Neyer article about state of the A's
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| By bigthree17 on Monday, October 04, 2004 - 01:05 pm:|
Big Three can't carry A's
By Rob Neyer
They were, in the end, underdogs.
And as underdogs usually do in the end, the Oakland Athletics lost.
The A's, if they were going to win another American League West title, were going to do it on the strength of their starting pitching. It's been that way for years, and these A's haven't yet lost a starting pitcher they really wanted to keep. So you just expect the A's to get great work from their starters, and you expect that great work to carry them to the postseason.
But this year that's not the way it worked out.
Oakland's starting pitching was certainly good, mostly because it was at least decent from the first slot in the rotation through the fifth (not many teams can claim the same). But in the closing stages of the pennant race, it just wasn't quite good enough. Particularly problematic was Mark Mulder's performance down the stretch. On Aug. 12, Mulder was 15-3 with a 3.49 ERA. Since then, though -- and including his short and bloody outing against the Angels on Friday night -- Mulder's just 2-5 with a 7.28 ERA in 10 starts. It's not fair to blame the fortunes of a team on one player, but if you're looking for something truly surprising that cost the A's the pennant, it's Mulder's late-season struggles.
Future still promising
Billy Beane's few remaining detractors will, I suppose, seize upon this second-place finish and declare that the A's, as predicted, are finally (and inexorably) dropping toward third or fourth place in the West. Because while they've been able to keep all of their best starting pitchers, they haven't been able to keep all of their best hitters. As good as Bobby Crosby's been this season -- and he hasn't actually been that good -- the A's already would have clinched another pennant if they still had Miguel Tejada. As good as Scott Hatteberg and Erubiel Durazo have been this season, they don't add up to one healthy Jason Giambi.
But that's what they say every year, isn't it? Yet somehow the A's did manage to win 90 games this season, and in the process put a scare into a franchise that spent twice the money on its players. If Mulder and Hudson and Zito all return in 2005 as reasonable facsimiles of their previous selves, there's no obvious reason the A's can't win 90 or more games again. The bullpen will be better next year, because two of the organization's top prospects, Jairo Garcia and Huston Street, are relievers ready to pitch, in the majors. Crosby will be a year older and a year better, and presumably next season his double-play partner, whoever he is (Mark Ellis, probably), won't have a sub-.300 on-base percentage. The A's will have to replace Jermaine Dye and Durazo, but shouldn't suffer much with organizational products Nick Swisher and Dan Johnson. And with Dye gone, Beane should have a few million clams to spend this winter.
Everything depends on The Big Three. I like Rich Harden and Joe Blanton, and both might someday serve as worthy replacements when the A's finally do lose some pitchers they really want to keep. But if the A's are going to remain as competitive as they've been, they need two of their Three to pitch like the Cy Young candidates they've been at various times in the past. And until they do it without pitching coach Rick Peterson, there's no way of knowing if they can do it.
Now I must mention something that many among you will find distasteful.
With the Expos supposedly -- and I promise you, it's not a sure thing yet, despite what you've heard -- heading to a sunnier and more profitable clime, baseball boosters in Portland (my home base) are now casting their covetous eyes southward, toward The City. Yes, as successful as the A's have been in recent years, and as rich a tradition as their franchise boasts since moving from Kansas City in 1968, there are reasonable men (and women, probably, though I haven't talked to any of them) who believe the A's aren't long for the East Bay, because they can't get a new ballpark and they can't make enough money in the old one.
It's certainly true that Network Associates Coliseum is something less than a garden spot. If you approach the Coliseum by automobile, you'll arrive at hectares of concrete wedged between expressways and drab industrial zones. And if you approach by rapid transit, after de-training you'll trudge to the stadium via a caged walkway that crosses decrepit San Leandro Street, the Union Pacific tracks, and a polluted wreck of a river that would make Iron Eyes Cody shed another few tears if he saw it. (Hey Raiders and A's, why not spend a few thousand bucks to beautify that 200-yard stretch of waterway that's so plainly visible to so many thousands of your customers?)
But you know what? Once you're inside the Coliseum, it's really not so bad. The concourse is cramped, especially when more than 40,000 fans show up. But I've certainly seen baseball games in less hospitable buildings. And there's a healthy atmosphere created by the fans, many of whom really do love this team. So hard on the heels of Montreal fans' (probably) losing their team, I certainly can't wish a similar fate on Oaklanders, even if it would bring the BIG LEAGUES to Portland.
So here's my pleading to Major League Baseball's next commissioner (because I know the current one won't listen) ... If you're determined to preserve MLB in cities that really can't support it -- cities like Kansas City and Milwaukee -- then there's really only one logical course of action: expansion. Does anybody really want to argue that there are not now -- or won't be in five years -- two currently MLB-free cities that could support a team in decent style?
Better than 2002?
And what of these plucky Angels? They've gotten where they are largely on the strength of their no-nonsense manager and gutsy players like Darin Erstad and David Eckstein.
Don't you believe it. That's what people said about the Angels in 2002, when they won the World Series. General manager Bill Stoneman brought back almost exactly the same team in 2003, and they finished third.
In truth, the Angels were never as good as they played in 2002, nor as bad as they played in 2003. They were, in fact, somewhere in the middle, an 88-90 win team. Last winter they added Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Guillen, and Bartolo Colon, which has allowed them to become a 90-94 win team despite 1) losing one of their best players (Troy Glaus) for half the season, and 2) fielding a first baseman (Erstad) who doesn't get on base or hit home runs. This is a good team with a lights-out bullpen. And if Colon's pitching well (as he did Friday night), this might be a great team.
Vlad fourth for MVP?
Erstad, with his eighth-inning double on Saturday afternoon, just might have won the pennant for Anaheim. He might also, at the same time, have cost Vladimir Guerrero the American League MVP Award.
How? When Erstad stepped to the plate, Angels were hugging first base and second, with one Seraph already retired and Guerrero waiting on the deck. If Erstad makes an out, or walks, or raps a single, Guerrero comes up with a chance to put the Angels ahead. Mind you, he'd already accounted for all the Angels' runs with a two-out, two-run homer in the sixth. If Guerrero came through again in the biggest game of the season, the MVP voters would have to seriously consider his candidacy.
But of course Erstad doubled, and Ken Macha ordered left-handed pitcher Ricardo Rincon to throw four balls to Guerrero. Garret Anderson followed with a ground-ball single that plated Erstad with what proved to be the deciding run. And Guerrero will finish third or fourth in the MVP balloting, behind Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, and perhaps Ichiro Suzuki.
BTW, I thought it was funny that, the day after we got eliminated, the A's were still running "Crunch Time" commercials urging us to "Buy postseason tickets now."