OK. If someone were to tell you that the A’s would lose Mark Ellis for the season, Eric Chavez for 6 weeks, Tim Hudson for 2 weeks, that Barry Zito would be 64th in the majors with a bloated 4.62 ERA (behind such luminaries as Mark Hendrickson and Carlos Silva) despite an increase in his strikeout rate, that Oakland’s best position player in the first half was Scott Hatteberg, that only one pitcher in the bullpen would have an ERA under 4.61, and that a glance at the starting infield for most of June would find heavy doses of Mark McLemore, Marco Scutaro, Ramon Castro, and Eric Karros, where would you think they would be in the standings?
Certainly not 2 games back in the AL West. Certainly not 1 game back in the Wild Card race. And most certainly not trailing the Texas Rangers(!) in their division.
But that’s exactly what the A’s did in the first half, despite a rash of injuries and ineffectiveness, and the surprising competitiveness exhibited by Texas so far this season. So there’s definitely room for optimism, especially with Chavez back already and raking the ball all over the field (not to mention playing the best third-base defense in the majors), Hudson expected back soon after the all-star break, and a key bullpen acquisition already in the fold in Octavio Dotel. Let’s take a look at how the team performed in the first half:
First Base/Designated Hitter
This was supposed to be a three-headed monster going into the season, with Oakland acquiring Eric Karros in the offseason for his supposed ability to hit lefties. What they got was the 36-year old Karros posting the worst season of his career (.196/.248/.320, and only .214/.274/.357 versus left-handers), looking old and slow at first and running the bases, and growing out a sweet afro-like hairstyle. Fortunately, Scott Hatteberg and Erubiel Durazo are both having career seasons to compensate. Hatteberg’s .301/.380/.467 is better than his breakout 2002 season, and he is putting up Barry-Bonds like strikeout numbers (only 20 so far on the season), while drawing walks (38) and hitting for power (25 extra-base hits).
As for Durazo, as long as the A’s hide his fielding glove, he has been everything they thought they were getting when trading for him prior to the 2003 season. He’s hitting .311/.385/.500, crushing both lefties and righties, although his K/BB ratio is down significantly from last season. On days that Ken Macha forgets that Karros is any sort of an option for him (which should be every day), a 1B/DH tandem of Hatteberg/Durazo from here on out should be quite productive.
After losing Mark Ellis for the year in the preseason, the A’s were scrambling to fill their second base spot. Ellis was spectacular defensively in 2003 (which was important considering the groundball tendencies of many of the A’s pitchers), and had worked out in the offseason with an eye on boosting his offensive numbers.
Thanks to the shrewd offseason pickup of Marco Scutaro, the A’s have been above average offensively and defensively at second base. Although he’s hitting .281, Marco’s shown almost none of the ability to hit for power (.379 SLG) or draw walks (.304 OBP) that he displayed in the minors; Scutaro posted major league EQOBPs above .350 in every minor league season since 2001, and also slugged .475 and .520 in 2002 and 2003. He’s done as much as you can ask of him, given the situation, but don’t be surprised to see Billy Beane look for an upgrade here in the next 3 weeks.
Bobby Crosby, the replacement for Miguel Tejada at short and a preseason favorite for AL rookie of the year after clubbing a ton of home runs in spring training, looked like a major flop in April, hitting a paltry .200/.269/.383 with 23 strikeouts in only 60 at-bats. He admitted that he essentially had no 2-strike approach at the plate, and like he has done at every minor league stop, Crosby just made adjustments and started improving: .261/.313/.455 in May, and a scalding .332/.402/.545 in June along with a dip in his K/AB rate from 1 K/2.61 AB in April to 1 K/7.21 AB in June. He’s struggled in July, hitting only .195/.250/.317, with only 8 hits in his last 41 at-bats, and 10 strikeouts, but he’s only had 2 days off since coming back from his collision with Bobby Kielty at the end of April, and could use some time off. Crosby’s also not at Tejada’s level yet defensively, but his improvement rate as a rookie is staggering so far.
Eric Chavez was having a weird season before breaking his hand on June 1. Chavez’s Achilles’ heel has always been left-handed pitching: he has a career split of only .228/.285/.391 against left-handers, while crushing right-handed pitching to the tune of .294/.373/.545. In 2004, Chavez has hit .291/.378/.544 against lefties, while only hitting .242/.395/.458 against right-handers. His on-base percentage has increased as a result of Chavez taking more walks, but if this is a sign that he has finally figured out left-handed pitching, Eric could be in for a monster second half, as his stats against right-handers will most likely revert to his career norms.
Mark McLemore has done an admirable job filling in, putting up an excellent OBP of .379 and playing solid defense, but any last remnants of power are gone, his balky knee doesn’t allow him to play every day, and he’s awful versus lefties (.091/.286/.091). He’s best used now in a utility role, and to spell Crosby and Scutaro occasionally against right-handed pitchers.
A’s fans who reveled in Ramon Hernandez’s career season in 2003 were disappointed to learn that Hernandez was traded in the offseason along with Terrence Long to the Padres for Mark Kotsay. And not much attention was paid to Oakland’s acquisition of Damian Miller, who struggled through an injury-plagued season in Chicago that saw him hit career lows in almost every offensive category. The A’s made the trade knowing that they were getting an excellent defensive catcher (something Hernandez was not) who had worked with such pitchers as Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Mark Prior, and Kerry Wood to rave reviews. What they didn’t know is that they’d be getting an offensive resurgence from Miller: he’s outhit Hernandez .298/.354/.467 to .266/.340/.424, and has been perhaps the A’s most consistent offensive player, not to mention his stellar work behind the plate.
As for Melhuse, he’s adequate enough as a backup catcher, but these stats are a bit disturbing: the A’s are 34-23 when Miller starts, and only 13-16 when Melhuse starts. Is he not adept at calling a game? Is it just a small sample size? Whatever it is, it needs to be fixed, and soon.
After writing some of the worst outfielders in the major leagues onto the lineup card on a regular basis last season (see: Terrence Long, Chris Singleton, the 2003 Jermaine Dye, the post-June Eric Byrnes), Ken Macha had to be looking forward to a change there in 2004. The front office did a major overhaul, bringing in the aforementioned Mark Kotsay to play centerfield, and trading Ted Lilly for Bobby Kielty to play leftfield. Jermaine Dye spent the offseason working out with Eric Chavez in Arizona at the Athletes Performance Institute under the tutelage of fitness guru Mark Verstegen.
After a slow start (.256/.316/.291 in April), Kotsay has been tearing the cover off the ball since then, hitting .308/.353/.372 in May, .340/.405/.530 in June, and .421/.489/.579 in July, all while playing a gold-glove caliber centerfield that the A’s have missed since Johnny Damon roamed the Net in 2001.
Dye is perhaps the comeback player of the year, hitting .285/.343/.505 a year after posting the worst batting average in the majors (.172) with only 4 homeruns. Jermaine already has 16 this year, and is on pace for his highest total since 2000, while also playing excellent defense in right.
Leftfield hasn’t worked out the way the A’s had hoped; Bobby Kielty has largely been a disappointment after being handed the starting job in spring training, and Eric Byrnes has taken over the regular duties. Like last year, Byrnes began the season scalding hot, but has cooled off as of late. The front office may elect to upgrade the left field position, but otherwise, Byrnes will get most of the time there, with Kielty spotting him occasionally versus left-handers.
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