For the second year in a row, the A’s are going into the dog days of the season hoping their fans are OK with delayed gratification.
They’re meandering at 12 games under .500 and 14 1/2 out of first place, and they have signaled to the East Bay and beyond there will be no pretensions about making a run for the top.
It’s probably the right thing to do, them giving up on the season with 70 games left. They pretty much flushed 2016 coming out of the All-Star break by cutting back the hours of a couple of key veterans and giving increased playing time to the promising but unproven.
So far, you can’t really complain about the moves. The A’s over the weekend cooled off a Toronto Blue Jays team that went into the series having won eight of nine games and moved within a couple of lengths of the lead in the American League East. On Saturday, one of the showcased prospects made upper management look good when he put some hurt on a knuckleball for a three-run homer to help win a game. It was Ryon Healy’s first major-league hit.
Another guy who is getting an extended look is center fielder Jake Smolinski. He has pushed his average up around .300, and just as impressively, every time he walks to the plate, it is to his chosen tune of “Gimme Shelter.” The tasteful Smolinski, a baseball professional in his 10th season, has proven that if you stick around long enough, your chance for success is just a shot away.
We’ll have a better feel for what kind of long-term shot the A’s have for the future as we watch them crawl through late July, all of August and the droll of September, when most people in Oakland will forget about them and turn their attention to the Raiders.
Maybe the heavens will open, San Francisco Bay will part, Healy and Smolinski will turn their bats into snakes, and the A’s will climb back into contention. A safer bet would be on the A’s finishing the season along the lines of last year – 26 games under par and 20 games out of the money, with their fans’ hopes for a truly competitive team put on hold once more in the post-Money Ball era.
Whatever their strategy is now, they’re going to need a new title for the sequel. “Money Ball II” is out. How else to explain how their deal sure doesn’t look like it’s about money anymore, not when they could have kept Josh Donaldson under contract last year for the relative pittance of $4.3 million.
Bob Melvin fronts the Billy Beane regime from the manager’s bench, and it is his job to try and forge wins like he did over the weekend against Toronto. The instructions now call for him to do it while taking innings away from one of his best hitters, third baseman Danny Valencia, and giving them to Healy. You can’t argue that Billy Burns, with his .234 batting average and .270 on-base percentage, had to be banished to Nashville.
You could make a case, though, that Smolinski deserves a decent shot to take over for Burns in center field, over somebody like veteran Coco Crisp. The Rolling Stones guy is hitting about 60 points higher and knocking the ball out of the park about twice as often. Plus, he gives you more wins above replacement – the gold standard for the baseball analytics crowd – by a margin of 0.2 to a negative 0.3. If only we knew what it meant.
We do know why Melvin is being asked to look at new guys. It’s because the older ones were losing more than they won and the team was going nowhere.
“We put ourselves in this position as a team,” Melvin told reporters gathered around him Saturday. “There are times during the season where you know, especially in the second half of the season, you’re going to look at some other guys, and that cuts into some of your veterans’ playing time, unfortunately, and it’s tough for them, and it’s tough to manage that. But there’s a balance in having to look at some of your younger guys and seeing what you have going forward.”
Looking ahead to the July 31 trading deadline, you’d think some general managers around the league might take a wistful look at Crisp, who once stole 49 bases and hit .300 and popped 22 home runs, although never in the same season, and he’s not exactly burning the town down this year. Valencia puts on a great show in batting practice every day and does have 12 homers and an average up around .300; his 13 errors, however, tied for highest in the American League as of Sunday morning.
Most contenders mostly need arms, and the A’s put their two best starting pitchers on the runway Saturday and Sunday. Scouts from both leagues gathered in the back row of the Coliseum press box while Sonny Gray pitched Saturday and when Rich Hill took the hill Sunday, only to come off it after five pitches with a blister problem. Both names have been easy to find on the trade-rumor wire. On Saturday, Gray, who won his first game since April, said the talk hasn’t played on his mind.
“I’ve had enough going on myself to worry about anything on the outside,” he said after his six innings of work.
Everybody has a rough go every once in awhile. For Gray, it’s only a matter of when he regains the confidence that made him one of baseball’s top pitchers the last couple of years.
The real question is where he’s going to land, long term – and what the plan is for the A’s to become a contender again.