Mariners should be taking notes on A’s success
Watching the A’s sweep the Mariners this past weekend in Oakland and move to the verge of clinching an AL Wild Card berth — and even keeping first-place Texas in their sights — it was impossible not to ask how Oakland did what Seattle certainly wants to accomplish.
The A’s have taken a young team and turned it into a contender despite starting the year looking for all the world like a club that was punting this season by trading away top young pitchers Gio Gonzelez, Andrew Bailey and Trevor Cahill for even younger, unproven prospects.
It’s unheard of for a club to deal young standouts who are still under team control for several more years, given those are exactly the low-priced players every franchise tries to build around. But the A’s went that route, with Billy Beane saying he was building for a further-away future when a new stadium might be build in San Jose.
Instead, the future turned out to be now — in a dilapidated Oakland Coliseum still drawing just 21,000 fans to weekend games with their team on the verge of one of the best baseball stories in years — right along with this year’s Orioles on the other side of the country.
So what did the A’s do that Seattle didn’t this season? For two, they upgraded their offense with the trade for outfielder Josh Reddick and free-agent signing of Cuban standout Yoenis Cespedes.
Reddick, 25, came from the Red Sox in the Andrew Bailey-Ryan Sweeney trade. Cespedes seemed like an odd free-agent signing, given his four-year, $36 million deal flew in the face of Beane’s other “for-the-future” trades.
But Cespedes has given the club a big middle-of-the-order presence (23 HRs, 83 RBIs) and Reddick has done the same (32 HR, 82 RBI). And they’ve gotten a nice boost from first baseman Brandon Moss, a 29-year-old who signed a Minor League deal and has helped out along with other guys like Coco Crisp, Seth Smith, Josh Donaldson, etc.
The A’s also made two late-season trades that helped. Nothing spectacular, but catcher George Kottaras was a deadline deal from the Brewers who has chipped in. And the mid-August addition of shortstop Stephen Drew has proven wise as well.
This isn’t a club you look at and think, ‘Wow, that’s an imposing lineup.’ Yet collectively, it is a group that has hit the most home runs in the Majors since the All-Star break (110) and is doing so in timely fashion, witness the two late-game bombs that overturned Seattle’s 4-1 lead on Saturday and two more in the eighth on Sunday that led to a 5-2 win.
What do the Mariners take from that? For me, it’s seeing just how much impact two key bats can make in a lineup with Cespedes and Reddick. The Mariners have an improved lineup top-to-bottom this season and their youngsters are close to being as good or better than what the A’s are trotting out on a daily basis. But finding a key veteran bat or two this offseason could take them over that hump, with right field being an obvious opening and first base being the other.
Ichiro’s departure opens the payroll and position to add a much-needed impact bat to the corner outfield spot. And either Justin Smoak has to be what Justin Smoak needs to be, or they need to get a first baseman that can produce. It’s as simple as that. Other changes could be made as well, but those two are the glaring necessities.
The other place the A’s are impressive is their bullpen. This is a club surviving now with an incredible five rookies in their rotation. But manager Bob Melvin isn’t putting all the weight on those youngsters. If he can get 5 innings from them, he’s quick to pull the trigger and go to his ‘pen.
The A’s won Saturday’s game after Dan Straily went 4 1/3 innings and they won Sunday after getting 4 2/3 from Tommy Milone.
Seattle has Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas atop their rotation, plus potentially three or four young pitchers who can do what the A’s have done with Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan, Danny Hultzen, Brendan Mauer, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. If they re-sign Hisashi Iwakuma or add another solid veteran, they’ve got even more depth.
But the difference this weekend was the Mariners bullpen is running out of gas right now and that is as much the result of where Seattle was at the trade deadline as anything. The Mariners were sellers on July 31 and they moved Brandon League and Steve Delabar.
As a result, they’ve been using rookies Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps down the stretch and leaning heavily on veterans Shawn Kelley and Josh Kinney. All those guys, along with lefties Lucas Luetge and Charlie Furbush, have made a lot of appearances and it’s wearing on them.
League and Delabar would have helped ease the load. After a slow start in L.A., League has been lights out for the Dodgers, taking over as their closer and allowing just one run in his last 19 outings. Here’s a good story on him in the LA Times.
Delabar has been good as well for the Blue Jays with a 3.18 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the Mariners were wrong to make those deals, particularly in League’s case. He is going to be a free agent and his trade brought the Mariners two nice prospects in 22-year-old outfielder Leon Landry and 23-year-old reliever Logan Bawcom. I have no issue with that trade. You improve your future potential when your present is headed for a last-place finish either way.
But I raise the point because the difference between the A’s and Mariners this weekend had much to do with bullpen depth and that is the difference between being a contender at the trade deadline or being out of it and making deals for the future.
I didn’t like the Delabar deal as much because he’s still under team control and could have helped now and in the future. His biggest issue was home runs and once he solves that, he could be a strong set-up guy. The Mariners have depth there with Capps, Pryor and others, so that’s obviously why Jack Zduriencik made the trade for Eric Thames, looking for some corner outfield pop.
Thames struggles defensively, however, so he’s going to either need to get better there or be so good offensively to overcome that. Neither has happened this season and he’s fallen behind Casper Wells and Trayvon Robinson on Eric Wedge’s outfield rotation at season’s end.
Bottom line, there was considerable frustration watching the A’s celebrate dramatic wins twice this weekend while the Mariners trudged off the field. But there should be lessons there as well. The difference between contending and not contending in baseball isn’t always huge.
The Angels spent big money over the offseason in adding Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson to an already talented and well-paid roster. Yet here are the A’s, one game from knocking the Angels out of the playoffs. And Felix Hernandez can deliver that knockout blow tonight at Safeco if he beats the Angels in the opening game of the season-ending series.
The A’s are an amazing story. And one worth paying attention to for a Mariners team that certainly could make a similar step forward with a couple smart additions in the offseason to go with their young nucleus of talent.