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How Legit are the A’s?

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Coming off a weekend sweep of the Kansas City Royals, the A’s have clawed their way back to a .500 record in the AL West.  While being 7.0 games back in July to a team that has just acquired Cliff Lee to bolster it’s pitching rotation pushes the limit of the term “contender”, my interest in the A’s is purely one of legitimacy.  Are they really a .500 or better baseball team after four straight seasons at or near the bottom of the AL West standings?

Their run record thinks so.  At 389 runs scored against 377 runs against, 2010 marks the first year that the A’s have manged to succeed in becoming a run prevention team.  But Billy Beane spent many crucial millions of dollars this offseason to upgrade his outfield defense, and through the first half of the season, the OF defense was the achilies heel of the run prevention unit.

A healthy Coco Crisp makes the A’s a much, much better team, as CF has been the position which caused the A’s defense a lot of the gains it has made in the infield.  Crisp was the expensive FA acquisition (Ben Sheets aside) at $5MM for the 2010 season, and the A’s biggest offseason issue will likely be to replace his production in center.  While the outfield defense has underachieved expectations, a primary trio of Crisp, Rajai Davis, and Gabe Gross really gives the A’s a much improved defense going forward.

The infield defense needs to find a way to help replace the declining range of Mark Ellis, who the A’s are now giving multiple days off to a week in order to keep his legs in playing shape.  Adam Rosales has been something of a revelation as a defender, the Reds used him as a third baseman primarily, but he’s clearly more comfortable in the middle infield.  He’s taking the plate appearences that belonged to Adam Kennedy last year, and given his .855 minor league OPS in the Reds organization, ace utility player seems like his floor at this point.  Clearly, the A’s weren’t in the dark on his acquisition: they paid $1.3 million to acquire him from the Reds by paying out the last year of Willie Tavares’ contract, a player they had no interest in.  While his defense might be a mirage, the offense could get better from here.

Rosales hasn’t been asked to play third base because Kevin Kouzmanoff has transformed himself into one of the most sought-after players at the trade deadline.  He leads all major league third basemen in UZR this year.  He plays next to a plus defensive shortstop in Cliff Pennington, who may not be the future of the SS position in Oakland with Grant Green waiting, but is a product of the system on a team filled of outside acquisitions.

The team’s best position player is Catcher Kurt Suzuki, widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, and owner of perhaps the most remarkably consistent batting lines in baseball: 269/326/401/727 for his career.  Suzuki is arbitration eligible next year for the first time, and could be the next Athletic to earn himself a contract extension.

I touched on the disappointing nature of the outfield defense above, and how it’s likely to improve in the second half.  If it does, the A’s could give up fewer runs than any other team in baseball in the season’s final two and a half months.  This is because the rotation has been fantastic all year.  Injuries have ravaged the A’s rotation, where the starting five were supposed to be:

  1. LH Gio Gonzalez
  2. RH Ben Sheets
  3. LH Brett Anderson
  4. RH Justin Duchscherer
  5. RH Trevor Cahill/LH Dallas Braden

Except right from the second week of April, Brett Anderson and Justin Duchscherer weren’t healthy.  Duchscherer rushed back from the DL, hurt himself again, and will miss the rest of the year.  Anderson is getting near his return date, but he only lasted three starts last time he returned before heading to the DL again with a case of elbow tendonitis.  Ben Sheets has been a disgustingly terrible investment the whole year.

With the rotation in shambles, a funny thing happened to the A’s rotation: Dallas Braden, thought to be on the fringe of the rotation, achieved perfection in his May start against the Rays.  Braden’s season since then has been far less publicized, but he’s emerged as a legitimate no. 2 type pitcher on a team that is loaded with depth.  Braden hasn’t been a big strike out guy at any point in his career (only 6 of his outs in his perfect game were via punchout), but he’s no longer living dangerously with men on base: his walk rate has dropped to a career low 1.53/9 IP, and his HR rate has remained below 1/9 IP, which is allowing him to “pitch to contact” without pitching into hard, costly contact.

Trevor Cahill would have lost his spot in the rotation had it come to it, but thanks to the injuries in the pitching staff, he’s overcome some early struggles to post a ground ball rate at 55% on the year, best in the big leagues among starters.  Cahill is starting to learn to strike guys out and emerge as a legit mid-rotation pitcher on a good big league ballclub.  Former top White Sox Prospect Gio Gonzalez has become the team’s ace.  His stuff has always been electric, but his problems with the long ball had kept him from success — until now.  A 0.71 HR Rate is well above average, and even further above expectation for Gonzalez this year.

That big three has been supported by some quality spot starts from young Vin Mazzaro.  On next years team, without the injuries, Mazzaro is a quality long-reliever.  Here, he’s given the A’s about 50 IP of starting pitching allowing fewer than 4 runs per start.  With this much pitching depth (and Brett Anderson’s return just a week away), Sheets won’t be brought back next season, but he very well might make a difference in the second half: his mid-fours ERA is sustainable, and his low HR rate should have taken a turn for the better pitching below sea level, but was surprisingly high in the first half.

The A’s are one of just a couple of baseball clubs that don’t have to do anything with the pitching staff in the offseason to have one of the best rotations in the league next year.  They are already at that level despite an unfair number of injuries.  Their test will be finding some offense to make a run at a wide open division next year.  The Conor Jackson acquisition from Arizona was an attempt at this.  The team also brought Jack Cust back to be their DH.  1B Daric Barton and Rosales should both be near the top of the A’s lineup next year, as should Suzuki, but that’s a whole bunch of open spots on the roster that need to be filled with offensive improvements.  The A’s farm system is pitching-heavy, though you’d think that 1B prospect Chris Carter (acquired in the Dan Haren deal from the White Sox via the D-Backs) isn’t going to have to wait too much longer for his first taste of major league action — we’re probably a month away.

The moves made this offseason to replace (or extend) guys like Crisp, Kouzmanoff, and Gabe Gross will determine how successful the A’s are in the future, but right now with them, the A’s are a legitimate .500, and probably will improve just a little in the second half.  They’re only relevant in the playoff picture if the Rangers collapse four out of every five days, but the organization is in a good spot, a much better place than they seemed to be just one year ago.

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