A group weblog for Oakland A's fans

Friday, June 18, 2004

Yes the bullpen...again..Part II

With Rhodes out for personal reasons, Mecir stepped in and blew a save for him. This was pretty painful, because the A's had carefully slowly crafted a 4-2 9th inning lead. I thought at the beginning of the year, if we could convert 80% of the save chances, that would be enough. Well we aren't converting 80%. I guess it is time to make a move. I miss you Keith Foulke. I can't blame you, the Red Sox are a fun team, with a marginally better chance for a ring this year than the A's, and the Red Sox offered you a marginally better contract, but the A's sure could use you right now.

So what do the A's do?

1) Just go with what we have. Maybe Lehr will help, after all we are still in first place and it is still June.

2) Trade for someone. Find a team with a great closer but without much chance this season and give something up. This option is interesting, but how many great closers are out there? I don't want Guardado. Percival is hurt. I don't think we can get Rivera, Gagne or Foulke. How about this dude, Kolb, from Milwaukee? 19 saves, 1.05 ERA on a team going nowhere. That's the guy! What does Milwaukee need? Probably everything. Maybe they need Dan Johnson or Graham Koonce. I'd throw in Kielty or Kotsay if we had to. I'd hate to have to send them Blanton or Redman. I hope Hudson, Zito, Mulder and Harden are off limits. Rhodes, Rincon or Mecir could go the other way and I wouldn't lose much sleep over it. As my boss says, change requires change. So let's make a deal.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Yes, the bullpen... again

Let me start by saying this: the bullpen should not be the focus of last night's game, in which the offense managed only two solo home runs by Dye and Hatteberg in the sixth inning. Jason Marquis is not that good a pitcher (or a hitter), and the A's made him look like an ace. (Where are the runs of yesterweek...) But everybody's talking about the bullpen anyway because this is not the first time there has been a high-profile meltdown among the A's relief corps. In fact, it's not even the first time this series, as Bradford/Rincon/Duchscherer combined to turn a 4-3 lead into an 8-4 deficit in the seventh inning on Tuesday (and those were our three relievers who were actually getting the job done most of the time). Duke is struggling a little bit, but we couldn't really expect him to have an ERA around 1.00 for the entire season.

No, the big story is Arthur Rhodes's meltdown, both physical and mental. After he gave up the three-run insurance homer to Reggie Sanders, he totally lost his cool about a close pitch on the 2-2 count just preceding the home run and got ejected from the game. The team announced today he would be taking an indefinite leave of absence to attend to a "personal matter." Since Chris Hammond also is unavailable with a sore shoulder, the team has finally called up Justin Lehr from Sacramento to shore up the relief corps. This is good news: Lehr had a 1.97 ERA with 12 saves as the Rivercats' closer, with 32 strikeouts and 10 walks in 27 innings. That's good stuff; I have no doubt he can be effective in the majors.

This is not to say that he'll come in and dominate; that's an unreasonable expectation. Lehr is not Francisco Rodriguez, who had truly silly minor-league statistics before exploding on the unsuspecting American League in his September 2002 callup (and postseason). He's simply a good minor league reliever. He throws a low-to-mid-90's fastball and a good slider. His control has been an issue in the past but seems to be pretty decent this year. And his attitude has been universally praised as very poised and focused on the mound, regardless of the situation. So hopefully he'll be able to deal with the pressure of pitching in the big leagues, quite possibly in critical situations, quite possibly as soon as today.

I hope he'll contribute. Meanwhile, the A's will look to snap their losing streak (an old, unfamiliar, unpleasant concept) as they send Tim Hudson to the hill against Jeff Suppan. Suppan is pretty much a retread but he's had an effective 2004 campaign, posting a 6-5 record and a 3.53 ERA. Huddy looks like a good matchup against this team (I admit though, I like Huddy matching up against any team) because they are so right-handed, with only Jim Edmonds providing significant offense from the left side. Then again, the Cubs are even more vulnerable to good righties (Todd Walker is decent but he's no Jim Edmonds), so maybe the A's rotation didn't line itself up well for this road trip.

Regardless, the important thing now is to get back in the W column. Go A's!

Monday, June 14, 2004

A day off

Today is a well-deserved day of rest for the good guys after wrapping up the most successful homestand in the history of Oakland baseball. The A's went 11-1 against the White Sox, Blue Jays, Reds, and Pirates, fueled by a ridiculous outburst from their offense. In 12 games, the A's scored 95 runs (nearly 8 per game), including 6 or more in each of the last 7 games and double figures in 5 games (after reaching 10 runs only three times all season coming in). A's batters yanked the ball out of the yard 21 times, including three grand slams, and also smacked 34 doubles and 2 triples. Overall, the A's batted .327/.453/.600 on the homestand. Wow.

