MLB's Tale of Two Cities: Can the 2011 A's Repeat the Giants' Season of 2010?
A vaunted homegrown pitching staff. A very strong bullpen led by an All-Star closer.
A franchise player behind the plate. A balanced mix of young guys and veterans.
Low expectations. A mild-mannered, baseball-minded manager in the dugout.
A weak, very winnable division where the other teams made negligible offseason improvements.
Last year was a good year for the Giants. And by good year, I mean they won the World Series. Yes, THAT good. And the above statements pretty accurately describe the team at the start of the 2010 season.
And if that's the recipe for success, it looks like the Oakland Athletics are using the same cookbook for 2011.
Now I'm not going to take that extreme leap of faith and call the A's the "soon-to-be 2011 World Champions," but I will say that there are a lot of similarities, both on the team and in the division, that make the comparisons very valid.
San Francisco has Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner and Barry Zito. All but Zito were drafted and developed by the Giants. (Zito, coincidentally, by Oakland.)
The A's have Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, Gio Gonzalez and Josh Outman. Cahill and Braden were the only ones drafted by the A's, but none of those five has ever pitched a big-league game in anything other than an Oakland uniform.
The Giants had the second-best ERA in the National League in 2009. The Athletics had the best ERA in the American League in 2010. (For good measure, the Giants had the best in the NL in 2010.)
Both teams led their respective leagues in ERA in 2010.The 2010 Giants had a stellar bullpen, anchored by All-Star closer Brian Wilson and supported by Santiago Casilla, Guillermo Mota, Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo. Later in the year they were joined by Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez.
The 2011 Athletics revamped their already solid bullpen, adding late-inning help in Grant Balfour and former closer Brian Fuentes. They also boast an All-Star closer in Andrew Bailey, and Brad Ziegler, who has additional closing experience. Supporting that bridge from starter to closer are Michael Wuertz and Craig Breslow.
Heck, we could even go deeper, pointing out that lefty Jonathan Sanchez, the No. 4 starter for the Giants, pitched a no-hitter in 2009. Dallas Braden, also a southpaw, pitched a perfect game for the A's in 2010.
Convinced yet? Both games were pitched to the teams' respective backup catchers, Eli Whiteside for San Francisco and Landon Powell for Oakland.
As the caption states, the catcher position is about as far from being a question mark as can be for both of these teams.
He's not exactly the franchise player stats-wise that Buster Posey promises to be, but Kurt Suzuki is the quiet face of the Athletics offense. Mark Ellis holds the tenure card, but if anyone can be quieter than Suzuki, it's Ellis.
Suzuki is arguably one of the top three catchers in the American League, and as Rookie of the Year, Buster Posey established himself as one of the catchers of the future in the National League.
The Giants pitching staff greatly praised Posey and his ability to handle them, after that was one of the biggest question marks in trading away Bengie Molina. Suzuki has done a fabulous job at handling the youngest staff in the league, one that prides itself on cycling in new aces every year.
They're both very smart, have solid approaches at the plate, can rarely do wrong behind the plate and are huge parts of their respective teams.
And they're both under team control for awhile. Posey isn't even eligible for arbitration until after the 2012 season. Suzuki just signed a four-year extension earlier this year.
If you're looking for an irreplaceable player on either team, look behind the plate.
Mixing It Up
The 2010 Giants were known as the team of misfits, but it really seemed that, for the first time, general manager Brian Sabean got that elusive formula of free-agent additions and homegrown talent right. Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell were the old salts on a team that also featured not-so-old salts Andres Torres, Freddy Sanchez and Barry Zito, and young guys like Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Buster Posey.
The 2011 Athletics look like they're taking a page from the Giants book, building a team around young players like Kurt Suzuki, Ryan Sweeney and Trevor Cahill. This offseason they added David DeJesus, Hideki Matsui and Josh Willingham to their lineup, while also agreeing to terms with Grant Balfour and David Fuentes in their bullpen.
It's not the typical youth-driven Athletics team that we're used to seeing, but it's hard to be Billy Bean, looking at the relatively cheap success of the Giants playoff roster in 2010, and not seeing that within reach across the Bay.
Manager Bruce Bochy has never been known to be an especially inspiring guy. He's not a personality like Jim Leyland or Bobby Cox. But he knows baseball, and one of the reasons that the Giants went out and plucked him from San Diego was his tremendous intuition with his team and his attention to details that end up winning games.
Case in point: One of the turning points in the Giants season was a series against the Dodgers in Los Angeles in mid-July. With one out and the bases loaded in the ninth, down 5-4, Bochy pointed out to the umpires that hitting coach Don Mattingly, who had taken over for the ejected Joe Torre, had left the mound and returned for a second trip, and therefore had to take closer Jonathan Broxton out of the game. The Giants ended up taking advantage, scoring three runs and winning the game 7-5.
And after years of wasting away so many hours during a season watching Felipe Alou make eight pitching changes every game, did anybody doubt any of the moves Bochy made by the end of the season? It seemed like every matchup, every pinch-runner and pinch-hitter and every defensive replacement made a great play, beat out a sure out or came up with a big hit. I'm pretty sure the adjective most commonly used by reporters down the stretch was simply "outmanaged."
Bob Geren is very similar. He can get fiery when he has to, but most of the time he's like the Boch: pensive, pondering his next move, playing the game of baseball like a slightly more lively game of chess.
Sure, the Athletics haven't made the postseason in five years, but the Giants hadn't made the playoffs since 2003, and they let Bochy manage for three years. Geren guided the A's to their first .500 season since 2006, and he's got the same kind of baseball smarts that eventually landed Bochy a shot at the playoffs and eventually a World Series ring.
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.