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View from the other side: A's questions for Alex Hall from Athletics Nation

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Sean Doolittle (why do so many players have ugly beards these days?)
Sean Doolittle (why do so many players have ugly beards these days?)
Thearon W. Henderson

We start a 3 game weekend series with the AL West leading Oakland A's. In fact they have the best record in baseball. Alex Hall, from Athletics Nation and I exchanged questions on our respective clubs.

Could you give us a scouting report on manager Bob Melvin? Strengths and weaknesses?

Melvin is fairly predictable in his on-field moves, but that's not a bad thing. He's got his "book" that he follows, but he's not afraid to stray from it every so often in certain contexts. On offense, he's unlikely to call a bunt, though it does happen occasionally. He sticks pretty strongly to his platoons, which means that you'll see complementary partners like John Jaso/Derek Norris and Eric Sogard/Nick Punto pinch-hitting for each other in the later innings to gain the platoon advantage (and if the situation is right, he'll swap out for a pinch-hitter as early as the 5th).

On the pitching side, he usually seems to make the moves that Athletics Nation would expect, which is refreshing after watching his predecessor, Bob Geren, get advice about bullpen management from a Ouija board for four years. Melvin rarely leaves his starter in the game too long (another major problem Geren had), and he's shown that he's willing to get creative with the closer role as the situation demands.

Sports fanbases tend to complain about their managers and coaches a lot, so it's saying something that Melvin is virtually universally beloved in Oakland. He's well-spoken, likable, and he's good at his job. (It helps that he's taken the team to the playoffs in both of his full seasons here.) The players seem to be behind him, and he and bench coach Chip Hale are known for their meticulous preparation ahead of each game. Melvin is easily the best manager we've had in Oakland since Tony LaRussa.

We had Jesse Chavez and he was pretty awful, how come he is so much better for you guys?

Because Billy Beane said so. Seriously, that seems to be how it works. When Beane points at a guy and tosses him in Oakland's rotation or bullpen, he just becomes a good pitcher. It's to the point where I don't question his pitching acquisitions anymore, because if Billy says he's going to be good, then he's probably right. Jeff Francis for the bullpen? Sure, why not. Beane guessed right on Colon and Kazmir as reclamation projects, so if he thinks that Francis can still contribute after major shoulder problems then maybe he can.

As for Chavez, he made the proverbial switch from being a "thrower" to being a "pitcher." By his own admission, he used to just try to pump fastballs past hitters and blow everyone away with heat. Now, he's learned to mix speeds and locations and it's made a huge difference in his results. He's also developed a cutter over the last couple seasons, and his changeup is a plus pitch for the first time in years. He now has a four-pitch arsenal, and he knows how to use it. The only question mark hanging over him is how he will respond to a full season of starting since he's never surpassed 130 innings as a professional.

Jim Johnson hasn't been good. Who is your closer now? How much confidence  do you have in the back of the bullpen?

Sean Doolittle is now the closer I've got the utmost confidence in him, and he's probably our best reliever. He doesn't have any platoon splits despite being a lefty, and on Tuesday he walked his first batter since August 31, 2013. The only save he's blown this year came on a home run by Mike Trout, which is, um, forgivable.

As for the rest of the bullpen, that seems to be the biggest weakness on the team right now. That's a weird sentence to write, because it was supposed to be the strength of the team. Dan Otero has been fantastic in a set-up/multi-inning role, despite taking the loss on Thursday. However, Johnson has been a mess, Luke Gregerson leads the Majors with five blown saves, and Ryan Cook is injured (I believe he will eventually get Tommy John, though that isn't yet the official diagnosis). Fernando Abad was amazing to start the year, but has come back to earth a bit and is just good now. Each guy (except Johnson) seems fine individually and statistically, but when it comes to the ninth inning something always seems to go wrong. Hopefully that is a passing fad.

Jed Lowrie has been hurt and Eric Sogard isn't hitting. Who's going to play in the middle of your infield this weekend? Long term, do they stick with Sogard or will someone else be playing second by the end of the season?

Lowrie returned on Thursday and I would assume he is back in the lineup for good -- he was only supposed to miss a couple days. As for Sogard long-term, I have no idea how long of a leash he'll have. The A's have shown that they'll stick with a player if his defense is good enough, and with Lowrie's shaky glove at short the team seems to prefer having a more steady fielder complementing him up the middle. I'm sure that Beane will scour the market over the next couple months, but the Sogard/Punto platoon is replacement-level at worst and has the ability to be rack up a win or two over the course of a season -- not bad for the worst position in the lineup. I expect that you'll see the normal combo of Lowrie/Sogard vs. RHP and Lowrie/Punto vs. LHP.

With AJ Griffin and Jarrod Parker both out for the season, can you give us a scouting report on the starting pitchers the Jays are likely to see?  Scott Kazmir can't possibly continue to be this good, right?