Yesterday's game, which I attended, was another great performance from the newly-awakened offensive juggernaut that is the Athletics. The big blow was a grand slam in the fifth inning by Adam Melhuse, but the A's tallied a run in 6 of the 8 innings in which they batted en route to crushing Pittsburgh 13-3 and making an 8-game winner out of Mark Mulder. It was definitely a fun game to be at, as was the other game I attended during the homestand (last Sunday's 8-3 win over Toronto), but then again, almost every game during the last two weeks would have been fun to attend.

The net result of this outburst is a 37-24 record, second best in all of baseball behind the (evil hated) Yankees, and a 2.5-game lead over Texas and Anaheim in the AL West. Let's hope the team can keep up the good work as they visit unfamiliar Busch Stadium and Wrigley Field this week. The NL Central has been barely even a speed bump for the A's since interleague play started, but the Cardinals and Cubs will provide a stiffer challenge, as will playing on the road. (Painful reminder: the A's went 1-5 on their last road trip.)

One final note regarding the Moneyball draft: Re-reading my post from Saturday night, one valuable lesson from that draft jumps out at me. Any time statistical analysis and traditional scouting agree on a top prospect, the player is a pretty safe draft pick. This happened with only two of the A's 2002 haul, Swisher and Blanton--and now those two are by far the top prospects from that class. We saw from the varied histories of the other first-round picks what can happen with guys that scouts like; and similarly with the stathead favorites--some will learn the skills that the scouts saw a lack of (e.g. hitting for power), but some will be held back by their lack of same. But guys with good stuff, good makeup, good tools and a good body who also demonstrated the ability in college to actually turn their abilities into performance--those are the guys that will climb the ladder quickly.

As we're seeing the fruits of that right now with the 2002 class, I'm even more excited about the 2004 draft. The A's top six picks were all, to a man, guys that were heavily scouted and considered among the top prospects in the draft, but in addition they had the college track records to back up the opinions of the scouts. This can only be a good thing. Now, Landon Powell (South Carolina), Huston Street (Texas), and Jason Windsor and Kurt Suzuki (Fullerton) are all headed to the College World Series after having starred in the NCAA Super Regionals (well, except for Street; Texas didn't need their closer after they pounded Vanderbilt twice). If you get the chance, watch these guys play, since they'll be starring on the A's teams of the near future.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

The Moneyball draft

It's now been two full years since the A's 2002 draft, which was so remarkable that it inspired a best-selling book. For all its fame, though, was it really a good draft? Let's take a look.

The A's had six extra picks in the draft due to the departures of Class A free agents Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen the previous winter. So they picked four times in the first round and three more in the sandwich round. After that, they had just their own pick in every round.

Before we delve into detailed analysis of how these guys have fared in their first two years, take a look at John Sickels's take on it from a year ago. Bear in mind that a lot has changed in the past year, which is why I'm bothering to do this again. (Ordinarily, I trust Sickels nearly absolutely; his "Down on the Farm" pieces for ESPN.com are great reading. He seems to have a very even-handed approach to prospect evaluation, somewhere between Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus.)

Okay, here we go.

1. Nick Swisher, OF. The prize of the Moneyball class, Swisher got off to a hot start, breezing through the Northwest League in 2002 before finishing up at Visalia. The next spring he again started strong in the California League, earning him a promotion to Midland, where he struggled. This year, he's spent the entire season in Sacramento, which is pretty advanced for a 23-year old, and he's held his own. I'd like to see him hit for a higher average before he gets called up to the majors, but with the current outfield logjam that's not much of an issue anyway. Expect him to be starting for the A's in 2005.

1. Joe Blanton, RHP. Currently the A's top pitching prospect, not to mention one of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball. Blanton didn't pitch much after signing in 2002, but stormed through the minor leagues last year, posting a 144/19 K/BB ratio at Kane County. He was so fazed by a two-level promotion to Midland that he destroyed the hitter-friendly Texas League as well, with a 1.26 ERA and 30/7 K/BB in 36 innings of work. This year, he moved right on up to AAA, and was off to a great start in Sacramento before running into some struggles recently. But with the A's pitching depth, there's no reason to rush him; Sacramento is a great place for him to negotiate whatever bumps arise in his path to stardom. It's looking less likely that he'll contribute to the 2004 A's before rosters expand in September, but this guy is going to be a very good pitcher at the major league level, as early as 2005...

