The Oakland Athletics have had the American League's best record for virtually the entire season, but any A's fan knows in-season success doesn't guarantee playoff wins. Winning in October takes a deep roster, a couple of top-level players and a whole lot of luck.
After consecutive Game 5 losses to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series, the A's have gone all-in to win this year, trading for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija, Jon Lester and Jason Hammel.
Building a starting rotation of four aces didn't come cheap, as general manager Billy Beane dealt top prospect Addison Russell and left fielder Yoenis Cespedes. To deliver on Beane's gambles and win the pennant for the first time since 1990, the A's need to continue their overall dominance, get past the one team they can't beat and hope for success in the few games that matter most.
Big Bats Must Stay Hot
The A's have one of the league's top offenses even without Cespedes, but some of the heavy hitters can be streaky. With a maximum of five games in the ALDS and seven in the ALCS, postseason success is entirely dependent on who gets hot at the right time.
Much of the responsibility will fall on third baseman Josh Donaldson, who hit a dismal .181/.223/.286 in June. With Cespedes out of the lineup, Oakland needs Donaldson to post something more like the .318/.426/.614 line he's had since the All-Star break.
Right fielder Josh Reddick has been riddled with injuries since his breakout 2012 campaign, but he has two home runs and four doubles in nine games since coming off of the disabled list. If Reddick can permanently regain his 2012 form, he would be a quality replacement for Cespedes in the middle of the order.
Beat the Tigers
The A's and the Tigers engaged in a beautiful arms race this summer, each team striving to push ahead as the best team in the AL. Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski countered Beane's moves by trading for Tampa Bay Rays starter David Price, giving the Tigers three former Cy Young winners in the rotation.
Re: Price to Tigers, Beane "had a feeling it was going to happen." Dombrowski jokingly texted, "You have 1 minute to acquire Chris Sale"— Jane Lee (@JaneMLB) August 1, 2014
The Tigers' dominance over the A's extends to the regular season as well. Oakland has done well against other contenders like the Angels (6-3) and the Baltimore Orioles (4-2) this year, but is 2-5 against Detroit.
At some point or another, the A's are likely to run into the Tigers in the playoffs. In a series of Jon Lester vs. Max Scherzer, Jeff Samardzija vs. David Price, Scott Kazmir vs. Anibal Sanchez and Sonny Gray vs. Justin Verlander, the A's might finally have the upper hand on pitching.
Pitching dominance will be key in getting past sluggers Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez and Torii Hunter. The road to the World Series will run through Motor City this year.
Keep on Keepin' On
To misquote Bill Hader's "Stefon" character from Saturday Night Live: This team has everything. Hitting, pitching, defense, a scruffy man slamming the door in the ninth inning and Halftain America (it's that thing where Captain America plays against left-handing pitching).
With the exception of second base, the A's roster has no real holes. The offense has scored more runs than any other team in baseball, while the pitchers are holding opponents to a .232 batting average. The result is a plus-162-run differential, nearly double the Angels' second-best plus-90-run differential.
This is the most complete team in the majors, and seven All-Stars give the A's the kind of star power they lacked in the past. Beane's constant tinkering and smart pickups have put the A's in the driver's seat. It won't be easy, but the American League—and the World Series, for that matter—is Oakland's to lose.