system, it’s impressive,” manager Bob Geren said. “It’s just a matter of time before we start winning again.”
The Athletics went to the playoffs four straight years from 2000-03 on the strength of three young ace starting pitchers in Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. The Athletics are trying to recapture that era by putting together a rotation that includes four rookies and only one pitcher as old as 25. Right-hander Dallas Braden is the senior citizen of a rotation that includes a 23-year-old (left-hander Gio Gonzalez), a 22-year-old (righty Vin Mazzaro), and a pair of 21-year-olds (lefty Brett Anderson and righty Trevor Cahill). Braden is also the only starter who comes from the college ranks. All but Gonzalez-just called up when right-hander Josh Outman was forced to the disabled list because of Tommy John surgery-are in the AL top 50 in SNLVAR. Braden is 11th at 3.1, followed by Cahill (31st, 1.9), Mazzaro (44th, 1.3) and Anderson (47th, 0.9) but coming off a shutout of the Red Sox on Monday night.
While the Athletics aren’t churning out the hitting prospects at nearly the same rate, they remain convinced that it only a matter of time before they become a force in the suddenly strong AL West again. “Everyone in our rotation is learning on the job, and Dallas has done a good job of being the leader,” said Athletics catcher Kurt Suzuki, not exactly a grizzled veteran himself at 25. “They’ve hit their bumps in the road and there have been some ups and downs, which you would expect from the young pitchers. I’m sure it will continue to be that way at times this season while they’re still getting their feet on the ground but the stuff is there. All these guys have the stuff to be above-average major-league pitchers. They all have great arms.”
And that is exactly why Geren feels that an Athletics’ turnaround is inevitable, though unlikely to happen this season unless some of their free-agent suddenly find the fountain of youth. “Everyone remembers The Big Three [of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito] from those four straight playoff teams we had in early part of the decade but who remembers who the fourth and fifth starters were or who the closer was?,” said Geren, who was the manager at Triple-A Sacramento from 2000-02 then the bullpen coach in 2003. “Our pitching staff is actually deeper now than when we were going to the playoffs because we’ve got five good young starters at the major-league level and an All-Star closer, too. And there are more pitchers on the way, along with position players. They’re still in the minor leagues, but they’re coming. It’s an exciting time for the organization, and the excitement is just beginning.”
The Nationals would seemingly be baseball’s biggest sellers as the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline approach. They have the worst record in the major leagues at 24-57, and six of their eight regulars are 29 or older and don’t figure to be around by the time the organization’s young pitching fully blossoms.
However, acting GM Mike Rizzo says the Nationals aren’t necessarily going to offload their veterans this month or in advance of the July or August trading deadlines for acquiring players and having them be eligible for post-season play. “We’ll make deals based on good baseball decisions,” Rizzo told the Washington Post‘s Chico Harlan. “Fire sale means you want to dump people. We don’t want to dump people.”
The one player the Nationals would seemingly want to dump, though, is first baseman Nick Johnson, who is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. Yet Rizzo said he does not feel compelled to trade Johnson: “Nick is probably the one with the most trade rumors but we’re not looking to move him. We’ll only move him if we have the right opportunity. I don’t want to put names to who is most likely (to be traded) because we really don’t know.”
Two other Nationals whose names continually surface in rumors are outfielders Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham. However, Rizzo said he feels no urgency to trade either because Willingham is two years away from free agency, while Dunn is only in the first season of the two-year, $20 million contract he signed as a free agent last winter. “I still think it’s a young team,” Rizzo said. “Willingham and (third baseman Ryan Zimmerman), those are guys in their primes or entering their primes, including Dunn.”
Usually easygoing Brewers GM Doug Melvin has this piece of advice for star left fielder Ryan Braun: You worry about hitting home runs and I’ll worry about putting the roster together. Braun was critical of the Brewers’ pitching staff Sunday after his team lost three games in four-game series to the Cubs.