...which brings us to an interesting question. Who is going to get bumped from the rotation when Blanton is ready? Hudson is signed through 2005. The three lefties are all under contract (or option) through 2006. Harden, of course, is in his first full year, so he won't even be arbitration-eligible for a while. Meanwhile Blanton is also going to be cheap and effective, so something's gotta give. I suspect it'll be Redman, given Beane's professed unwillingness to deal one of the Big Three.

1. John McCurdy, SS. This is probably the most unsuccessful pick of the draft for the A's. Taken at #26 overall because he had the highest slugging average in the country, McCurdy has struggled mightily both offensively and defensively. I'm not really sure how he got to Midland, but he's been awful there, posting a .240/.263/.387 line so far with a mind-boggling (especially for the A's) 61-to-7 K/BB ratio. He's also made 15 errors in 56 games while splitting time between second and short. Of all the hitters the A's wanted in 2002, McCurdy had the weakest plate discipline in college and hasn't been able to learn it so far in the pros.

1. Ben Fritz, RHP. Fritz had a strong debut and has also progressed to AA, but his development has sort of stalled as well. He currently boasts a 4.33 ERA and 69 hits, 51 K's and 34 walks in 68.2 innings. That's not bad, but nothing to get excited about either. I think to have a good idea about whether Fritz was a successful pick, we need to compare him to other college pitchers taken at around #30. Certainly it seems like "holding your own in AA in a tough league for pitchers" is a decent place to be two years after being drafted; see below for further analysis. Fritz isn't really part of the problem, but I'm kind of curious as to how many of these guys who are at Midland really deserve to be there on merit. Okay, just McCurdy--what is he doing in AA?

SW. Jeremy Brown, C. Probably the most famous Moneyball prospect, Brown got off to a great start in 2002 and was the only 2002 draftee invited to spring training 2003 with the major leaguers. He spent 2003 at Midland, but his season was cut short by an injury to his left thumb which apparently sapped him of his power; his .275 average and .390 OBP certainly don't look bad. This year, though, he's repeated AA and has been much less successful, currently batting .226/.327/.339. He's also been splitting catching duties with John Baker (see below).

SW. Stephen Obenchain, RHP. Unlike all the guys above, Obenchain hasn't yet made it to the high minors, so I don't know much about him. He's doing just fine at Modesto, though, with a 3.88 ERA, and 51/43/19 H/K/BB in 48.2 innings. Those aren't mind-blowing numbers, but a full season of that and he should get promoted (except that I wonder where all these guys at Midland are going to go, because not all of them can get to Sacramento or Oakland--there just aren't enough openings).

SW. Mark Teahen, 3B. Another success story. Teahen didn't hit for much power in college but was regarded as an excellent pure hitter with great strike zone knowledge. He's justified that rep in the pros, and has also recently earned himself a promotion to AAA by hitting .335/.419/.543 in two months at Midland. David Forst said that one of the proofs that the 2002 draft was a success was that when Eric Chavez broke his hand, one of the legitimate options considered by the front office was promoting Teahen all the way to Oakland and installing him at third base. They didn't, but you get the idea--Teahen has been good. He still doesn't have much home-run power, but he has a very good idea of what he's doing at the plate, and power is usually the last tool to develop. Erik Kubota compared Teahen to a young Jason Giambi in the book, and while not everybody with that profile develops Giambiesque power, it's an apt comparison at this point.

2. Steve Stanley, OF. Stanley is also already manning the outfield in Sacramento. He's struggled so far this season, hitting only .242/.328/.329, but the fact that he's been in AAA the entire season just two years after getting drafted is already pretty good. Stanley is a tiny guy, maybe 5'6" and 140 lbs, so we'll have to see if he ever develops any power. If not, he'll be a fourth outfielder at best.

3. Bill Murphy, LHP. The one that got away. Murphy was dealt to the Marlins along with Mike Neu in the trade that brought over Mark Redman. Murphy had a nice season last year and I was sad to see him traded (though Redman has been a quality pitcher for the A's, today's debacle notwithstanding). He's now with the Carolina Mudcats of the AA Eastern League, and his strikeout rate is very strong--87 K's in only 73 innings, against only 50 hits. But he's also walked 40 batters, so he profiles as a guy with great stuff and command problems. Regardless of how he develops in the future, he was integral to the A's getting a solid major-league pitcher in 2004 (and beyond), so he can't be regarded as a failed pick. But if he becomes a star, I'm sure Billy will have regrets.

