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Saturday Potpourri: July Mirages, Character Matters

Oakland Athletics v Chicago Cubs
Here’s hoping Marcus Semien gets full extension.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Putting together coherent pieces of writing is harrrrd. That’s why someone cleverly invented the concept of a “potpourri,” which is a fancy name for an excuse to ramble from one idea to the next without connecting any dots. “...But that’s my ex-wife for ya...And hey, what’s up with airplane food?” Smooth.

Today’s potpourri, which you would think would smell better, begins with analysis of a team connected to the A’s in two ways: Farhan Zaidi and the 2008 Oakland team. I am referring to the 2019 San Francisco Giants, who had the great misfortune of going on a 16-3 run to begin the month of July.

Poised to rebuild their farm system through trades of Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith, the Giants chose just the wrong time to jump back, temporarily, into the wild card race effectively tying Zaidi’s hands. How do respond to pulling into a wild card dead heat by turning around and dealing your ace, closer, and essentially storming into a castle to subdue the king and princess, only to plant a white flag, push in the chairs, and leave?

The answer is: you do it if you have the chutzpah to call out a “mirage” when you see it and are committed to “staying the course” in the face of fan outrage. Such was the case back in 2008 when the A’s made a strong push going into the All-Star break and found themselves just 5 games out of first place.

Oakland’s front office’s response to the unexpected surge? A’s fans were angered by the team’s dismantling of the rotation through trades of Rich Harden (who would finish the season with a 2.07 ERA in 148 innings) and Joe Blanton (who went 4-0 with his new Phillies team).

It was a clear calculation that the A’s surge, while wholly pleasant, was not sustainable and that Oakland needed to move forward with cashing in on trade chips that could help set the team up for a more sustained run. Granted, the A’s did not do much in 2009, 2010, or 2011, and they got few contributions from the likes of Sean Gallagher, Matt Murton, Eric Patterson, Josh Outman, Adrian Cardenas, or Matthew Spencer (whose name I had to look up).

However, 4 years later Josh Donaldson emerged in 2012 as a star who helped the A’s win the AL West in 2012 and 2013, a direct result of Oakland’s willingness to punt on a season despite sitting in pretty good field position at the time. Fast forward to 2019 and today’s Giants have come crashing back down to earth, sitting 3 games under .500 and fading fast. They will rue the day they got sizzling hot just before the trading deadline, and 11 years later A’s fans who were mad can see the wisdom in taking an honest look at your team and keeping the big picture in mind.

And what’s with the food they’re serving on airplanes these days? Oh and another thing: in scouting you hear a lot about “character” and have to decide how much stock teams should put in this nebulous concept bereft of batting statistics, pitching metrics, radar guns and sprint speed.

Does “character” show up in the form of work ethic? Willingness to listen to coaches? Adopting a healthy lifestyle? Nobody exactly knows because stats do not exist to identify a young man as batting .212 on the “league adjusted character scale” or possessing a 5.32 “weighted predicted character index”.

Nonetheless, Sharks come and then Sharks go and when the dust (or is it ocean?) clears the A’s have lost “shortstop of the future” Addison Russell and gained “shortstop of the future” Marcus Semien. The higher pedigree belongs to Russell, as does probably the greater skill set and pure ability.

However, the one whose work ethic sets the standard for the team, if not the league, the one who works tirelessly and “all in” with his coach, the one whose personal life is as squeaky clean as his professional life, is Semien.

And while stardom was predicted for Russell (“You just acquired Barry Larkin”), tepid batting and a domestic violence suspension have left the former #1 draft pick currently at AAA battling his own bad reputation and trying to earn his way back to the big leagues.

As for Semien, try a stunning 4.6 WAR (projecting to 6.4 for the season), a .275/.362/.477 slash line that yields a 124 wRC+, and a legitimate shot at winning the gold glove at SS. And perhaps the most impressive stat of all is that Semien rates a “0” — that’s the number of bad things I have ever heard said about him by anyone.

Russell had the tools and projected as a star SS, while Semien projected more like a “super utility player” who might contribute at a number of positions without being quite good enough to start anywhere every day. Perhaps this is why “character,” whatever it is, gets scouted because right now if you offered me Russell for Semien straight up I would laugh heartily before offering a terse, “No thanks, but always great to hear from you.”

You know who I do like? Tanner Roark. He gets the ball tonight at 4:10pm against a guy who seems to save his best work for the A’s: Reynaldo Lopez, he of the 5.41 ERA but just 2 ER and 17 K in 12 career IP against Oakland (including 6 IP, 0 ER) earlier this season). See you then!