Yes, folks, it's that time of year again. Time for me to hand out my half year grades for our Oakland Athletics. I'm going to do it a little differently this year. In past seasons, I'd give it out to individuals, but I'm going to give it to the different portions of the team. I'm going to break it out into starting pitching, relief pitching, offense, managing and front office. I'll give my grade and my thinking as to why that grade applies and then standouts and disappointments.
As always, this is not scientific by any means. Much of it has to do with the expectations that I had for that aspect of the A's I mentioned.
Starting pitching - A: The A's started the season with a lot of question marks in their rotation. I honestly thought that the rotation would include Lenny DiNardo and Kirk Saarloos right about now. I figured Harden and Duchscherer would not have lasted and the emergency plan of DiNardo and Saarloos would be in full motion while we were waiting for Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill to make it to the pros. Granted, both have missed time with injuries in the first half, but they've also pitched a lot more than I thought they were. As a matter of fact, the A's starting pitching team ERA is 3.48, the best in the entire majors. The starting pitching has been absolutely, positively stellar and probably the biggest reason the A's are still within shouting distance of the division-leading Angels. They've also been able to do it with two rookies in Greg Smith and Dana Eveland. It'll be interesting to see how those two guys hold up over the second half. The irony of all this is that the pitcher who the A's tagged with the "ace" tag before the season started happens to be their worst starter statistically right now.
Starting pitching standouts: Rich Harden, Justin Duchscherer, Dana Eveland, Greg Smith
Starting pitching disappointments: Joe Blanton
Relief pitching - A- : If the major reason the A's have been winning is their starters, the relief pitching is the minor reason. The A's have the sixth best ERA out of their relievers in all of baseball. They've also done it with a cast of largely no names and folks that people didn't expect to be as good as they have been. Santiago Casilla had a Dennis Eckersley-like start to his year. Andrew Brown was fantastic. Joey Devine was spectacular. Brad Ziegler came from Sacramento to become integral. The known quantities like Embree, Foulke and Street suddenly seemed to be the ones that made me more nervous than the less proven guys. Still, the pen has been relatively solid. Huston Street hasn't been as good as I'd like but I do suspect that he's been pitching through various injuries this year.
Relief pitching standouts: Joey Devine, Brad Ziegler, Andrew Brown, Santiago Casilla, Chad Gaudin (he also could've made the starting pitcher portion too), Keith Foulke (yes, he's been good even though he scares me to death at times),
Relief pitching disappointments: Huston Street
Offense - D+ : The A's have the 25th best batting average in all of baseball. A team that prides itself on having patience at the plate is 16th in all of baseball in on-base percentage. And let's not talk about power. The team is 26th in all of baseball in slugging percentage. Not surprisingly, the team is 10th in the AL in runs scored. If this team had just average hitting and the starting pitching continues to prove its might, the A's could truly be a contending team this year. Now I suspected we'd have this issue, especially with a lot of very young guys getting their first true extended major league experience. Carlos Gonzalez, Daric Barton, Kurt Suzuki and Travis Buck were all likely going to be a foundation of the A's offense. I expected them to have ups and downs, but for Barton and Buck, it's mostly been downs. Jack Hannahan was getting his first extended experience. Jack Cust really only had last season in the pros. So a lot of the offense was built on wild cards. One major known entity was Frank Thomas who the A's picked up for a piece of Hubba Bubba and a used Hyundai when the Blue Jays dumped him. Not surprisingly, the Blue Jays are one of the teams who has scored fewer runs than the A's in the AL. Still, I suspected the A's hitting was going to be mediocre, but it's been downright bad at points. There are a few guys who've been right about where I expected them to be, such as Mark Ellis and even Bobby Crosby (although he has been a bit better than I expected).
