MLB Playoffs: Oakland A's Season Full of Stories Along Way to ALDS Showdown
Heading into spring training to begin the 2012 season fresh off an offseason full of activity by the front office, scouts and fans alike projected the A's to push the 100-loss mark for the season and wallow in the American League West cellar for the entire season.
The focus was clear and without question—build towards 2014 and a new stadium in San Jose.
Six months later we find the A's in an unexpected and unfathomable place: the playoffs.
The 2002 Oakland A's inspired a best-selling book and later Hollywood movie, Moneyball. Brad Pitt was brought in and played Billy Beane, red carpets were laid out in Oakland for premieres and the A's even held an on-field viewing of the movie after one of their games this summer. This 2012 team, ten years after that celebrated team, may have more storylines and be more deserving of a feature.
They are, after all, the 2012 American League West Champions and headed for a run at history in the postseason.
The ending has yet to play out, but all A's fans old and new have enjoyed this made-for-movies story.
While we sit back and wait for the ending, let's revisit how we got here.
Offseason Full of Trades
Expectations were low following trades that sent Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey, Ryan Sweeney, Josh Outman and Guillermo Moscoso out of town.
The departures of three All-Star pitchers is obviously hard for fans to accept. Even a fanbase accustomed to losing their stars every year found it hard to watch three top pitchers, a pair of serviceable back-of-the-rotation arms and a solid fourth outfielder who had become a fan favorite all leave town.
The haul, though, included our now-starting catcher in Derek Norris, two-fifths of our starting rotation in Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone, All-Star reliever Ryan Cook, team MVP candidate and right fielder Josh Reddick, DH-platoon player and pinch hit extraordinaire Seth Smith, as well as a plethora of prospects that could have an impact in the coming years.
We'll touch on the contributions of a few of these players more in a bit, but an offseason that was already viewed as a successful rebuild at the time has turned into one of Billy Beane's best offseasons of his entire tenure as A's general manager.
Beane Shocks Baseball, Signs Yoenis Cespedes
The re-signing of Coco Crisp during the offseason indicated that the A's would not be in the market for a center fielder, especially not a high-priced, highly hyped center fielder like Yoenis Cespedes.
In addition to the signing of Crisp, the A's had also traded for Josh Reddick and Seth Smith and signed Jonny Gomes. Collin Cowgill was acquired in the Trevor Cahill trade and figured to be in the mix for an outfield spot as well.
The Miami Marlins had already toured their new ballpark with Cespedes and indications were that he was likely to sign in Miami, a city with a high Cuban population where he would be able to transition easier to life in America.
Besides, the A's were seemingly in a rebuilding mode. What use did they have for a player who would likely reach his prime and depart via free agency right as the A's open a new ballpark?
Surprise surprise, Beane swooped in and made the best offer, a four-year, $36-million contract to land the highly touted Cuban center fielder.
Some scouts and analysts speculated that he would not be ready for MLB-level competition right away and would need time in AAA to be accustomed to American baseball. Beane and the A's disagreed and placed Cespedes on the 25-man opening day roster.
Yoenis rewarded Beane's faith in him with a power display early in spring training as well an absolute missile in his first professional game in the season opener in Japan, adding in another blast in the home opener in Oakland.
But that was just the beginning...
Center Field Controversy
Not overly pleased that upon the highly-publicized signing of Cespedes he was relegated to left field, Coco Crisp made statements that he believed he belonged in center field unless a "demigod" were to come and replace him.
Crisp did accept his reassignment to left field and tried to make the best of it, but was vocal about his disappointment. Among other comments, Crisp stated that he likely would not have re-signed with Oakland had he known he would not be the everyday center fielder.
He got off to his worst start in his professional career before finally turning his season around when he was placed back in center field out of necessity due to a Cespedes injury.
Crisp's play in center ended the controversy, not that there really was much of one in hindsight anyway, and Cespedes graciously accepted his role as the team's left fielder and adapted well.
Controversy aside and chemistry in tact, the A's now had a very formidable outfield of Cespedes in left field, Crisp in center and Josh Reddick in right field, with Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith splitting time at DH and as the fourth outfielder.
Who's on Third? A's Lose Scott Sizemore First Day of Spring Training
Following his acquisition from the Detroit Tigers in 2011, Scott Sizemore established himself as the A's everyday third baseman entering spring training.
