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Oakland A's

Tough Times for Athletics Supporters

So who's over his slump? Bobby Kielty tore up opposing pitching with 5 doubles and 10 walks in May, while Eric Byrnes hit .322 with 7 extra-base hits. Mark Ellis put up a 813 OPS while Scott Hatteberg was at 785, both above their career marks. It's good news, but not particularly good news. The A's were out-hit, out-walked and out-slugged through the month of May, and they expanded the injured list to include not just Bobby Crosby and Nick Swisher but also Kiko Calero, Rich Harden and Octavio Dotel.

Normally, a team like this would be down for the count already, but this is 2005, and the promise of optimal line-up construction is little more than the starry-eyed optimism of 2003. The Seattle Mariners, for example, went out and spent a ton of money in the off-season on Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson. So far so good. Then they broke previously "unbreakable" reliever Bobby Madritsch. And after breaking #1 starter Joel Piniero last year, they just sent him down to the minors.

And last week, they actually traded for Pat Borders and placed him on the Major League roster. Yes, the same Pat Borders who was the MVP of the 1992 World Series. The same Pat Borders who can't hit AAA pitching anymore. The same Pat Borders who popped up on the Seattle roster for the last four years. The same Pat Borders who's good buddies with former Seattle and Toronto GM Pat Gillick. These are not the moves of a winner.

So Seattle won't threaten the A's. What about the Angels, the West Coast Yankees? Well, they've got a starting first baseman, Darin Erstad, who makes over $8 million a year even though he has averaged seven home runs a year since 2001! But he's a leader in the clubhouse, right? You wouldn't want him on your fantasy team and he's no better on a real team. But he fits right in with center fielder Steve Finley, who's 40 and is making $6 million this year in exchange for his .202 average.

Don't forget Garret Anderson, who the Angels locked at $9 million a pop ostensibly so that they can watch him fall apart over the next four years. Or Orlando Cabrera -- the Angels didn't think his back problems were a big deal, and he's rewarded their faith by hitting even worse than he did last year. They have thirty million dollars tied up on four guys who are barely playing better than players who could have been had for the major-league minimum. The Angels are barely a .500 team, but they've ridden a streak of good luck to a big lead in the AL West -- but one that looks very insecure with Vladimir Guerrero (and about 10 other guys) on the DL after diving head-first into home plate.

We're left with Texas. When you play at Ameriquest Field (that's the name of the stadium in Arlington…I had to look it up too) your hitters never look bad. Normally a good hitter's park makes a poor pitcher's park, and over the course of a season, Texas pitchers never look good -- but over the course of just a few games, Kenny Rogers can propel the Rangers up from below .500 by doing crazy things like this:

30 IP, 18 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 HR, 11 BB, 12 K.

For those of you scoring at home, that's a .188 batting average on balls in play. And the odds of Kenny Rogers not giving up a homerun in 30 innings? About 25-to-1. Every couple of years, you might expect him to do it, and he's already done it this year. Without his virtuous pitching, the Rangers might very well be 20-23 and trying to stay ahead of the A's instead of trying to catch the Angels.

So what am I saying? Even though the A's suck right now, the rest of the division has a soft underbelly they could dig their claws into. On top of that, the Mariners and Angels seem content to make lineup decisions more reminiscent of a little league coach than a major league enterprise. They've got to get better, but the A's won't need a 21-game winning streak to compete in this division.

Mailbag!

A loyal reader writes: "How should the Giants deal with the loss of Benitez? Should they continue with closer-by-committee or should they assign the closer to somebody and if so, who?"

Given what they've got to work with, the Giants are looking at a committee system for the foreseeable future. People generally don't like the committee approach because it usually means that a team doesn't actually have any good relief pitchers. But it often leads to a slightly more optimal use of the bullpen because the best pitchers are given the toughest assignments, instead of having "the Wild Thang" come on in the ninth with a three-run lead to rack up another save. The Giants relief corps ranges from below-average to average, so you may as well give these assignments to just about anyone – Eyre, Brower, Walker. Even the Matt Herges debacle last year only cost the Giants three wins.

Now, you should only really care who the closer is if you care about three wins over the course of the season. I'm inclined to think that three wins aren't going to matter to the Giants, not when their four best hitters at this moment are Lance Niekro, Jason Ellison, Deivi Cruz and Yorvit Torrealba. When you build a below-.500 record around your bench hitting over their heads, you're not going to challenge for the division title.