1. Nick Punto is a bit of a Twins-lore legend in these parts. Illuminate the myriad ways in which he has already endeared himself to the fan base. We are expecting an endless list.
The season is young, so I will offer you a story instead. On Thursday
, I went to my first A's game of the season. Oakland was facing the Seattle Mariners
, and Seattle's starter was southpaw Roenis Elias. Not only was Elias making his Major League debut, but the 25-year-old had never appeared above Double-A. So naturally, he was no-hitting the A's into the fifth inning. But then, with two outs in the fifth, Nick Punto stepped in and lined a solid single to left to break up the no-no. Then, he stole second, just to rub it in.
But then, something amazing happened. If there is another player in baseball who can match Punto's legacy as a lore legend, it's Sam Fuld. That name doesn't even sound like a real person, but rather a literary character. And, lo and behold, Fuld himself was the next batter. (Obviously, Fuld had already stepped into the box before Punto stole second, but just go with my non-linear storyline here.)
Fuld ripped what should have been a single to center
. However, the center fielder, likely hypnotized or distracted in some way by Punto's grittiness, dove and missed it, allowing the ball to go to the wall. Punto scored easily, and Fuld came all the way around before being tagged out inches away from an inside-the-park home run. Bob Melvin called for replay review, not even to challenge it, but just because everyone wanted to admire the play for five minutes. It was one of the most exciting plays I've ever seen in person. And when it was done, Punto was so amped that he ran through the stands and high-fived every single spectator in the stadium, even the Mariners fans, and was back in the dugout within 45 seconds. Then he and Fuld high-fived and they exploded in a burst of pure baseball energy. Fin.
(Note: Punto later dove head-first into first base to "beat out" an infield single even though he was safe by three-to-five steps. Get money,)
2. Scott Kazmir was one of my early favorite targets for the Twins in free agency, but I know a couple of my fellow writers weren't as enamored with him as I was. What's your view of the fan consensus on his two-year, $22 million dollar deal with Oakland?
His reception has been entirely positive. Obviously, the optimism has been cautious due to his health history, but everyone on Athletics
Nation thinks he can be a quality pitcher in 2014. For my part, I see him as a sequel to the Bartolo Colon
experiment. In that case, the A's got a guy who had been hurt for awhile and missed an entire season before having a comeback campaign with a new team. Then, the A's signed him and he built on that comeback to become a high-quality pitcher. Kazmir missed a comparable amount of time to Colon and came back to have a season which was nearly identical to Colon's 2011 with the Yankees
That doesn't meant that I think Kazmir will reach the heights that Colon did in Oakland, partly because Bartolo was always a more talented pitcher to begin with. But Colon's example suggests to me that there could be further upside for Kazmir beyond the average-ish numbers he posted in his initial comeback year in Cleveland. If he hits that upside and settles in as above-average (say, 110 ERA+), he'll be a bargain at $11 million per year.
3. The A's traded spare parts for Jim Johnson, a reliever making $10 million this season, but allowed Grant Balfour to depart for a two-year contract on (what ended up being) a pretty decent two-year, $11 million deal from Tampa Bay. Timing is everything, but what happened there? Acquiring a $10 million dollar closer just seems so unMoneyball.
Honestly, I'm not really sure. When you look at just the numbers, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, because Johnson and Balfour are roughly equally skilled at preventing runs and are each good-but-not-elite as closers. Of course, Johnson's price tag got pumped up by the arbitration process's absurd valuation of saves, but I don't think Billy Beane was expecting Balfour to be had so cheaply. Normally Beane wouldn't pay so much for a closer, but he felt the rest of his roster was pretty well set and the bullpen was the only thing left to spend the rest of his money on -- may as well make it as good as possible. That meant overpaying to get the closer he wanted and adding Luke Gregerson
at a premium price. Now the bullpen is one of the best and deepest in the majors (Johnson's early struggles notwithstanding). And with Balfour gone, A's fans don't have to send their kids to bed after the eighth inning to protect their innocent ears from his angry verbal tirades.
4. There was some talk of a reunion with Tim Hudson and the A's. How realistic was that scenario, and would it have been a good idea at the time?