4. John Baker, C. Baker is pretty clearly the more productive half of the 2004 catching tandem at Midland this year, batting .308/.365/.485. But keep in mind that the A's won't promote a prospect who isn't walking at least once per 10 at-bats, and Baker isn't (20 BB's in 237 AB so far). Still, a guy hitting .300 with tons of doubles in AA two years after being drafted--you'll take that out of any fourth-round pick, let alone a catcher.

5. Mark Kiger, SS. Kiger is often compared with Mark Ellis, who also attended Florida and profiles similarly: great batting eye, good glove, decent but not great pop. He's currently batting .275/.390/.396 for Midland while sharing time with McCurdy at 2B and SS. That'll do, although if he never develops power he'll probably be a utility man in the majors, unless his defense is off the charts.

6. Brian Stavisky, OF. Stavisky, who teamed with Steve Stanley at Notre Dame, has been brought along more slowly than the other guys on this list, but that may change soon. He is currently abusing California League pitching to the tune of .357/.431/.484. He hasn't shown much home run power, but his 16 doubles are a good omen for the future.

7. Brant Colamarino, 1B. Colamarino got a mention in the book as being "possibly the best hitter in the country" according to Paul DePodesta but slipped all the way to #218 in the draft because "he has titties." Be that as it may, he's recovered from a slow start in pro ball (see the Sickels column) to raking his way up the ladder this season. I wrote about Colamarino last week so I won't go into much detail here, except to note that he's picked up in Midland right where he left off at Modesto, batting .314/.368/.571. The downside? Sacramento is already overstuffed at 1B/DH with Dan Johnson and Graham Koonce, and it's unclear when there will be an opening at the major-league level either.

8. Jared Burton, RHP. He had a good 2003 at Kane County, but I can't figure out what happened to him after that. BA has no record of him this year. Anybody know the deal? Going on last year, Burton pitched well both out of the pen and starting, and was named to the All-Star Game in the Midwest League. I'll assume he's injured unless I hear otherwise.

9. Shane Komine, RHP. Komine was the pleasant surprise of the class in 2003. He quickly advanced past A ball and seemed to be on track in Midland. But this year he's still there and he hasn't been quite as sharp, allowing 79 hits while striking out 56 and walking 21 in 75.2 innings. Still, that's not bad for a 9th-round pick.

Taking a step back, what can we say about the class as a whole? First, it's definitely impressive that of these 15 guys, 4 are in AAA and another 8 in AA just two years after the draft (including Murphy, who was traded for a good major-leaguer). Of the other three, one (Stavisky) looks like he's outmatching the California League this season, another (Obenchain) is doing pretty well there, and the other is Jared Burton. Of the guys currently in AA or higher, only McCurdy looks like he's too high.

How does this compare with other teams' 2002 draft classes? I don't know for sure, since I haven't studied them, but I feel pretty confident that it's way above average for the top 15 players drafted by any organization. Then again, it helps that 7 of those players were drafted in the top 39 overall (although, if you read Moneyball, you definitely come away with the impression that only Swisher and Blanton would have been drafted that high by any other team).

Comparing apples to apples, then, how do the A's first-rounders stack up against other first-round prospects? Here's a list of the entire 2002 first round, along with some quick comments.

1. Bryan Bullington, RHP-C, Pit. Holding his own in AA.
2. B.J. Upton, SS-HS, TB. Already in AAA; the top prospect in baseball in my opinion.
3. Chris Gruler, RHP-HS, Cin. Injured.
4. Adam Loewen, LHP-HS, Bal. Draft-and-follow; still in A-ball.
5. Clint Everts, RHP-HS, Mon. Doing well in the Sally League.
6. Zack Greinke, RHP-HS, KC. Already in majors (!) and kicking ass.
7. Prince Fielder, 1B-HS, Mil. One of top sluggers in minors (AA Huntsville).
8. Scott Moore, SS-HS, Det. Still in A-ball, and sucking.
9. Jeff Francis, LHP-C, Col. Top pitching prospect in AA, but... can he survive Coors?
10. Drew Meyer, SS-C, Tex. Now playing outfield, and struggling at the plate in AA.
11. Jeremy Hermida, OF-HS, Fla. Hitting very well in Florida State League (high A).
12. Joe Saunders, LHP-C, Ana. Decent stats in California League.
13. Khalil Greene, SS-C, SD. Already the starting shortstop for the Padres.
14. Russ Adams, SS-C, Tor. Holding his own in AAA.
15. Scott Kazmir, LHP-HS, NYM. Was pitching in the FSL when he got hurt.
16. Swisher
17. Cole Hamels, LHP-HS, Phi. Coming off an injury; pitching in the FSL.
18. Royce Ring, RHP-C, CHW. Traded for Robbie Alomar; a AAA reliever.
19. James Loney, 1B-HS, LA. Doing okay in the FSL; still very young.
20. Denard Span, OF-HS, Min. Struggling in the Midwest League.
21. Bobby Brownlie, RHP-C, CHC. Pitching well in AA.
22. Jeremy Guthrie, RHP-C, Cle. A very strange story; see below.
23. Jeff Francoeur, OF-HS, Atl. Doing well in the Carolina League (high A).
24. Blanton
25. Matt Cain, RHP-HS, SF. Top prospect in the Cal League; should be promoted soon.
26. McCurdy
27. Sergio Santos, SS-HS, Ari. Already in AA and doing well.
28. John Mayberry Jr, 1B-HS, Sea. Did not sign; now a sophomore at Stanford.
29. Derick Grigsby, RHP-JC, Hou. K and BB (!) rates both ~1 per IP in Sally League.
30. Fritz

