Oakland Athletics 2012: 5 Keys to Making the Postseason
As August begins to move closer towards September, the plucky Oakland A's simply continue to be the Steve Urkel of Major League Baseball: Uninvited, often clumsy and awkward looking, but damn entertaining.
At 60-51, they are entrenched in a three-way tie with the Detroit Tigers (not a surprise) and another surprise team, the Baltimore Orioles, for the Wild Card. No more than one and a half games out lurk the Los Angeles Angels and the team that replaced Oakland as baseball's "Little Engine That Could," the Tampa Bay Rays.
Having now played more than two-thirds of the schedule, the specter of an A's meltdown seems less and less likely. The fact is, not only are they a flawed team looking to slip into the postseason and possibly make a Cinderella run like their Bay Area rivals San Francisco did two years ago, there are no teams competing against them that are without their own flaws. In a short series, any of about five teams could legitimately come out of the American League and advance to the World Series.
But, to make the World Series, you first have to make the postseason. Here are the five biggest keys to that happening for the Oakland A's as baseball begins to make its descent into pennant baseball.
#5: Positive Contributions from Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson
Having won the last two games against the rival Angels, the A's managed to salvage a 5-5 record in their home stand that ended July and began August. The reason that is impressive is because Oakland's starting pitching was not up to its standard of excellence that had been established through the year (best ERA in the American League).
Two of the biggest contributors to that have been rookies Jarrod Parker and Tom Milone. While both have been solid, they appear to be feeling the effects of not only a legitimate pennant race, but their first extended innings as Major League pitchers. Parker's ERA has been 6.62 in his last three starts, while Milone's has been 7.58. Some of it could be adjustments, but a lot of it is the increased burden.
Thankfully, there are very capable arms just about ready to step in. First, the A's unofficial ace going into the year, Brandon McCarthy. Before he re-injured his shoulder just before the All-Star break, McCarthy had an ERA of 2.54, which would have been good for fourth in the American League at the time. He makes his first start since mid-July against the Chicago White Sox August 10th.
As for Brett Anderson, his return has been nearly 13 months in the making. Out since July 2011 after Tommy John surgery, the A's lefty is primed to return after a promising rehab start for the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats. The veteran combination could ultimately fit seamlessly into a rotation that has scuffled just a touch and with rookie A.J. Griffin on the disabled list, is in immediate need of another arm.
They will be important because the A's are ultimately going to need more than guts and guile to win in September. They are going to need quality.
Anderson's career ERA is 3.66 and McCarthy has been the A's best pitcher in the last two years when healthy. Whether the rotation expands to six (something Oakland's brass hasn't publicly entertained) or if Parker and Milone's struggles continue, the A's will need contributions from both to win big.
#4: Continued Production from First Base
What a difference a year makes. In 2011, the Oakland A's had the following numbers from their first basemen offensively: .219 batting average, seven home runs, 59 RBI's, with splits of .294/.316/.610 for on-base percentage, slugging and OPS, respectively. Yes, those were all good for dead last in baseball. The worst production in the Majors from first base.
Fast forward 10 months. The 2012 A's currently have the following numbers from first base: .220 batting average, 22 home runs, 45 RBI's, with splits of .332/.440/.772 in 111 games. The difference has been simple and can be attributed to Chris Carter and Brandon Moss.
Earlier in the year (which seems like a lifetime ago), the A's had another putrid combo at first in Daric Barton and Kila Ka'aihue. At the time of his release, Ka'aihue was hitting .234 with four home runs and 14 RBI's. And to be honest, many A's fans and observers, myself included, howled at his release so that Moss could be called up.
Read into that statement: The A's situation at first base was so bad that a guy with a slugging percentage of .398 and an OPS of .693 was seen as the best option the team had.
And why was that?
Because Barton was an absolute black hole offensively. Hitting .198 with one home run in 37 games, Barton's best attribute seemed to be drawing walks, which is great if you have thunder to go with your bat like Carter. Yet, Barton never transitioned into an offensive threat and continued to play big chunks until finally being sent to Triple-A Sacramento June 1st.
Meanwhile, Moss was an early revelation, hitting six home runs in his first 11 games. While he only hits .232, his slugging percentage is .514 and OPS is .822, both absolutely off the charts relative to the position in the last two years.
Carter has been even better. Taking advantage of his third (and some thought, final) chance with Oakland, the big first baseman has shown the easy power that made him such a highly touted prospect.
As of this writing, Carter has slammed 10 home runs in 29 games for a slugging percentage of .633. Best of all, he has drawn 22 walks in 112 plate appearances, showing patience that simply was not there before.
And the A's will need that presence to support the emerging stars of the team, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes. Carter and Moss provide protection in the fifth slot in the batting order if/when Cespedes is not pitched to. Their production and power is important because the A's have not been good with their situational hitting and depend on the long ball to score, having hit 123, already nine more than all of 2011.
