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A�s Offense Explodes to Snap Skid

June 28, 2007 | By RotoRob | comment on this post
Oakland A's manager Bob Geren has a tough road ahead of him.
It may take more than “positive reinforcement” for Bob Geren to get the A’s back to the playoffs this season.

The Oakland A’s offense ‘ among the weaker attacks in the American League all season, but particularly putrid during the team’s season-worst five-game losing streak ‘ awoke Wednesday night.

And when I say it woke up, I’m talking about a dozen espressos worth.

Nine runs over the first two innings and a season-high tying 18-hit attack en route to a 13-7 plastering of the Tribe ‘ the team Oakland is chasing for the Wild Card ‘ was just what the doctor ordered. Or, it was at least what first-year manager Bob Geren was hoping for in his pre-game chat in which he used ‘positive reinforcement’ (coach-speak for he didn’t slam anyone against the wall) to try to get his club going.

The A’s sure needed that. A year ago, they were in first place in the AL West by a game and a half, en route to a 93-win season and their fourth division title since 2000. Flash forward to this season and Oakland’s losing streak, combined with Seattle’s recent hot play, has the A’s sitting in third place in the West ‘ eight games out. They’re on pace for just 84 wins ‘ and that is not going to be good enough to get back to the postseason.

Oakland has been on a remarkable run the past decade. Throw in the wild card finish in 2001 and we’re talking five trips to the playoffs in the past seven years. In fact, the A’s haven’t finished lower than second in the AL West since winning just 74 games in 1998.

But a middling offense and plenty of injuries to the pitching staff ‘ especially the back end of the bullpen ‘ have conspired to make Geren’s first season at the helm a difficult one. Oakland struggled out the gates with a 4-6 start, but a 33-23 run put it at 37-29 on June 15 prior to the losing streak. Currently 40-38, for the most part, this has been a team hovering around the .500 mark all year, with very few streaks to speak of, one way or the other.

It’s going to take one of the club’s near-legendary huge second halves to cut the deficit and get back in the playoff picture. For instance, the A’s have to go 53-31 from here on out to match last year’s record.

But here’s the good news — help is on the way. Among the infirmed who are on the comeback trail:

  • Rich Harden, who has battled injuries since he became a big leaguer, had to leave Monday’s game after just one inning, complaining that his shoulder was ‘achy.’ He had been scheduled to pitch two innings, but the team decided to be cautious with him. On the plus side, Harden was able to throw Tuesday and Wednesday, so he’s expected to make an appearance this weekend.
  • Mike Piazza, making slow progress, is still three weeks away from rejoining the team. Of course, asking him to be the saviour might be a bit much. We talked about our growing distaste for him earlier this season.
  • Bobby Kielty is expected back soon, but again, is he a difference maker?
  • Closer Huston Street’s injury has hurt more than any. He sure isn’t providing fifth-round value from the DL. Throw in DL stints by Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero, and you’ve got a serious issue at the back end of the pen. Street is throwing now, but he’s already been out six weeks and probably won’t be back until the end of next month. Duchscherer is close to heading out on a rehab assignment and Calero is eligible to return Monday, although he may not be back until after the break.

All the injuries have forced the A’s to add bullpen reinforcements. They sent a PTBNL to Washington for Jermaine Van Buren, a tremendous Triple-A reliever who provides depth to the system, but tends to be less than tremendous as a major leaguer. Let’s hope Oakland doesn’t need him. The A’s have also recalled reliever Ruddy Lugo and starter Dallas Braden (who is working out of the pen). Rookie Santiago Casilla, brought up earlier this month, has been superb, giving up just one earned run in 15 2/3 innings.

Getting that bullpen back to full strength is the key here. While Alan Embree had been doing a decent job in the absence of Street, he’s been shelled in his last two outings -‘ including a total meltdown Tuesday that allowed Cleveland to put up five runs in the ninth for a massive comeback win. If Harden can prove he’s capable of stringing appearances together without falling apart, the closer job could be his until Street returns.

Beyond the pen, as discussed, the offense is the other big issue. There are just too many underperforming sticks in this lineup, especially during the five-game losing streak when Oakland managed just 10 runs in total. This team is eighth in the AL in OBP ‘ always a franchise trait under the Billy Beane watch ‘ but is just 13th in BA and runs. Pitching (they lead the AL in ERA, BAA, OPS and WHIP) has kept the A’s afloat.

