Take Heart

good baseball team

Used to be that a lot of what I wrote here was negative and critical. At least, that's how I remember it being, save for the odd post in praise of Roy Corcoran's groundball rate. Lately, it feels like I've been a lot more positive, even though the Mariners have remained a big steaming pile of crap. I don't know why that would be. One possibility is that I've been just as negative as before, and my memory is wrong. Another possibility is that I'm more supportive of the Zduriencik plan than I was of the Bavasi plan. Still another possibility is that I just don't want to be that cynical and down about sports. They're sports. Who cares? Find something that makes you happy, find something you believe in. If you let sports get you feeling blue for more than a few minutes at a time then it seems like there's been an accident along the cognitive highway.

This is a post about the Athletics, and the Mariners. Yesterday the Athletics beat the Blue Jays 16-0. Yesterday the Athletics got to face Jeff Mathis as both a hitter and a pitcher. Right now the Athletics are beating the Blue Jays 3-0 tied with the Blue Jays 3-3, having blown a lead, but this is about more than one game, one series. Have you looked at the standings lately? If you're a Mariners fan, the answer is probably, no, of course not, why would I, but within the standings you might find quite the surprise. The Orioles are kind of relevant, which you might've known. The Pirates are very relevant, which you might've known. And the Athletics, right now, are tied with the Angels, five games behind the Rangers and occupying one of two Wild Card slots.

If the season ended today, the A's would go to the playoffs, if you consider the one-game Wild Card playoff a part of the playoffs. If the season ended today, Ryan Dempster would be like "wow how long was I trying to make that decision again?" and Bud Selig would have to explain away quite the mistake, but with about two months left, the A's are right in the thick of things. And they have the run differential to match, if that's the sort of thing you care about.

Remember that the AL West was supposed to have two tiers. The Rangers and the Angels were supposed to fistfight for first place, and the A's and the Mariners were supposed to slap for third place. The AL West does indeed have two tiers, but the Mariners are in a miserable tier of their own. The other three are quarreling in proximity to one another.

The A's were not supposed to be a good baseball team. I don't think they were supposed to be a bad baseball team, but they were one of those teams that had a shot at .500 if enough things broke right. They were one of those teams with their sights set on 2014 or 2015, if they had their sights set on any years in particular. From this point forward the A's could go 29-36 and finish with 82 wins. They could go 37-28 and finish with 90 wins. Whenever you have an underdog you're always waiting for him to look down, and just last season the Pirates came apart after getting off the ground, but the A's have been fine and the A's are on fire.

Recall that this was their offseason:

  • traded Trevor Cahill
  • traded Gio Gonzalez
  • traded Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney
  • signed Coco Crisp
  • traded Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman
  • signed Bartolo Colon
  • signed Jonny Gomes
  • signed Yoenis Cespedes
  • (signed Manny Ramirez)

It looks better now than it did. People thought the A's gutted themselves. They thought the A's shredded their own pitching staff. The A's have the American League's lowest rotation ERA. The A's have the American League's lowest bullpen ERA.

Last year the A's finished 74-88, and while the 2012 A's were going to be young and talented, they were supposed to be too young and not talented enough. Here they are, after an offseason that didn't really hint at a team-wide emergence. Consensus opinion was that it would be years before the A's could contend, especially in a division with the Rangers and Angels in it. The A's are contending. Even if they miss the playoffs, the 2012 Oakland A's will have contended, which is the whole point of all of this.

Interestingly, according to FanGraphs, the A's have had the AL's third-worst team offense, with a wRC+ of 91. Think of that like OPS+, except based on wOBA instead. If you prefer, they have a team 89 OPS+. There, all better. The A's have most definitely been hitting a lot better after a dreadful first couple months, but it's not like they've built an offensive juggernaut. Cespedes is terrifying and flawed. Josh Reddick is an outstanding surprise. Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes are contributing role players. There's no one in there that, before the season, would've made you think "pitch around this guy." Maybe Cespedes, but many figured you could pitch around Cespedes and get him out at the same time.

When a team is rolling like the A's are rolling, everything looks great, but this is a team with an all right offense, a pretty good pitching staff, statistically a strong defense, and youth. And Bartolo Colon, who's coming up on 40. They're squeezing juice out of a discarded Brandon Inge. They're squeezing juice out of a discarded and what-the-fuck Travis Blackley. Ryan Cook is the best closer you've never heard of once in your life. Tommy Milone is a minor-league control specialist who's actually succeeding, even flourishing, as a major-league control specialist.

When you try to get too specific, the parallels between the A's and the Mariners break down. They are two very different franchises with two very different sets of players. On a more general level, though, the A's entered as a young team with modest expectations, and they're right there with the Angels, who some thought would be the best team in baseball. Oakland has a low payroll and minimal star power, but you don't need a high payroll and a bunch of stars to keep up. You need talent and productivity. With the budget issues, Oakland will have trouble being relevant for a while at a time, but then the Mariners have fewer budget issues. The Mariners can and do spend more than Oakland does.

You look at the Mariners right now and you think it'll be years before they can contend. It very easily could be. It's a hard thing to contend, and only a handful of teams get to do it each season. But Oakland is contending, and nobody at all saw that team coming. Oakland was supposed to be on par with Seattle, until they weren't. Contention is never a set, predictable number of years away. It can seem like it is, especially in the midst of a non-contention season, but the Mariners could next contend in 2016, or 2022, or 2013. You just can't write seasons off before you get to them, especially when you know you're sitting on a pile of underdeveloped raw talent. That talent can blossom. And what if you supplement the talent with a 130 OPS+ from Russell Branyan? Contention isn't easy, but contention isn't impossible.

The Mariners aren't going to the playoffs in 2012. They're setting themselves up for another high draft pick. It wouldn't make sense for them to be short-sighted and build for next year, but there's nothing wrong with thinking about next year while you're thinking about the years that come after it. Baseball leaves room for miracles, and they're not even really miracles.

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