He also urged Melvin to make a big move to help the pitching staff, much like he did last July by acquiring left-hander CC Sabathia from the Indians. Sabathia was a major reason why the Brewers won the National League Wild Card and made their first post-season playoff appearance in 26 years. “To show everybody we’re for real, we can go out there and make a move and improve our ballclub,” Braun said. “We want to head in the right direction, not the wrong direction.”
Melvin did not appreciate the free advice, or that Braun would show a lack of confidence in a starting rotation that has seen Dave Bush land on the disabled list and Manny Parra have to be sent back to Triple-A Nashville to regain his effectiveness. “I don’t like criticizing players and it’s out of character for me, but I’m tired of it and I need to protect the people under us,” Melvin told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s Tom Haudricourt. “Everybody’s working as hard as they can to make this a winning organization. He’s too talented a player to be doing this so early in his career. He just has to be careful about what he says. We all work every day from 9a.m.-midnight, basically 12 months a year. I’ll be glad to have Ryan help if he wants to. I’ll give him a badge and he can be my deputy.”
All the uncertainty surrounding Indians manager Eric Wedge was lifted over the weekend when GM Mark Shapiro said he would stay on the job through at least the end of the season and then be evaluated. Wedge is under contract through 2010, but the Indians have the worst record in the AL at 33-51.
Wedge said he was glad his status would no longer be one of the stories surrounding a team that came into the season expecting to contend for the AL Central crown. Wedge is just two years removed from guiding the Indians to the American League Championship Series, where they lost to the Red Sox in seven games. That same season, he had the honor of being named the AL Manager of the Year. “I appreciate the fact that Mark said what he did,” Wedge said. “I just to make sure the players stay focused on what they can control. There are going to be distractions regardless of where you are in the standings. It’s just a different type of distraction. The players have to block that out and do what they can every day to help us win a ballgame.”
Wedge is generally considered a popular figure in the Indians clubhouse, and the news was well-received by the players. “For me, it’s great news and I think I can talk for the rest of my teammates,” catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez said. “Wedgie always worries about us. He lets you play. He makes you play the game the right way. Wedgie is a great manager. He can’t play for us. It’s easy to blame one guy than 25. He’s always been there for us a manager, and he deserves to be here.”
Scouts’ views on various major league players:
- Diamondbacks left-hander Doug Davis: “Some contender is going to make a trade for him by the end of the month and be very happy. He’s pitching as well as he has in a long time and he could make the difference for a team in a tight pennant race.”
- Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler: “I think this kid has a lot of potential, but it seems like he is starting to lose his confidence. They might be wise to send him back to (Triple-A) Colorado Springs for a while and let him find his hitting stroke.”
- Brewers third baseman Mat Gamel: “He can really hit, but he needs a little more polish in Triple-A right now The Brewers aren’t doing him any favors by keeping him on the bench in the big leagues at this stage of his career. He needs to play.”
- Rays left-handed reliever J.P. Howell: “He isn’t your classic closer because he’s a soft tosser, but he is fearless and knows how to get people out. He won’t back down from anybody and that’s half the battle of pitching the ninth inning.”
- Red Sox first baseman/outfielder Mark Kotsay: “I really thought he was at the end of the line a couple of years ago but he keeps hanging in there. He’s still a useful player if you limit his at-bats to keep him healthy, and pick the right spots where he can succeed.”
- Marlins right-hander Ricky Nolasco: “I don’t know what they did to the guy when they sent him back to the minors, but he’s been lights-out since he came back. Right now, his stuff is just about as good any pitcher’s in the league.”
- Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello: “The kid obviously has a good arm, but what I like about him is that he has a really good mound presence. He handles himself like an old pro and he is just getting started.”
- Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano: “He looks old and tired to me. His bat is slow, and he is playing with no pep, no life, no energy. He’s just blah.”
Three series to watch this weekend with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):
Rangers at Mariners, Thursday-Sunday (July 9-12)
Tommy Hunter vs. Felix Hernandez, 10:10 p.m.; Scott Feldman vs. Brandon Morrow, 10:10 p.m.; Kevin Millwood vs. Jarrod Washburn, 10:10 p.m.; Dustin Nippert vs. Erik Bedard, 4:10 p.m.