Murphy’s A’s

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Murphy’s Law

I picked the Oakland A’s to win the American League West this season, a prediction that now looks about as bad as a prediction can possibly look in just two months. After averaging 95 wins per season from 1999-2004, including 100-win seasons in both 2001 and 2002 and trips to the postseason from 2000-2003, the A’s are in last place and on pace to go 56-106 for the franchise’s worst record since going 54-108 in 1979.

Oakland’s struggles are not totally unexpected, although I thought the team could overcome trading Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson during the offseason, and simultaneously win and rebuild. It is becoming increasingly clear with each passing sweep that they can’t, because while the AL West looks imminently winnable this season, this A’s team does not look at all capable of doing so. In other words, I was wrong. So very wrong.

Oakland general manager Billy Beane has had quite a run, building winning teams despite low payrolls and numerous key losses via free agency, but his golden touch seems to have worn off this year. While the A’s overall struggles are not neccessarily shocking, the degree to which they have melted down certainly is. From a complete collapse offensively to a team-wide inability to stay healthy, basically anything that could have gone wrong with the A’s this season has gone wrong. And then some.

Oh, let me count the ways …

  • Facing the loss of catcher Damian Miller via free agency, the A’s traded two of last season’s major disappointments, Arthur Rhodes and Mark Redman, to the Pirates for Jason Kendall. Kendall, a career .306/.387/.418 hitter coming into this season who hit .309/.384/.388 from 2002-2004, has hit just .241/.316/.287 so far with the A’s. In addition to his offensive dropoff, Kendall has struggled defensively as well. After throwing out 36.3% of stolen-base attempts last season with Pittsburgh, he has successfully thrown out a runner just five times in 48 tries (10.4%) this season.
  • As if Kendall’s struggles weren’t enough, both Rhodes and Redman are pitching well. The Pirates quickly flipped Rhodes to Cleveland, where he has a 1.25 ERA and 18-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 21.2 innings as a setup man after pitching horribly as Oakland’s closer in 2004. Meanwhile, Redman has a 3.15 ERA in 10 starts for the Pirates, holding opponents to .233/.285/.339 in 65.2 innings after letting batters tee off on him to the tune of .292/.353/.481 with the A’s last year.
  • Of course, the Kendall trade looks like a major victory for the A’s when compared to the deals they made trading away Mulder and Hudson. Mulder’s 4.43 ERA last season was the worst since his rookie year and he went 5-6 with a 6.13 ERA in the second half, including 0-4 with an 8.78 ERA in September and October. So what happened? Well, the A’s dealt him to St. Louis, where he is currently 7-1 with a 3.72 ERA in 10 starts.

    In return, Oakland got Dan Haren, Kiko Calero, and Daric Barton. As expected, Haren stepped right into Mulder’s spot in the rotation, but thanks in part to Oakland’s inability to score runs he is 1-7 with a 4.87 ERA in 10 starts. The truth is that Haren isn’t pitching much worse than Mulder did last season, aside from the ugly win-loss record that isn’t entirely his fault. In fact, Haren has almost duplicated Mulder’s 2004 numbers:

                 ERA     SO/BB      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
    Mulder      4.43      1.69     .264     .337     .417     .751
    Haren       4.87      1.70     .268     .347     .411     .759

    In other words, swapping Mulder for Haren in the rotation looks really ugly because of their respective 2005 records, but Mulder wouldn’t be 7-1 pitching with Oakland’s lineup behind him, Haren wouldn’t be 1-7 unless the A’s couldn’t provide him with any run support, and Haren is currently replacing Mulder’s 2004 performance pretty well.

