It always seems as if this scrappy bunch on the Oakland Athletics is counted out year after year. But they always surprise us and compete in the AL West, and this season could be their most surprising one yet.
At the beginning of the year, after all the buzz with outfielder and former MVP Josh Hamilton signing with Los Angeles Angels, the A's were left out of the discussion. The big question was whether the Angels or the Texas Rangers would win the division. Could people really have forgotten that the A's put together a comeback for the ages last season and winded up winning the division?
The analysts over at Sports Illustrated predicted the A's to finish third in the division behind the Angels and Rangers, as did many others. Yet here we are, over two months into the season, and the standings are not quite the same as what the experts predicted.
The current standings as of June 5 have the A's in second place, only one game back of the division-leading Rangers. Few saw it coming, but once again the A's are in prime position to make a run at another AL West crown. How do they do it?
It helps having one of the best general managers in the game. When they've made a movie about you, you know you've done something right. As seen in the movie Moneyball, Bill Beane had a small budget to work with, but he was able to use advanced statistics to assemble a competitive team for cheap.
He was hired as Oakland's GM in 1998, and his style has evolved ever since. Bottom line, Beane is the mastermind behind an operation that continues to play well despite a lackluster lineup.
Oakland has the fourth-lowest payroll in the major leagues, yet it is still in the hunt for the playoffs.
Obviously, it takes more than a clever GM to become a contender. The players still have to perform, and they have for the Yellow and Green.
One of the main statistics Beane looks at in a player is on-base percentage. Therefore, it's no surprise that the A's rank fourth overall in that category and fifth in runs scored.
There have been some impact performances from little-known role players all season long. The most pleasant surprise thus far has been third baseman Josh Donaldson, who leads the team in hits (71), RBI (35) and batting average (.324). Donaldson has also clubbed eight home runs.
A's Manager Bob Melvin said about Donaldson, "...he's probably our most consistent player. On both sides, both offensively and defensively."
Shortstop Jed Lowrie (BA .316, HR 3, RBI 24) was a key acquisition during the offseason. He has the highest on-base percentage on the roster, can hit from both sides of the plate and also has a solid glove in either middle infield position.
The A's have an above-average starting rotation, headlined by veteran Bartolo Colon, who currently leads the team in wins and earned run average. They also have a reliable closer in Grant Balfour, who despite his unfortunate last name, has been able to become a consistent pitcher in relief for Oakland.
It is no mystery why the A's are continuously written off each year. At first glance, their lineup does not look like it's anything special, especially when compared to the Angels' and Rangers' star-studded lineups predicted to be ahead of them in the American League West.
Who will win the AL West?
Oakland's secret is its players' efficiency on the field, all for a low price. Beane and his ability to capitalize on undervalued players has kept the A's paradoxically under the radar while also in contention.
With two wild-card spots in the new MLB playoff format, the Athletics have as good a chance as any team in the American League to make the postseason; in fact, they are currently in the lead as of June 5. Oakland has a slight edge over most other teams by virtue of being in the AL West with the lowly Houston Astros. They are 9-0 against Houston so far this season.
Expect Oakland to play some meaningful baseball all season long and punch its ticket to the playoffs.