That designation ended quickly when he tore his ACL on the first day of spring training.
The A's eventually settled on rookie Josh Donaldson, a converted catcher, as the third baseman headed out of spring training and into the regular season.
Donaldson struggled and was unable to hold onto the designation, leaving the A's with a mix-and-match infield at times until they were able to sign free agent Brandon Inge following his release from the Detroit Tigers.
Donaldson eventually returned to the big leagues following an injury to Inge and has settled in to play solid third base while showing a strong bat.
If Inge is not retained for 2013, there could be a position battle between Sizemore and Donaldson come spring training 2013.
Opening Series: A's vs Mariners in Japan
I'm sure when Major League Baseball scheduled the A's to open the season in Japan against the Seattle Mariners, they were envisioning a matchup between Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, Oakland's 2011 designated hitter.
Well, the A's did not retain Matsui's services, so that matchup did not come to be.
Oakland and Seattle split the two games and both returned to the U.S. with identical 1-1 records.
The A's showed early that they would be able to rely on solid pitching and power hitting in the two games in Japan. Including back-to-back one-run performances from Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon and the first homers of the season for Cespedes, Reddick and Gomes.
Throughout the season, several A's players have cited the Japan trip as a key to bringing them together and helping build chemistry.
Down & Out? A's Lose 9 Straight in Late May
After playing better than expected for most of the first two months of the season, the A's found themselves with a 22-21 record before their game on May 22.
Unfortunately, from May 22 through June 1, the A's would go on to lose nine straight games and plummet to the bottom of the AL West standings. Many in the media, myself included, pointed to it as a sign the A's had overachieved the first month and a half of the season and that this was the beginning of what would turn out to be a long summer in Oakland.
I guess we were all wrong.
Those nine games were grueling and as you look at it now, had they won even just two of those games the playoff race would not have come down to the final series of the season, but from that time, the A's have gone to a 70-47 record.
The 2002 team had the "great shakeup" as their rallying point; the 2012 team had the adversity of the losing streak, their fall from contention, and dismissal by the national and local media as their rallying point.
Brandon Inge Comes In, Goes off
The dismal start to the season at third base by Josh Donaldson prompted the A's to seek an upgrade.
When the Detroit Tigers released veteran and fan-favorite Brandon Inge, the A's quickly negotiated a contract with the former All-Star and brought him to occupy third base in Oakland.
Inge responded by promptly collecting four four-RBI games in six appearances and showing a knack for hitting the grand slam.
Despite not producing a very high batting average, Inge's clutch hitting and solid defense kept him in the lineup, and his veteran leadership helped shape an otherwise very young A's team.
Sadly, Inge separated his shoulder on a play on September 1 and had to undergo season-ending surgery.
He proved to be an invaluable part of this team and has expressed his willingness to return in 2013, even in a utility role.
Josh Reddick Emerges as a Star
It's hard to imagine looking back on the trade this offseason that brought in Josh Reddick and being overly excited about the deal.
He showed promise and had solid numbers. I think most baseball people would have viewed him as an upgrade over Ryan Sweeney, but was he an everyday right fielder? The Red Sox certainly didn't seem to think so. They had him pegged as a fourth outfielder.
Over the course of the season, Reddick has done everything in his power—and for a slight-framed lanky player, he certainly has a lot of power—to prove that he is not only an everyday player in the Bigs, he is a star.
He leads the A's in homers (32), RBI (84), runs (84) and has shown that he is deserving of a Gold Glove for his play in right field, including his laser-like throwing arm that has earned him the respect of base runners league-wide.
Tommy Milone Sets Rookie-Win Record Before All-Star Break
Tommy Milone, acquired in the trade that sent Gio Gonzalez to the Washington Nationals, established himself early as a reliable starter in Oakland's rotation.
By the time the All-Star break rolled around, Milone found himself tied with Rick Langford for the record of wins by a rookie before the All-Star break with seven. He proceeded to beat the Seattle Mariners 1-0 with a seven-inning shutout performance to earn his eighth win and take sole possession of the record.
Milone wound up with 14 wins on the season, an Oakland rookie record (tied with rotation-mate Jarrod Parker).
Ryan Cook Named to All-Star Team as a Rookie
Not viewed as much more than a throw-in in the Cahill trade with Arizona over the winter, Ryan Cook quickly made a name for himself as an Oakland reliever.