Jeremy Guthrie is an interesting story--coming out of Stanford, he was the consensus #1 pitcher in the draft (even Billy Beane thought so), but his advisor (Scott Boras) drove off any potential teams from drafting him unless they would pony up $20 million for his first contract. So he slipped all the way to 22, where the Indians paid him. He blew the doors off AA in his first action there last year, then struggled mightily in AAA. Sent back to Buffalo this year, he got lit up again, and walked nearly a batter an inning, so the Indians sent him back down to Akron to get straightened out. He's doing better, but still much worse than last year, and scouts say that his mechanics are all messed up. He's clearly not as advanced as he was two years ago when he was drafted. Just one more data point in the argument that "there's no such thing as a pitching prospect."

And the supplemental first round...

31. Greg Miller, LHP-HS, LA. Was a top prospect, but underwent Tommy John this spring.
32. Luke Hagerty, LHP-C, CHC. Not pitching this year; status unknown to me.
33. Matt Whitney, 1B-HS, Cle. 15 at-bats in the Sally League; must be an injury.
34. Dan Meyer, LHP-C, Atl. Pitching great in AA.
35. Brown
36. Chadd Blasko, RHP-C, CHC. Struggling a bit in AA, but good K rate.
37. Obenchain
38. Matt Clanton, RHP-C, CHC. Pitched 2 innings this year, in rookie ball.
39. Teahen
40. Mark Schramek, RHP-C, Cin. Converted to 3B; hitting very well in Carolina League.
41. Micah Schilling, 2B-HS, Cle. Middling performance in Sally League.

The verdict is in: the Moneyball guys are doing very well relative to their peers. Most of the guys on this list are still in A ball, even the college draftees. Swisher and Blanton are among the 6 best players from this draft so far, and you really can't fault the A's for not getting any of the top four: Greinke, Upton, Greene and Francis. They were all gone by the time the A's picked at 16. Greene and Francis were high on Billy's wish list; Greinke and Upton weren't because they were high schoolers but they have made amazing progress. Greinke is already a rotation regular (and a damn good one) in the majors at age 20; Upton is still 19 and will soon be promoted, whereupon he will be the youngest player in the majors since A-Rod. (By the way, he's destroying AAA offensively; he's still working on his fielding reliability.) Greene, of course, was the top college player in 2002 and everybody knew he would be in the majors quickly. Jeff Francis has been phenomenal this season, and is blowing away hitters at Tulsa as we speak. He's probably the best pitching prospect the Rockies have ever had; it'll be interesting to see if he can tame Coors Field.

A notch down from those guys is Teahen, who just reached AAA but seems to also be fast-tracked to Oakland. Fritz and Brown are holding their own in AA. McCurdy seems like a bust so far, and Obenchain has been brought along slowly. On the whole, the seven compare favorably to the other players from the first round, though. Throw in the fact that the next 8 guys are also mostly holding their own in AA or above, and I think you have to agree that the A's know what they are doing (though I predict that they will not be drafting more John McCurdys).

Okay, this post is already way longer than I had initially planned it. A year from now, maybe, I'll check in on these guys again. But it's safe to say that the people who are proclaiming the A's 2002 draft class a bust are not really seeing the full picture.

Still flying high

Seven wins in a row now for the green and gold, including a ridiculous come-from-behind 12-11 win over the Pirates today. It was not a thing of beauty as far as the pitching staff is concerned (Redman, Bradford, Rincon, Duchscherer, and Rhodes all pitched today, and none were particularly effective), but a win is a win. The offense is kicking ass and taking names. Bobby Crosby, who looked a week ago like he was just trying too hard to replace Miggy, is now having great at-bat after great at-bat and has to be the frontrunner now for Rookie of the Year in the AL.

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