Entering the second week of the Major League Baseball season, the Oakland Athletics find themselves in a comfortable spot.
Sitting atop the American League West, the A's continue their road trip against the formidable Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. This marks another early-season test for the Athletics: how will they fare against a team who many believe to be the prohibitive division favorites.
Particularly after an offseason spending spree that saw the Angels land the heaviest of free agent bats for the second year in a row.
But Oakland will look to prove for the umpteenth time that its frugal version of team building brings better results than their free-spending foes. After the A's snatched the 2012 AL West title, bypassing both the vaunted Angels and Texas Rangers squads, the question this season resurfaces: Can the A's do it again?
The odds suggest that lightning cannot strike twice in the same spot so quickly.
And the Angels aim to show that last season's disappointing underachievement was merely a product of unfamiliarity with one another.
This season, however, the Angels have 2012 Rookie of the Year Mike Trout, acclimated Albert Pujols and the talented slugger Josh Hamilton. Hopefully, the Angels will be able to put their pieces together and reach expectations.
Which is not simply the playoffs.
The Angels have assembled the offensive equivalent to the Miami Heat's Big Three not to just win the division but to take home the World Series trophy.
And they have a lot to prove, too.
That said, this week's series versus the Athletics will be an equal test for Los Angeles as it will be for Oakland. And with the recent battles and bad blood between these two ball clubs, it makes for some early April fireworks.
Here are five things to look for in this week's Athletics-Angels series in Anaheim that starts Tuesday night.
One of the brightest highlights of the 2012 MLB campaign was the emergence of rookie Mike Trout.
His historic season was one of the most breathtaking displays of excellence ever witnessed. In fact, his final stats were so jaw-droppingly impressive and incredulously unprecedented that he single-handedly ushered in the dawn of the new era of Wins Above Replacement as a true measure of player greatness.
Before his otherworldly season, WAR was a stat that sat in a category along with quarterback rating: Nearly everybody who followed the game knew about it, but they didn't know how it was calculated and couldn't verify the authenticity of its measurement.
But with Trout putting up Zeus-like numbers in 2012, the debate about WAR's true value became so widespread and prolific, the 21-year-old nearly won MVP honors in his rookie season.
One thing you cannot debate is how great Trout was last season. In fact, his talent is so boundless that there are very few critics out there who even slightly believe he'll suffer from the infamous sophomore slump. He's that good. Some even predict that he'll outperform his once-in-a-lifetime season of 2012. Crazy. Put him in the Hall of Fame now.
The Athletics will get an early crack at trying to contain the second-year stud, who tallied a healthy 60 at-bats against them last year. In 2012, Oakland pitchers "held him" to a .283 batting average, with five runs batted in and four extra-base hits. He also struck out 18 times.
Compared to the rest of the league, the A's did better than most in stifling him. Of course, it's all a bit relative with a player of his caliber. Oakland can only hope that his bat has yet to awaken this season.
He enter's Tuesday's play with a .250 batting average and eight strikeouts in six games. What's remarkable is that last year, Trout did most of his damage against right-handers, compiling a slash line of .346/.410/.588.
So, this will be a challenge for A's righties Jarrod Parker on Tuesday and A.J. Griffin on Thursday. Can Oakland's two youngsters manage to keep Trout on the hook? If so, the Athletics will have a decent chance of at least taking the series.
They just need to remember to be careful early: Trout batted .419 on the first pitch of an at-bat last year.
During Sunday's contest against the Houston Astros, A's right fielder Josh Reddick sprained his right wrist. While it's not certain how much he will be limited, it's safe to say that he'll likely miss a game in this series against the Angels.
True, Reddick is seemingly bionic, and would probably insert himself into the lineup despite no limbs. But the precaution will likely be that manager Bob Melvin keeps him off the field just in case.
After all, that's what the signing of Chris Young was for, right?
Reddick can afford an extra day off at the moment. Through one week of regular-season baseball, Reddick is sporting a .125 batting average. Though he has scored five runs, stolen three bases and struck out only once, he's still looking to find some consistency at the plate.
The rest of the team, however, has more than made up for his slow start. With shortstop Jed Lowrie toting a scorching bat, and outfielders Coco Crisp, Chris Young, and Seth Smith all carrying batting averages above .300, the A's aren't quite missing Reddick's production. Not yet.
