A’s running out of time to recover from lackluster start
We’re only in mid-May, and we’ve already seen the Yankees, Giants, Red Sox and White Sox recover from seemingly devastating slides.
Who’s to say the Athletics can’t do the same?
The A’s finally won a one-run game Monday night after dropping 13 of their first 14 such affairs, beating the Astros, 2-1. Their bullpen is bound to improve. Their luck is bound to change. And by the end of the month, both super-utility man Ben Zobrist and closer Sean Doolittle could return from injuries.
You can’t sugar-coat the Athletics’ 14-27 record, which is the worst in the majors. But if you think general manager Billy Beane is going to tear up his roster before seeing how the team performs with Zobrist and Doolittle, you probably need to think again.
If the A’s don’t recover, they are almost certain to trade their three potential free agents: Zobrist, left-hander Scott Kazmir and reliever Tyler Clippard. First, though, they want to see whether their bullpen and defense can improve, particularly in a division in which only the Astros are above .500.
The Oakland bullpen was last in the majors in ERA before producing 4 2/3 scoreless innings Monday night. Virtually every reliever manager Bob Melvin has tried in the seventh inning has flopped — a surprising development, considering that last season, the bullpen ranked third overall in ERA.
The latest injury to right-hander Jarrod Parker, who was trying to return from his second Tommy John surgery, actually had something of a ripple effect. The A’s expected that once Parker rejoined the rotation, they could move lefty Drew Pomeranz to the bullpen. Now Pomeranz, who left his start prematurely on Monday due to left shoulder tightness, might be out, too.
Then there is the Oakland defense.
The A’s have made 43 errors in 41 games, far more than the club with the next-highest total. Shortstop Marcus Semien has made 15 errors, several more than the player with the next-highest number.
Both the team and Semien fare better in advanced metrics such as defensive runs saved — and Semien, 24, is maintaining an .872 OPS even while experiencing defensive growing pains. But the repeated defensive miscues undoubtedly have contributed to several of the Athletics’ losses, and, remember, the White Sox were not certain Semien could defend well enough to play every day at short before trading him to the A’s.
At the moment, with the season still less than one-fourth complete, it’s difficult to sift through some of the statistical noise with the Athletics. The team’s minus-6 run differential, for example, suggests its record should be closer to .500. But the A’s outscored opponents 38-1 in four early victories, distorting that metric.
The bottom line is that the A’s need to start winning games — and soon. Beane is extremely unlikely to dismiss Melvin, with whom he enjoys a strong relationship. But he will change players. Heaven knows, he has done it before.
CALLING DICK MONFORT
When it comes to Colorado trading All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, only one opinion matters, and it’s not the one belonging to Tulo or Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich.
Owner Dick Monfort will decide whether Tulo stays or goes — and previously, Monfort has resisted trading both Tulo and Carlos Gonzalez.
I tried to contact Monfort on Friday. He answered his cell phone. I started asking about Tulo. And quickly, Monfort hung up.
At least I think he hung up; maybe we just lost the connection. Or maybe I had the wrong number, though the person on the other end seemed to understand my inquiry. In any case, I called again and left a voicemail, and never heard back.
That’s not a complaint — Monfort is not obligated to talk to me or any other reporter. But know this: Tulowitzki will not be traded until Monfort is willing to trade him. And to this point, Monfort still has not given any indication he is ready to make such a move.
ONE-STOP SHOPPING WITH PHILLY
When I mentioned to Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. the impressive recent performances of closer Jonathan Papelbon and first baseman Ryan Howard (not to mention lefty Cole Hamels and righty Aaron Harang), the GM chuckled and replied, “We have a solution for all the needs, a solution for everybody.”
Dismiss the comment if you’d like, but Papelbon is 10 for 10 in save opportunities with a 1.59 ERA, while Howard was batting .375 with three homers and a 1.090 OPS in his last 52 plate appearances entering Tuesday. At his current pace, he would finish with a .795 OPS, 30 homers and 81 RBI.
The contracts for both players continue to be obstacles in trade talks, but Amaro continues to signal that he will be open-minded in all discussions, saying that the team’s only goal is “to collect as many quality prospects as we can.”
Howard seemingly would make sense for an AL team with poor DH production — perhaps the Angels or Twins? The Phillies know they must pay the majority of the approximately $54 million left on his contract to facilitate a deal. They could try to attach him to Hamels, but that likely would lower the return for their best asset.
A TRADE POSSIBILITY FOR TAMPA BAY?
The surprising Rays, who likely will need another starting pitcher to remain in contention, are unlikely to make the best offer for Hamels, Johnny Cueto or anyone else who becomes available.
The expected return of left-hander Matt Moore from Tommy John surgery before the All-Star break should help. It also is not out of the question that lefty Drew Smyly could return in September from a torn labrum, though season-ending surgery appears the more likely outcome.