Realistic? Sure. The A's made him a competitive offer. But they were just one of many teams who did so, and he went somewhere else. Hudson is arguably my favorite Athletic of all time, and I would have had confidence in him despite his age and injury history. However, I'm just as happy, if not more, with Kazmir, and I think they were a one-or-the-other deal on Oakland's budget. Kazmir is eight years younger and isn't coming off of season-ending surgery in 2013; I believe he has the higher upside, whereas Hudson is more of a safe bet for slightly above-average performance at this stage in his career. (Wow, I just cited that one of Kazmir's strengths was health-related. That tells you something about my confidence in 38-year-old pitchers.)
5. Will the caterers for the post-game buffet need to adjust to the loss of Bartolo Colon?
Absolutely. I heard that half the catering staff was laid off (citation needed). However, two of the caterers who lots their jobs are staying on-call in case Joe Blanton
is ever called up.
6. I still think that Oakland's offense is under-rated, and I've actually taken some stick for drafting Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss for my fantasy baseball team. Can the offense be as productive as it needs to be to keep the A's atop the AL West?
The A's were fourth in the Majors last year in scoring, and they returned pretty much their entire lineup. They lost Seth Smith
, who is solid, but they also won't be giving at-bats to Chris Young
, who was awful (86 OPS+, negative-bWAR). Stretching back a bit further, they led the Majors in scoring after the break in 2012, when many of the current hitters were emerging (Moss, Cespedes, Donaldson, etc.).
The lineup has plenty of talent, and Bob Melvin knows how to deploy them all in situations which play to their strengths and gets the most out of them. Moss hit 30 homers last year and should do so again -- his power is real, although he strikes out a lot. Dondaldson might come down a bit from last year's breakout, but he's already hitting the ball hard this year and he's legit. Cespedes always scares A's fans because sometimes he gets out of whack and looks terrible, but he homered on Sunday
(to the opposite field) and he can catch fire at any moment. Jed Lowrie
provides a lot from the shortstop position and should have easily won the Silver Slugger last year over J.J. Hardy
(apparently as meaningless as a Gold Glove). One X-Factor is Josh Reddick
, as your guess is as good as mine as to whether or not he will bounce back and find the power he displayed in 2012. There are enough good hitters here that they don't all have to have big years for the lineup to be productive.
7. Billy Burns has some serious wheels and does quite a few things well, but he's 24 and starting the season in Double-A. Does he get a chance with the A's in September?
I think so, yes. Athletics Nation (myself included) was strangely excited when Burns was acquired, and immediately fell in love with him. Then he opened eyes in spring training, and now he's on the national radar as well. I think he'll be in Triple-A within a couple of months, and at that point will just be waiting for an opportunity in Oakland. If the A's manage to make the playoffs, Burns could be an interesting bench option as a game-changing pinch-runner. One thing he's still learning to do is hit left-handed (he's a recent convert to switch-hitting).
8. Yes or no (and then an explanation): do the A's regret the contract given to Coco Crisp and, if so, when?
No. He's only signed for two more guaranteed years, so the risk isn't great. And he's talented at every part of the game -- he has excellent plate discipline and makes lots of contact, he has surprising power, he has elite speed and baserunning, and he was once an elite defender who is still fantastic in the field. (His biggest downside is a noodle of a throwing arm, perhaps the weakest in baseball, and teams love to take advantage of that.) So, as a multi-dimensional player, even if he drops off in one or two areas he can still contribute in the others. He's also a massive fan favorite. Every signing is a risk, and Coco was one worth taking. If anything, he's been getting better with age.
Who hates Pat Neshek? I love that guy. I've always had a soft-spot for sidewinders, and he's a pretty good one. Plus, A's fans got a lot closer to him after the tragic loss of his newborn son in 2012; that kind of episode can really endear a player to a fanbase, especially when handled with as much grace and dignity as Pat handled it (and even more so when considering that he came back and pitched well in the ALDS immediately afterward, which took serious cojones). If anyone hates Pat Neshek then they can answer to me (and I'm a pretty big guy, so you don't want to have to do that).
10. Give us an early prediction that we can re-visit later: does Oakland make the playoffs this year?
Yes. It might be as a division winner, or it might be as a Wild Card, but the A's are playing at least one postseason game this fall.