The hard-throwing right-hander excelled in a setup role, not allowing a run in his first 23 innings of the season.
He wound up taking over the closer role from Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes and earned himself a nod for the All-Star game by Texas manager Ron Washington.
Cook eventually struggled, relinquished his closer role back to Balfour and settled back into a setup role, but has had an amazing rookie season. Cook is 6-2 on the season with a 2.14 ERA, 14 saves and 78 strikeouts in 71.1 innings pitched.
Yoenis Cespedes Catches Fire
Cespedes had a promising first month in the Majors, knocking five homers, before injuring himself in May and being sidelined for all but five games.
Upon his return in June, he proceeded to bat .343 for the month and connected for four more homers. He hit five more homers in July along the way to a .344 batting average for the month and has added seven more homers from August through the end of September.
Oakland is 12-22 when Cespedes is not in the lineup, compared to 80-47 when he is in the lineup.
Just imagine how the A's could have done if he had been healthy and available those extra 34 games.
Now are you looking forward to three more years of him in green and gold?
First Base Carousel
Brandon Allen, Daric Barton, Kila Kai'hue, Chris Carter, Brandon Moss, Adam Rosales, Josh Donaldson and Brandon Hicks have all logged time at first base this season.
Allen has since been designated for assignment and was claimed by Tampa Bay (before being sold by the Rays to Japan), Barton was demoted and called back up in September, Kai'hue is gone, Hicks back in Triple-A, Rosales in a utility role and Donaldson is at third base, leaving Carter and Moss in a platoon at first base.
The A's wound up with good production for the corner infield spot though, despite the carousel of players at the position. Moss and Carter have combined for 37 homers. Kai'hue added four and Barton one to bring the total from first to 42 for the season.
All things considered, that's pretty good. Credit Bob Melvin and Beane for the roster moves.
Brandon Moss Emerges as a Legit Major League Power Threat
What kind of numbers would Brandon Moss have produced had he been in the Majors all season?
With two full months spent in Triple-A and learning a new position on top of that, Moss has connected for 21 homers, despite it being the equivalent of just half a season (82 games).
He also hit 15 homers for Sacramento before his promotion, bringing his overall season total to 36.
It's not that he never got an extended look elsewhere; he played in 133 games for the Pirates in 2009 and 79 games in 2008 split between the Red Sox and Pirates. It just took a change of scenery and the guidance of the A's player development to bring out the best in Moss.
He has proven he has the power to change a game with one swing of his bat for the A's in 2012. Moss is also the recipient of a pair of pies in the face this year.
Chris Carter Finally Puts It All Together
Does anyone still remember that Chris Carter started his professional career 0-for-33 a few years back?
He seemed to find a way to fail at every opportunity in the big leagues, dating back to his debut in 2010 before finally putting it all together this season in a big way. Playing in a platoon role at first base with Moss, Carter has connected for 16 homers in just 67 games so far this season, putting his prodigious power on full display to A's fans who have waited so long for him to fulfill his potential.
He is averaging a home run every 13.63 at-bats this season and has looked far more comfortable both at the plate and in the field.
Derek Norris Called Up, Walks off vs. Giants
On June 21, the A's called up Derek Norris, who was acquired in the Gio trade with Washington over the winter.
Norris had been playing well at Sacramento and Oakland needed more production behind the plate than they were currently getting from their longest tenured player, veteran Kurt Suzuki.
Despite a 0-for-3 debut the date of his call-up, he made a quick impression on Oakland fans by following with a 2-for-5 showing against the cross-Bay rival Giants in his next start. He followed that up with a walk-off homer the next day (also against the Giants).
Norris would eventually take over the everyday starting job after spending a little time under the tutelage of Suzuki.
Although his batting average is not at a desirable level, .194, he has given the A's some pop from behind the dish (6 HR) and shown steady defense and pitch-calling.
Kurt Suzuki Traded to the Washington Nationals
On August 4, the A's answered the question as to who their everyday catcher moving forward would be. They had already acquired George Kotaras from the Milwaukee Brewers to help add some depth to the position, making a trade of their longest tenured position player possible.
Suzuki was shocked at the news, as were his teammates, but the trade provided him an opportunity to go to a team where he could play every day and remain in a pennant race. It provided the A's the opportunity to further develop their catcher of the future in Derek Norris and supplement his playing time with that of Kotaras.