  • Calero, who came into this season with a 2.80 ERA and 98-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 83.2 career innings, was supposed to be a big part of Oakland’s revamped bullpen. Instead, he started out well and then came down with an elbow injury that bloated his ERA and sent him to the disabled list. Even Barton, considered one of the elite offensive prospects in baseball, is hitting a somewhat disappointing .275/.405/.407 in 47 games at Single-A.
  • The haul from Atlanta for Hudson has been even less impressive. Dan Meyer, who was supposed to step into Hudson’s spot in the rotation, pitched horribly this spring, continued to struggle at Triple-A, and was shut down indefinitely with a shoulder problem. Charles Thomas got off to an 0-for-24 start at the plate and is hitting just .098/.260/.098 on the year. Juan Cruz, who like Calero was acquired to give the A’s power arms at the end of games, is 0-2 with a 7.45 ERA and appears to be feeling the Mazzone Effect. And last but not least, Hudson has picked up right where he left off with the A’s, going 6-3 with a 3.00 ERA in 11 starts with Atlanta.
  • Asked to become the ace of the staff with Mulder and Hudson gone, Rich Harden pitched well early, with a 2.80 ERA and 42-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in seven starts, but then went down with a stomach muscle injury that still has him on the disabled list.
  • The one-time ace of the staff, Barry Zito, continues to struggle for a second straight season. After going 61-29 with a 3.12 ERA from 2000-2003, Zito is 12-17 with a 4.57 ERA since, including 1-6 with a 4.85 ERA in 11 starts this season.
  • Oakland’s best homegrown pitching prospect, Joe Blanton, was supposed to join Haren and Meyer in a young, rebuilt rotation and give the A’s an innings eater. Instead, he is 0-5 with a 6.55 ERA and has averaged fewer than five innings in his nine starts. Perhaps most concerning, Blanton has just 13 strikeouts (and 20 walks) in 44 innings.
  • Keith Ginter, who was acquired in a minor deal with Milwaukee after hitting .257/.345/.447 for the Brewers from 2002-2004, has hit just .169/.258/.313 in limited playing time with the A’s, losing the second base job to Mark Ellis.
  • Octavio Dotel, who was supposed to be the final power arm in Oakland’s bullpen, continued to struggle this season and was recently shut down with an elbow injury. He is now making the always dreaded trip to see Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion.
  • Last year’s AL Rookie of the Year, Bobby Crosby, broke several ribs on Opening Day and has yet to return. His replacements at shortstop — mainly Marco Scutaro — have hit a combined .255/.335/.369 with just two homers and 15 RBIs.
  • Nick Swisher, who was expected to take over for Jermaine Dye in right field and contend for this season’s AL Rookie of the Year, got off to a slow start that included a surprising lack of plate discipline, and then severely injured his shoulder at the end of April. He has returned to the lineup, but is hitting just .198/.267/.333 on the year.
  • Eric Chavez, who was my pick of AL MVP, has been perhaps the biggest disappointment. After hitting .276/.397/.501 with a league-leading 95 walks in just 125 games last year, Chavez is batting .219/.280/.323 with a 45-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 49 games this season. Chavez struggled mightily against left-handed pitching for the first six years of his career, but hit .306/.412/.481 against southpaws last year. That improvement against lefties is looking like nothing more than a fluke now though, as Chavez is back down to .191/.222/.279 against them so far this year.
  • After hitting .321/.396/.523 to rank among the top 10 in the league in batting average, on-base percentage, and OPS last season, Erubiel Durazo got off to a .237/.305/.368 start this year before heading to the disabled list last week with a bum elbow.
  • Mark Kotsay, who hit .314/.370/.459 last season and was one of the best centerfielders in baseball, is hitting just .286/.344/.383 so far this year.
  • Eric Byrnes is hitting just .238/.317/.389 this season after batting .283/.347/.467 in 2004 and a combined .272/.336/.461 from 2002-2004.
  • The A’s admittedly needed a number of things to break their way this season to contend in the AL West, but I never could have imagined the exact opposite happening. Nearly everything that could possibly have gone wrong in Oakland this year has actually gone wrong, and when combined with their limited window of opportunity to win this season to begin with, the result has been disastrous. It will likely get even worse before it gets better, because the next step is to unload some non-essential parts and truly gear up for what almost can’t help but be better days ahead starting in 2006. Hopefully A’s fans can survive that long.

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