Tonight was start a 4-game series with the MLB leading Oakland A's. With the Fourth of July holiday weekend, we have different start times for the games. Tonight is a 9:00 Eastern start, tomorrow (the holiday) is a 4:00 Eastern start, Saturday starts at 10 Eastern and Sunday is back to 4:00 Eastern.
I sent off some questions to our friend Alex Hall from Athlectics Nation, SB Nation's flagship blog.
You have an old friend of ours, Brad Mills, in your rotation. How'd that happen? How is he doing for you?
His name is now Buck Mills. And he's already more than paid off the A's. In Buck's first start, he was deadly with his curve (froze David Ortiz for a strikeout in the first) but wild overall (walked four batters and hit another). In his second start, he found his control (no walks) but gave up a lot of hard contact that mostly went right at defenders. In his third start, he settled in as a totally average pitcher (6ip, 3er, 6k, 3bb, 6h, 1hr), thus fulfilling his best-case scenario. Look at that line. It doesn't get more average than that, except "average" costs about $10 million per year on the free agent market and Billy got it for a dollar. The A's are 2-1 in Buck's three starts, and in the loss they were shut out so it didn't really mattered who started for Oakland. It doesn't get much better than that for a spot starter off the scrap heap.
Of course, I don't think anybody really expects him to still be in the rotation come Sept/Oct. He gets by on pure smoke and mirrors, with a sluggish fastball doing its best to set up a decent change and that wicked curve. It's enough to get by for now, but he doesn't seem like a long-term option. And if he does well enough to stick around and make a start in the playoffs, he'll be one of the best finds of Billy Beane's career. (Again, that is unlikely.)
What is Billy Beane looking for at the trade deadline?
There is exactly one person in this universe who knows what is going on in Billy Beane's head, and he likes to keep it that way. Athletics Nation is debating between the need for another starting pitcher (you can never have enough), a second baseman (Oakland has gotten a .555 OPS out of second base), or another big hitter to supplement the already strong middle of the lineup (OF/DH type). Some popular names thrown around have been Brandon McCarthy, Bartolo Colon, Jason Hammel, Daniel Murphy, Ben Zobrist, and Carlos Quentin, among others. I recently took a look at Cubs infielder Luis Valbuena.
Who has been your biggest surprise this season?
It seems like that's a difficult question every year. There are unknowns who have forced their way into relevancy, fringe guys who find themselves starting, and starters who have taken the next step into stardom. Let's do one of each.
Jesse Chavez is probably the biggest surprise overall. He wasn't exactly unknown last year, but as a right-handed mop-up reliever he wasn't a household name either. Now he's a legit No. 3 starter. He's fallen off a bit from his dominant April, and he's been roughed up in his last two starts (and allowed 11 walks in his last three combined), but he also spun seven innings of three-hit ball against Boston on June 21. He's not an All-Star, but he's solid and his 3.23 ERA (118 ERA+) probably isn't far off from his true ability.
Next, we have Stephen Vogt, 2013 playoff hero. He was the 26th man on the Opening Day roster, which means that he began the year in Triple-A as the last guy cut. He made it back to the bigs in June and he has done nothing but hit. His line is .338/.359/.459 (131 OPS+), and while that's propped up by a silly .359 BABIP, he's shown that he's at least capable of being a league-average hitter. In addition to that, he's added defensive versatility to his game. Billed as a backup catcher, he's actually started more games in the outfield than behind the plate. Between his ability to play multiple positions and his hot streak at the plate, he's basically in the lineup every day right now. Oh, and he homered off of Koji Uehara in a save situation, so he's got that too. He also played three positions that day (C, RF, 1B).
It's difficult to call Yoenis Cespedes a surprise, since it always felt like more of a waiting game until he got as good as he is now. But Brandon Moss has shocked everyone by figuring out how to hit lefties (.816 OPS vs. LHP, .912 vs. RHP). That's allowed him to become an everyday player, which means that he could threaten 40 homers this year. He will get down-ballot MVP votes at the least, which I don't really think any of us expected.
What is the status on the stadium? I saw that you guys were going to sign a new lease and then not....Any chance of a new park in the foreseeable future?
They ended up signing the lease today. Beyond that, there's no point in speculating. All we know is that they'll be at their current site in Oakland through 2024, presumably at the current facility. But they're getting a new scoreboard!
The A's have been amazing this season, how confident are you that they will stay in first?
Confident, but not as much as I was a month ago. It's not that I've lost faith in the A's, it's that the Angels are coming on strong. That star-studded roster finally has some support, and their weaknesses (bullpen, relievers, closer, and bullpen) are the easiest things to fix. There are causes for concern in Oakland, but every team has those. But the A's no longer have a huge cushion in their division, so there is less margin for error than it first appeared there might be. And if the Angels can't do it, the Mariners are right behind them and are always a threat to acquire David Price to make a serious push.
Scott Kazmir is fine, and only left his start due to a cramp. Cespedes is already back in the lineup, though that hamstring will probably be a concern for the rest of the season. Norris is back as well. O'Flaherty is on his way back from Tommy John surgery and at this point could be called up any day. In fact, literally as I was writing this, he was promoted. Jeff Francis was cut to make room. Canada weeps for her countryman.
Reddick re-injured the knee that just cost him a few weeks, and there's no telling if we can count on him to contribute again this season. Blanks just pulled a calf muscle, and last I heard he was only expected to miss the minimum 15 days. In his place, the A's have Nate Freiman, who is more or less the same player (gigantic right-handed platoon first baseman who doesn't hit as many homers as he should).
Can we have a quick scouting report on the starting pitchers we'll see?
Sonny Gray has star potential and has mostly realized it this year. He's starting to show some inconsistency, as you would expect from a young pitcher in his first full season, but when he's on he's fantastic. He's got a hard fastball and a filthy curve.
Tommy Milone is the prototypical soft-tossing lefty. He won't hit 90 on the gun, but he's got fantastic control and a changeup that can be devastating. He's on a bit of a hot streak right now, but we'll see how he does against an order with two of the premier right-handed sluggers in the world (Bautista and Encarnacion).
Scott Kazmir just pounds the strike zone with low-90s heat and throws every pitch that you've ever heard of except a knuckleball. He has developed into Oakland's ace, because of course he has.
Mills we already covered. With three lefties starting, I guess we won't see a lot of Adam Lind this weekend.
Anything else we should know about the A's?
They are the worst time in the legue. (Those are the words of some high school troll, complete with spelling error, and they have become a rallying cry for AN.)
Oh, and Derek Norris has the green light on 3-0. A couple pitchers have learned that the hard way this year. And don't run on any A's outfielder except Coco. And lay off Doolittle's high fastball.