Once the St. Louis Cardinals had completed one of the most improbable comebacks in baseball history and won the 2011 World Series, a fuse was lit in Oakland: What was to follow, in quick and stunning succession, was the roster being completely and unapologetically blown up.
Much like the dark days of December 2005 when two of Oakland’s three aces were traded within days of each other, Billy Beane dealt three former All-Star pitchers in the span of just three weeks. Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey were gone, and it appeared the A’s were heading into full-on rebuild mode once again.
But a funny thing happened on the way to last place: The Athletics shocked the baseball world and signed Cuban sensation Yoenis Cespedes to a big contract. Although his YouTube video was quite impressive, no one was sure if Cespedes would truly be worth the $36-million price tag. But one thing was for sure: The A’s suddenly became a lot more interesting.
And now here we are, a month and a half into the season, and those Swingin’ A’s are still hanging around. After a come-from-behind, extra-innings win in Texas Thursday, the A’s sit at 20-19, just four games out of first place in the AL West. And thanks to the new playoff system, the A’s would be right in the mix for the fifth playoff spot in the AL if the season ended today.
Now, let’s not get carried away—it is only May. If anything was actually won in May, then Alex Rodriguez would be the most accomplished player in MLB history; as A-Rod knows all too well, it’s what happens in September and October that really matters. I mean, the freaking Orioles are STILL in first place in the AL East right now, do you really think that is going to continue?
The A’s once again are carried by pitching, but the rotation is a ragtag group that’s devoid of any superstars. FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, scaled like ERA) master Brandon McCarthy is the ace, followed by the most unlikely No. 2 starter in recent memory, the stem-cell-powered Bartolo Colon.
The recent call-up of rookie Jarrod Parker will likely become permanent, as the kid has been stellar in his four major-league starts (2.10 ERA and a .223 batting average against). The rotation will also be bolstered midseason by the addition of either Brett Anderson (Tommy John surgery) or Dallas Braden (shoulder), or maybe even both.
What makes this A’s team different than recent incarnations is the presence of genuine thumpers in the middle of the lineup. If you’ve seen what Cespedes can do to a baseball, you know the boy carries a serious boomstick. But Boston cast-off Josh Reddick has been a tremendously pleasant surprise, and although he’s a hacker (only 12 walks all year), a lot of those hacks end up going a long way (10 homers, 19 extra-base hits and a .546 slugging percentage).
The most exciting thing about Reddick is the fact that he’s getting better as the season progresses: After hitting three dingers in March, Reddick already has six homers in May through just 15 games, with a simply stupid OPS of 1.046—are you excited about him yet?
But even when there’s a power outage in Oakland, this team can run like no other AL squad. The A’s lead the league in stolen bases (38), and that’s even with rookie sensation Jemile Weeks mired in a sophomore slump.
There’s a lot of “ifs” that need to have favorable outcomes for the A’s to continue their early success: if Colon continues to pitch well (already looking dicey), if Cespedes continues to develop, if Anderson or Braden return and help the rotation. The corner infield positions also remain concerns. There’s still a hole at third base, and although veteran waiver-wire pickup Brandon Inge has started out extremely well, will that continue? There’s a reason he was cut in Detroit.
Health also continues to be a concern for the A’s (what else is new?), as Crisp, Cespedes and Inge are all on the disabled list.
And three players have had a chance to claim the first basemen’s job as their own (Brandon Allen, Daric Barton and Kila Ka'aihue), with none emerging as a worthy candidate; hell, Allen was even shown the door.
As the marathon baseball season plays out, things will normalize and we’ll find out who these A’s really are: The team that took four of six on the road from the Rays and Red Sox, or the team that lost four of six to the Indians and Orioles. Either way, there’s one thing I can say for these Athletics: They are a fun team to watch.
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