In advance of the Oakland series, I exchanged questions with Alex Hall (twitter @AlexHallAN) of Athletics Nation (twitter @athleticsnation). What follows is one half of the exchange. You can read the other half, here on Athletics Nation.
Also check out our Rays-Athletics series preview, complete with regressed matchup projections, as we prepare to take on the best team in baseball.
Ian Malinowski: I imagine you thought the A's would be pretty good this year. Did you think they'd be the best team in baseball with a 28-16 record at this point? Because holy cow.
Alex Hall: Well, you rarely think that your team is going to be the best because you're always close enough to magnify all the weaknesses and see all the things that could go wrong. But I was confident that these A's would be in the hunt. They sported the fourth-best offense in baseball last year, and have raised that up to second this year. They allowed the eighth-fewest runs in baseball last year, and they rank third-fewest this year. So, the pieces were there last season, and they've simply built on the previous success. That has meant further progression from hitters like Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, and Derek Norris, and it has meant keeping the pitching factory rolling by replacing Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin with the likes of Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez, and Drew Pomeranz. I was cautiously optimistic that things could go this well, but with so many question marks and wild cards in play, it's nice to see it actually happen. The next step is sustaining it, which is no sure thing with so many inexperienced starters in the rotation.
IM: Billy Beane was known to be targeting flyball hitters recently, and it's shown. The Athletics have the lowest groundball rate and the highest flyball rate of any offense in baseball. Is that the new market efficiency? If so, why?
AH: There were rumblings during the offseason that Billy was following that general game plan, but it's not something you necessarily notice just by watching. I believe the thought process was along the lines that while groundballs are generally preferable for a pitcher, flyball hitters have better success against ground ball guys for some reason. Given Oakland's offensive success so far, it's tough to argue against whatever strategies Billy is employing.
IM: What's the status of second base? Are the Athletics going to keep trotting out Eric Sogard's defense there, or is there another plan?
AH: This has been a hot topic of discussion on AN recently. Sogard is a fan favorite and willed his way to a solid season last year by mustering league-average offense on his side of the platoon, but he's falling flat in 2014. His defense is rock solid, and so far that's been enough to keep him in the lineup, but that's partly just because there is no other good option. Nick Punto doesn't hit much better, and Alberto Callaspo can't really play second base -- with Jed Lowrie's porous glove at short, I'm guessing Billy doesn't want to sacrifice his entire middle infield defense in favor of a few extra hits. But there's at least a decent chance that the A's reach out of the organization for help up the middle in the next couple months. Martin Prado and Aaron Hill have been discussed on AN as possible pie-in-the-sky targets, with the D'Backs so far out of the race already, but you never really know who Billy will target. At the moment, it's a Sogard/Punto platoon at second -- although Punto may start the whole Rays series at short with Lowrie out with a strained neck.
IM: John Jaso has turned into quite the hitter for you guys. He showed flashes while he was here, but his catcher defense was bad enough to make him persona non grata. Do you think he's been able to improve that aspect of his game, or is it just that most any level of catcher defense is okay when the guy's hitting 39% above average.
AH: Jaso is still a pretty bad catcher, but he's at least serviceable. It's not like having Jack Cust in the outfield, trying to catch balls in his hat because no one ever taught him to use a glove. Jaso won't throw out any base stealers, he won't do his pitcher any favors with his pitch-framing (he's the worst in the Majors this year, actually), and he doesn't do anything special on defense. But he must call a decent game and he hits like a DH, so he comes out as a positive force at a position where you usually have to choose either offense or defense. Jaso posted a 142 OPS+ in Seattle in 2012, lost half a season to a concussion last year, and has a 140 OPS+ this year -- he might be one of the most underrated hitters in all of baseball, and production like that can mask a lot of crappy defense.
IM: Contracts aside, Josh Donaldson or Evan Longoria?
AH: Man, that's a tough one. Seems like Longoria should be the obvious pick, but here's the thing -- Donaldson's 2013 was arguably as good or better than anything Longoria has ever done. Essentially, Donaldson's breakout year matched Longoria's eight-win 2010 campaign, as the two had very similar batting lines and both scored big points for their defense. The difference is, Longoria has backed that up with, give or take, three more seven-win seasons, whereas Donaldson is still sort of proving himself. But the Bringer of Rain has already racked up 3.5 bWAR this year after just 44 games and could compete for the MVP award again, and if he does match last year's eight bWAR and finishes toward the top of the MVP vote then it would be tough not to pick him over Longoria entering 2015. The big step forward in Donaldson's game has been his spike in home runs; he already has 10 (and should have 11 or 12 based on a couple close calls) after knocking 24 all of last year.
IM: Give us an insider's breakdown of Pomeranz, Milone, and Gray. How do they work? What should we expect to see? Will they sustain their early success?
AH: Pomeranz is a two-pitch guy right now, with a solid fastball and a plus curve. The fastball can vary a bit, and he's working on a changeup, so the arsenal is expanding and it may look like he has three or four offerings. The key with him is working the count -- he's still getting stretched out and is making just his third start of the year, so he'll be on a low pitch count again. If you can work long at-bats then you can knock him out early, but so far he's yet to allow a run as a starter.
Milone is a soft-tossing, junk-balling lefty. His fastball sits in the mid-80's and requires a level of pinpoint control that has escaped him for most of the season. His out pitch is a devastating change-up that ranked as one of the best offerings in baseball in 2012. Despite struggling with his control, though, he's allowed only one run in 14 innings over his last two outings, so he's on a bit of a hot streak right now.
Gray has a fastball that can reach the mid-90s and a nasty curveball. He can survive with those two pitches, but he's also added in a changeup to mix things up. When he's on, he's unhittable. When he's off, he can give up a few walks but he's still tough to hit. He rarely allows home runs -- only eight in 124 MLB innings so far.
Gray is for real. He's an ace, and all he needs to do is stay healthy. Milone is always hit-or-miss, and he's properly cast as a fifth starter. Pomeranz ... well, your guess is as good as mine. If he pans out as a quality starter, he'll be another notch in Beane's belt after being snatched as a buy-low prospect in exchange for Brett Anderson last winter.
IM: Frankly, the A's just seem like a collection of old Rays. We won't get to see him but what's your assessment of Scott Kazmir?
AH: Kazmir looks fantastic. In his second life as an MLB starter, he's become a guy who pounds the zone, limits walks, and keep the ball on the ground. He's started throwing a cutter as well, which seems to be a popular pitch to learn these days. We saw some fire out of him last week when he managed to get himself ejected in the second inning for "arguing" balls and strikes (without leaving the mound or raising his voice), and he's settled in as a fantastic No. 2 in Oakland's rotation. He has been an absolute best-case scenario so far.
IM: Why did you have to cut poor little Sam Fuld? More like Bully Beane, amirite?
AH: Talk about bittersweet. Fuld was a lot of fun for the couple weeks he was here, but he suffered from the age-old malady of not being good enough at baseball. He's exciting as hell, but when it comes down to it he just can't hit consistently. I absolutely loved watching him play, and nearly got to see him beat out an inside-the-park home run at the Coliseum. However, Craig Gentry is basically a clone of him who is better at every single part of the game, so the decision was simple. I do wish that he could have been stashed in Triple-A for a rainy day, but that would have been selfish because Fuld should always be in the Majors, entertaining crowds for second-division teams and inspiring undersized and/or diabetic children to go for their dreams.