Memorial Day weekend has not been very memorable for the A's so far. After winning the first five games of their road trip, Oakland dropped the final four contests, including a weekend sweep at the hands of Toronto. The team returns home on a losing streak to face the only AL club who has a better record, the Detroit Tigers. The A's are at 30-20 (.600) while the Tigers sit at 28-18 (.609). This series could well decide the AL's best record heading into next weekend.
These are the expected pitching matchups for the series:
Mon: Tommy Milone vs. Drew Smyly
Tue: Sonny Gray vs. Max Scherzer
Wed: Scott Kazmir vs. Anibal Sanchez
Thu: Jesse Chavez vs. Rick Porcello
The Athletics' bats were stymied by the likes of Liam Hendriks and J.A. Happ the last few days, so it's understandable to be intimidated by these matchups. However, the A's have shown the ability to beat each of these guys in the regular season, though perhaps not in the playoffs. Even better, they won't have to face Justin Verlander. Besides, a few weak days don't mean anything when you've been hitting as well as Oakland has been for the last two months. With the home crowd and some California sun behind them, this series has to go better than the last one did.
1. The Tigers' season began with the loss of shortstop Jose Iglesias. Who has filled in for Iglesias at short, and how has that backup plan gone?
RR: Let me put it like this -- of the three players to see time at shortstop this season, Danny Worth's .492 OPS leads the way. Yeah, it's that bad.
After Iglesias was injured, the Tigers traded infielder Steve Lombardozzi to the Orioles for 37-year-old shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez had a pair of RBI in a walk-off win on Opening Day, then looked very much like a 37-year-old shortstop afterward. Three weeks later, the Tigers released him. Now, they are relying upon a platoon of Andrew Romine and Danny Worth, both of whom are probably better used as utility infielders. Romine hit his first career home run on Friday night, but had a .471 OPS heading into Saturday's action. Both are above-average defenders, though, and light years better than Gonzalez was at the beginning of the season.
2. Detroit's big offseason move was the trade of Prince Fielder to Texas in exchange for second baseman Ian Kinsler. What did you think of that deal when it happened? Is Kinsler providing the kind of production you were hoping for at second?
RR: At first, I was not a fan of the deal, but I am one of the biggest Prince Fielder apologists around. I quickly came around because it's hard to argue when you get out from under Fielder's contract while getting a potential All-Star in return. That All-Star appearance is looking like a sure bet so far, as Kinsler has been everything Tigers fans wanted and more. Going into Saturday's games, Kinsler's .326 batting average led the American League, and his .366 wOBA was second among AL second basemen. He has six stolen bases, already surpassing Omar Infante's five in all of 2013. Kinsler's aggressive baserunning represents a change in organizational philosophy from last year's slow, plodding club and has brought a much more exciting brand of baseball to Detroit.
3. Although Miguel Cabrera has been plugging right along, 35-year-old Victor Martinez seems to have been the Tigers' best hitter so far. He's off to an absolutely monster start, including 12 home runs -- his career-high in that category is 25. Is he just on a hot streak, or is he getting better with age and finally settling into the DH role?
RR: Amazingly, Martinez is just continuing what he did in the second half of 2013. After a slow start to the year coming off of ACL reconstruction surgery, Martinez hit .361/.413/.500 in the second half. This season, Martinez has been locked in from day one. He has also shown surprising power, but it seems that this is a product of him cheating a bit more on inside fastballs. He will pull his hips open if he expects an inside pitch, allowing him to pull the ball with authority. The most amazing thing about Martinez's hot start isn't the home runs, though. Heading into Monday's games, he has only struck out 13 times. Martinez probably won't join the likes of Joe DiMaggio and George Brett by season's end, but it is a fun stat to follow as the season goes along.
4. With Cabrera moving to first after the departure of Fielder, 22-year-old Nick Castellanos is getting a chance to prove himself at third. What are your first impressions of the top prospect, both on offense and defense? And has Cabrera's shift helped him focus on his hitting and health?
RR: Castellanos has struggled at times offensively, which was expected. He had a good-but-not-great season in Triple-A last year, but has shown flashes of the potential that made him the organization's only untouchable prospect over the past few years. He has an extremely high line drive rate despite the league's worst contact rate, but has only walked four times in 151 plate appearances. While his hit tool is what carried his prospect shine throughout the minors, he has been surprisingly adequate defensively -- though we could just be a jaded fanbase after watching Miguel Cabrera over there the past couple years. Advanced metrics have rated him slightly above average, and he seems comfortable at the hot corner. When he starts hitting, he could be a solid two-way player.
5. There are two former A's coming to town -- outfielder Rajai Davis and reliever Ian Krol, who was originally drafted by Oakland. Has Davis performed well enough to be an everyday player? And what are your thoughts on Krol, both in the present and the future?