Though, there are some numbers from last season that might suggest the A's need Reddick more than they think. In 2012, Reddick hit only .235 against the Angels. However, Smith only hit .173 in 52 at-bats, while Cespedes racked up a .217 batting average. Young, a former National Leaguer, only has 15 career at-bats versus Los Angeles, compiling a .067 batting average.
If these trends continue, the A's might need Reddick to return to the lineup for Wednesday's and Thursday's games for Oakland to have a chance to take the series.
Get well soon, Josh.
The A's aren't strangers to Josh Hamilton. The newly haloed outfielder did play five seasons with the divisional foe Texas Rangers. So, it's not like they don't have a scouting report on the big guy. In fact, the notes they do have on him are probably just curse words: Hamilton has a .310 career batting average against Oakland, with 93 hits (hit highest total against any opponent) and 55 RBI, in 76 games.
Needless to say, the A's can't be too thrilled about seeing him. And now that he's slotted in an Angels lineup that additionally features potential MVP Mike Trout, former MVP Albert Pujols, and the slugging first baseman Mark Trumbo, Hamilton could hit 35 home runs this year and still not have the best season on his own team.
So, who do the Athletics pitch to, with Hamilton newly acquainted to this fearsome Angels roster? Moreover, who do the A's pitch around?
It's going to be quite a challenge for the starting pitching trio of Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, and A.J. Griffin this series. The youthful starting rotation, as good as they have shown to be in their brief careers, cannot be expected to contain these sluggers for long. Can they?
The good news is that the Angels, with the big guns they have, are striking out a lot (56 in six games). And while Hamilton is off to a slow start, so far, it's certainly possible that his bat warms up against a team he knows quite well and has had tremendous success against.
One question is whether the A's can keep Hamilton from waking up from his offensive coma. But the bigger question will be, given the fire power surrounding him, Will it even matter?
Yes, the season is young. Still, it's not too early to wonder about the Athletics' young right-hander.
Jarrod Parker's one start this season (five innings, four earned runs) shouldn't be the measuring stick of his ability and potential for the rest of the year. But the concern about him stems from an abysmal spring training in which he started five games and tallied an 0-2 record and 7.45 ERA. Additionally, he 25 hits in 19.1 innings, five of which were home runs.
Nobody on the team would say they are frightened about Parker's performance in 2013. But A's fans certainly can start to worry. They were spoiled by his impressive rookie campaign a season ago. And given the progress he made throughout the year, the expectations are for him to surpass his previous success and reach new, higher levels.
Will he do it? Can he do it?
Hopefully, the Angels will be a comfortable adversary for him to find his footing against. Last year, Parker pitched well against Los Angeles, posting a 2.60 ERA in four starts, though he came away with a 1-2 record. Still, he did not allow a home run and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 21/4.
But that was without a lineup that featured four 30-homer sluggers. If Parker can keep the Angels in the park, that will be a success in itself. And if he can escape with a quality start against a high-quality lineup, it could potentially could jump-start his 2013 season.
Any series against a division opponent is going to be somewhat spicy. And no matter what time of the season, it's always important to win the series against an intra-division foe. Those are the games that matter the most, and in the end, can decide a division title, a wild-card berth, or a postseason swing-and-miss.
The Athletics and Angels have become more than just two division teams trying to beat each other: They've turned into two teams who want to beat each other up.
For many reasons.
There's the standard Northern California-Southern California rivalry. The fan bases. The jillion-dollar spenders versus the penny pinchers. The too-cool-for-school L.A. attitude against the frat house in Oakland.
It's a strange dichotomy that is showcased whenever these two organizations meet, which only adds to the importance of the games that are played on the field.
Needless to say, the last laugh has gone to small-market Oakland in recent years; so Los Angeles definitely wants to take down the pesky team that came out of nowhere to snare the 2012 postseason berth that the Angels were predicted to take home.
Meanwhile, if the A's are going to claim their second surprising division crown, they need to stomp on their SoCal opponents. Oakland currently sits atop the West standings (with Texas), with L.A. nestled in fourth place with 2-4 record. So this series is an early chance to take the Angels down another notch.
Let's get ready to rumble.
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