It's still too early to panic at only 14 games into the regular season, but this Oakland team is underwhelming the baseball world in all facets of their game but one, and it is costing the A's in the win column.
After an impressive road trip in which the team won two of their three series, they have returned to the same lackluster play that cost them their first two series of the season and lost the first two games of a four-game series against the visiting Detroit Tigers.
Thursday night's opener ended in a 3-0 loss despite another shutdown performance by Gio Gonzalez. Gonzalez lowered his ERA to 0.47 after allowing only two hits while striking out six in his six innings of work.
Tyson Ross earned the loss by allowing all three runs, two earned, in his inning of relief work.
Ross was not solely to blame for the loss, though. The Athletics offense only managed three hits in the combined shutout at the hands of Detroit pitchers Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde. Two of the three Athletics hits belonged to Conor Jackson. The only other hit was from Kurt Suzuki.
Friday night's loss was even uglier. Brandon McCarthy was brilliant through 6.2 innings before handing over his gem to the bullpen. McCarthy allowed six hits while striking out seven and only walking one batter.
Craig Breslow and Grant Balfour maintained Oakland's 1-0 lead heading into the ninth inning before Brian Fuentes allowed a lead-off home run to Miguel Cabrera to tie the game.
The A's then imploded in the 10th inning, displaying all the negative traits that have helped them to their eight losses so far this season. The defense committed three errors, and the bullpen allowed the Tigers to score seven times in the 10th inning.
The offense did finally come back to score three times in the bottom half of the 10th, but it was not enough to overcome the huge deficit they had created for themselves.
Had the offense showed up just a few innings earlier, the ninth-inning mistake by Fuentes would not have cost McCarthy and the A's a win.
So what exactly is causing the A's to rack up losses this season instead of building the winning record that most A's fans and baseball observers expected of them?
It certainly is not the starting pitching. A's starters have been excellent. Trevor Cahill (3.12 ERA), Brett Anderson (2.29 ERA), Gio Gonzales (0.47 ERA), Brandon McCarthy (2.45 ERA) and Dallas Braden (4.15 ERA) have been everything they were built up to be by the Athletics and the media.
The bullpen has definitely been shaky this year. Grant Balfour, Craig Breslow and Brian Fuentes have all blown a save so far this season.
While Fuentes does have five saves for the A's, he also has an ERA of 5.63—not quite what the A's had in mind when they signed him to two-year deal in the offseason.
Breslow has improved since his first two appearances of the season, but he is still sporting a 9.82 ERA.
Thankfully, Andrew Bailey and Michael Wuertz should both be returning to the A's within the next couple of weeks at the latest. Bailey is as solid of a closer as there is in the American League, and his addition to the team will allow the other relievers to fall back into their original setup and middle inning roles.
Now we're getting somewhere. The defense was supposed to be one of Oakland's strengths; instead, it has been one of their biggest weaknesses.
Headed into Saturday's game against the Tigers, the A's have amassed 16 errors to start the season, the worst in the American League.
Kevin Kouzmanoff and Daric Barton each have four errors for Oakland, totaling half of the errors the team has committed as a whole.
The A's need better defense from their corner infielders if they are to stand a chance in the American League West this season.
Both are considered to be among the better fielders at their positions, so history tells us they should break out of their defensive slump and return to form, hopefully soon.
Andy LaRoche has been seeing more time at third base though, and should Kouzmanoff continue to struggle he could see himself getting regular playing time at the hot corner.
Ah, now we have found the real problem.
The Athletics spent the offseason attempting to bolster their offense with the trades for David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, and the free-agent signing of Hideki Matsui.
Unfortunately, only Josh Willingham has lived up to his expectations, to a degree, so far.
While Willingham has managed to display the power that Oakland clearly has lacked since Frank Thomas and Nick Swisher combined for 74 home runs in 2006, his .208 batting average is a disappointment.
DeJesus' .234 batting average is the highest of the new trio of A's hitters, followed by Matsui's .224 average.
Barton, LaRoche and Conor Jackson currently share the team lead in batting average at .292. However, only Barton is a regular starter.
Kevin Kouzmanoff has been a double offender on both offense and defense. His .171 average and .182 on-base percentage are equally to blame with his four errors for his two game benching.
The A's expect better performances from Mark Ellis (.200 avg), Cliff Pennington (.229 avg), Coco Crisp (.226 avg) and Kurt Suzuki (.234 avg) as well.
Is a Roster Shake-Up Coming?
In 2002 Billy Beane responded to his team losing 14 out of 18 games by drastically shaking up his roster, demoting Carlos Pena, Frank Menechino and Jeff Tam to AAA.
The shake-up worked as the A's went on to a 103-59 record that season. Could a similar scenario be on its way if the A's don't turn things around quickly?
The simple answer is yes. The A's have Bailey and Wuertz returning to the bullpen soon, which instantly means a pair of demotions for the bullpen. Similarly, utility man Adam Rosales will be returning to the team in early May, which means one of the position players is likely headed to Sacramento.
Current utility infielder Adam LaRoche has been one of the team's most reliable hitters, making it unlikely that he is headed to Sacramento.
It remains a possibility that the A's could decide to eat some of the amount owed to Kouzmanoff and explore a trade to keep LaRoche and Rosales on the roster, or they could simply choose to waive him and hope another team claims his salary.
If Beane decides more moves are necessary beyond the immediate moves that will happen with the three returning players from the disabled list, Adrian Cardenas and Jemile Weeks are both off to hot starts in Sacramento.
Cardenas is batting .440 for the Rivercats, and Weeks is hitting .371 on the early season. Cardenas has primarily been used as the designated hitter for Sacramento, but he has also seen time at third base this season. Cardenas has two errors at third so far, so he does not appear to be a defensive upgrade over Kouzmanoff though.
It is unlikely the A's would part ways with Mark Ellis this early in the season, despite him being in the final year of his contract. It is not completely out of the realm of possibilities that the A's could decide on a complete roster overhaul if things don't turn around though, and then Weeks would likely find himself in Oakland a year earlier than anticipated.
Chris Carter finally broke out of his early-season slump last night with a five-RBI performance, including his first home run of the season, but his .182 average is not earning him a call-up anytime soon to replace the slumping Matsui.
Another realistic possibility to fix the Athletics' offensive and defensive problems would be for a Billy Beane specialty, identify a struggling team and acquire one of their top players that serves a double purpose for the A's (instant production to help the team contend, and trade value should the team fade before the trade deadline).
I have some thoughts on who Beane may target in this scenario, but you'll need to check back tomorrow for that story...
Regardless of the situation, I would estimate that the current roster has approximately two more weeks to turn things around before a roster over haul could be in order. If Oakland falters against division series with the Mariners, Angels and Rangers at the end of April, I expect to see a few moves made in an attempt to regain ground in the AL West before things get too far out of reach.
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