After a four game split with the Chicago Cubs, the Mets face a much tougher task as they head out west for a pair of games with the Oakland Athletics. The A's and Mets split a two game set at Citi Field a few months back but since then, Oakland has dropped in the standings despite making a pair of big trades before last month's deadline. At 73-51, the A's sit in second place in the AL West just a half game behind the Angels, who have leapfrogged into first place. Alex Hall of Athletics Nation was once again kind enough to answer some A's questions for us to help preview the series and I also answered some Mets questions over at AN.
Amazin' Avenue: Billy Beane made a pair of bold deals leading up to the July 31st trade deadline, swapping Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, Jon Lester, and Jonny Gomes for Yoenis Cespedes, Addison Russell, and some other pieces. What do A's fans think of the deals and do you think Beane's all-in attitude this season will ultimately pay dividends?
Athletics Nation: A's fans have been split on the trades. One faction looked at the team in the first half, with the best record in baseball, and decided that Billy tried to fix something that wasn't broken. Others, however, looked at that July roster and saw cracks in the armor where things might fall apart in September and October, when things really started to matter.
I personally believe that the team on July 3 was not good enough to go all the way. A rotation of Gray/Kazmir/Chavez/Milone/Pomeranz, with Dan Straily and/or Brad "Buck" Mills, would not have gotten the A's through the playoffs. I can't prove that, but I think a majority of knowledgeable fans would agree with me. The thing I wanted all winter was an ace starter for Game 1 of a playoff series, and now the A's have one in Lester. Furthermore, a rotation of Lester/Gray/Kazmir/Samardzija is much more intimidating in a postseason series, even if something goes wrong with one of those guys between now and then.
Meanwhile, the offense with Cespedes was the best in MLB, and losing one player from a group like that isn't enough to sink it. Cespedes was a powerful presence, but he struggled to get on base or keep his average up and he was really no better than the third- or fourth-best hitter on the team. That's not meant to disrespect him, but rather to show how this unit was and is bigger than just one guy.
Of course, right around the time of the trade the entire lineup tanked and pretty much everyone went into a slump, timed exactly when the All-Star rotation lost its edge for a couple weeks. That has resulted in a prolonged slump that has cost Oakland its spot in first place. You could certainly make a case that the team is still adjusting to its new makeup, but the smart bet is that these talented players will start playing well again soon and the pennant race will resume.
There's no way for me to know if the deals will pay off with a World Series title, and hindsight allows us to think about things that Beane could or should have done (many of us wanted Brandon McCarthy a month ago, and his price proved to be low). But, with things as they are, the A's are still in as good a position as any team to go all the way. If they do win a ring, then the new pitchers will likely be a big reason why.
AA: Last time I asked you about the success of catcher Derek Norris but the A's have two other strong offensive catchers on their roster. John Jaso is likely a somewhat familiar name but Stephen Vogt is not. Where did he come from, is he really this good, and how do the A's go about utilizing their trio of catchers?
AN: Stephen Vogt's mother was defensive versatility, and his father was BABIP. He is the offspring of those two things, and he's amazing. When he comes to bat, the stadium begins chanting "I believe in Stephen Vogt." Seriously.
Vogt was picked up as a minor league free agent last year and made his name by notching the walk-off RBI single in Game 2 of the ALDS, the game in which Sonny Gray matched zeroes against Justin Verlander. He didn't make the Opening Day roster this season as the A's tried to keep as many out-of-options players as possible, but since his return in early June he has done nothing but hit. His season line is .322/.352/.503.
Vogt isn't as good as that line suggests, but I'm starting to think that he might not be far off of his true talent. His BABIP is down to .331, which is high but not astronomical, and he makes lots of hard contact and hits a good number of line drives to support his high hit rate. His power didn't show up much in the Majors last year, but he's left the yard three times in his last nine games to balance out the inevitable dip in his average (he was never going to hit .360 forever). Perhaps a line of .280/.330/.450 would be a realistic expectation for him going forward.
On the other side of the ball, Vogt has moved out from behind the plate to fill in at first base and in the outfield corners. This versatility has allowed him to get in the lineup pretty much every day, and it's also allowed Bob Melvin to be more liberal in his use of his other catchers. With Vogt around, Jaso or Norris can DH and there can still be another backup available in case something happens to whoever started behind the dish. In this way, the A's often have a lineup featuring three catchers, which looks strange right up until the moment when two of them homer. Defensively, Vogt is decent behind the plate (his best attribute is his arm), passable in the outfield, and quickly improving at first.
