1. WILL AN INNINGS BUMP AFFECT THE ROTATION?
Scott Kazmir threw 158 innings last season after spending the previous year in independent ball. Jesse Chavez pitched 571/3 innings in 2013 as a long reliever. Sonny Gray combined for 1851/3 innings in Triple A and the majors, by far his most in a professional season.
All are on pace this season to approach or pass the 200-inning mark, something only Kazmir previously has done – and that was in 2007. Manager Bob Melvin already has taken advantage of a scheduling quirk to skip Gray in the rotation once, with an eye on the 24-year-old’s mounting workload.
The trio’s combined 28-12 record and 2.77 ERA is a major reason for the A’s first-half success. It will be interesting to see how closely Melvin manages their workloads during the second half – and if a close division race will allow for it.
2. WHAT DOES THE (OTHER) NEW GUY BRING?
The A’s got a clear front-line starter when they traded for Jeff Samardzija. The second pitcher acquired in the deal, right-hander Jason Hammel, is a lesser-known commodity.
Hammel was 6-5 with a 2.98 ERA with the Chicago Cubs before the trade but is 57-65 with a 4.62 ERA in his major-league career. He pointed out, though, that his ERA may be inflated because many of his home games were in hitter-friendly parks in Colorado and Baltimore, and that the move to the Coliseum likely plays in his favor.
The A’s have a proven major-league starter in Triple A in Tommy Milone, and they just optioned Drew Pomeranz to Sacramento as well. Should Hammel struggle, both left-handers are a 90-minute drive away.
3. ANY ALL-STAR AFTER-EFFECTS?
The A’s sent their largest contingent to the All-Star Game in nearly 40 years, including four position players after not having any since 2003. Players in recent years have seemed to thrive on the idea of the team’s success going overlooked, but the All-Star recognition suggests that’s no longer the case.
This doesn’t seem like a group prone to becoming complacent, nor is Melvin likely to let that happen. Still, a team accustomed to playing with a chip on its collective shoulder may be dealing with something of an identity change.
Melvin also voiced some concern over having two middle-of-the-order hitters –Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes – competing in the Home Run Derby, but more over the slight potential for injury than the effect on their swings.
4. IS JED LOWRIE IN LINE FOR A BIG SECOND HALF?
Lowrie was a key to the offense in 2013, batting .290 and often hitting third to protect Donaldson in the order. He got off to a good start in April but then hit a combined .187 in May and June with only 13 extra-base hits.
July has brought signs of a turnaround. Lowrie had multiple hits in six of his final nine games, raising his average by 22 points to .239. That included a handful of bloop hits, an indication that Lowrie’s hard luck in the first half – his average on balls in play is .267, well below his career mark of .291 – may be evening out.
The lineup typically has been deep enough to mask individual struggles. But if Lowrie – one of the few lineup regulars who is not part of a platoon – can regain his 2013 form, it would be a serious boost.
5. CAN THEY HOLD OFF THE ANGELS?
The A’s closed the first half with the majors’ best record for the 25th consecutive day, and they’ve held sole possession of first place in the West every day since April 28. But the Angels have prevented them from running away with the division, winning 19 of 23 games before the break, and trail the A’s by only 11/2 games to start the second half.
While Seattle also has put itself in position for a playoff run, the frontrunners to win the division – and avoid the one-game wild-card round – appear to be the California teams, who play 10 times over the season’s final two months. Six of those games are at the Coliseum, a slight advantage for the A’s, who have the second-best home record in the majors – trailing only the Angels.