After going 4-2 on a quick road trip to the East Coast last week, the Oakland A's return home atop the Wild Card standings in the American League, just percentage points ahead of the Los Angeles Angels. They'll take on the Tampa Bay Rays, who sit just two games behind Oakland with Tuesday's trade deadline looming over the playoff race.
Over the past few seasons, the A's have struggled on the road making their recent series wins in Toronto and Baltimore that much more meaningful. So far, the A's have gone 26-25 away from Oakland, building confidence for what could be a pressure-packed remaining two months of the season. The Blue Jays and Orioles are both teams competing with the A's for a playoff berth.
Over the weekend, the A's made their trade with Milwaukee to acquire left-handed hitting catcher George Kottaras. On Monday, rookie backstop Derek Norris was optioned to Triple-A Sacramento to make room on the roster.
The move for Kottaras came under the radar. Most of the trade deadline chatter about the A's involved shortstops. After all, A's shortstops have combined for a 541 OPS on the year. But Kottaras gives the A's something they haven't had all season: a left-handed hitting catcher.
Before the move, the top four catchers in the organization (Kurt Suzuki, Norris, Josh Donaldson and Anthony Recker) all hit right-handed. It's been common practice in recent years for the A's to carry a catcher that's either a switch-hitter or left-handed, including Landon Powell, Adam Melhuse and Rob Bowen.
Norris got out of the gate very quickly in his first Major League stint, hitting .348/.375/.609 in his first six games. But unlike the rest of the team, he slowed down in July, hitting just .130/.217/.204 in 15 appearances. He began making a habit of opening his hips early in his swing, costing him coverage to the outer-half of the strike zone and bat speed.
The demotion likely has no impact on his standing with the A's. The club still believes he is a quality catching prospect that just needs some time in the minors to make adjustments at the plate and get regular at-bats.
Kottaras is emblematic of the type of hitters A's GM Billy Beane usually covets. Despite his .209 average, the former 20th-round selection by San Diego gets on base at an unusually high .409 clip, giving him an OPS of 769 on the year, which is up from his career mark of 728. He also has some pop, averaging 13 home runs per 162 games throughout his five years in the Major Leagues.
The drawback on Kottaras is his weak arm throwing out base stealers. With Boston and Milwaukee, he's thrown out just 16 percent of runners, which is far below the league average of 27 percent. This year, he's caught five of 21, meaning there will be some pressure on the young A's pitching staff to do a good job in holding runners on.
With Tuesday's deadline just a day away, there are still a few moves the A's could make. They have yet to upgrade the shortstop position, but could do so with a player such as Arizona's Stephen Drew. Oakland has proven to have a good working relationship with Diamondbacks as the clubs have come together on numerous trades in the last few seasons.
Drew is back in the show after breaking his ankle last July and is looking to regain the form that made him one of the brightest shortstop prospects in baseball. After being selected in the first round of the 2004 draft, Drew made it to the majors just two seasons later and went on to hit .316/.357/874 in 59 games his rookie year. His numbers have been up and down since then. But having played for A's manager Bob Melvin for more than three seasons while Melvin was with Arizona, the 29-year-old with a career 766 OPS could represent a much-needed upgrade for the A's at the position and could find a comfort zone right away.
But Drew wouldn't come cheap. It's likely the Diamondbacks would be looking for quality prospects in return for their former top draft pick, which could include members of the talented group of starting pitchers the A's have developed in the minor leagues. Then there's the issue of Drew's contract. Prior to sustaining the ankle injury, Drew signed a two-year, $15.75 million deal that includes a mutual option for next season. That means the A's would be on the hook for what's left of his $7.75 million for this season and they would need to pay $10 million to retain his services for 2013 (but have the option of a $1.35 million buyout).
That means Oakland could be facing a situation where they would give up a quality prospect (or two) for an expensive two-month rental.
Other names included in the trade rumors at shortstop are Yunel Escobar and Jimmy Rollins. Both appear as less-likely options. Escobar is seen as having clubhouse issues, while Rollins might be too old and pricey (33-year-old, with $22 million on the books for 2013 and 2014). It was reported that the A's were in on the Marco Scutaro discussions with the Colorado Rockies before he was traded to the San Francisco Giants over the weekend.
