Things have become warm and fuzzy in Oakland, and rightfully so.
The Oakland A's have won 14 of 16 games this month, highlighted by a 5-1 stretch to open the second half of the season that included a four-game sweep of the New York Yankees, the owners of baseball's best record.
But what has drawn so much attention has been the way the A's have done it. In their last 11 games, six have finished with the team celebrating in walk-off style giving Oakland the most last at-bat victories in baseball. Now, the A's head to Toronto tied for a Wild Card berth. Considering the lack of preseason expectations thanks to roster turnover and the typical tight budget-way of doing things, the A's have become the surprise team in baseball.
Surely for the most romantic of A's fans, this team conjures memories of the playoff squads from a decade ago that repeatedly made their second half runs right into the postseason. The approaching trade deadline becomes more fascinating by the day with the possibility of both buying and selling to upgrade a lineup that typically struggles, and deal some moveable pieces with an eye toward the future.
The rumor du jour involves Miami Marlins infielder Hanley Ramirez, who just might be on the trading block. Formerly one of baseball's best offensive weapons, Ramirez has struggled over the past two seasons that have a seen a pretty sizeable drop off in numbers. From 2006-2010, he managed a 906 OPS and 136 OPS+ while averaging 25 home runs and 39 stolen bases per season as Florida's shortstop.
Since the start of 2011, his numbers have fallen to a far more pedestrian line of .245/.328/.405, averaging just 12 homers and 17 stolen bags. He has drawn the ire of Miami skipper Ozzie Guillen recently for injuring his hand reportedly after hitting a metal fan in frustration and not taking the proper medicine. He did not go on the disabled list, and should return at some point this week.
But then there's the issue with his glove. Ramirez has always been recognized as an outstanding athlete but it never translated into great range in the field. Only once in his seven-year career has he finished a season with a positive UZR and his defensive metrics indicate that he's a far below-average defensive player at both third base and shortstop.
The A's have an obvious need to upgrade offensively on the left side of the infield, but A's general manager Billy Beane has never appeared willing to make such a defensive sacrifice in the infield to make an upgrade offensively. With Brandon Inge and Cliff Pennington (although currently on the 15-day DL with elbow tendinitis) having solid seasons defensively, the A's will be weighing the pros and cons of adding a potential defensive liability to a team so heavily predicated on run prevention.
Then there's issue of what to give up and his contract status. Ramirez would not come cheap in either respect. The Marlins would likely garner a package of multiple high-level prospects that could be too rich for Oakland's blood considering the team has emphasized rebuilding through the minor leagues over the last few seasons. And Ramirez will be owed $15 million this year, $15.5 million for 2013 and $16 million the following season, making him far and away the team's most expensive player.
Would a change of scenery suddenly turn Ramirez back into one of baseball's most elite talents? Perhaps. But given it has been two seasons since he's had that level of production, it's a risk the usually frugal A's might not be willing to take.
The last time the A's traded for an elite player was before the 2009 season when they acquired Matt Holliday for Carlos Gonzalez, Huston Street and Greg Smith. It was a boom-or-bust deal for Oakland that ultimately fizzled out with the team failing to stay in contention. Eventually the A's moved Holliday at the trade deadline to St. Louis after he struggled in his first go in the American League. Shane Peterson is the remaining player from that deal leaving many to believe that series of trades set the A's back in a major way.
A move for Ramirez would likely cost a similar set of prospects and could include players such as Dan Straily, Michael Choice (although out for the year with a broken hand), Sonny Gray or possibly a pitcher or two currently on the 25-man roster.
Meanwhile, the A's head to Toronto three games ahead of the Blue Jays in the Wild Card race. Sitting in third place in the vaunted AL East, Toronto is a game ahead of the Red Sox after sweeping them over the weekend. The Jays battered Boston's pitching by scoring six, seven and 15 runs in each game of the series.
The Blue Jays are the fifth-best slugging team in baseball (.435), leading to the eighth-highest OPS (756) despite being in the middle-of-the-pack when it comes to reaching base. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion have combined for 53 home runs on the season and are two of the club's five players with double-digit long balls on the season.
The Jays' pitching staff hasn't been quite as effective, and is currently at the bottom of the league in just about every major category.
A's manager Bob Melvin will send Travis Blackley (2-2, 2.86) to the hill against Brett Ceil (2-2, 6.34). Blackley continues to be an interesting story for the A's after the club picked him up off of waivers from San Francisco as a reliever earlier in the season before plugging him into the starting rotation after a few weeks with the club.
Having only made one start since July 1, the Australian left-hander threw relatively well in July 24's victory over the Rangers. He went 5.1 innings, allowed three runs on six hits. He's never made a start against the Toronto and only Omar Vizuqel and Encarnacion have faced him before.
Cecil will only be making his sixth start of the season and he has struggled so far, allowing 37 hits in 32.2 innings. In his last 21.2 frames, the lefty yielded 20 earned runs, lifting his ERA from 2.45 to 6.34. He doesn't throw particularly hard, but mixes his four pitches well. His curveball is his most prominent secondary pitch that he throws more than a quarter of the time.
Cecil has thrown well against Oakland over his career, holding hitters to just a .184 average in four career starts.
In the second game of the series, the Blue Jays will trot out left-hander Ricky Romero (8-6, 5.22), who has lost his last five starts. In that span, his ERA is 8.33 and he's stranded a miserable 59 percent of base runners. In his 15 previous starts, he was 8-1 with a 4.34 ERA.
Romero last pitched against the A's back on May 8, when he allowed two runs in six innings, but walked five.
The A's will send A.J. Griffin to the mound against Romero. Griffin is another surprise story coming out of the A's starting pitching staff. After the starting the season with Double-A Midland, Griffin has pitched well since joining Oakland on June 24.
There's the question of whether or not Griffin's success can be sustainable, however. His 2.70 ERA is impressive for such an inexperienced rookie who doesn't have outstanding stuff to rely on. But his 4.07 FIP and .227 BABIP indicate that his success could be reliant on luck and circumstance. For now, the A's have to like what they have seen out of their young right-hander. After all, he's given the A's a quality start in each of his five outings and has been effective against the Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
For Thursday's getaway game, Oakland's Tom Milone (9-6, 3.34) will toe the rubber opposing Aaron Laffey (2-1, 2.77). Milone is coming off an outstanding outing at home against New York when he shut out the Yankees for seven innings while setting a new career-high with 10 strikeouts.
The strike-throwing left-hander hasn't allowed more than two runs in any start since June 13 in Colorado and is starting to feel more comfortable on the road. In his last three outings away from the Coliseum, Milone has allowed three earned runs in 18 innings. With a 12:37 P.M. local start time, Milone's body will have to overcome a rare morning start time of 9:37 A.M. in California that could throw off his usual preparation.
Laffey has only made five starts this season after making his first four appearances out of the bullpen. He started the season with Triple-A Las Vegas where he went 3-5 with a 4.52 ERA in 11 starts, allowing 77 hits in 63.2 innings. He has good numbers in his career against the A's, owning a 1.84 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in 14.2 frames. Five of those appearances came in relief with one start.