The Bee's Matt Kawahara raises five pressing questions about the A's as they return from the All-Star break:
1. Does the lineup have more in store?
Since looking like the Swingin' A's of last season for the first month, the offense has cooled some, ranking seventh in the American League in runs scored and ninth in OPS (on base plus slugging).
Where their 2012 run was fueled by the long ball, the A's have found other ways to piece together the offense despite a drop in production from some key contributors from 2012 - Yoenis Cespedes hit .292 a year ago, Josh Reddick led the team with 32 home runs, and Chris Young, an offseason addition, has not played a full season without hitting at least 20 homers. Melvin said he sees "a lot of things we can do better" offensively, including getting the running game going again. Even a semi-return to their April pace, when the A's led the league in runs, would take pressure off the pitching staff.
2. Will we see the return of Brett Anderson?
Anderson has been on the disabled list since May 1 because of a stress fracture in his right foot, the latest in a frustrating history of injuries for the 25-year-old left-hander.
Anderson recently got the OK to resume weight-bearing activities and has been able to maintain arm strength playing catch on one knee. There's no timetable for Anderson to start throwing off a mound, but he's made it clear he wants to repeat last season, when he returned from Tommy John surgery late in the second half and pitched well down the stretch. Dan Straily has filled in admirably for Anderson, going 5-0 in his last nine starts. Before going on the disabled list, Anderson was 1-4 with a 6.21 ERA, so when he comes back, it's uncertain what impact he might have.
3. How will the back end of the bullpen hold up?
The break came at a great time for the A's four bullpen stalwarts - Jerry Blevins, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and closer Grant Balfour, who was in New York this week for his first All-Star appearance. All four have made at least 40 appearances because of the A's proclivity for close games. Melvin has made a point of not using relievers more than three days in a row, trying to keep them fresh for the second half. The late-inning Cook-Doolittle-Balfour progression is a big reason the A's have been among the best teams at shortening games when their starter gets into the later innings with a lead. The A's have taken a lead into the seventh inning 45 times and have won 41 of those games.
4. Can these guys keep up the first-half pace?
Josh Donaldson, in his first full season as an everyday player, leads the A's in average (.310), OPS (.900) and RBIs (61) and is tied for the lead in homers (16). Bartolo Colon, in his age-40 season, is 12-3 with a 2.70 ERA and an All-Star for the first time since winning the Cy Young Award in 2005. Melvin admitted Donaldson has hit "at a level I don't think anybody expected," after beginning the season with a career .239 average. Colon has a track record, but he has thrown more than 150 innings just twice since 2005 and likely will eclipse that this year. Can both continue their first-half success over a full season?
5. Can they stay healthy?
After using the disabled list 21 times in 2012 and placing all four of their regular outfielders on the DL over the first two months of this season, the A's haven't lost a player to injury for a significant period of time since June 1.
The A's countered injuries last year by tapping their farm system, with many of those players becoming immediate contributors. It put the organizational depth on display - but it might be precarious to have to rely on that again.
Call The Bee's Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015. Read his Bay Area Baseball blog at blogs.sacbee.com/bay-area-baseball/. Follow him on Twitter @matthewkawahara.
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