Many pundits, whose puns shall go nameless have predicted our A's to do fairly well this season. What we have been reading and hearing is that the A' s need to get off to a fast start and then hold off the Rangers' charge in the second half of the season. Really?
Perhaps if we go back to our championship years of the late 80s we can make a case that this team's formula for success would be to get off to a strong start and stay there. With the pitching staff anchored by Stewart and a bullpen of Nelson, Honeycutt and Eckersly able to "shorten" games to about 7 innings we had the formula for success that was virtually unstoppable. Lest we forget the lineup that displayed power, speed and batting average. Mind you, and I haven't even began referencing anything beyond our leadoff hitter in Rickey Henderson and you can begin to see how devastating it was to add Canseco, McGwire, Parker, D Henderson, Steinback...alright, I'll stop there.
Tony LaRussa would often refer to the "triangle" in those years, which referred to winning the division, the ALCS and the WS. Well, 1 WS ring out of 3 attempts is forgiveable. But his preparation to have the team focus on winning each series throughout the season really helped A's fans understand his formula for success that continued to follow him beyond his tenure in Oakland.
As we fast forward to the late 90s and the turn of the century, Beane's A's had a different formula for success that has not necessarily been altered over the last 15 years. The pillars of our recent success over the past decade was predicated upon superior starting pitching and a methodical approach by the offense more or less embodied by the superior talents of Giambi, Tejada, Chavez and others over the last 12 years.We really were a little lucky with our three aces given their anatomical breakdowns after Mulder and Huson left Oakland. Zito? That was mental. Why he tried to lengthen his stride to gain more velocity on his fastball spoke to his insecurity after signing with the Giants. When the rest of the league caught on to Beane's offensive philosophy and copied him to a degree we have seen the results in places such as Boston which removed a near century of futility in gaining a WS title. The difference between their use of advanced metrics and ours, remains money. But in our case it's kind of like oil and petroleum products in the U.S., we have it, but are unwilling to use it. Mr. Fisher, are you listening?
Over the last 15 years we have seen Beane approach the the season with a different approach than the one espoused by LaRussa to an extent. What we saw was patience applied to evaluate the roster over the 1st 3 months in order to identify needs for making a push toward the playoffs. Ideally, I am sure he would wish to have had rosters as talented as those of our championship teams that required little tinkering, but adding pop to the lineup brought us some unpredictability which he didn't necessarily like as well. Jose Guillen's gritty contribution was something A's fans loved but his personality, like Milton Bradley's upset the clubhouse chemistry in Beane's estimation and he was gone shortly thereafter.
For the A's there was a fantastic period in the early part of last decade when the A's owned the best record in the 2nd half of the season. It was as predictable as a summer South Florida rainstorm in the late afternoon, the way our team would get hot and play at an unbelievable winning percentage. Moneyball's allusion to our winning streak in 2002 will be a great reminder. But is this the formula that we will see arising again for our 2011 version? It's possible. But I don't think improbable. During "that streak" we feasted on the NL Central and AL Central. This season we go to Atlanta and Philly, I believe. Now, if we sweep those teams, now you're talking about something special.
Our personnel will probably give us the most clues as to how good this team will perform. To hear our manager describe our infield, we have collectively the best in baseball in Geren's eyes. Kouz's UZR of 17 along with Pennington's range, Ellis' steady play along with Barton's range and streeeeetttch at firstbase speaks to Beane's "new" bench mark for attaining superiority through pitching and defense. The outfield will be solid and spectacular at times, but at least we don't have to think of Jack Cust as an option out their anymore. Will this be enough given we have an offense that should be significantly improved with the addition of Willingham, Dejesus to complement Crisp and uber backup Sweeney? Improved power? Yes. But will our defense and pitching match up to the improvements of the WhiteSox, RedSox, Rangers and others who have been picked as AL favorites and have formidable offenses?
Our early season schedule finds our team in the Midwest and northern climates in April. How can this be a good setup for a hot start when we'll watch our batters trading skiing mittens in between at bats while they all get fitted in their green and gold longjohns after arriving in the Twin Cities. While Texas may be considered the class of our division and the Angels are still a well coached veteran team with a superior manager, I am more interested in whose going to be our stopper when we lose a few games early on...and we will lose a few. Still, the formula for this team will involve it's veteran leadership and its consistent defensive play. I also expect better offensive outcomes from Suzuki, Kouz and Sweeney as they won't bat in places where they admitted "trying to do too much" last year.I also don't want for our fans to put too much blame or hope on Matsui . Beane bought the middle of our lineup through trades and FA signings. I don't know if all three will perform to expectations, but 2/3 wouldn't be bad. All in all, I don't think we need to panic early on and expect this team to follow the traits of its predecessors of about a decade ago. I suspect that's Beane's plan as well.
The assessment of this team needs to be fluid. We can only hope that if there is a breakdown in our outfield Taylor and Carter can be inserted. Our infield depth is currently questionable and our pitching depth and consistency should be able to handle the highs and lows younger staffs, in terms of experience, go through. This should be interesting. Are we really as good as we think?