RR: Davis got off to a red-hot start thanks to an inflated BABIP, but has come back to earth recently. Still, a .320 wOBA and 99 wRC+ is a pleasant surprise given how often he has played against right-handed pitchers. Davis' defense still leaves something to be desired -- he already has multiple gaffes resulting in game-changing plays this season -- but his speed has been a shot in the arm for a franchise desperate for a base stealer. He leads the team with 14 swipes, a big reason why they have already surpassed last season's stolen base total.
Drew Smyly was an integral part of last year's bullpen, especially since Phil Coke could not be bothered to get anyone out. Now that Smyly is in the rotation, lefty Ian Krol has slid into that role without missing a beat. His 1.53 ERA is far below his 4.70 FIP, but he has allowed more home runs (3) than walks (2). He still cannot get righties out, but has been murder on lefties so far this season. If he can work out his kinks and start getting the occasional right-handed hitter out, he could be a valuable back-end reliever going forward.
After being terrorized by Jose Reyes' speed for three days, the A's will now try to prevent the Tigers from scoring any Rajai Runs. -- Photo credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
6. The contract status of Max Scherzer was a hot topic last winter. Are you happy that the team didn't give him a huge extension? And do you think he'll be back in 2015 now that he looks to be repeating his '13 campaign, or will he price himself out of Detroit's range?
RR: I think that the Tigers made a smart decision to curtail their contract offer to Scherzer, but the entire "Tigers vs. Boras" saga has definitely been overblown. Scherzer said early on in the offseason that he did not want to negotiate during the 2014 season, and that apparently came true once the two sides cut off talks close to Spring Training. The team's press release about their contract offer was a surprising move, as mum is usually the word whenever something is brewing. The actual offer -- rumored to be very similar to the six-year deal that Cole Hamels received -- was fair, though I think Scherzer fetches more (in both years and dollars) on the open market. Scherzer has performed at an ace level for the last two calendar years, and someone will offer him a seven- or eight-year deal, if not more. The Tigers may be able to fiscally afford three $200 million players, but it's probably not the smartest move for them in the long-term.
7. The Tigers took a lot of flak for dealing Doug Fister from the rotation, but Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly have each filled in with sub-3 ERAs. Are either (or both) of these guys good bets to keep up their hot starts, or will they come back down to Earth a bit? And if the improvements are real, what has changed?
RR: Porcello has already started falling back to earth since you sent me this question. He got rocked by a short-handed Texas Rangers lineup on Saturday, allowing eight runs on 12 hits in just 5⅓ innings. That sub-3 ERA jumped up to 3.88 by the end of the game, and he once again has fans wondering whether he will ever be the stud pitcher that everyone expected after his rookie season. There were warning signs, however. He has not maintained the spike in strikeout rate we saw last season, and his ground ball rate was a paltry (for him) 43.6% before Saturday's meltdown.
While I think Porcello is the better pitcher, Smyly's hot start might be more sustainable. The rest of the AL Central ranges from average to awful against left-handed pitching, and Smyly strikes out nearly a batter per inning. He will also get the occasional relief appearance as well, which is an easy way for Brad Ausmus to handpick a situation tailor-made for his serious platoon splits. Smyly has held lefties to a .361 OPS this season, a shade better than the .471 OPS they had against him last year. He will likely be limited to around 130 innings this season after spending 2013 in the bullpen.
8. Starter Robbie Ray, who was the headliner in the Fister deal, has already made three starts for the Tigers. Now that you've seen him in the bigs, do you think the 22-year-old was worth the loss of Fister from a win-now team?
RR: Ray pitched well in his first two big league starts, but it was apparent even before Thursday's shellacking that he is not ready for full-time work in the big leagues. He has the stuff to be a mid-rotation pitcher, but his command is lacking. Despite a vocal minority of the Tigers fanbase clamoring for him to pitch out of the bullpen, Ray needs time in the minors to continue developing his secondary pitches. He seems more than capable of providing the type of long-term value that the club was looking for when they traded for him in December.
Was it worth it? I still think that the Tigers should have gotten more for Fister, but the value of prospects has risen exponentially in recent seasons for everyone not named Dayton Moore. There are also rumors that Fister plans on signing with a team on the West Coast once he hits free agency after the 2015 season, and the Tigers may have decided to get what they could right now instead of waiting on a draft pick and his subsequent development. This trade was never about 2014, and if it extends the team's "window" in any way, then it should be considered a success.
9. Can you please write me a haiku about either Cabrera or Justin Verlander, whichever one you love most?
Brave, daring, plays with fire
Touching Beltre's head
Thank you, Rob, for participating in the Q&A!
The series kicks off this afternoon. First pitch is scheduled for 1:05 p.m., Milone vs. Smyly. Miguel Cabrera left Sunday's game with a hamstring cramp, and man, it would be really cool if Milone didn't have to face him today. He can come back Tuesday to play against Sonny, who we know can handle him. Against Smyly, expect to see lots of Norris, Gentry, Blanks, and perhaps a bit of Puntopesky if he's feeling healthy.