It was a bit sad in an otherwise positive season, seeing a fan favorite traded away, but the A's didn't skip a beat and flourished under the game calling of Norris and Kotaras while Suzuki improved on his slumping season and put together solid numbers for Washington on their quest to the first division title for the city of DC since 1933.
Suzuki was also reunited with former battery mate Gio Gonzalez.
Hope to see you in the World Series this year, Kurt.
George Kotaras Contributes Following Unheralded Trade from Brewers
At the time of his acquisition, the trade that brought Kotaras to Oakland did not seem like it would be a real impact move.
It opened some speculation that a trade may follow, which did wind up happening, but it also could have been to add a veteran backup for Suzuki down the stretch as Oakland pushed for playoff contention.
As it turned out, the A's initially demoted Norris and went with Suzuki and Kotaras before eventually dealing Suzuki to Washington.
From that point forward, Kotaras has split time behind the plate with Norris and provided the A's with some punch in the lineup.
His six homers with the A's in just 26 games gives him nine total for the year.
Stephen Drew Acquired from DBacks, Brings Life to SS
Prior to the trade deadline, GM Billy Beane identified shortstop as a position he would seek to upgrade. While he failed in his attempts to land Hanley Ramirez, Yunel Escobar and Stephen Drew prior to July 31, he was able to land Drew in August.
At the time, Drew was batting just .193 with the Diamondbacks following his return from an ankle surgery that ended his 2011 season.
Since joining the A's, he has batted .250 with five homers and driven in 16 runs.
It was a reunion for Drew with his first Major League manager, Bob Melvin. Both sides seem open to the possibility of Drew returning to Oakland in 2013, although his $10m option might complicate matters a little for the low-revenue A's.
The change of scenery definitely benefited Drew, landing him squarely in a pennant race and helping him turn around an otherwise frustrating season.
Jemile Weeks Demoted, Cliff Pennington Moves to Second
The acquisition of Stephen Drew allowed the A's to make another roster move to improve their struggling middle-infield combo of Cliff Pennington and Jemile Weeks. It seemed like a toss-up at the time which player may find himself out of a job in Oakland, but it wound up being the less-versatile Weeks that found himself in Sacramento.
Weeks likely still remains the A's second baseman of the future, but the struggling sophomore player found himself back in Triple-A to work on his hitting (.221 for the season) as well as his defense (.977 fielding percentage).
He batted .333 in his stint in the minors and earned a call-up back to the Majors when the River Cats season came to an end.
Pennington, meanwhile, has flourished since his position switch, batting .287 as a second baseman in 102 plate appearances versus .194 as a shortstop in 350 plate appearances. He has six homers for the season, three from each position, and has been solid defensively from the right side of second base.
Bartolo Colon Popped for PED's, Suspended 50 Games
A week after cross-Bay rival and All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera got popped for failing a performance-enhancing drug test, word came down that the A's also had a player fail a random test and was suspended 50 games.
Unfortunately for the A's, that pitcher was veteran leader Bartolo Colon. Fortunately for the A's, they did not skip a beat.
Colon was 10-9 with a 3.43 ERA at the time of his suspension and had been a mentor to the A's younger staff. The impressive crop of young arms was able to pick up the slack though, and rookies A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily, along with Travis Blackley, were able to slide right back into the rotation and keep things rolling for the A's.
Although Colon can rejoin the A's if they make 10 games into the postseason, there is no word from the team yet if they would add him to the postseason roster or not.
Win for Mac
Shortly after Colon was lost for the remainder of the regular season, the A's were dealt another blow to their starting rotation with the loss of Brandon McCarthy.
Truly one of the nicest guys and funniest tweeters, in the game, McCarthy was struck in the head by a line drive right off the bat of Alberto Callaspo of the Los Angeles Angels.
Although he walked off the field on his own after being visited by the A's training staff, it was later divulged that he had to undergo a life-threatening two-hour surgery to stop a hemorrhage.
He quickly returned to tweeting though and brought a collective sigh of relief from the entire baseball-loving national community that he was on the mend.
During his absence, A's players hung his jersey in the dugout and declared they were playing to "win for Mac."
14 Walk-off Wins, "Piederman"-Style
The "Comeback Kids" certainly had a knack for the late dramatics at home this season.
