In high school - which admittedly wasn't very long ago - I had a friend who was a little bit obsessed with Eastern philosophy. The dude lived by The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings. It was... well, it was a little strange. That said, I always did admire his dedication to principles, and when I finally caved to his insistence that I read the books, I found them pretty fascinating. They're sitting on my bookshelf now, in college, so maybe his fanaticism rubbed off on me more than I'd like to admit. One of the most famous quotes in Sun Tzu's Art of War - a quote you probably know already, since it's the quote under his picture on Wikiquote - is as follows:
If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles... if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
Thus, in the interest of better knowing our mutual enemies from Oakland, I prepared this Q&A for Athletics Nation's Alex Hall.*
LD: Josh Donaldson's off to a slow start. Are you concerned at all?
AH: Nope. Although he didn't put up much in the box score in the first week, he was hitting the ball well. On Opening Night, he came about a foot short of a three-run homer that would probably have won the game; it hit off the tippy-top of the wall and bounced back in. On Thursday, he blasted an opposite-field homer and lined a tough pitch back up the middle for a run-scoring single, so the hits are starting to fall. The only thing that worries me about him is his one walk and 13 strikeouts, which will hopefully balance out a bit as we get further into April.
LD: Jim Johnson - the A's first expensive closer acquisition in a while - just imploded in epic fashion. What's the state of the Oakland bullpen now that he's no longer closing?
AH: Honestly, the state of Oakland's bullpen is that it is better now. Johnson was never the best pitcher in this stacked pen, and may be only the fourth- or fifth-best, so now the A's will have better pitchers closing out their games (like Sean Doolittle, Luke Gregerson, Ryan Cook and maybe Dan Otero). That doesn't mean Johnson was a waste of money; he's still a quality reliever and I still expect him to have a good season. But now that the A's have announced a closer-by-committee situation (for now), they are freed from the shackles of pre-assigned ninth innings and Bob Melvin can choose whichever one of his shutdown relievers makes the most sense to close the game on any given night. We'll see how long it lasts before one of those committee members eventually earns the full-time job (of if Johnson earns it back).
LD: Two years ago, Josh Reddick looked like a breakout star and a steal of a trade acquisition, but reading the comments on AN it seems like he's not so beloved anymore. What's up with him?
AH: Josh Redddick was a monster in the first half of 2012. Then the magic disappeared and hasn't really come back. He was bad in the second half of that season and the playoffs, and then he was bad for all of 2013. A lot of his struggles last year are generally attributed to the fact that he hurt his wrist in early April and it lingered all season, but there were also issues with pitch recognition as he tried to adopt a more patient approach at the plate. He's looked completely lost with the bat so far this year, and the only thing saving him is that he is arguably the best defensive right fielder in baseball with arguably the best throwing arm. He's worth enough on defense that he was a two-win player last year despite missing 50 games and not hitting at all. His 20-homer power is real, but he's been struggling to make solid contact for over a year now.
LD: Who do you think the A's should dump when Craig Gentry comes off the DL?
AH: There are three main options. One is to demote Reddick, since Gentry and Sam Fuld are about as close as you can find to his equals in the field, and because he still has minor league options. Another candidate is Fuld, though he would have to pass through waivers to go down and would likely be picked up after his strong play so far this month. The other is first baseman Daric Barton, who has never been able to find constant success in the better part of a decade in Oakland and is off to a slow start in 2014. Barton's strengths are defense and OBP, but he is prone to boneheaded mistakes on the field and the general fan base has run out of patience with him. He's out of options and would have to be passed through waivers, but it's possible that his $1.25 million price tag would stop teams from casually taking a flyer on him; he did pass safely through waivers early last season.
Of the three, I change my mind hourly on who I think should go down. I'm pretty sure it won't be Fuld, because the team loves how he's playing and he has the greatest chance of being lost as a result of demotion. Between Reddick and Barton, both of whom I've generally defended despite the fact that they've been out of favor on Athletics Nation for a while, I'd have to lean toward sending down Barton. However, the A's have made clear that they are willing to base a decision like this on which route allows them to keep all of their players, so there is a real possibility that Reddick could go down temporarily just to prevent waiving anyone. There is also the outside possibility that Coco Crisp, who recently got a cortisone injection in his wrist, could go on the DL; if this happened, the roster crunch would be avoided and this decision could be put off for a couple more weeks.
LD: Who on Earth is Jesse Chavez and how on Earth is he good?
AH: Simply, Jesse Chavez is the next Billy Beane diamond-in-the-rough. Beane recognized something in him back in 2012 and went to lengths to keep him in the organization. When he was younger, Chavez tried to get by with fastball velocity, but he has improved his arsenal of secondary pitches (cutter, curve, change) as well as his control and the results have been amazing. Nobody on AN could figure out why Billy wanted this guy two years ago, but his breakout performance came last season in the final six innings of an 18-inning marathon against the Yankees in June. After that, he established himself as the long-man in the pen. Between his strong spring and the injuries to the team's rotation, Chavez finally got another chance to start in the majors and his first two outings have been excellent. Time will tell whether or not he can keep it up, but there is certainly a chance that his improvement is real. It wouldn't be the first time Billy Beane pulled a quality starting pitcher out of thin air.
LD: How's the state of the Oakland farm?
AH: The farm system is a little weak right now. It has recently graduated players like Sonny Gray, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily, Eric Sogard, Josh Donaldson, and Sean Doolittle, while others including Chris Carter, Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole, Michael Choice, Jemile Weeks, and Grant Green have been used in trades for veterans. The top levels are very thin, but the last two drafts have been strong and the lower levels are stocked with B and C prospects. The crown jewel of the system is shortstop Addison Russell, who is one of the top 10 or so prospects in baseball and has legitimate superstar potential; however, he just tore his hamstring and will miss at least a month. After him, the best prospects are outfielder Billy McKinney (last year's first-round pick) and pitcher Raul Alcantara (part of the Andrew Baily/Josh Reddick deal). The guys most likely to make an impact this year are right-handed starter Arnold Leon and fleet-footed outfielder Billy Burns, whose speed is said to rival that of Billy Hamilton. Burns opened a lot of eyes this spring and both the team and the fans are really high on him. (For more on Oakland's farm system, visit www.athleticsfarm.com)
AH: Well, I always chalk up a Felix start as an automatic loss for Oakland, so Seattle should be in first place again by Saturday morning. After that, it's not unfair to assume a split of the other two games on general principle, in which case the Mariners would come out of the weekend on top by a half-game. Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir have both been a bit shaky in the early going despite good-looking stat lines, so I'm not going to predict them to win back-to-back games on the road this weekend. But of course, nobody remembers who's in first on April 14, so don't get too excited about the A's fan conceding the likelihood of defeat in this early series
*Just kidding. Alex contacted me first - my Q&A article for Athletics Nation is here. Also, if you really think of the Athletics as your enemy in the military sense, I'm not sure what to tell you. Thanks to Alex for his detailed answers!