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The 2009 Giants did a lot better than everyone expected, going 88-74 and finishing third in a three-team race with the Giants, Dodgers and Rockies at the top, seven games out of first and four out of the wild card. The fourth-place Padres were miserably 13 games behind the Giants, 20 games out of first.
In the offseason, the Giants were arguably the only team that got markedly better with their acquisitions. The Rockies, Dodgers and Padres didn't make any big moves, and the Diamondbacks made moves that made them better, but didn't pull them out of the cellar.
The 2010 Giants won the National League West on the last day of the season, barely beating out the San Diego Padres AND the Atlanta Braves. Their 92-70 record was nothing to just dismiss as being in an easy division, but it was clearly the same three-team race, but this time with the Padres instead of Los Angeles. The fourth-place Dodgers were 12 games out at the end, and the D-backs were far, far away.
Across the Bay, the 2010 Athletics finished at .500, which was good enough to get them second place in the AL West. The first place team (the Rangers) ended up making the World Series, but they had the worst record of any playoff team and were the only postseason club that had a losing record on the road. The Angels were right behind the A's, but Seattle was way down in the standings. Honestly, the A's weren't that far behind, and if we can learn anything from the 2010 World Series, it's that good pitching, which Oakland has, will more often than not trump good hitting.
And this offseason, it could be argued that, like the Giants after 2009, the A's are the most-improved team in the AL West. With the additions of Matsui, DeJesus and Willingham, they now have a legitimate middle of the order, and no longer have to rely on Kurt Suzuki's 15 homers to lead the team. Their pitching is still great, and their bullpen only got better.
At the same time, the Rangers lost Cliff Lee, and probably lost Vladimir Guerrero as well. They missed out on Carl Crawford and now have to settle for only adding Adrian Beltre to bolster their lineup. The Angels got Vernon Wells, but again lost Matsui (to the A's) and missed out on Crawford. The Mariners...got better, but still aren't figured to get out of last place in the West.
All signs for the A's point up. And when you're in second place in the division, up means one thing: the playoffs. And if you're like the 2010 Giants/2011 A's, and built around a not-bad lineup and great pitching, that makes your chances of moving on in the playoffs pretty damn good.
I'm not saying its going to happen. I'm just saying don't be surprised if it does. Lightning might not strike twice for the same team, but that doesn't mean you can't learn from their formula and make a lightning rod of your own.