If Bartolo Colon stayed as good as he did for two years in Oakland, then Scott Kazmir can as well. He's a strike-throwing machine with an arsenal that includes every pitch you've ever heard of; his changeup has impressed me, his curve has been good, and he is another on the long list of hurlers who has developed a cutter over the last couple years (that seems to be a really popular pitch right now). Like Chavez, he is getting by on movement and location rather than pure speed, but he can still dial it up now and then.

We discussed Chavez above. On Sunday, you'll see Drew Pomeranz, who will be making his fourth start since joining the rotation. He was pulled straight out of the bullpen to replace the struggling Dan Straily, so Melvin has been keeping him on a low pitch count to stretch his arm out and ease him into his new role. The results have been fantastic -- Pomeranz is yet to allow a run so far in his three outings, going five scoreless innings each time. His line: 15 innings, 0 runs, 8 hits, 16 K's, 4 walks. Pom generally relies on a fastball/curve combination, but he's been mixing in a sinker lately. The good news for Toronto is that he'll still being handled carefully and is unlikely to go more than five or six innings, at most.

Who is your favorite Athletic to watch?

Coco Crisp. He's the kind of player who is always making exciting plays. He can hit a leadoff homer to start a game, leg out a triple, steal a base (and then another), and make a crazy diving catch in center or reach over the wall to rob a homer. The only thing he can't do is throw the ball more than 50 feet, but even that can be comical enough to be fun. Most importantly, he's always smiling and having a great time. Few players show as much emotion on the field as does Coco, and that emotion is always "happy." Even if he makes an error, he'll be smiling in center, ready to bear down on the next play. Baseball is more fun with him in it.

Honorable mention: When Yoenis Cespedes is hitting, no matter where you are, you stop what you're doing and watch. Him making hard contact is the reason you like baseball. Next time humanity sends a time capsule into space, we should include a video of Cespedes hitting a homer so that the aliens understand. And I'm pretty sure that some of Josh Reddick's defense is created using CGI, because some of the balls he gets to are simply impossible and he might have the best throwing arm in baseball.

Any chance of a new ballpark? I was in Oakland last year, that is as bad as everyone says, what's the odds of the team getting a decent place to play sometime soon?

Not anytime soon. I've honestly lost interest in the story since it just never goes anywhere. Wake me up when Bud Selig has made a decision on San Jose, and when there is a definite conclusion to this whole saga. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of speculation and political jockeying that distracts everyone from the game on the field. We'll be in the for at least the next few years, and that's fine. It's a dump, but it's our dump.

Yoenis Cespedes seems to garner strong you think he's going to become a star?

Become? I think he already is a star. On the subjective side, he's gone to the playoffs every year he's been in the league and he's been a key hitter/contributor on each team. He's won a Home Run Derby. He was a Gold Glove finalist last year in left. He's an international sensation. On the objective side, he's got a career OPS+ of 122, 30-homer power, blazing speed, and a throwing arm which is nearly as strong as Reddick's (though not as accurate).

And yet, I know what you mean. He still doesn't seem to have reached his ceiling, as he was incredibly raw when he came to the Majors. Last year he went through a bit of a sophomore slump, but he's making big strides this season. The key has been his plate discipline -- he's working on a career-high walk rate and a career-low strikeout rate. He's not chasing as many pitches out of the zone and he's making more contact overall. This improved pitch selection is allowing him to post the best isolated slugging mark of his career so far, since he's better at recognizing which balls he can drive. And he has the speed to beat out infield hits as well, so his it's shocking to see his BABIP under .275 for the second straight year. So, yes, I think that in 2014, Cespedes is transitioning from being a "good player" to a "borderline All-Star."

Derek Norris  is hitting .343/.454/.535? How?

It's gotta be the beard. When we got him for Gio Gonzalez, he was billed as a power-and-patience type in the mold of Mike Napoli. The patience has shown through, but he's also making a ton of contact and keeping the strikeouts down, which is unexpected (20 walks, 14 K's). The power is there, but it's more doubles power than consistent home run power, not that I'm complaining. His average will come down, but even .280/.380/.480 would be an impressive line for a catcher and I think it's completely attainable for Norris. And although he is part of a platoon, he can hit right-handers just fine, and Melvin is starting to find ways to get both he and Jaso in the same lineup while both players are hot.

You must be thrilled with the start to the A's season, did you expect them to be this good? Will they run away with the AL West?

Nobody expects to be this good, but I knew this was in the realm of possibility. The scary thing is that their Pythagorean record is 34-13, a full four games better than what's really happened (thanks to the bullpen blowing a bunch of late leads). The team can't play any better, so the question is how long it can sustain this run. The Angels are hanging tough and I don't see any reason why they'll go away, so I don't think the A's will run away with the West. But Seattle won't be consistent enough to compete, Texas is sinking fast as the injuries just continue to pile up (now Prince Fielder are Martin Perez are out for the year), and Houston is still terrible. Whoever finishes second in the West is very likely to earn a Wild Card.