#3: 9th Inning Relief
The A's have had 39 chances to save a game in 2012. They have done so 27 times. That is a percentage of 69.2 percent. If we were talking about Shaquille O'Neal's free throws or Peyton Manning's completion rate, that would be great. In baseball, closing 69.2 percent of your games is a harbinger. No team has blown more saves (12) than the 2012 Oakland A's, making their record either more remarkable or frustrating depending on your point of view.
Either way, the reality has been that while the bullpen has been solid all year, that is not the case once the game gets into the ninth. The current closer Ryan Cook has plummeted to earth, seeing his ERA rise from 1.52 to 2.79 since July 19th. His seven blown saves is the worst in baseball and only continues a trend begun by Grant Balfour and woefully extended by former A's reliever Brian Fuentes.
The problem with all of this is, there is no one better than Cook available for the A's to turn to.
Sean Doolittle is too erratic and not ready to be a closer, Balfour has shown his propensity to get wild and let games get away, and someone like Pat Neshek has never done it before. This would have rated higher except the A's are not always in a situation to need a save. But make no mistake, it is a critical key moving forward.
#2: A Better Jemile Weeks
In a season where nothing has gone to form, one of the disappointments has been second baseman Jemile Weeks. A player so talented that he was deemed untradeable by GM Billy Beane, Weeks started slow and has yet to have a stretch where he breaks out and shows the talent that provided such a spark for the A's in 2011.
In spite of his struggles (.219 batting average/.304 on-base percentage), Weeks has still provided flashes in his play. His eight triples are the most in the American League and tied for third in baseball.
Despite his difficulties reaching base, Weeks is still on pace to exceed 20 stolen bases. But for those numbers, he has largely struggled, particularly with strikeouts. A projected 90 strikeouts is far too high for a player that began the year batting leadoff.
What the A's need from Weeks is not the .303 hitter from 2011, but someone who can be around .265 to .280 and with Coco Crisp, give the A's an element of speed that can help manufacture runs. A great example of that would be the 2003 Florida Marlins. Forgotten because of the exploits of Miguel Cabrera, Derrek Lee, Mike Lowell and Pudge Rodriguez were the table setters Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo.
Crisp has done his part, hitting .296 with a .363 on-base percentage since the All-Star break. In spite of the holes at shortstop and catcher, an improved Weeks goes a long way towards making the A's a consistent offensive team and a viable playoff threat.
#1: Keeping Yoenis Cespedes Healthy
Sometimes, numbers do not tell the story of an athlete's value. But sometimes, they make things as obvious as the sun on a cloudless day. In the case of Yoenis Cespedes, one only needs to look at the A's with him and without him. With the "Cuban Missile" in the lineup, Oakland is 48-29 in 2012. Without him, they are 12-22. That includes the nine-game losing streak that some thought might derail the season.
Beyond the numbers he has provided in his 77 games (.307/.367/.517 splits with 14 home runs and 56 RBI's), Cespedes has provided a legitimate and consistent middle of the order threat for the first time since Frank Thomas powered the A's to the ALCS in 2006. Even as Josh Reddick leads the club with 25 home runs, I would venture to say at this point, Cespedes is the more valuable of the two players. Not by much and I am certainly not trying to slight Reddick, but without Cespedes, the A's have proven to be an average team.
Which is precisely why keeping him healthy is optimum for the last 50+ games of the year. For all the other bats, all the incoming arms, for all of the surprises Oakland has provided its faithful following so far this year, I feel it will get rendered moot without Cespedes playing the large majority of those games down the stretch.
There is no formula for keeping a guy who plays with the effort of Cespedes healthy, but there is a price to pay when he is not. Fellow AL West rookie Mike Trout has gotten the bulk of the attention (and deservedly so) for a historic rookie season, but even he has not provided the winning percentage (.576) to the Angels that Cespedes (.623) has for the A's.
Right now, the A's are projected to win 87 games, which would match another plucky team that exceeded expectations, the 1999 Oakland A's. That squad did not make the playoffs, but would for the next four. Billy Beane is hitting close to 1.000 with the moves he made in the offseason, but his plan has been surprisingly moved up a year or two ahead of its projected schedule.
For the A's to win enough to play in October and not just be a nice story that faded as the NFL begins, they will need a steady hand. Bob Melvin has been amazing and will merit plenty of Manager of the Year talk (along with Baltimore's Buck Showalter). However, a good manager will not offset instability at the closer position, faltering arms in the rotation or a lack of health from the young star rookie. To win, the A's have to get continued quality pitching and power from a rejuvenated lineup. That will offset poor situational hitting and holes at two keys spots.
Because once you are in October, as they say, anything can happen. Just ask the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals.