The A's squeaked into the playoffs after a brutal second half, but they need more offense to complement a dynamite starting rotation.
SI.com is previewing all 10 playoff teams as they begin their chase for a World Series title. You can find each team's individual capsule here.
Regular-Season Record/Finish: 88-74, second in AL Wild-Card
On the morning of July 31, when the A's sent away their cleanup hitter in exchange for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes, Oakland had an MLB-best 66-41 record and had scored an MLB-best 535 runs, or 5.0 per game. In the two months to follow, sans La Potencia, the A's went 22-33 and scored 194 runs, or 3.5 per game. Since Oakland signed the Cuban slugger prior to the 2012 season, it is 229-136 (for a .627 winning percentage) with him in the lineup and 49-72 (.405) without him.
The reverse argument — that the A's might have found themselves battling for the second wild-card spot even with Cespedes aboard, or that they might have missed the playoffs altogether — is more complicated to formulate. It involves some combination of pointing out that Cespedes, with an OPS+ of 112 this year, isn’t quite a superstar; that lineup chemistry is overrated; that the rest of the Athletics' hitters, mostly consisting of other teams’ cast-offs, were bound to regress no matter what; and that the rotation, hurt early on by spring training injuries to Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, would have regressed even more without the infusion of Lester, a proven, legitimate ace.
The real answer, of course, is that we’ll never have an answer. Both sides of the argument have their merits, and both are fundamentally impossible to prove. While the deal certainly did not work out the way general manager Billy Beane envisioned — in part because the platoons on which he thought he could rely to replace Cespedes' bat proved surprisingly unproductive — he still has a club that is talented and dangerous enough to bring Oakland its first championship since 1989, if everything falls into place.
Why They'll Win: October after October has proven that championships are predicated, perhaps more than anything else, on stellar starting pitching. The A's, quite simply, have stellar starting pitching.
They appeared to have it prior to adding Lester — their staff had yielded just 373 runs before July 31, the league's third fewest — but there was cause for concern going forward, especially in a potential playoff scenario. While they had already acquired Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija (along with Jason Hammel) in an early July trade, the other members of the rotation couldn't realistically be expected to maintain their respective levels of performance. Sonny Gray was 12-3 with a 2.65 ERA, but he'd already worked 139 innings after having never before thrown more than 182 as a professional. Scott Kazmir was 12-3 with 2.37 ERA, numbers he'd never approached in his career. Jesse Chavez was 8-7 with a revelatory 3.44 ERA, but at the age of 30, he'd never before been anything other than a generally ineffective reliever.
It's a stretch to blame the Cespedes trade for the fact that each of those pitchers has gotten worse since the calendar flipped to August; Kazmir's fall has been the most precipitous, as his ERA is 6.05 since then. As a whole, though, the Athletics' staff hasn’t suffered much. Its ERA through the end of July was 3.19, which was fourth overall. Since the beginning of August, it is 3.30, which ranks seventh.
Much of the credit goes to Lester, who has quietly been in the midst of one of the best runs of his career even as so much else has seemed to have fallen apart for the A's. With Oakland, Lester is 6-4 with a 2.35 ERA in 76 2/3 innings. Lester, the ace of last year's champion Red Sox, is playoff tested, and he will climb the hill for Tuesday's Wild-Card Game against the Royals. The A's went 2-5 against Kansas City this year, but both wins were delivered by Lester.
If the A's make it through Kansas City, they'll still have a genuine No. 1 to start Game 1 of the ALDS in Samardzija, who pitched to a 3.14 ERA in 111 2/3 innings with Oakland (his overall season record is surely the cruelest 7-13 ever recorded, as his ERA was 2.99). He'll likely be followed by Gray and Kazmir, both of whom were excellent in their final regular-season starts, at least. Kazmir allowed one run in seven innings against the Rangers on Friday. Gray shut out Texas in Sunday's postseason clincher.
Take a look at each of the rotations for all 10 playoff clubs, and it is difficult to contend that any of them, with the possible exception of Washington's, is superior to Oakland's.
Why They Won't: This one's easy. Since they traded Cespedes, the A's rank 22nd in the league in runs scored. Each of the nine other playoff teams ranks in the top 11. In the post-Cespedes period, two A's have an OPS in excess of .660, and none of them is among the top 62 in homers. That type of ineptitude, combined with some bad luck (Oakland was just 21-28 in one-run games this season and 5-11 over the last two months), led to a stat like this, tweeted out by a member of the club's own PR staff:
Still, the Athletics' lineup does maintain strong platoon potential, as well as a few players — like Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and the recently acquired Adam Dunn (who will make his playoff debut after 14 seasons and 2,001 regular-season games) — who can produce a big hit. If they want inspiration, all they have to do is peer across San Francisco Bay. It was only two years ago that the Giants entered the postseason with a club that ranked dead last in homers, with 103. Behind a deep and talented rotation, they won it all.