The last six games are a good indication of the 2015 Yankees as they were swept at home by the Rangers and then swept what might be the best team in baseball in the Royals the following three days. After being nine games over .500 and erasing that in two weeks, the Yankees appear to be back on track and are headed to Oakland at the best possible time.
With the Yankees and A’s meeting for the first time this season, Alex Hall of Athletics Nation joined me to talk about what happened down the stretch to the A’s last year, the trades for Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija and what’s gone wrong for the A’s to start this season.
Keefe: Last year in our email exchange, I asked you this:
When it comes to the A’s, what are the year-end expectations, especially after the team’s resurgence the last few years? Is just making the postseason enough for you, or are you tired of “just” making the postseason?
You answered with this:
This team is built to win right now and has actually mortgaged a little bit of its future to do so, and a failure to bring home a title, much less a league pennant, would be severely disappointing.
The A’s ended up blowing their AL West lead, settled for the second wild-card spot and then blew a late lead in that game to the Royals. Along the way there, they crushed the trade deadline and sacrificed potential future stars for Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija, and neither of them are on the A’s this year. (We’ll get to that in a little.)
How disappointing was the finish to the 2014 season?
Hall: It was almost a worst-case scenario. The new pitchers helped a lot and the A’s probably wouldn’t even have made it to the wild-card game at all without them, but the rest of the team just fell apart. With the exceptions of Josh Donaldson, Josh Reddick, and Eric Sogard, the entire lineup either got hurt and stopped hitting or got hurt and just went on the DL. Meanwhile, the starting pitching was always just good enough to not win and the bullpen continued to be lights-out right up until it was time to seal a save. Everything that could go wrong did.
The wild-card game was much the same — two A’s left with injuries, including the catcher who was there specifically to halt the Royals’ running game, and they ended up losing one of the most heartbreaking games in MLB history despite scoring seven runs. The only way it would have been worse would have been finishing one game lower in the standings and missing the wild-card game completely — even a heartbreaking loss is better than not making it at all.
Keefe: I was ecstatic when the A’s traded for Jon Lester and took Boston’s homegrown ace in the middle of another last-place season for the Red Sox. Red Sox fans stupidly thought they would just end up re-signing Lester in the offseason and that it was just more of a loan to Oakland and that in 2015 they would have Lester back and have Yoenis Cespedes in the lineup, but they don’t have either player now.
That trade seemed to change the A’s offense down the stretch of the season and they were never really the same team after it. Cespedes had been a middle-of-the-order presence and had helped them climb to first place and distance themselves from the rest of the division, and was maybe a bigger part of the A’s than Billy Beane had thought.
Were you on board with that trade at the time? Do you think it destroyed the offense?
Hall: I will say that I wasn’t into the idea of trading for Lester before it happened. I wanted to roll the dice with the guys who had brought us to the top of the MLB standings. And there wasn’t a single person in Oakland who didn’t get sick when they woke up to hear that Cespedes was gone — he was massively popular here, as he will be wherever he plays. However, from a statistical standpoint, it did make logical sense to deal from an area of strength (offense) to beef up a weakness (thin rotation).
Even though I would not have made the trade, and even though I would undo it if I could go back in time, I still just don’t think it made any difference in the end. Losing Cespedes is not what destroyed the offense. That was accomplished when Brandon Moss’ hip turned to mush, when John Jaso got concussed, when Jed Lowrie missed time, when Stephen Vogt’s foot injury sapped his hitting, when Derek Norris wore down, when Coco Crisp’s neck injury knocked him in and out of the order, when Alberto Callaspo was an everyday player and even a DH, when Jonny Gomes failed to hit even one homer, when Craig Gentry got concussed, and when Adam Dunn OPS’ed .634 as an emergency replacement. The lineup was a juggernaut in the first half, and losing one guy did not destroy it — especially considering that, by the numbers, Cespedes was only the third-best hitter on the team after Donaldson and Moss. Losing him was one part of a larger puzzle, and it certainly didn’t help the offense when he left, but it took a lot more than that one loss to completely tank the entire unit.
Keefe: The A’s also traded for Jeff Samardzija last summer and had to give up Addison Russell to get him, who now looks to be the future of the middle infield for the Cubs. Then this past offseason, the A’s traded Samardzija to the White Sox to replenish their roster and try to salvage what was the lost in the trade for Cubs knowing that they wouldn’t pay Samardzija at the end of this season anyway.
