One week into the 2013 season, the Oakland Athletics are atop the AL West and in position to contend for their second division title in as many years (this article is set to publish before the Texas Rangers finish play against the Tampa Bay Rays in Arlington tonight, so the A’s could share the lead with Texas before the day is over).
OK, that declaration may be a bit premature, but there’s definitely some things that deserve our attention after the first week of play. The A’s rebounded in a big way from their first two games against the Seattle Mariners – where they scored one run and struck out 17 times in two losses – to go on a five-game win streak on the back of 37 runs and a collective .483 slugging percentage to salvage a split in the four-game series against Seattle while sweeping the Houston Astros over the weekend.
One of the things that jumps out immediately from an “instant reaction” standpoint is the disparity between Oakland’s performance in the first two games in comparison to the last five. It was a week full of historic highs and historic lows, and it’s hard to remember a time when a team’s performance swung so dramatically in such a small amount of time. Before drawing any sort of decisive conclusions from a seven-game sample size, let’s just take a look at how the A’s won and lost over the opening week.
It’s hard to say that Opening Day was a disappointment, although any time you open the season at home and lose it’s going to be disappointing. Felix Hernandez came to play (as he always does when he opens the season against the A’s) and they were going to have to solve the riddle of hitting King Felix to win that game. Unfortunately for Oakland (and the rest of the league), that’s not something that anyone in baseball has really figured out the answer to. Although Brett Anderson pitched admirably, ultimately, the two runs he allowed were the difference in the game.
Game 2 was more concerning from a long-term standpoint, because it’s exactly the type of game the A’s cannot play and expect to win. Jarrod Parker was a far cry from the collected rookie we watched pitch twice against the Detroit Tigers in last year’s ALDS, as the 24 year-old right-hander consistently missed the strike zone and walked three and gave up four runs in five innings of work. While Parker’s control was disconcerting, the loss was compounded by the fact that the bullpen fell flat to put the game off the reach, specifically Ryan Cook’s two-thirds innings of work where he loaded the bases and walked home a run. Meanwhile, the offense was still hungover from Opening Day against Hernandez, and the only run came on a solo shot to center field from Yoenis Cespedes early in the game as the A’s lost 7-1.
At that point, things were starting to feel a little uneasy, and while no one was hitting the panic button, there were certainly justifiable concerns about whether or not the A’s could be experiencing some sort of Murphy’s Law-fueled antipode to their epic rise last season.
Thus, there was that much more importance placed on Game 3 as the A’s were still searching for their first win, and after allowing two home runs in the first to put the A’s behind 2-0 early, only three Seattle players would reach base against Tommy Milone the rest of the day and the offense that everyone was looking for emerged behind home runs from newcomers Jed Lowrie and Chris Young and an impressive debut from rookie first basemen Nate Freiman.
Oakland finished off the Seattle series with a strong start from A.J. Griffin and another productive day at the plate, tagging Mariners rookie pitcher Brandon Maurer for six runs-including home runs from big swingers Josh Reddick and Cespedes-and relying on a strong bullpen performance to get back to .500.
I’m not going to say much about the Houston series; it showcased qualities that you’d expect to see against a team that lost 107 games last year and is leading the league in strikeouts by a healthy margin: solid pitching performances from Dan Straily, Bartolo Colon and Brett Anderson with a hefty amount of run production, as the Athletics slammed three home runs in the second and third games of the series.
So who are the real Oakland A’s? Are they as good as they looked against Houston, or will they inevitably to succumb to the pressure of higher expectations like in the first two games versus the Mariners?
Of course it’s way too early to tell, and the true answer will lie somewhere in between those two extremes. What we can say for sure after one week is that if the A’s keep playing like they have over the last five games, they should be in a position to compete for a playoff spot by season’s end, whether it’s the result of winning the division or earning a wild card berth, and the new additions to the roster – mainly Jed Lowrie and Chris Young – are going to be key contributors as the season progresses.
Lowrie’s hitting has been nothing short of outstanding, and he’s ignited the offensive outburst that has propelled the A’s to a 5-2 record. With four doubles, three home runs and six RBI, Lowrie is a big reason why Oakland is leading the league in home runs and extra-base hits, and it’s hard to see Hiroyuki Nakajima taking his starting spot at shortstop when he returns from a hamstring injury if Lowrie can maintain this sort of production at the plate.
Young’s real value is on display when Melvin is forced to adjust the lineup on the fly because of injury or matchups. For example, when Josh Reddick had to leave the game yesterday after injuring his arm chasing down a foul ball, the A’s didn’t miss a beat because they have an extra outfielder on hand to step in, two if you count Seth Smith. While Young has been productive in his limited playing time, he is obviously capable of starting and playing at a high level, and that depth is going to be invaluable over the grind of a 162-game season.
The bigger issue that should concern the A’s and their fans is the youth of the starting rotation. Brett Anderson has been tabbed as the ace of the staff, but he’s only 25 and hasn’t had a full season’s worth of starts since 2009, so there’s questions there surrounding durability and health. There’s not much to worry about right now, seeing as he struck out 10 Astros yesterday, tying a career-high, but he’s one to keep an eye on once we get to summer and fatigue starts to set in.
Jarrod Parker’s outing was much more unsettling in regards to this, and it brings to light the fact that Oakland’s sophomore starting pitchers are far from finished products. Between Parker, Milone, and Griffin, there’s bound to be instances of regression over the course of the season since they set the bar pretty high in their rookie campaigns. You only hope that those episodes are few and far between, because between those three youngsters and Dan Straily, there’s plenty of promise to be optimistic about. Melvin will have a hand in controlling that, and Oakland is obviously mindful of their workloads after riding the rookies’ success into the playoffs in 2012 and asking them to perform over a longer stretch than they ever had before.
We’ll know a lot more about this team a week from now, as the A’s will face the Los Angeles Angels in a three-game series starting tomorrow, with Jarrod Parker going against a dangerous lineup that includes Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols Tuesday night. Following the SoCal trip, the A’s will host the Detroit Tigers in Oakland in a rematch of last year’s divisional playoff series. If they’re still towards the top of the AL West standings and crushing home runs at this rate after that, the season will look a whole lot brighter, and we’ll be expecting another playoff run from the boys in green and gold.