As previously mentioned, Derek Norris made a quick impression on Oakland fans with his walkoff shot against the Giants, but that was just one of a league leading 14 walk-off home wins the A's would have this season.
It became a saying around Oakland this summer, "Come for the game, stay for the pie."
The pie, of course, being a reference to the ritual started by Josh Reddick of slamming a whipped cream pie in the face of the A's batter responsible for the winning hit. The ritual evolved to include dumping of the team's Gatorade and water coolers, and occasionally the sunflower seed bucket as well.
Following a leaping, fence-clinging catch in Toronto, Josh Reddick earned himself the nickname of Spiderman and chose to wear a Spiderman suit as he pied Coco Crisp following Crisp's walk-off winning hit. And thus was born "Pie-derman."
Oakland A's Leanin' Like Bernie
Apparently we get to thank Brandon Inge for introducing the Oakland Coliseum to the "Bernie Lean."
As the story goes, the A's were playing the rap song "Moving Like Bernie" in the clubhouse and Inge liked the song so much that he changed it to his walk-up song. A's players began having fun with the phenomenon and did the "Bernie" dance move as a celebration when a teammate would hit a home run.
Of course, it caught on in the right field bleachers and spread with the A's diehards.
The A's have participated in a music video shoot for the song and have produced their own scoreboard production of the dance craze for in-stadium use.
The "Bernie" will now be on national display in the ALDS when the series returns to Oakland next week.
An A's All-Rookie Rotation
Following the suspension of Colon and the injury to McCarthy, the A's found themselves with a rotation of Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily and Travis Blackley for the postseason push.
The original thought was that Blackley was now the "veteran" leader of the group, having made his professional debut in 2004. A review of the statistics showed, however, that Blackley had never contributed enough service time in any single season to shake his "rookie" status.
Not exactly thrilled with the distinction, Blackley rolled with it (and the teasing from his teammates) and Oakland had a full rookie rotation headed into final month of the season.
Even more impressive, three of the A's current rotation members were with different organizations in 2011 (Parker with Arizona, Milone with Washington and Blackley with San Francisco). Griffin and Straily were in the low minors at this time last season and spending their offseason selling athletic shoes to help make a living.
What a difference a year makes.
The A's Win the American League West
Down 13 games on June 30 and still down five games with just nine to play, who would have thought this was possible?
Heading into the final 10 games with seven to play against the first-place Texas Rangers, the A's certainly had a chance, but was it really possible?
After splitting a four-game series in Texas and escaping still four games back of the Rangers, Oakland had their work cut out for them with just six games remaining. A sweep of the Seattle Mariners while Texas struggled against the Los Angeles Angels left the A's in a good, but not great, position at two games back with three to play against Texas in Oakland to close out the season.
It would take a sweep to win the AL West against the team everyone anointed the best in baseball.
Just a single win would earn them the Wild Card, but the A's were hungry and young enough not to know any better.
Following a champagne celebration Monday evening when they clinched the Wild Card behind a solid pitching performance by Parker, the A's turned to Blackley for Tuesday night's "must-win" game. Blackley was solid, and the A's were able to walk away with a 3-1 victory and a share of first place headed into the one-game showdown in game No. 162 that would decide the winner of the AL West Crown.
At one point, down 5-1 in Wednesday's regular season finale, things didn't look too great for the A's chances of guaranteeing themselves a five-game series, but the A's didn't earn themselves the title of "comeback kids" for nothing this season.
Fueled by a key error by Josh Hamilton in the outfield that allowed a pair of runners to score, the A's scored 11 unanswered runs and roared back to pummel the Rangers 12-5 and take the AL West Championship for the first time since 2006.
Looking Beyond Game No. 162
The regular season is over and now the "second season" begins with the A's taking on the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division series.
Beginning the season as 80-to-1 favorites to win a World Series, the A's now have a 15-to-2 chance and will continue to play the underdog role against a Detroit team that won seven less games than the A's in the regular season.
The team that was supposed to lose 100 games at the beginning of the season has done the improbable all season and continued to improve on their amazing story.
Now we'll sit back and see if they can continue the ultimate sequel to their storybook 2002 Moneyball season with an ending that could vault the 2012 team right into the Hollywood ending, hoisting the World Series trophy and enjoying a few more champagne showers along the way.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves. The A's take it one game at a time, and that's exactly how we'll have to enjoy the rest of the ride through the A's magic playoff season.