Are you devastated that Russell was dealt last season knowing his potential?
Hall: It’s tough to see him begin to blossom so quickly in Chicago, but I’ve come to peace with that trade. I am 100 percent certain that the A’s season would have been even more disappointing if they hadn’t acquired a pitcher, and at the time it looked like the early bird might be the only one to get a worm. Plus, getting your guy in early July means you get an extra month of production out of your rental. It’s easy to look back now and say that Billy Beane should have waited longer for the market to develop, and I’ll admit that before the trade I was not interested in Shark nor Hammel, but it’s also true that Shark pitched like a legitimate ace in Oakland and so at least Beane got his money’s worth in that sense. He got what he was looking for in the trade, it just wasn’t enough.
On the other side, Shark was turned into four players from the White Sox. None of them are as good as Russell could be, but at least there is something left to show for him. If he builds on this promising start and becomes an All-Star then that will be a big bummer for A’s fans, but that’s the price of business if you want to take a big-time gamble for the big prize.
Keefe: Sorry to make you feel bad and harp on the end of the 2014 season (feel free to ask me about the 2013 and 2014 Yankees), but let’s talk about this year A’s team, which has gotten off to a horrific start, is 15 games under .500 and 13 1/2 games back in the West.
What has happened to the A’s team that was at times the best team in baseball over the last three years? Is there anything to feel good about right now other than Sonny Gray?
Hall; This has been a frustrating year to watch because the A’s have been playing pretty well but don’t have the wins to show for it. The rotation is among the best in baseball, and the lineup has been solid despite losing Coco and missing Ben Zobrist for a month. But the defense has been horrendous and the bullpen has been even worse, and every day they come oh-so-close to winning and then fall short in a new and amazing way.
The A’s are 2-15 in one-run games, and that kind of futility goes beyond a lack of skill or “clutch”-ness and into the realm of rotten luck. If the starting pitcher is good, then the lineup gets shut out. If the lineup scores, then the defense makes a major error. If the defense holds up, then the bullpen blows it with a big homer. It feels like flipping a coin and getting tails every time, and knowing that one of these days it’ll come up heads … but will it be tomorrow, next week, or next year?
Keefe: The A’s won the West in 2012 and 2013 and reached the playoffs as a wild-card team last year. It was the first time the team had made the playoffs in three straight seasons since they went to the playoffs in four straight from 2000-2003.
It seems like the window of opportunity for the A’s it always is so small and right when they are about to get over the hump, it closes and then it’s rebuilding mode again. After 94-, 96- and 88-win seasons over the last three years and now a 17-32 start, it looks like it’s rebuilding mode again.
What were your expectations for the A’s this season coming off three straight postseason appearances and what are they now after nearly two months of baseball?
Hall: The A’s looked like they were aiming for the playoffs again, but their sights weren’t set as hard on that goal as in the last couple years. They were willing to make a couple of win-now moves, but only after selling high on a lot of big names. This was a team with solid-but-not-huge playoff dreams, and while it’s shocking to see them lose this much it’s not like anyone was guaranteeing a postseason berth.
The A’s are still loaded with a lot of good players, and I’ve seen a lot of unlikely runs both from Oakland and from other teams in the last 15 years. I haven’t given up on the season, but I do realize that the chances of a comeback are slim and shrinking by the day. Realistically, the rest of this season should be seen as an audition for young players like Jesse Hahn, Kendall Graveman, Billy Burns, and Marcus Semien. On the other hand, big performances from those players would also be the path to the postseason, so one way or other my expectations are just to hope for the best from everyone and see what happens. Sonny Gray is pitching like he has Cy Young aspirations, so that will be something to watch regardless of the team’s record.
Oakland has a few pending free agents, so if they don’t turn things around more or less immediately then they could be sellers. But Zobrist already missed a month, Scott Kazmir just left his last start with shoulder soreness, and Tyler Clippard hasn’t had a chance to rack up many saves — it’s tough to say if the A’s could even get any good deals for those guys, or if they should hold onto them, hand out qualifying offers and see if they can retain any of them on one-year deals (or get draft picks as compensation).