With a 65-56 record and a second-place standing in the AL West, the Oakland A's have already surpassed expectations this season. On Tuesday night, their push for a playoff spot gets an additional boost — or rather a pair of boosts, in the form of two players who will make their first appearance for the upstart contenders, who enter their game in Oakland against the Twins just half a game out of a Wild Card spot. Shortstop Stephen Drew, who was acquired in a trade with the Diamondbacks on Monday night in exchange for 2011 draft pick Sean Jamieson, will debut for the green-and-gold, while starter Brett Anderson, who has been rehabbing his way back from July 2011 Tommy John surgery, will make his first big league appearance since last June 5, 2011.
Of the two players, Drew might offer the higher hopes for an upgrade over the status quo. Oakland's shortstops have combined to "hit" a paltry .190/.255/.294 this season, ranking last in both batting average and on-base percentage. Incumbent Cliff Pennington, who hit a respectable .259/.324/.371 from 2008-2011, has struggled mightily this year, hitting just .198/.265/.284 in 92 games. Just as he earned a Dishonorable Mention on my Midsummer Replacement Level Killers team, he went on the disabled list due to tendonitis in his left (non-throwing) elbow and missed 17 games, which may have been part of the problem. Rookie Brandon Hicks hit .183/.246/.417 — with eight out of his 11 hits for extra bases — as his primary fill-in before heading back to Triple-A Sacramento.
Admittedly, Drew hasn't been a whole lot better than Pennington thus far. The 29-year-old has struggled to shake off the rust since returning from a severe ankle injury that cost him 137 games, from July 27 last year to June 20 of this year. In 155 plate appearances, he has hit just .191/.290/.311, well off the .270/.330/.442 he hit from 2006-2011 as the Diamondbacks' starting shortstop. It's difficult to take his 2012 numbers entirely at face value, however, and not only because of the injury. A few weeks before his return, the team's managing partner, Ken Kendrick, called Drew out due to the slow speed of his rehab, accusing him of looking beyond this season; Drew holds a $10 million mutual option for next season, with a $1.35 million buyout. Never mind that his injury bent his foot 180 degrees in the wrong direction, fracturing his ankle, tearing three ligaments and requiring a plate and three screws to fix. The A's were among the teams who showed interest in Drew leading up to the July 31 trade deadline, but fill-in Willie Bloomquist's lower back woes temporarily took Drew off the table. While his August numbers have improved (.200/.322/.420), he's in the midst of a 2-for-29 slump in what has to have been a very distracting month.
As for Anderson, the 24-year-old lefty is a former blue-chipper who was the Diamondbacks' second-round pick out of an Oklahoma high school in 2006. He came to the A's as part of general manager Billy Beane's endless churn of starting pitchers, via the Dan Haren deal in December 2007. Anderson ranked seventh on Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list coming into the 2009 season and was viewed as front-of-the-rotation material, though scouts differed on whether he or righty Trevor Cahill was the better of the team's two pitching prospects. He made a strong showing as a rookie that year, posting a 4.06 ERA (eight percent better than the league average) and striking out 7.7 per nine. He lowered his ERA to 2.80 in 2010, but his strikeout rate dipped to 6.0 per nine, and he missed half a season due to a flexor tendon strain and elbow inflammation, making just two starts from April 25 through July 29. Anderson's ERA shot back up to 4.00 through the first two months of last season when further troubles sent him to the DL. In all, his career numbers — 3.66 ERA, with 0.8 homers, 2.2 walks and 6.9 strikeouts per nine — bespeak a pitcher who combines a steady stream of groundballs with excellent control and the ability to miss bats.
Anderson should help a rotation that has been in constant flux all season, largely due to injuries. Tommy Milone is the only A's starter to spend the entire year in the rotation; even Bartolo Colon, who leads the team with 24 starts thanks to the off days created by their season-opening trip to Japan, served a 15-day stint on the DL due to an oblique strain. Brandon McCarthy lost two months via two stints due to shoulder soreness, while rookie A.J. Griffin went down with a shoulder strain in early August after eight strong starts and a 2.42 ERA. Essentially, Anderson will fill the fifth spot previously occupied by Tyson Ross, Travis Blackley and Dan Straily, a trio that combined for a 4.94 ERA, 5.5 innings per start and just 12 quality starts out of 26. Once he pitches, the A's will have used 10 different starting pitchers, the third-highest total among contenders; the White Sox and Rangers have used 11, while the Braves, Orioles and Tigers have already used 10. Despite the turnover, the Oakland rotation's 3.83 ERA ranks second in the American League. Coupled with a bullpen whose 2.93 ERA also ranks second in the league, run prevention is the reason why the A's are running second in the AL West and battling for a playoff spot; this is a team that ranks second-to-last in AL in scoring at 4.07 runs per game. The franchise came into the year with one .500 finish in the previous five seasons, but thanks to Beane's unorthodox wheeling and dealing, they're right in the thick of things, with a 24.1 percent chance of reaching the postseason according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds report. The additions of Drew and Anderson should only help further what has already been a surprising and entertaining run.