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Bay Area Baseball

Muy Athleticos

What a difference a couple of months make! The A's were 17-32, and later 24-37, but now find themselves 52-45. 28-8 powered by an offense that posted an 820 OPS in June and 791 in July, combined with a pitching staff that has had Rich Harden, Barry Zito, Huston Street, Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero firing on all cylinders. The remaining starters, Danny Haren, Joe Blanton and Kirk Saarloos have been good enough to bring them wins in nearly every game. Ever since Ryan Glynn was summarily ejected from the rotation, Saarloos and Blanton have accounted for most of the unwinnable games for the A's.

So what can we expect from this team going forward? They were never a bad team, though they hit enough slumps simultaneously to put themselves out of contention. Despite all the winning, they are still six games behind the Angels. And what about the wild card? Oakland moved into the lead by half a game on July 25th.

But within five games are the Twins, Yankees, Orioles, Indians, Blue Jays, Rangers and Tigers. The only likely thing is that one of these teams will win the Wild Card. The Yankees and Orioles are actively dealing to improve their teams. Cleveland has 20 games remaining against Kansas City and Tampa Bay. Minnesota has a great pitching staff and could grab two games in the standings just by benching shortstop Juan Castro. Toronto, Detroit and Texas have a lot of ground to make up, but a six-game winning streak here or there could propel any of them upwards in the standings. This promises to be tough sledding for the A's.

My pre-season analysis had the A's around 88-74 this season, a .543 team. You can argue that Huston Street has unexpectedly made them better than that, but I don't think it's by much. If the A's play to that level for the rest of the season, they will finish 87-75. That's right where we expected them to be, but it won't be good enough for a berth in the post-season. Since this A's roster is reasonably well-constructed, there isn't an easy move Billy Beane can make to improve the team. The weakest link is at second base, but even if Beane dealt for Jeff Kent or Brian Giles (neither of whom he can afford), it would probably only give the A's a 2-3 win boost. So when we get right down to it, the A's will have to be luckier than all of the other teams in the Wild Card race. By lucky, I mean, everybody on the team has to stay off the DL and play above what's expected of him – only then can they expect to finish with 92 or 93 wins and pull off the Wild Card.

Gigantes? Pequenos?

For years, the Giants perceived themselves as the anti-A's. They paid little heed to things like park effects, fluke seasons, low strikeout rates, and a lack of power from the corners. Barry Bonds masked most of the team's fundamental weaknesses, and brought Giants management a lot of credit. But 2005 took the policy a little too far: pre-season pundits rightly laughed at the idea of building a team around the oldest hitters ever. Whatever performance you might project for a crew of 37- and 38-year olds would be cut in half by injuries and the decline of aging. The pre-season pundits were not wrong – Barry Bonds, Armando Benitez, Jason Schmidt and Moises Alou have all spent time on the DL, along with LaTroy Hawkins, Marquis Grissom and Edgardo Alfonzo. It's tough to win when you lose your four best players for any length of time. It's even tougher when, unlike the Atlanta Braves, you've gutted your farm system and have no confidence in young players anyways.

The Giants are, despite a $95 million payroll, just 42-56, demonstrably better than only perennial laughingstocks Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Colorado. If they finish 75-87, it will be a tremendous accomplishment, and also a spectacular failure given that this team could have easily won 90 games. As the trading deadline approaches, the Giants should look to be sellers of anything that isn't nailed down and hope to pick up at least one young player who will help them in 2006 and beyond.

On the bright side, there have been some positives this year, which I'm more than happy to enumerate:

Jason Ellison: Ellison spent two and a half years in Fresno, flashing minimal power, poor baserunning instincts, and average fielding despite his obvious speed. At 27, he was long past prospect status, so his development was deemed irrelevant and he became a perfect candidate to sit on the bench and be a 5th outfielder. He hit way over his head in spot duty in April (which is what every 27-year-old baseball player getting his first real shot needs to do) and played his way into a starting role. Ellison is slightly below-average, but he makes the major-league minimum, compared to $2.5 million for Tucker and $2.8 million for Grissom, who've got nothing on him. Ellison could fill the Giants center field needs in 2006 and 2007, but the moment it looks like he'll pick up $1.5 million in arbitration, it's time to flip him to the kind of GM who'd sign players like Tucker and Grissom.

Lance Niekro: his minor-league career was as unimpressive as the Giants as, but when Moises Alou went on the DL, Niekro came up and laid waste to left-handed pitching. He is the Giants' Olmedo Saenz, a guy who hides his head in the sand against righties. They're a dime-a-dozen (Saenz still only makes $650,000 a year after 6 years of doing his job) but Niekro's presence shows that the Giants can find a use for one of their own rather than over-paying in the free agent market.

Todd Linden: he didn't hit in his 60 trips to the plate during his short call-up, but he has been terrorizing AAA and might very well hit 40 home runs there. This is good in that the Giants can't ignore him forever. But it's very bad in that, for perhaps the millionth time, it shows that the Giants have no clue. Linden is very similar to Oakland's Dan Johnson, though Johnson is a year older and plays an easier position. After 64 plate appearances this year, Johnson was hitting .228 with no home runs (versus Linden's .172 with two home runs) but the A's stuck with him, and, to put it in purely statistical terms, he regressed to the mean and has been a very productive player since. The difference: the A's understood what Johnson's minor-league record foretold; the Giants valued 15 major-league games over hundreds of minor-league games. The result: A's fans get to see a good young player; Giants fans have to watch Michael Tucker and Alex Sanchez.

The pitching staff: Noah Lowry didn't pitch at Coors Field during his rookie season, but this year he got shellacked for 13 runs in 11.1 innings in Colorado. Throw those starts out and he's got a 4.10 ERA, 7.6 K/9, less than 1 HR per 9, and a league-average K/BB ratio. No one should have any complaints! Brad Hennessey has been exceedingly lucky to have even a 5.79 ERA through 42 innings – though he allowed 9 home runs, 6 were with the bases empty. Lucky or not, it means I don't have to watch Kirk Rueter anymore.

Yorvit Torrealba: do you ever remember sitting on the bench while an inferior player got all the minutes? Maybe he was the coach's son, maybe everybody just thought he had a great attitude, or maybe he had somehow acquired a scrappy reputation. Whatever it was, it wasn't his play. Yorvit's been there for years now. After being Benito Santiago's understudy, he had to watch A.J. Pierzynski self-destruct in 2004, and now has to watch Mike Matheny do absolutely nothing he can't do. The Giants should be happy Torrealba hasn't smashed up the clubhouse a la Ricky Vaughan. Matheny holds considerable trade value right now, so here's hoping the Giants make the move they should have made years ago.

So there's hope. Lots of bad stuff too. But still some hope. And a $95 million payroll. The Giants will live to fight another day.