Here’s a scary thought: where would be the A’s be without perennial Quad-A player Jack Cust? After driving in a career-high five Wednesday, he’s up to 26 runs and 34 RBI in 44 games. He’s homered in back-to-back games and is really feeding off Indians pitching, batting .409 with five homers and 15 RBI in just 19 at-bats against the Tribe. It took an injury to Piazza to make it happen, but long-time prospect Cust has finally delivered with a breakthrough season.

However, other bats have struggled:

  • Bobby Crosby leads the team in steals (which is akin to claiming you’re the skinniest person at the fat farm), but he has been unable to rediscover his stroke from the first season and a half of his career. He’s not striking out as often, but what happened to the guy who topped 20 homers in 2004?
  • Eric Chavez broke through with a 3-for-4 night Wednesday, but had been stuck in a 4-for-29 rut over the previous eight games. His .305 OBP is a big black hole in the middle of that batting order.
  • The A’s ‘ not known for their big spending ‘ are paying Jason Kendall over $11.5 million this year (although almost half of that tab is being picked up by the Pirates). Considering the total team payroll is just over $60 million and he’s batting just .215 with only 20 runs and 20 RBI, Oakland has a problem on its hands with Kendall.
  • Dan Johnson is having a strong year, but he’s batting just .169 this month.
  • Mark Kotsay has not provided any offensive boost since coming off the DL at the beginning of the month, begging the question again about why he continues to get as much PT as he does.

On the plus side:

  • Shannon Stewart has been a pleasant surprise. He’s actually learned to take a walk ‘ always a welcome quality in the A’s system ‘ his power has rebounded somewhat and he’s running well (6-for-6 in steals). Stewart is blazing this week ‘ 9-for-15 with five runs, two homers and three RBI in the first three games of the Cleveland series, including a 4-for-6, three-run night Wednesday that featured a two-run homer.
  • Rookie Travis Buck is yet another young A’s outfielder that’s bought into the Billy Beane way of doing things. With 29 walks and a .385 OBP through 54 games, he’s earned the right to stick around and, after a poor start, Buck’s recent play could have him in the AL ROY mix before all is said and done (imagine that, another A’s rookie who will get some hardware consideration).
  • Nick Swisher will be hard-pressed to come anywhere near his 35-homer season in 2006, but his overall game has improved as he continues to develop into one of the most patient hitters in the game. In 71 games, he’s drawn 55 walks and is getting on base at a .411 clip.

Other positive signs:

  • Lenny DiNardo wasn’t great Wednesday, but he won for the first time in four starts, and they’ll need him to continue his magic act in the rotation with Harden obviously incapable of starting, something we talked about very early this year. In losing his previous two starts, DiNardo had been pasted for 11 runs in nine innings. The key here is control. If those walks start rising, DiNardo won’t last.
  • Dan Haren has emerged as a true ace this season, and is the early favourite for the AL Cy Young Award based on being first in ERA, second in WHIP and innings pitched, fourth in wins and winning percentage and eighth in strikeouts. After yielding 31 homers in 34 starts last year, he’s coughed up just 10 in 17 outings this season.
  • Kurt Suzuki looks primed to steal more time from Kendall. He smacked a two-run homer last night ‘ his second in just five games to go along with a .385 BA. Sure, Kendall makes a shitload of money, but let the kid play.
  • Daric Barton is killing the ball at Triple-A Sacarmento right now, batting .505 this month and riding a 22-game hitting streak. Could this long-time and oft-injured prospect finally be ready to help the offense? The A’s would have to part with Johnson or Piazza to make room, but this kid needs to get a chance.
  • Mark Ellis has been on a serious tear, batting .344 with five homers in June. He’s up to .275 for the year and has been far more productive this season. With 40 RBI already, Ellis should easily top his career high.

A win this afternoon would have given Oakland a much-needed split against Cleveland, an impressive feat considering the Indians took the first two games of the series and are among the best home teams in baseball. Unfortunately, the bullpen squandered an early 3-+0 lead, allowing Cleveland to win 4-3. Next up, the A’s head to New York for three tough games against the Yankees, hungry to snap a recent slump. Then Oakland heads home to play Toronto followed by what’s shaping up to be an important series against Seattle in the fight for second place in the AL West. If the A’s slip any further away by the time this stretch is played out, it may be time to think about retooling.

Following their first trip to the ALCS since 1992 last year (in which they were promptly swept by the Tigers), Oakland needs to not only get its bullpen back in functional order but also beef up its attack if it hopes to get back there this season and actually have a fighting chance to represent the AL in the World Series. It may be asking a bit too much, even for a team prone to second-half miracles.

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