The A’s Have a Team Built for the Bronx

Detroit Tigers v Oakland Athletics

After the Yankees finished their nine-game road trip with four wins in their final five games, it looked like they might finally be ready to go on a run as the calendar turned to June with a seven-game homestand. But after losing two of three to the Twins and then their makeup game against the Mariners, that run never happened. And things don’t get easier with the A’s, the best all-around team in the American League coming to the Bronx for three games.

With the Yankees and A’s meeting at the Stadium this week, Alex Hall of Athletics Nation joined me to talk about how the A’s keep producing front-end starting pitchers, if A’s fans are tired of just making the playoffs and what it’s been like over the years to see star players forced to leave due to finances.

Keefe: Right now the Yankees’ rotation is Masahiro Tanaka, Hiroki Kuroda, Vidal Nuno, David Phelps and Chase Whitley. That’s the New York Yankees. With Ivan Nova lost for the season, Michael Pineda suspended and then injured and CC Sabathia on the disabled list, the Yankees are trotting out a rotation that has me longing for the days of the 2008 when Darrell Rasner and Sidney Ponson were 40 percent of the rotation after Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were injured. Or the days of 2007 when Brian Cashman opened the season relying on Carl Pavano and Kei Igawa in the rotation. On the days that Tanaka doesn’t pitch, I have treated any Yankees win like a division-clinching win in September.

Why am I venting about my team’s rotation problems to you, an A’s fan, who is enjoying first place in the AL West? Because it seems like whenever the A’s have a pitching problem they just call up someone who suddenly becomes ace-worthy as if pitching injuries don’t even matter to the organization. What’s it like knowing that if someone in the rotation goes down, there is someone else ready to seamlessly fill in? Let me know so I can live vicariously through A’s fans.

Hall: It is a very liberating feeling, I must say! Billy Beane and his staff seem to press all the right buttons when it comes to pitching, both by turning unknown or undervalued players into stars and by knowing when to quickly pull the plug on experiments that aren’t working out. They also put themselves into a position to succeed by stocking extra depth — you never know when injuries will happen, but you can prepare yourself with a backup plan for when they do.

That depth came in handy this year when Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin both went down in spring training. The A’s had Tommy Milone waiting in reserve, and Jesse Chavez fighting for a spot, and the two of them have been fantastic. When Dan Straily faltered, Drew Pomeranz stepped in; while his low ERA is unsustainable, he at least looks like a league-average starter and he still has upside as he re-adjusts to starting once again. The only thing that worries me with this rotation is its durability — outside of Milone, no one is a good bet to throw 200 innings without wearing down.

Keefe: Because the A’s are the A’s and play in an odd stadium in an odd location and don’t have much money and can’t retain free agents, it’s astonishing to me when they have the type of success they are having now or had last year or the year before, the way it was at the beginning of the 2000s. But I’m guessing for A’s fan the success isn’t so surprising and would like to be met with postseason success.

Here in New York, I grew up in the 90s in the height of the Yankees’ dynasty and since I was nine years old all I have known is October baseball and winning. Yes, I have been spoiled and have seen enough success over the last 18 years to last a lifetime, but now it’s expected every year and when it doesn’t happen it’s disappointing.

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?

Hall: In 2012, it was cool just to make the playoffs. The team hadn’t been good for awhile and wasn’t supposed to compete entering the season, so it was exciting to be alive in October. In 2013, repeating the postseason berth and proving it wasn’t a fluke was still satisfying, but it stung a little more when the team was eliminated in uncannily similar fashion to the previous year. This time around, nothing short of a trip to the World Series will feel like a successful season to me, and I think a lot of A’s fans would echo that sentiment. 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.

Keefe: I really have no idea how the A’s have been able to put together the run they have over the last few years even with great starting pitching. When I look at the roster and I see former Red Sox like Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss and Jed Lowrie playing important roles for not only a first-place team, but maybe the best team in all of baseball, it hurts my head to think about. How do the A’s win with a questionable lineup on paper aside from really only Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson? And can you please forward your answer to Brian Cashman. One second and I will get you his email address.

Rather than sink too many resources into a couple of star players, the A’s prefer to find a good, solid player for every position so that there are no weaknesses in the lineup. In addition, manager Bob Melvin is a master at putting his players in the best possible positions to succeed, most notably with his aggressive use of platoons. In that way, the whole can come out greater than the sum of the parts — each player fits into the greater scheme of things and complements his teammates well.

Hall: Of course, it helps to have Josh Donaldson in your lineup. Donaldson has been the hands-down MVP of the American League so far — he leads the league in both versions of WAR, he’s a top-five hitter, and he might be the best defender in the AL at any position. The rest of the lineup has a ton of power, gets on base more than any team in baseball (read: makes outs at a lower rate), and gets into bullpens quickly by running up opponents’ pitch counts with patient at-bats. There aren’t a lot of big-name hitters, but the Big Green Machine leads MLB in scoring.

Keefe: This offseason when Robinson Cano left via free agency for Seattle and $240 million it was the first time I watched the Yankees get outbid by another team and lose a star player to the system they helped create and then dominate. I didn’t like the idea of lowballing Cano and then using the additional money he could have been offered on Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran since the Yankees didn’t need Ellsbury and Beltran seemed like a luxury and throw-in by the front office to give the fans a “new toy” for the season before the Masahiro Tanaka signing happened.

You have had to deal with superstars on the A’s leaving through free agency for more money over the years and have had to watch impending free agents get traded off before they hit the market for prospects and lesser names to stay under budget. Has it been frustrating to watch the team continually build for the future and be forced to lose star players, or was it all worth it now that the A’s are back to competing for a championship each year?

Hall: On the contrary, it’s kind of exciting. Every year is different, and you never know what to expect other than the fact that Billy Beane will be trying his hardest to win. He never punts a season, evidenced by the fact that he’s never had a team lose 90 games, which means that any year could be the year that everything clicks and the club rises back to contention. In this case, that year was 2012, and we’re still riding the wave. Of course, the flip side of that is that everything can come crashing down in an instant. A couple of key injuries, a bit of regression, and suddenly the team is on the outside looking in. I do sometimes envy big-market teams who can afford to keep fan favorites around for 10 or 15 years and truly have them as their own, but being an A’s fan feels like being on the cutting edge of baseball history. Where Oakland goes, the sport tends to follow.

Keefe: Before the season, I’m sure you expected the A’s to compete for the West again and return to the postseason after the last two seasons, and why wouldn’t you? But what were your preseason expectations? And after watching the team now for two months, have your preseason expectations changed now that you have seen what the team is capable of?

Hall: Certainly, I expected the A’s to win the West again. However, I was expecting another tough battle with Texas and the Angels, and that expectation hasn’t changed. The A’s have gone nuts so far and built themselves a nice cushion, but fortunes can change quickly and you can never take anything for granted in this sport. The Rangers have watched half their team get injured, and the Angels have watched some key stars begin their declines earlier than expected. But Texas isn’t out of it and the Angels have fully bounced back from last year’s disaster. The A’s are the hot team right now, but this race isn’t over.