Springtime Storylines: Did the Athletics add enough offense?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The San Jose A’s (pending committee review).

The Big Question: Did the Athletics add enough offense?

The A’s were 11th in the American League in runs scored last year. In comes Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus and Josh Willingham. Out go Jack Cust, Gabe Gross, and Rajai Davis.  This is improvement. How much of an overall improvement, however, depends on whether the solid-yet-not-spectacular returning starters hold their own and/or improve.

Daric Barton had a nice season last year and one presumes that entering his age-25 season he could build on that, even if some projections are pessimistic.  Mark Ellis was another relative bright spot last year but I’m more pessimistic about him, as his 2010 season was out of step from his previous handful of seasons.  Kevin Kouzmanoff and Kurt Suzuki each had pretty dreadful years at the plate. Neither will ever win a Silver Slugger Award, but each has a bit more than they exhibited in 2010, and even a bit of upward-trending noise will help.

All of which gets to the heart of things for Oakland: with the pitching staff (more about them below) no one requires offensive heroics from this bunch.  What they need to avoid are total sinkhole seasons from multiple players like they had last season.  Getting rid of Gross and returning Coco Crisp to the lineup eliminates a couple of sinkholes. Adding Willingham and DeJesus brings in some upside (and also some injury risk).  Everyone else needs to at least be competent. It’s not a tall order for a team that will frequently be playing in low scoring games.

So what else is going on?

  • Obviously the rotation is a team strength. Trevor Cahill  was fantastic last year. Brett Anderson was too, and if he’s healthy this year — a big honkin’ if given his recent elbow troubles — he could really be something special.  Gio Gonzalez has looked phenomenal this spring and some people around the A’s camp think that he’s going to explode in 2011. I’m not sure if they do irony in the 209, but the guy that threw the perfect game last year may be the weakest of the A’s top four pitchers. Young pitching can break your heart, but if the members of the rotation can avoid being mentioned in the same paragraph as Dr. James Andrews this year, there is every reason to think they’ll be the best bunch in the American League.
  • Besides the offense, a weak spot last season was the team’s bullpen, but Billy Beane addressed it this winter, adding Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour to the mix. With Andrew Bailey, those three combine for an outstanding late inning troika.  The concern, of course, is health.  Bailey has already missed time this spring. Balfour and Fuentes aren’t young. But really, the bullpen has been significantly improved. Throw in Michael Wuertz, Craig Breslow and Joey Devine and the A’s are competing with the Yankees for the deepest bullpen in the league.
  • Helping both the starters and the pen is some pretty spiffy defense. Barton is one of the best defensive first basemen around and Ellis and Cliff Pennington are solid up the middle. Kouzmanoff isn’t what he once was with the glove, but he’s no slouch. The only bad thing about all of this is if the A’s win the West, we’re going to hear from every person who ever misunderstood “Moneyball” about how crazy it is that the Moneyball A’s won with pitching and defense. That is always a tedious conversation.
  • We’re coming upon the two-year anniversary of Bud Selig’s announcement of the formation of the committee to study whether the A’s should move to San Jose. So far the committee has yet to make a peep, but its existence — and the specter of the team moving south — has done much to dampen fan enthusiasm. Between that nonsense and the desecration of the Oakland Coliseum with those seats for Raiders game — which simultaneously blocked what used to be a nice view of the hills and prevented any Anaheim-style renovation of the place to make it a pleasant ballpark — I’m struggling to think of a fanbase that has been more abused than that of the A’s. It’s a shame given that the A’s should be pretty damn good this season.

So how are they going to do?

Quite well.  Indeed, while I’m still picking the Rangers — a pick about which I am less enthusiastic given yesterday’s announcement that Neftali Feliz is returning to the bullpen — I think Oakland will challenge Texas all year and it wouldn’t shock me at all if they took the division instead.  For them to do it, though, will take health, the continued progression of their young rotation and some relative upside years from a few otherwise limited hitters.  And one tends not to get rich betting on luck, health and young pitching.

Call them second place in the West, but second with a bullet. If things break right, playoffs.

Astros push ALCS to Game 7 with 7-1 stunner against Yankees

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There’s just something about playing in your home ballpark. The Astros decimated the Yankees at Minute Maid Park on Friday, riding seven scoreless innings from Justin Verlander and a pair of big runs from Jose Altuve to win 7-1 and force a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

Through the first four innings, however, the teams looked equally matched. Luis Severino no-hit the Astros through 3 2/3 innings, losing his bid on Carlos Correa‘s line drive single in the fourth. The Astros returned in the fifth to do some real damage, drawing two walks and plating the first run of the night with Brian McCann‘s ground-rule double off of the right field wall. Things didn’t get any easier for Severino. Jose Altuve lined a two-RBI base hit into left field, upping Houston’s advantage to three runs.

Verlander, meanwhile, muted the Yankees’ offense with seven innings of five-hit, eight-strikeout ball. While he didn’t come close to matching his complete game effort in Game 2, he was still plenty dominant against a struggling New York lineup. No player reached past first base until the sixth inning, when a pair of base hits from Chase Headley and Didi Gregorius gave the Yankees their first runner in scoring position. That didn’t last long, though, as Gary Sanchez grounded out on a 3-0 slider to end the inning.

In the seventh, Houston’s ace got into another spot of trouble. He walked Greg Bird on six pitches to start the inning, then plunked Starlin Castro on the wrist. Aaron Hicks struck out, in part thanks to a questionable call by home plate umpire Jim Reynolds, but it was Todd Frazier who presented the biggest threat after returning an 0-1 fastball for a 403-foot fly out to left field. Luckily for Verlander, George Springer was there to bail him out with a leaping catch at the wall.

The Yankees kept things exciting in the eighth, too. Aaron Judge ripped his third postseason home run off of Brad Peacock, taking a 425-footer out to the train in left field to spoil the Astros’ shutout. That was the only real break the Yankees got, however, as Altuve, Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis returned in the bottom of the inning to tack on another four runs, including Altuve’s solo shot off of David Robertson:

Ken Giles handled the ninth, expending 23 pitches and giving up a base hit and a walk before retiring Frazier and Headley to end the game. Thanks to Houston’s winning efforts, the two teams will compete in their first seven-game Championship Series since 2004 — and this time, at least one of them is guaranteed to come away with a win.

Game 7 of the ALCS is set for Saturday at 8:00 PM ET. Houston right-hander Charlie Morton (14-7, 3.62 ERA) is scheduled to face southpaw CC Sabathia (14-5, 3.69 ERA).