On Friday I talked to Alan Torres of Athletics Nation about the reasons, stereotypical and not-stereotypical, behind the St. Louis Cardinals' success in 2013. He was good enough to give me the same run-down re: the Oakland Athletics. Which is important, because even now—11 years or so after the fact—it's easy for the national conversation about any successful A's team to degenerate into an ESPN analyst saying the words "On-Base Percentage, or OBP" like they're burning his tongue.
Alan, how would you describe the Athletics' success last year to someone who only heard all the half-hearted Moneyball rehashes from national reporters?
If you had to give a secondary title to last year's Moneyball it would be something like Moneyball: The True Story. Rather than having budding superstars like Miguel Tejada and Jason Giambi (not to mention Zito, Hudson, and Mulder) anchoring a scrub lineup and rotation, last year's version was a more balanced version. Indeed, some might say that young superstars and a young-and-good rotation is the de facto team construction blueprint for teams who aren't in a big market.
One thing that also changed last year is that the A's seemed to have concluded that power (with a lot of K's) was the undervalued commodity, and that's how the lineup was ultimately configured during their second-half run.
There really wasn't a superstar last year. They found Brandon Moss on the scrapheap, signed an unknown Cuban star to an unconventional four-year contract, traded a closer for a right-fielder and a fireballing setup guy, and turned a going-nowhere first baseman into a fireballing lefty reliever. Add in some guys like Jonny Gomes and Brandon Inge, and the A's truly assembled a team out of nothing.
How is this year's team different?
This year, it's fair to say the A's acted a little more like a contender and made trades they might not otherwise do. Until Stephen Drew was acquired in August of last year, shortstop was pretty much a black hole, with all-defense Cliff Pennington manning that spot.
So the A's eschewed some of the guys available on the market at the time (Maicer Izturis, Jeff Keppinger) and went with Hiroyuki Nakajima from Japan, and later traded for Jed Lowrie. In doing the latter, they gave up Chris Carter, who formed the right-handed half of a 1B platoon in the second half. They also sought to upgrade from George Kottaras (who they acquired mid-year last year) and traded top prospect A.J. Cole back to the Nationals, who sent Seattle Michael Morse, who sent Jaso to Oakland.
With those trades, the A's not only went all-in, but they also brought their positions of need towards league-average hitting or above, making the lineup even more balanced than it was. In some ways, that makes upgrading difficult (2B/SS is an area of need, and the only really attainable upgrades are Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins), but it's also served to make the team resistant to slumping.
Is Hiroyuki Nakajima beyond hope? I feel at least partially responsible, having been... slightly enthusiastic about the Cardinals signing him in the offseason.
I'm not sure he's beyond hope, but he's definitely not what the A's were hoping for. It turns out to be the opposite of what was thought initially: defensively, he could probably hack it at SS right now. It's the bat that has barely managed to OPS around .800 in the hitter-friendly PCL.
Recently, he has turned it up, but it is honestly a possibility that he could earn his entire contract as a AAA star, with former top pick Grant Green hitting better than him right now (although he may be a total hack at 2B). If the A's don't end up swinging a trade soon, Nakajima is vying with Green and the enigmatic Jemile Weeks for a mid-year callup.
Bartolo Colon looks almost unnervingly like a Dave Duncan project. Can he keep it up?
As you saw last night, Colon seems to be mixing in breaking pitches a little more than he was earlier in the year. That said, it's now more like 80% fastballs instead of 85%. It's his bread-and-butter pitch for the foreseeable future. I would have thought he'd be running down by now, but he just seems to keep pitching like it's 1999. There's no reason to think, however he's doing it, that he can't keep this up over the season.
The Cardinals' rotation has been an injury generator all season. What's the most fragile part of this year's A's club?
Injury-wise, the outfield depth Beane acquired over the offseason has proved very much worthwhile. Coco Crisp was on the DL once, and is seemingly always a hamstring strain away from it again. In his case, given that he's having a career year, and Beane acquisition Chris Young is having a down year, it's quite a dropoff when he's not in. Yoenis Cespedes, for all his talent, also has balky wrists, which has led to him being disabled from it earlier. Josh Reddick also had wrist problems, but that was mostly from an ill-advised dive he took into the lip of the Houston stands earlier in the year. Luckily, Brandon Moss is a converted outfielder, Seth Smith plays a capable LF, and Reddick can play CF if necessary, so they've been able to absorb it.
Of course, there's also Brett Anderson. RIP.
The Cardinals-Cubs rivalry is secretly pretty cordial and jokey, all things considered. How heated is the Giants-A's rivalry, on the ground?
On the business side, there seems to be no love lost with the whole territorial rights and all. I joke that one of the reasons Beane makes so many trades with Arizona is to stick it to the Giants as much as possible. If he came out and said that one day, it wouldn't surprise me, but I don't really believe that. I suspect the players aren't very into it, although I have to say after Melvin's arrival, he's put a little more emphasis on it.
In short, if I was rating the Bay Area rivalry on a scouting scale, it's probably a 45 or so. A second-division rivalry.