All of a sudden, Oakland A's manager Bob Melvin’s lineup card resembles one from a split-squad affair in spring training. But instead of some of the club’s more notable players riding a bus to play elsewhere in March’s desert heat, they are either injured or have been demoted to the minor leagues in order to regain their form.
The additions of players such as A.J. Griffin, Derek Norris, Brandon Hicks and Brandon Moss have given the A’s a young, fresh new look with a glimpse into the future. And all four players have already made significant contributions to a team struggling to float around .500.
But with interleague play’s conclusion on Sunday, a tougher test begins this week for Oakland and the A's uphill battle to remain competitive and finish the year with a winning record for the first time since 2006. The team continues that trek when it kicks off a three-game tilt against the Seattle Mariners on Monday.
Young players have a tendency to make splashes when they first get called up to the show, sure. But the most important step in the evaluation process is seeing how those players make adjustments after teams properly adjust to them.
Take Brandon Moss, for example. The club’s new first baseman got off to a torrid start and earned AL Player of the Week honors for his work between June 11 and June 17. He hit five home runs and drove in 10, amassing a 1530 OPS and providing an invaluable spark to a lineup desperate for production at the position.
Since then? Moss is 3-for-24 (.125) and he struck out six times in three games against the San Francisco Giants. Whatever weaknesses he has at the plate, they were exploited over the weekend against San Francisco’s strong pitching staff. It will be important for Moss to regroup in Seattle, or the A’s might watch him regress into the player he was with the Pirates that had just a 667 OPS in 195 career games.
But the A's have to be ecstatic about what it has seen from Norris in his first three games in the majors. Melvin, a former catcher himself, was quick to praise his new backstop, crediting Norris' maturity and calmness behind in the plate in his first major league start. It didn’t take long for Norris’ initiation into Oakland’s clubhouse either after belting his first big league homer, a walk-off shot to win Sunday’s game and avoid a sweep from the Giants.
Unlike Moss, Norris holds an anonymity card. It’s his first go around in the major leagues and scouts are still writing the book on his strengths and weaknesses as a hitter. If his first four days are any indication, Norris could be getting the majority of starts over the incumbent Kurt Suzuki for the time being.
The A’s had a relatively successful run in interleague play. They finished 10-8 and 3-3 in series against the National League West. But after the three-game series in Seattle, the A's head to Texas for a pivotal four-game set against the division leading Texas Rangers. That series could have a heavy bearing on the team’s decision process when it comes to the trading deadline.
Monday’s first game will feature Tom Milone (7-5, 4.13) and Erasmo Ramirez (0-1, 5.40). Milone is still trying to figure out why he’s so much less effective away from the Coliseum. For whatever reason, the rookie left-hander struggles to locate his fastball effectively on the road and that’s led to 57 hits in just 43.2 innings. At home, opposing batters are hitting just .169 against him and his ERA is 0.99 compared to 7.42 on the road.
Ramirez, also a rookie, returned from Triple-A Tacoma recently to join the M’s starting rotation. Ramirez started the season in the club’s bullpen and has struggled since joining the rotation in his two starts. He’s allowed 15 hits in just nine innings of work combined between starts against the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks. His most recent start came last week against Arizona when he allowed four earned runs in just four innings.
Ramirez has a good arm and a fastball that averages better than 92 MPH that he throws more than 70 percent of the time. He has four other off-speed pitches, but he doesn’t throw them often. His top secondary pitch is his changeup.
In Tuesday’s game two, the A's will send Travis Blackley (1-2, 3.15) to the hill to take on fellow lefty Jason Vargas (7-7, 4.66). Vargas has always thrown well against the A’s and has allowed just 48 hits in 59.1 innings against them throughout his career. That rate stayed relatively stagnant in his two starts against Oakland back in April, where he allowed just three earned runs in 11.2 combined innings.
Blackley is coming off his best start since joining the A’s rotation in the end of May. He paired up with Norris to throw eight solid innings where he struck out six and allowed just eight hits last week against the Dodgers. With Suzuki in the Monday’s starting lineup, it’s very possible Melvin would go back to the Norris-Blackley combo for his start to see if he could maximize the good rapport the two showed against LA.
Jarrod Parker (3-3, 2.70) gets the nod in Wednesday afternoon’s contest against Kevin Millwood (3-6, 4.02). Parker threw well against the Giants on Friday, but didn’t earn the decision after his bullpen forfeited the lead late in the game. Parker has been steady in his last two starts and has allowed just one run in his last 13 innings. But more importantly, he has walked just three hitters over the same span. Parker has yet to lose a game in which he allows less than three walks.
With Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon on the disabled list, Parker has an opportunity to gain valuable experience as a leader of the A’s staff. None of the five starting pitchers in the A’s rotation have made more than 19 starts in their careers. Without experience, leading by example is the most important thing Parker can do now that the two veterans of the staff are on the shelf.
Millwood is in the midst of his 16th season in the majors. Having spent four years with the Rangers, one with Cleveland and now Seattle, the veteran has thrown pretty well against the A’s throughout his career. In 18 starts, he’s 6-4 with a 3.72 ERA against them.
Millwood was the starter when the Mariners’ staff combined to no-hit the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 8, when the Mariners used six pitchers to tie the major league record. Millwood threw six of the nine innings, but was pulled when he felt a pull in his groin after his first warmup pitch before the seventh inning.
Throughout the years, the 37-year-old has maintained good velocity on his fastball that still averages nearly 91 MPH. In the last two seasons, he’s heavily incorporated a cut-fastball that he throws at nearly the same rate as his slider.