Offensive standouts: Kurt Suzuki, Ryan Sweeney, Jack Cust (he does have an .823 OPS even if his BA isn't impressive), Frank Thomas
Offensive disappointments: Travis Buck (possibly my personal biggest disappointment), Daric Barton (yeah he's really young, but he raised hopes of something special at the end of the year last year), Emil Brown (I expected him to at least hit left-handed pitching), Chris Denorfia (I thought he was going to be the regular guy in center field)
Managing - B : I still hadn't made up my mind about Geren before this season started. He hasn't done anything patently stupid and he's more flexible with his lineup card than Macha could've ever dreamed of being. The problem is that when he's filling out that lineup card, he's often dealing with many of his best hitters not being there. Ryan Sweeney has been arguably the A's best hitter this year and yet, he's been in and out of the lineup due to injury issues. Mike Sweeney was hitting well and now he has injured knees. Frank Thomas was getting in a groove and then he went down. Eric Chavez has just recently become a regular in the A's lineup and he doesn't look 100 percent yet. Still the starting pitching has made Geren look good. He's made smart decisions for the most part with the bullpen. Although I would really like to see him start to trust some of the younger guys a little more. Foulke always looks like he's about to give up a bomb. And Embree is always all about the heat, it's just a matter of whether someone gets geared up enough for it. One thing that I'm sure is a popular topic of discussion these days among the A's front office and Geren is what to do about Joe Blanton. After yesterday's performance, I really think the A's have to think about replacing him as a starter, at least temporarily, with Chad Gaudin. Still, given what the A's have had to deal with this year in terms of the injection of youth, unexpectedly bad struggles of guys like Buck and Barton, the myriad of injuries in the bullpen and to key offensive pieces, Geren has done a nice job of keeping a team that wasn't expected to compete in the running. Much of that has to do with the starting pitching, mind you, but Geren has also done a pretty damn good job of handling the bullpen.
Front office - A- : I know a lot of folks are going to automatically charge me with just giving Beane some undeserved praise here, but I honestly think that this could be the best job Beane has done in his time with the A's. Yes, the team is still offensively deficient. But it also has the best starting pitching in baseball right now and that's WITH the "ace" being the worst statistically on staff. Danny Haren was awesome. No one can dispute that. But the A's have three significant chips already contributing at the major league level. They also have a ton of talent in their minor league system now. I'm not sure there are too many other front office groups in baseball who could simultaneously rebuild a farm system while keeping the major league team competitive for a division crown. The biggest thing Beane has done is to build a team with depth. So when an Eric Chavez can't play for months at a time, Jack Hannahan is waiting to take over. Earlier in the season when Barton was struggling at first, Mike Sweeney saw some time there. Greg Smith stepped into the rotation when Harden and Duchscherer went down. Gaudin would probably be a top three starter for most rotations. Yet he's sixth on the A's depth chart. Brad Ziegler is there when the A's have bullpen issues. Beane is nothing if not adaptive. Yes, Emil Brown is seeming like a mistake right now, but he also had a ton of key RBIs at the beginning of the season when seemingly no one was batting in runs. And Beane deserves a ton of credit for getting Frank Thomas for nothing. Is the offense still a gong show? Yes. But Beane has done enough to cover up for the shortcomings by building the best rotation in baseball and a very steady bullpen to back it up.
Overall - A- : Honestly I wrestled with this one for a while. I wavered between a B, B+, A- and an A. But ultimately for me it came down to expectations. I did not expect this team to be here halfway through the season. I expected them to be in a distant third or even last place in the division. But the starting pitching has kept this team afloat and right in the thick of the AL West despite low to no expectations from most folks. And my expectations were pretty low heading into 2008. I thought I'd just enjoy watching some young kids come into their own. Instead the team has fought and scrapped its way into second place in the division.
So there you have it. My first half grades for our Oakland Athletics in 2008. What grades would you give and why? Who has been a disppointment so far and who has been a standout?
Better yet, give me some predictions for the second half of 2008. Will the A's hang with the Angels or will they fade? Will Harden and/or Duchscherer be sent to a contender for a truckload of quality prospects? And maybe you even want to throw in the win total for 2008. If I had to guess, I think the A's wind up around 86 wins and I do think either Harden or Duke will be dealt.