Thursday, October 05, 2006

Oakland Athletics

The following is a playoff preview from October's GameDay

Powered by Intern Sharkey

On May 30, the Oakland Athletics lost to the Kansas City Royals, eight to seven. It was Oakland’s third straight loss, and their tenth in the last eleven games. There record was just 23-29. Less than three weeks (and a ten-game winning streak) later, the A’s wrapped up a three-game inter-league sweep of the Dodgers, putting them seven games over .500. The rest, as they say, is cliché.

As the A’s watched their record swell from two games over .500 to twenty, they’ve witnessed the resurgence of someone familiar to Twins fans everywhere. Last season, Frank Thomas watched from the sidelines as the White Sox won the World Series. The health of his ankle was in serious doubt, and Chicago replaced him with Jim Thome. Thomas limped (literally) to the Bay, inking an incentive-laden one year deal worth just $500,000 in base salary. Fortunately for both the Big Hurt and the team, Thomas is cashing in on nearly every one of those $2.6 million of performance bonuses (although, somehow, I doubt he will collect the $50,000 bonus for winning the Gold Glove—yes, it’s in the contract).

At 38 years old, Thomas isn’t just an iron-clad lock for the Comeback Player of the Year award—he’s making a legitimate case for Most Valuable Player. In a lineup that has seen Mark Ellis, Milton Bradley, Bobby Crosby, Eric Chavez, and Mark Kotsay struggle with injuries (and first baseman Dan Johnson just plain struggle), Thomas has been the stabilizing factor, putting up a .950 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) in the clean-up spot.

At Thomas’s side is Moneyball hero Nick Swisher. Along with providing manager Ken Macha with some much-needed lineup flexibility (while he’s listed as a left fielder, he has actually played slightly more games at first base), Swisher provides a second fearsome bat. His combination of power (a slugging average near .500) and patience (drawing about one hundred walks) has been indispensable for Oakland.

Two of Oakland’s “Three Aces” (Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder) have departed the team, but the pitching staff remains a strength. While assumed staff ace Rich Harden has struggled with injury problems all year, Oakland has found success with a rotation of former Cy Young winner Barry Zito, youngsters Dan Haren and Joe Blanton, spell-check nightmare Kirk Saarloos, and winter free agent signing Esteban Loaiza.

But the real strength of the staff is the bullpen. Oakland finished with the third-best bullpen ERA in the league, led by second-year stopper Huston Street and his sub-3.00 tally. The A’s also got excellent production out of Chad Gaudin, Justin Duchscherer (speaking of the unspellable), Kiko Calero, and the aforementioned Saarloos, who has split time between the pen and the rotation. With the problems Oakland experienced with their starting staff, it was the bullpen that propelled them to the AL West championship.

When playoff baseball starts, with its shorter rotation and intense games, having a superior bullpen is often the difference between an unceremonious exit and a champagne shower. And that strength, along with the mashers in the middle of the lineup, makes the A’s a dangerous team and a legitimate contender for October glory.

No comments: