In anticipation of the Rays on Rays battle about to take place when the Rays travel to Oakland, I exchanged questions with Alex Hall of Athletics Nation about the trading deadline, new-look rotations, and the antics of a small fanbase in a big, empty stadium. My answers to his questions can be found here.
Ian Malinowski: Yoenis Cespedes is a pretty good player, and I understand he was something of a fan favorite in Oakland. How are people taking the trade? Are they happy that Beane is pushing all of his chips in, or do they think he's lost his mind?
Alex Hall: It depends who you ask. The general community, the casual fans, the families and the children, those people all hate the trade. It cost them their favorite player, the most flashy and exciting and famous and marketable player on the team. The guy their kids love, leading to the conversation they now must have with their sobbing child about how things change and nothing lasts forever. They hate the trade, claiming that our pitching was already legendary and now we won't be able to score runs without our best hitter. It doesn't help that the offense fell flat a few days before the trade, resulting now in the illusion that Yoenis' departure caused the slump.
The people who follow the team closely sing a far different tune, though. We understand that Cespedes was a flawed player, whose reputation exceeded his on-field production. We understand that the offense was the strength of this team, not the pitching, and that Cespedes can be replaced while an upgrade from Jesse Chavez to Jon Lester is game-changing. We understand that the thing that's cost us in the playoffs has been lack of ace-like starting pitching; we won Game 2 last year not by hitting Justin Verlander, but by matching his shutout and scratching out a run at the last minute. Playoff series are more often won by ace pitching than by massive hitting, or at least it sure seems so.
By objective measures, Cespedes was about the third- or fourth-best player on the team, and perhaps only the sixth-best hitter (after Donaldson, Moss, Jaso, Norris, and Coco). He led the team in absolutely no category, except for outfield assists -- and his overall defense is also overrated considering the horrendous routes he takes to fly balls and his tendency to lose focus and bobble the ball, allowing runners to move up.
The one thing that unifies everyone about the trade is the understanding that, whether or not you like his methods, Beane is going all-in like he never has before. We've seen him hold back a bit and fall short, but this time he's putting everything he's got into the title run. There is respect for that strategy among the fanbase, because how can you argue with someone trying as hard as possible to deliver that prize?
IM: The value of platoons are often a matter of debate. What's the prevailing thought in Athletics Nation? Do you believe that Gomes + Fuld (or Vogt if you prefer) = Cespedes?
AH: Before we get to the new guys, here is a stat that is just blowing my mind.
Josh Reddick, 2014, overall: .755 OPS
Cespedes, 2014, pre-trade: .767 OPS
Reddick was the 2012 fluke, the guy who everyone writes off as a poor hitter these days. And yet, after just a couple hot weeks, he's matched Cespedes' All-Star, Derby-winning production. That is telling of two things: that Reddick is once again a legitimate hitter, and that Cespedes is simply not as good as people think he is despite all that raw talent and athleticism. And at age 28 and well into his third season in MLB, this is likely as good as he's gonna get - including an OBP that hovers around .300. It's entirely possible that resurgent by Reddick, who is also hitting for power again, could make up for La Potencia all on his own.
As for the other guys, the key is that no one player has to fully replace the departed star. Gomes has a 133 wRC+ against lefties (136 for his career), whereas Cespedes was at 115 (132 for his career). At absolute worst, that's a wash. Vogt is finally cooling off (0-for-last-17) but he's still hitting .327 (.851 OPS, better than Cespedes) and can now be hidden against lefties a bit more often thanks to the extra depth in the outfield. Fuld will be playing a lot of center from here on out, as Coco will miss time with a neck injury and will likely DH a bit when he does play; the upgrade from Coco's declining defense to Fuld's airtight glove (and surprisingly strong arm) makes up any downgrade on the defensive end from Cespedes and his left field replacements.
In summary, the A's lost a fan favorite, a right-handed slugger, and a huge outfield arm. They replace him with two huge fan favorites (Gomes and Fuld, both former A's), a right-handed slugger (Gomes), fewer outs (Gomes' and Fuld's superior OBP's), and a good outfield arm (Fuld).
IM: Talk about your bullpen. Jim Johnson is out but Sean Doolittle is pretty great. What's behind him. Do you have confidence in the bullpen going into the playoffs.
AH: The bullpen was supposed to be a huge strength, and it finally seems to be. Johnson was a complete disaster, and things just feel better now that's gone. Doolittle is a stud who throws pure gas and gets you to swing and miss up in the zone. Here are the other guys:
Luke Gregerson: He's got a sub-2 ERA, strong peripherals, and the track record to back it all up. He's a legit set-up man, though he's beatable if he isn't locating his slider properly.
Ryan Cook: Season started slow due to injuries, but he seems to be back. Control can be shaky and he'll walk guys, but he's tough to hit and he's pretty reliable in late innings.
Dan Otero: Classic Billy Beane find, came out of nowhere to post 1.92 ERA over 103 innings last two years combined. Not overwhelming stuff, but pinpoint control and lots of grounders. Has struggled lately and may be a bit tired, as he's been leaned on heavily this year and often goes multiple innings. Jack of all trades; can be a set-up man or a mop-up man, and closed in the minors.
Fernando Abad: Probably not as good as his sub-2 ERA suggests, but he's got great peripherals and he's gone through unhittable stretches this year. Has gotten a lot of big outs for Oakland after being picked up essentially for free.
Eric O'Flaherty: Third lefty in the pen. Still coming back from TJS, so doesn't go deep into outings or pitch back-to-back days. Has been mostly solid, and presumably will get better the further he puts the surgery in his rear-view mirror.
Jesse Chavez: Did a great job as a starter this year, but he doesn't have a ton of starting experience in his career so I'm glad the team won't be counting on him in Sept./Oct. Should get another crack at the rotation next year. In the meantime, I expect big things from him as a reliever; starters don't usually get worse when they move to the bullpen to throw only an inning or two at a time, especially ones with histories of bullpen success.
There are a few fallback options stashed in the minors as well, between Evan Scribner (if he passes waivers), Fernando Rodriguez, and Joe Savery. Drew Pomeranz could also be called on, though he is the only remaining starter depth after Chavez.
IM: So yeah, there are a lot of ex-Rays on the Athletics (Kazmir, Hammel, Jaso, Vogt, Chavez, Gomes, Fuld). I understand that former Rays players are the new market inefficiency. I bet we could pass Balfour through waivers. You want? Anyone else?
No thanks. We'll take Sean Rodriguez or Ben Zobrist, though. Or both.
I was pretty sure Balfour would be a bad signing last winter, though I thought it would be because he'd get hurt rather than just fall apart like this. Hard to laugh when you picked Jim Johnson instead, though.
IM: I've ranked our new, Priceless rotation for you, but I think the Athletics' is more difficult to evaluate. In what order would you put them? Does this group make Oakland world series favorites?
AH: Oh man, that's tough. I think I'd go like this for now:
1. Jon Lester - Duh.
2. Sonny Gray - Gray and Kazmir have had virtually identical seasons. I'm going with Gray first because I think he's more capable of "going big" in one game whereas Kazmir is more "consistently good" in each start; I'll take the high upside in a playoff game. Add on the fact that Gray started Opening Day, and break up the lefties (Lester and Kaz) with a righty, and you have your tiebreakers.
3. Scott Kazmir - See above.
4. Jeff Samardzija - His best skill is his ability to work deep into games, but he's also good at preventing runs. I think he's realistically more of a No. 2 starter than an ace, but we'll see. It's quite exciting to have him as the fourth-best arm in the rotation.
5. Jason Hammel - A's fans are not pleased with him. Not one bit. I am holding out hope that he pulls it together and wins some games. Fortunately, you only need four starters in the playoffs.
The A's were already World Series favorites before the trade. Now they are even favorite-ier.
IM: Why are your fans so involved and so great at making signs? All I (meaning Brett, who is younger and hipper than I) seem to see recently are Vines or posts on Reddit where A's fans do something real cool.
AH: I have a theory that I just came up with right this second. A's fans grew up sitting in an empty stadium, regardless of how good their team was in a given year. Without a bunch of other people around to talk to and cheer with, they had to make do -- cheer louder to make up the difference, do crazier things because there's less going on around you, bring signs or drums or whatever because you'll be alone in your section anyway so you won't be blocking or disturbing anyone. The void left by the empty seats was filled with creativity by the die-hards who did show up, who needed to show the world that there was in fact someone rooting for the club. A's fans know they need to up the ante to show the world how much they care, and of course there's a certain amount of bitterness borne of the perception that the team doesn't get proper respect and representation in the national media; if ESPN won't cover our boys, then we'll do it ourselves.
Think of it this way. Every team has a group of die-hard fans. Most teams fill the rest of the seats with casual fans, but around here all those people go to the Giants' games because of their pretty stadium and recent success. At the Coliseum, you only get those die-hard fans and none of the filler, which makes the fanbase seem a bit more fanatical.