AA: Jed Lowrie is a free agent at season's end and the trade of Addison Russell leaves the A's without a near ready heir to the shortstop job. What do you see them doing there going forward? Also, with the Mets gaping hole at shortstop, what do you make of Lowrie's down season at the plate? Would he be a worthwhile free agent target?
AN: I think that Lowrie will be gone next year. He's having a down year at the plate, his defense is below-average, and his current injury damages the new-found durability he's enjoyed since he got to Oakland, but he's still a productive player at a weak position. Someone will give him three years (or more) for his ages 31-33 seasons, and it won't by Billy Beane. I have no idea who will be playing shortstop in Oakland in 2015, but I have a feeling that he's playing for another team right now.
As for Lowrie's hitting, I think it's mostly been bad luck. His .268 BABIP is a good starting point for optimism, and so is the fact that he's hitting only .544 on line drives -- a normal average is more like .700, and his career rate is .764. The liners are there, but he's hitting them right at people at an inordinate rate. That won't continue forever, and hopefully those balls start finding holes this fall rather than next year in another uniform.
AA: With Yoenis Cespedes in Boston, who are the A's using to fill his shoes in the outfield and how much have they missed his bat in the lineup?
AN: The effect of his departure is tough to gauge. He is not the sole cause of this current slump, but maybe he would have been enough to swing one or two of these bad August games -- though that loss was almost certainly made up for by Lester's three wins in his first three starts. They miss his bat, but they also miss the bats of guys like Brandon Moss and Coco Crisp, who have been struggling (Moss in a regular slump, Coco slowed by a neck injury). They're also missing most of their bench, with Craig Gentry, Nick Punto, and Kyle Blanks all on the shelf, and that 's a big deal for a team built on depth and versatility. There is a lot wrong with this team right now that has nothing to do with Cespedes, and I'm confident that most of it is temporary. All of the injured players are expected to return in early September at the latest (except for Coco, who will be playing in pain for the rest of the season).
As for filling Yo's shoes, Jonny Gomes is a big part of that. He hasn't done anything noteworthy since arriving, but he is the right-handed masher who starts against lefties. Sam Fuld is here now, but he's more of a replacement for Coco and Gentry than for Cespedes. My hope is that Josh Reddick will be the one who steps up to truly replace Cespedes' presence. He was terrible from the second half of 2012 until midseason this year, but he seems to have rediscovered both his swing and his health and he's got an .828 OPS since the trade (and a .900 OPS since July 23). He's vaguely similar as a low-average hitter with power.
AA: O.Co Coliseum is well known for its gigantic amount of foul territory, the towering Mount Davis beyond the center field fence, and the occasional sewage floods in recent years that have filled the dugouts and clubhouses. Do A's fans like the coliseum, even in a Stockholm Syndrome type way? How long do you think it'll take the A's to get out of there (if MLB ever stops dragging its feet on the issue)?
AN: It's a dump, but it's our dump.
I tend to defend the Coliseum. It's not that bad. The sewage problem is a funny thing for the national media to joke about but the reality is that it doesn't affect the fans at all (and has likely been fixed since we haven't heard about it in a while). Mount Davis is gross, but we're used to it now. The foul territory means that no one ever interferes with a ball in play, because they're simply too far away to do so.
Everything in O.co is made of concrete, but so what? I came to watch the game on the field, and if that's what you're looking for in your ballpark experience then you will love it here. There are no frills, no extra distractions to pull you away from the events on the field. There's plenty of seating since attendance is low, so you can sit wherever you want and put your feet up on the seat in front of you. You can see the field from almost the entire concourse (only behind Mt. Davis is the view blocked, THANKS RAIDERS). BART, the local public transit, has a stop across the street, so transportation literally couldn't be easier. And no matter what, you will be in beautiful, sunny northern California, where this year we had our first rainout since 1996.
If you came for a grand cultural experience with fancy food and ways to ignore the game, then you'll be disappointed. Go to AT&T Park and schmooze with the social elites in the big city. If you came to watch baseball, you will find it here, amid 15.000 others who came to focus a game.
As for the future, who knows. The A's signed a 10-year lease with Oakland to stay on the Coliseum site, so it looks like they aren't going anywhere for now. The best-case scenario is that the A's build a new park on the same site, but in reality that will probably require the Raiders leaving town since they refuse to cooperate with anyone. San Jose is likely a thing of the past, in my opinion; if it was going to happen, it would have by now, and most of us are just fine with that.
Thanks again to Alex Hall for giving us a preview of the Athletics!