There is one idea, though, the Rays should consider: Trading left-handed reliever Jake McGee to fill a potential need, whether in the rotation or somewhere else.
McGee, who just returned from left elbow surgery, is growing expensive. His $3.55 million salary this season likely will increase to more than $5 million next season, and he is under club control only through 2017.
Meanwhile, righty Brad Boxberger is 11 for 11 in save opportunities with a 1.20 ERA, and manager Kevin Cash has said he also might use righty Kevin Jepsen in save opportunities.
The Rays, if they moved McGee, would be dealing from strength — and, presuming McGee regains his effectiveness, dealing a reliever when his value is still high.
YOUNG BUT NOT IMPATIENT
For a team with so many young players, the Cubs display remarkable plate discipline. They rank first in the majors in pitches per plate appearance and sixth in on-base percentage. They’re also first in strikeouts, but that is partly a product of running so many deep counts.
Rookie third baseman Kris Bryant leads the majors with 4.40 pitches per plate appearance, and the additions of center fielder Dexter Fowler and catcher Miguel Montero also have contributed to the Cubs’ ability to extend at-bats. When Montero is at catcher, the Cubs are above-average in pitches seen at every position except left field.
Bryant’s patience is especially impressive, considering that, in the words of assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, he is “getting pitched like Barry Bonds.” Pitchers indeed throw Bryant breaking balls at a far higher rate than the major-league average — a pattern that Bryant noticed right from his major-league debut, when he went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts.
“After my first game, I sat down and thought about it,” Bryant said. “I actually thought, ‘That is the way you should pitch to rookies. They’re all amped-up. They want to do too much. That’s an easy way to get ’em out.’ I realized what they were doing. I went back to my old approach of being patient and treating it like any game I’ve played.”
YOUNG AND READY TO PARTY
The Cubs celebrate victories the way the Rays did under manager Joe Maddon and bench coach Dave Martinez, with a smoke machine, disco balls and deafening music — and the player of the game in the middle of it all. After last Friday’s 11-10 victory over the Pirates in 12 innings, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder also joined the mosh pit, to the Cubs’ delight.
The young players love the postgame frolics, but I wondered whether the two veteran imports from Boston, left-hander Jon Lester and catcher David Ross, were as enthusiastic.
Both players said they had reservations — “I thought it would wear on me after a while, that much celebrating,” Ross explained. But as it turns out, both enjoy the fun.
“It’s awesome,” Lester said. “Obviously, it’s a little different than what I’m used to. But I like the idea behind it. I get, seeing Joe and Dave now, their mentality.
“On the other side (with the Red Sox), I thought it was a little much, a little, I guess, annoying. But on this side, I get it. I get the mindset. I get what they’re trying to do, especially for the guys who have been here the last two or three years, the guys who have lost.
“We get to celebrate each individual win as just that — an individual win. The coaching staff does a good job of saying, ‘Let’s live in the moment and enjoy it.’ And once it’s done, on to the next one.”
FOR THE PIRATES, AN EMERGING BARGAIN
If major-league teams had been sold on Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang, he would have commanded a better deal than the four-year, $11 million free-agent contract he signed with the Pirates.
Kang, 28, isn’t going to hit 40 home runs the way he did his final season in Korea. But already, he is taking playing time from Jordy Mercer at shortstop and looking like a major steal.
The Pirates’ coaches and players are tremendously impressed with Kang — his bat speed, his defense on the left side of the infield and especially his aptitude.
Each day, first-base coach Nick Leyva said he gives Kang a printout of the Pirates’ defensive plan and that Kang understands and applies it. Hitting coach Jeff Branson offered the same type of praise, saying Kang studies video of opposing pitchers, trying to figure out their strengths and patterns.
“He was able to adjust to the speed of the game a lot quicker than we expected,” Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said. “His bat speed definitely plays. It will be fun to watch him after he goes a couple of times around the league and sees the pitchers.”
Kang told the Pirates’ coaches that pitchers in Korea all throw with similar velocity and mechanics. It’s quite a difference in the majors, where he might face Aroldis Chapman one night and Michael Wacha the next. Yet, through 70 at-bats, he’s batting .300 with an .824 OPS.
If Hoffman progresses, he could become the Jays’ version of Carlos Rodon or Brandon Finnegan, an option in either the rotation or bullpen. Lefty Daniel Norris and righty Miguel Castro also could return to the majors, but the Jays at some point will need veteran help. They’re deep in prospects and under budget, putting them in good position to swing deals.
● Many in the industry anticipate that the Padres will acquire a shortstop — the duo of Alexi Amarista and Clint Barmes had a combined .603 OPS at the position, 23rd in the majors, entering Tuesday.
One scout compared the 6-foot, 185-pound Lopez to Yordano Ventura, adding, “If you really had guts, you’d drop a Pedro Martinez (comparison) on him.” The Nats believe that Lopez, because of his fastball command, could progress quickly.