Oakland A's Near the Break: Living in Oblivion?
Moneyball was a motion picture coming to a theater near you, replete with big-time Hollywood stars like Brad Pitt and, um, Demetri Martin, before an executive at Columbia so hated the screenplay's latest draft that she banished it to an arcane form of Hollywood purgatory known as “limited turnaround,” a Tinseltown term too esoteric to explain in detail here.
However, rest assured that the development (in both the English and Hollywoodese senses of the word) was a plot twist worthy of a subplot on Entourage.
Before it was a movie, Moneyball was just the little book (not written by Billy Beane) about The Little Team That Could (TLTTC) trying to compete in a fundamentally unfair game. Over six years later, as TLTTC approaches the 2009 All-Star break, it finds itself attempting a more traditional form of “turnaround” as an indie film that could produce a few breakthrough stars, but in the meantime won't be considered a serious player until some angel investor (hello, San Jose?) comes through.
The highlight of the season thus far for Beane—other than when he first heard the words every other American male can only dream of (“Brad Pitt will be playing you in a movie based on your life”)—was nabbing Adam Kennedy from Tampa Bay's unloved and unwanted pile on May 8. Kennedy, once a stalwart of the division rival Angels' 2002 World Series team, hit .390 the first three weeks after Beane rescued him from the wilds of Bull Durham country. However, since his initial three-week tear, Kennedy has hit only .213.
A bigger issue for the A's patchwork offense is that it is missing the legitimate power threat (e.g., Jason Giambi 1.0, Miguel Tejada and Frank Thomas) that usually carried the most successful A's teams in the Moneyball Decade.
Jack Cust won't sell any jeans, but what's worse is that he can't even get on base.
Cust is hitting only .227 and is on pace for 174 Ks. While that latter number is an improvement over his AL-leading 197 Ks last season, that was tempered with 111 BBs (which given how much he prizes the stat, might as well stand for Billy Beanes). Cust's current pace of 75 BBs could mean that he has regressed to only a Two True Outcomes Players (with only the worse of those two outcomes truly mastered).
Even more disappointing has been Oaktown's Chopper-riding, mustachioed prodigal son Giambi, who was supposed to be the club's major offseason free agent acquisition. Giambi's batting average (.205) is only a shade above that of the notorious Mr. Mendoza.
Even more startling is Giambi's .384 SLG—down .118 from his season with the Yanks last year—and sandwiching him somewhere between Placido Polanco and Dustin Pedroia on the Major League list. Matt Holliday has been capable (.269-.367-.423, 8HR), but has not been the level of player he was with the Rockies and, maybe more telling, in Coors Field. Without Cust, Giambi and Holliday doing what middle-of-the-order hitters are supposed to do (namely, mash like Pedro Cerrano), light-stroking table-setters like Kennedy and Orlando Cabrera are rendered useless.
While the A's offense thus far has mostly been an unimpressive menagerie of “out men,” the pitching staff has been bolstered by the concurrent emergence of young pitchers Josh Outman, Dallas Braden, Vin Mazarro, Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson.
With an average age of 22.5, every member of the A's staff looks young enough to still be carded. Heck, they're even too young to rent property in stuffy old Walnut Creek. Some fans and baseball pundits wondered whether or not these diaper dandies were ready for the bigs (“They're not even ready for Walnut Creek!”), but the “young guns” have given the A's staff a Top 5 AL mark for Team ERA (4.23).
The anchor of the staff has been fan favorite Dallas Braden, who currently has the 11th-best ERA in the American League (3.26). Outman, called up at the beginning of May, would also have a Top 20 mark for AL ERA (3.48) if he had the innings to qualify, but he has also had one of the league's lowest BABIPs (.228), so once he returns from the DL, we could see his ERA shoot back up to the merely average.
Another young pitcher, Vin Mazzaro, was called up from Sacramento at the beginning of June, and his first two wins were part of the A's seven-game win streak at that time, which gave the club new life and is the only reason they don't trail everyone else in the division by double digits. Cahill and Anderson, considered to be the future stars of the rotation, have at times looked brilliant, and at others looked all 21 years of their time on the planet.
Even though the A's are still technically in contention for the division title, you can be sure Billy Beane and his army of MBA graduates have a more realistic picture of this team's chances than your average fan and will look to take advantage of a trade market that should be populated with more buyers at the deadline than usual. The green and gold lunatic fringe may disapprove, but the A's will, in all likelihood, trade Holliday before the deadline, especially if he can play himself into a better package than Huston Street, Carlos Gonzalez and Greg Smith during the month of July.
So, fans may unfortunately see a Groundhog Day-like replay of last season, but one with a slightly brighter picture of the future, a future with 20-game winners, new stadium sellouts and fans with deeper pockets. Maybe even movie stars and swimming pools if they're lucky.
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