Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Athletics Looking to Take Next Step

                                                The Seven Athletics All Stars

Coming into the All Star break, the Oakland Athletics possess the best record in baseball at 57-33. They have won the last two AL West division titles over high spending rivals like the Rangers and Angels. However, they lost in the fifth game of the Division Series to the Tigers both years. With the Angels and Mariners pushing the A's for the division, they made a big trade for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. GM Billy Beane is pulling out all the stops to make a World Series run and finally win that elusive last game of the season. In the movie Moneyball, Beane's character lamented how his team could be so successful in the regular season, but couldn't get over the hump in the postseason. Beane's teams have made the postseason 7 times, but never reached the World Series.

Beane took over as the Athletics GM after the 1997 season. Beane had been a failed top prospect and finished his career as a part-time major leaguer on Tony La Russa's Bash Brothers era teams. Beane had just taken over a franchise that traded away slugger Mark McGwire to the Cardinals that summer, and had parted ways with Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco, Terry Steinbach, and Dave Stewart in recent seasons. This was clearly a rebuilding project.

Within a couple of seasons, the A's were back in contention. This group had strong offensive talent like Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, and Eric Chavez. But the key to this run of success was the trio of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. These three homegrown pitchers were the foundation of four straight postseason appearances from 2000-03. Giambi left for a big deal with the Yankees after 2001, and Tejada left for the Orioles in 2003.  Beane then would trade Hudson and Mulder away after the 2004 season, but stayed in contention the next couple of years. Young players like Dan Haren, Nick Swisher, and Huston Street; along with low cost acquisitions like Jason Kendall and Frank Thomas led the team back to the playoffs in 2006.

The A's finally won a playoff series in 2006 after losing four straight times in the Division Series earlier in the decade. That would be the highest point the franchise would have for years. They were swept by the Tigers in the ALCS, and Beane fired manager Ken Macha after the season. Zito left for a $126 million deal with the Giants, and Chavez couldn't stay healthy. Beane would wheel and deal a lot the next few years, but the team struggled. He would trade Haren for Carlos Gonzalez and prospects after the 2007 season. He would then trade Gonzalez and Street the following offseason for Matt Holliday. By the trading deadline in 2009, he traded Holliday for 3 prospects who never panned out(Brett Wallace being the best of the three). He would sign aging players past their prime like Mike Piazza, Nomar Garciaparra, Ben Sheets, Giambi, Mike Sweeney, and Hideki Matsui looking to see if he could get a bargain. People were beginning to wonder if Beane lost his touch.

Beane would again remake his roster during the 2011-12 offseason. The Angels had just signed Albert Pujols and the Rangers signed Yu Darvish. Beane's team was thought to be rebuilding and traded away All Star pitchers Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, and Andrew Bailey. Those trades brought back Derek Norris, Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook, and Josh Reddick. Beane signed Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes that offseason. Other key players like Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie, John Jaso, and Luke Gregerson were acquired via trades. Brandon Moss and Jesse Chavez were picked up the scrap heap. Coco Crisp and Scott Kazmir were low cost free agent signings. Only Sonny Gray and Sean Doolittle are the only major contributors drafted by the Athletics.

This has ended up being a strong core for a team gunning for it's third straight division title. While Beane and manager Bob Melvin have said that the Samardzija/Hammel trade was about winning the division and avoiding the wild card game, this is a team with bigger aspirations. They are looking to make a run at a World Series championship. They felt like they needed to add pitching to compete with their playoff nemesis Detroit after losing Parker and A.J. Griffin for the season. They may also look to upgrade second base, were starter Eric Sogard has struggled, and Nick Punto and Alberto Callaspo don't represent big upgrades.

The Athletics are the most balanced team in the American League. They are first in runs scored and second in runs allowed. They play good defense, and have a good bullpen. Oakland also has good depth, and sent down Milone after the trade. Milone had been one of the team's hottest pitchers. They have guys who hit for power, guys who can steal bases, and contact hitters. Other AL teams have issues. The defending World Series champion Red Sox are in last place. The Yankees and Rays have struggled. The Orioles, Tigers, and Angels have bullpen issues. The Mariners and Royals have offensive issues. If there was a season the A's could break through, this is it.

This is a scrappy underdog team that everybody loves to root for. The low budget A's don't have the resources to spend like other teams. Beane actually does employ scouts(unlike what Moneyball portrayed) which had identified low cost players who can help. Beane had also found a manager who would be receptive to some of his other ideas like defensive shifts and playing certain players. However, there window to compete is limited. That is why they parted with their top prospects in Addison Russell and Brian McKinney. Many players will be due big raises, and the Athletics won't be able to keep all of them around in future seasons. The immediate future looks bright for this team, though.

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