Monday night's game will see A.J. Griffin (3-0, 2.25) take on Cy Young candidate David Price (14-4, 2.57). Price, the No. 1-overall pick in the 2007 draft, is having one of the best seasons of his five-year career. The left-hander hasn't lost since June 13 and has thrown at least seven innings in his last seven starts (6-0).
Price throws four pitches. His fastball averages better than 95 miles per hour while he mixes in a cutter, curveball and changeup at a relatively equal rate. In five starts against the A's in his career, Price is 2-1 with a 3.62 ERA allowing 26 hits in 32.1 innings. He's struck out 34.
Griffin is looking to keep his quality start-streak alive and extend it to seven games to start his big league career. He has won his last three decisions and is coming off a great outing in Toronto where he shutout the Blue Jays for six innings, allowing three hits and getting nine strikeouts.
The A's 24-year-old right-hander has been very tough on right-handed hitters early on, allowing a .177/.205/.215 slash line with a 7.00 strikeout to walk ratio. In contrast, lefties are hitting .245/.310/.453 with just eight strikeouts to five walks.
Griffin butters his bread with a big, slow curveball that comes in at less than 70 miles per hour, giving nearly 20 miles per hour difference between his curve and his fastball. His stuff is about average for the major league level, but it is his deception that has kept hitters off-balance.
The question about Griffin continues to be sustainability. His 3.57 FIP and .230 BABIP indicate that he's been relatively lucky. But should he continue to keep hitters guessing and not let them sit on any one pitch, his effectiveness should continue down the stretch.
Tuesday night's game will feature southpaw Tom Milone (9-7, 3.51) and right-hander James Shields (8-7, 4.52). Milone is coming off a rough outing in Toronto that saw him yield five earned runs and two homers. The A's hope the get-away-day loss came as an outlier of sorts, given the game's 12:30 start time on the East Coast that meant Milone's body clock was at 9:30 in the morning.
Prior to that start, Milone had gotten into a mid-season groove congruent with the rest of the club. He walked just three hitters in 41 innings.
Shields' name has been thrown around in trade rumors, and he might not be the starter if he is moved before Tuesday's deadline. The right-hander hasn't won a game since July 3 against the Yankees and he is coming off a start in which he surrendered five runs and five walks in a losing effort to the Orioles. But over his last two starts, Shields has combined to strike out 20 batters in 13.2 innings.
Shields has struggled overall in 2012 after his standout season a year ago when he won 16 games, finished with an ERA below three and threw 11 complete-games. This year, he's whiffing hitters at a career-best 8.8 rate per nine innings, but is also giving up 10.2 hits leading to a career-worst WHIP of 1.46. He hasn't thrown well against Oakland in his career and has been even worse at the Coliseum.
Wednesday's final game of the series has the A's youngster Jarrod Parker (7-4, 3.38) taking on Tampa righty Alex Cobb (4-8, 4.93). Cobb was drafted by Tampa Bay in the fourth round of the 2006 draft and is just 24-years-old. But he might be tough matchup for the A's given his low home run total, having allowed just three in 69.1 innings this year.
Cobb is coming off of three straight losses where he's allowed seven earned runs in 12.1 innings (5.11 ERA). He didn't fare well in his previous start against the A's last year, allowing five runs on eight hits in just 4.1 innings to get the loss. Cobb has three pitches in his repertoire, but relies heavily on throwing his changeup off his fastball.
Parker has won four of his last five decisions but is coming off a bad outing when he allowed six earned runs in five innings. Fortunately for him, his offense bailed him out as the A's went on to win the game, 14-9. It was the right-hander's third time in four starts he allowed more than four runs, which could be somewhat worrisome for the A's.
Over his last 23.2 innings, Parker has allowed 17 earned runs (6.46 ERA) which could just be a typical bump in the road, or a sign that he's tiring. He's less than two years removed from his Tommy John surgery, which means his arm might be hitting a wall. His control has been good – he's allowed just four walks in the four starts – but he has been getting hit at a far worse rate.
Parker's slide could be a significant development for the A's, especially before the trading deadline. With Brandon McCarthy's health making him unreliable (although he is beginning a rehab assignment with Triple-A Sacramento Monday), the A's might find themselves in a sizeable hole should their pitching staff fail to produce as well as it has recently.
That could make acquiring a durable starting pitcher an intriguing possibility before Tuesday's trading deadline, especially given the only insurance policies against any injuries lie in unproven rookies who might be unfit to hold down a spot in the rotation for the stretch run toward the playoffs.