When ESPN’s hype machine polled 49 of their most astute “baseball” people before the season began, a poll designed to elicit which team would win the World Series, a whopping 18 chose the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim — the most of any team in baseball, by far. The Rangers were one of the other top choices, but dwarfed in comparison to the Halos with just 8 votes. I couldn’t find the original data, but I don’t believe I need to in assuming that none of the 49 panelists predicted Oakland would win it all. In fact, I would wager my first unborn child that they didn’t get a single vote from anyone to even be included in the playoff field. And, to be objective, I’d have to say that was a pretty rational exclusion.
Oakland finished last season 74-88, a svelte 22 games behind the AL West Champion Rangers. In the offseason they traded arguably their two most precious pitching talents, Trevor Cahill (to Arizona) and Gio Gonzalez (to Washington), and by all accounts reaped impressive prospect packages in return. Guys like Jarrod Parker (RHP) and Derek Norris (C), who are on their current 25-man roster, and upper-tier talents like Collin Cowgill (OF) and Brad Peacock (RHP), currently in AAA, are some of those. Other than the international signing of Yoenis Cespedes (who looks like a future star), the most underrated move was their dealing of closer Andrew Bailey to the Red Sox, who, among others, netted them their best player this season, Josh Reddick (4.3 fWAR).
Despite these dealings, the direction of the franchise seemed more geared for 2013 and beyond than legitimate, tangible 2012 success. On paper, the A’s appeared like they’d be in a dead chase with Seattle for the worst record in the division, and, if they were lucky, avoiding the worst overall record in the American League. But, as Kenny Mayne used to say, games aren’t played on paper, they’re played inside little television screens.
On June 1st, the A’s found themselves at 22-30, a full 9 games behind the Rangers. And this morning, as it stands, the A’s are within 4 games of the division lead.
They sport one of the league’s worst offenses, standing 21st in runs (4.15/game), 29th in batting average (.234), and 26th in on-base percentage (.307). Their pitching, on the other hand, has been elite compared to league average. They are 3rd in ERA (3.45), 4th in WHIP (1.22), and 5th in batting average against (.243). One parallel they have with the other main American League surprise, Baltimore, is an abundance of victories in walk-off fashion or of the one-run variety, meaning a great deal of luck can be attributed to their success on the season.
But all that aside, the main focus is: What kind of impact does this have on the Rangers? I think all of us expected a two-horse race featuring our pseudo-rivals from Anaheim, who top-to-bottom possess much more talent than Oakland but have greatly underachieved, and, from a more realistic standpoint, were probably overrated to begin with, given their light spread of talent at most positions excluding Mike Trout in center field, Albert Pujols at 1st base, and the top of their rotation. Oakland has one of the strongest pitching staffs in all of baseball, highlighting opportune individual performances from their offense on any given day.
Do I expect Oakland to survive another month this close in the standings? No. However, whether it be the luck dragons being on their side or just a miraculous run of baseball, I’m glad they aren’t as far back in the division race as the Angels, for it doesn’t allow the Rangers to play a lackadaisical brand of baseball down the stretch. It’s evident that Oakland is playing above their heads, but that doesn’t dismiss the reality they’ve placed the Rangers in, being just four games ahead of them in the West.
The West will be won in September, where teams play against their divisional foes more than anyone else, and, starting for the Rangers on September 14th, exclusively against their own division. I’ve outlined the improbability of Oakland actually overtaking Texas, as the odds are pretty slim, but if baseball taught us anything last year it’s that no lead is truly safe until the postseason commences. We can expect the division lead to stretch out from now until the end of September, but if it doesn’t, we can’t say we didn’t see Oakland creeping up on us.
Am I scared of Oakland? Again, that’s a no. But they certainly have my attention.