The signs came on gradually at first, then faster and faster. They began late last summer, with electrifying arrivals from rookies Matt Olson and Matt Chapman amid another last-place finish for the Oakland A’s. This season saw some early sparks, like an Opening Day walk-off against the Angels and a no-hitter against the red-hot Red Sox. A successful East Coast road trip built some pride, but they were back under .500 again by mid-June.
But then, they started beating bad teams. Not just a few times, but 14 out of 17. Then they started beating good teams, on the road no less. All of a sudden we look up in mid-July, with the All-Star break almost here, and realize they’re a dozen games over .500. That’s the best they’ve been since their last playoff campaign in 2014. They’re the hottest team in baseball, winners of 19 of their last 24, and they’ve aced every serious test they’ve faced. At this point, something has been made apparent: The 2018 Oakland A’s are for real.
Now, let’s be clear about what “real” means. It doesn’t mean the A’s are World Series favorites, nor even that they’re likely to make the playoffs. But it means this is no longer merely an early-season hot streak. They’re here to compete, and they’re legitimate Wild Card contenders. With no one below them making any serious push, they’re in a two-team race for the final spot in the October tournament, within arm’s reach of an eminently sinkable Mariners squad. We’re officially in a postseason race, folks.
Need credentials? Oakland has now won a road series against every first-place team in the AL. They beat Boston in May, then rocked Cleveland and Houston back-to-back over the last week. At 53-41 they’d be tied or outright leading in three other divisions right now (AL Central, NL East, NL West), with a share of the seventh-best record in the sport. They have a Top 10 lineup in MLB, which has been more like Top 5 since the beginning of June, and they relentlessly hit their way back into any game they trail. Their All-Star closer and lockdown setup man seal every late lead with upper-90s heat, and the bullpen is deep beyond those two.
What’s more, they’ve already taken their share of lumps. They’ve lost eight starting pitchers to injuries plus their two top SP prospects, and it hasn’t fazed them one bit. Four times their starter has gotten hurt and left a game early, and each time they won anyway. Chapman and Khrush Davis both took turns on the DL and Matt Joyce disappeared, and the team carried on. They got robbed of a win against the Yankees (and with it another road series victory) by a botched replay review that stole away the go-ahead run in the 9th. They’ve also navigated one of the toughest schedules in the sport, being in the best division in baseball and already having completed 15 of their 18 total matchups with the Red Sox, Yankees, and Indians.
There are still a lot of different ways this could go. The 1999 A’s were for real but missed the division by eight games and the Wild Card by seven, before becoming a movie-famous juggernaut and going to the next four postseasons. The 2012 A’s were also for real, and extended their Cinderella magic all the way to an unexpected AL West crown. This summer won’t be defined strictly by success, because they weren’t supposed to be here in the first place and plenty could yet go wrong. The important thing is that this is happening at all, and it’s time to just jump in and enjoy the ride.
Of course, there is one thing those 1999 and 2012 teams had in common. They both went and got help at the trade deadline — not expensive, splashy names, but solid veterans at buy-low prices. The ‘99 squad got bargain reinforcements en masse, from rotation stabilizers Kevin Appier and Omar Olivares to second baseman Randy Velarde and a failed young starter named Jason Isringhausen. In ‘12 they kept it simpler, with names like shortstop Stephen Drew and catcher George Kottaras.
For the most part, though, those teams were built similarly to this current one. They each had plenty of veteran help from their collection of misfit toys, but the cores were fueled by rising young stars. The next few years look even brighter, just as they proved to be in each of those previous instances, but once again sun is dawning a bit early on their contention cycle and they get a chance to make an extra run for glory ahead of schedule.
Since the end of last season I’ve been adamant that 2018 was a bridge year. After a long and painful rebuild, I didn’t want to get too jumpy this season and lose focus on the foundation that had been built for 2019 and beyond. This was a time to get the promising youngsters some experience and figure out which ones would be part of the next truly competitive A’s team, because the unreliable rotation and the stacked AL West would torpedo any faint hope of making a serious run.
However, it turns out this group doesn’t need starting pitchers to win. Three of their spots are filled by a $1 million free agent who signed in late-March and a pair of seemingly washed-up veterans on minor league contracts, but, like, whatever. The rotation can’t be more of a mess than it was in the first half of the season, but it could very possibly get better — whether by improved health or a July acquisition. Meanwhile, the reliever I thought was miscast as a closer turned out to be an All-Star, as did the infielder no one wanted two years ago, and all the other fringe-contending AL clubs flamed out early to clear an easy path.
It took a perfect storm of factors to get here, but I’m sold. This A’s team is for real, and they’re going to compete for a Wild Card. They have more than two months to make up five games in the standings, with 10 head-to-heads left with the Seattle team they’re chasing. I still don’t want any drastic trades this month, both to save the top of the farm and preserve whatever balance this Oakland group has going on, but a sturdy pitcher or two would make sense if the price is right. I also wouldn’t mind seeing these guys go for it as is; they’ve gotten this far, after all, and there’s impact relief help waiting in Triple-A.
One way or other, these guys are too legit to quit. Nobody in baseball is hotter right now, and the second-half schedule is looking softer than what we’ve seen so far. Let’s do this.