Athletics For Life

Pressure

September 3rd, 2014

Expectations are a funny thing. There were absolutely none on the 2012 A’s, who came from five games back in the division with ten games left to play to overtake the Rangers on the final day of the season. There were a little, but still not much, on the 2013 A’s, who proved that 2012 was no fluke. But the 2014 A’s went into the season as back-to-back division champions, and when they started playing excellent ball, blowing everyone away in run differential and dominating the league, expectations rose.

Bob Melvin, Geovany Soto, Greg GibsoAnd those expectations boiled over on July 31 when Billy Beane traded Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes. Now this wasn’t just a good team, it was a good team who was expected to go to the World Series. Expectations lead to pressure, and not only did it put pressure on the A’s, it put a big bullseye on the team, and extra motivation for their opponents to knock them down.

This is where I’m at in trying to understand what happened to the A’s in August. Sure, they missed Cespedes, but it was a lot more than that. Brandon Moss stopped hitting, almost completely. So did Derek Norris. Jed Lowrie was playing hurt and then went on the DL. Even the vaunted starting pitching staff had some rough patches. It just all fell apart at once.

We can look at stats all day long to try to figure out who can replace who in a lineup, but one thing we couldn’t have ever prepare for is the psychological impact a move like the Cespedes trade has on a team. Maybe it doesn’t have any. Only the A’s players themselves know if they were pressing and trying to do too much because Cespedes is no longer on the team. But we do know the team had its first losing month since May of 2012, guys who were All Stars in the first half looked completely lost at the plate in August, and they lost their division lead and now sit 4 1/2 games back in the AL West behind the Angels. One guy not being in a lineup can’t do that but pressure sure can.

The good news for the A’s is that they still have 24 more games to play this season and hold a three game lead for the first Wild Card spot. They also now have Adam Dunn in their lineup, who might help provide some of that lineup protection and presence that they may have been missing without Cespedes. But the pressure is still on. There’s no way it can’t be in a season like this.

And Then That Happened.

July 31st, 2014

When I first saw the news on Twitter that the A’s had acquired Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes from the Red Sox for Yoenis Cespedes, I thought it was a joke. Certainly the A’s wouldn’t trade away Cespedes in the middle of a pennant race, even for an ace like Lester. But then it was tweeted by other recognizable sources and it began to sink in. This really happened.

Billy Beane has made some shocking trades over the years but this one might take the cake. Major league talent for major league talent trades don’t happen all that often to begin with, at least on this large of a scale, but then you throw in the fact that a team in a pennant race traded away their All Star left fielder and this one’s on another level.

Yoenis CespedesJon Lester is an ace. He is that probably more than Jeff Samardzija is an ace, more than Scott Kazmir is an ace, and more than Sonny Gray is an ace. They’re all great pitchers but Lester has gotten it done in the postseason and on the big stage. He’s the guy you match up against Verlander (or David Price, this year) in a Game 1/Game 5 matchup with Detroit and actually have a chance to win.

But what do the A’s do about the loss of Cespedes? There’s no doubt that he’s an imposing hitter and a game-changing player with tons of talent. Jonny Gomes was acquired along with Lester in this deal but he’s not going to replace Cespedes’s production, at least versus right handed pitching. Versus left handed pitching, well he’s pretty good and will do just that:

Cespedes vs. LHP: .232/.319/.455 this season and .275/.348/.496 career
Gomes vs. LHP: .302/.400/.431 this season and .279/.379/.495 career

As for versus righty pitching, the A’s have enjoyed the emergence of Stephen Vogt this season as not just a clutch hitter but as a versatile player who can play the corner outfield spots and first base as well as catcher. He’s been kind of ridiculous:

Vogt vs. RHP: .365/.396/.524 this season and .286/.328/.421 career

We have to figure he’s somewhere between those two lines. He’s a good hitter, but not one of the top hitters in the game. And then there’s Cespedes:

Cespedes vs. RHP: .263/.298/.467 this season and .257/.306/.459 career

Also a good hitter, but not one of the top hitters in the game. Sure, he’s got big time power but the overall numbers do not appear irreplaceable. I think the offense will be fine, and isn’t necessarily that much worse without him.

He’s been an exciting player to have on the A’s and get to watch play every day but this season is about winning the World Series, and to do that you need top notch pitching that can shut the opposition down. In 2012, the ALDS games were started by Parker, Milone, Anderson, Griffin, Parker versus Verlander, Fister, Sanchez, Scherzer, Verlander. In 2013, it was Colon, Gray, Parker, Straily, Gray versus Scherzer, Verlander, Sanchez, Fister, Verlander. This year, baseball gods willing, we’ll have Lester, Samardzija, Gray, Kazmir. That’s a quartet of number ones like nothing we’ve had in recent years. I’ll miss Cespedes but as always I trust Billy Beane knows what he’s doing.

So That Happened.

July 5th, 2014

Something was bound to get me to write a blog post this season. It wasn’t going to be the fact that the A’s own baseball’s best record or the best run differential by a large margin halfway through the season. No, it had to be one of those Billy Beane “*%$#ing A” trades, and we got that one last night when the A’s parted with seemingly untouchable prospect Addison hi-res-169794006-starting-pitcher-jeff-samardzija-of-the-chicago-cubs_crop_exactRussell, last year’s first rounder Billy McKinney and Dan Straily to get Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs. The best team in baseball got better, but will it be worth it?

There’s no way to tell when it’s July and there’s lots of baseball to be played between now and October. But the A’s were running into a potential disaster relying on some of the arms that have gotten them to this point in the season. Sonny Gray is sure to pitch a career high in innings. Same goes for Jesse Chavez, who has been a reliever most of his career. Scott Kazmir has had injury issues, was out of baseball completely two years ago, and hasn’t thrown 200 innings since 2007. There are just too many question marks, and even if all three of these guys are capable of holding up and pitching well into October, there is one thing in baseball that there’s no such thing as and that’s having too many good players.

So they add two veteran arms who are having really good seasons, surrendering two former first rounders and last season’s ALDS Game 4 starter. Samardzija has a 2.83 ERA and a 3.07 FIP through 17 starts, while Hammel has a 2.98 ERA and 3.18 FIP through the same number of starts. How that is going to translate to the American League remains to be seen, but I’m sure neither guy is complaining about going to the pitcher’s paradise that is Oakland. Hammel is a rental as his contract expires after this season, while Samardzija is under team control through 2015. That puts him within the window that the A’s have on Yoenis Cespedes, and before guys like Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss get expensive, so there’s your competitive window – two years.

It’s likely this trade will be talked about for more than just the next two years, however, if Russell pans out like everyone expects him to. Whether they’re saying good things or bad things about the A’s depends on if Billy Beane finally wins the last game of the season. World Series or bust, here we go.

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