Cespedes, A's Square-Off With Halos

It was a long 15 days for the Oakland A's without their top offensive star, OF Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes returned to Oakland on Sunday and made his presence felt immediately with a game-tying homerun in the 9th inning of an eventual 9-8 A's win. Will Cespedes' return spark the A's on another winning streak, or will their recent struggles continue? Chris Biderman previews the A's/Angels series.

The State of the A's

In danger of losing their ninth game in 10 days, the Oakland A's were able to pull out an extra-inning win the series finale against Baltimore on Sunday. The A's avoided the dreaded four-game sweep on the their home field, thanks to a game-tying, ninth-inning home run from Yoenis Cespedes, who came off the disabled list earlier that day.

The records would indicate Cespedes is the most important player on the A's roster, which is certainly a fair thought. Since the start of last season, the team is 91-48 with him in the lineup and 17-32 when he's absent.

But adding Cespedes doesn't address the A's starting pitching woes, as A's starters have struggled significantly in the early going this season. Oakland comes into this week's series against the Angels with a starter's ERA of 4.96. Most disconcerting is state of the top of the A's rotation. Number one starter Brett Anderson and number two starter Jarrod Parker have combined for a 7.66 ERA.

Anderson has struggled with a myriad of injuries this April and will skip his schedule start on Monday to rest a sore ankle on his landing leg. Anderson's missed start will make way for the return of Dan Straily. Parker is set to go Tuesday. How the A's rotation looks after this series will hinge greatly on the results of these next two starts.

If Straily and Parker both pitch well, there is a chance the A's could try a six-man starting rotation going forward. If Parker struggles again, he could be in line to work out his command issues back in Triple-A Sacramento with Straily taking his place in the rotation. All this speculation assumes that Anderson will not go on the disabled list because of his ankle injury. He is currently expected only to miss the one start.

Straily has replaced reliever Jesse Chavez on the A's 25-man roster, leaving the A's bullpen one arm short in the process.

Through the season's first month, the A's are scoring nearly a run more per game than they did in 2012. But they are allowing almost a run more this year. There would be less concern if the team had an established pitching staff, but with five core pitchers on the staff in their second big league seasons, there's the obvious fear of regression caused by fatigue.

Sophomore slumps happen for a number of reasons, but Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin and Straily all registered career highs in innings-pitched last season. Consequently, the A's might be wise to go with a six-man rotation to allow players an extra day of rest between starts.

Third baseman Josh Donaldson was named the American League player of the week on Monday and he has been red-hot over his last seven games (.545/.633/.864 with seven doubles and seven walks). In 2012, it took Donaldson 44 games to get his first seven walks. In 2013, he already has 12 walks. He will never be cheated at the plate and almost always takes big swings, but Donaldson's progression as a hitter has been dramatic in the early going. The former catcher is the team's leader in RBI and continues to be an above-average third baseman defensively.

The State of the Angels

The Angels come into the series having lost four-of-five, including three games to Seattle in a four-game set.

Early on, Los Angeles has been a team that hits well, but doesn't get on base well enough. The star-studded lineup hasn't been good with runners in scoring position, hitting .220/.293/.328 in those situations, driving in just 67 runs in 218 opportunities.

In his first April in the big leagues, Mike Trout has been pedestrian by his standards, hitting .263/.330/.424 with just four stolen bases in his first 24 games. Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols have also gotten off to slow starts, posting OPSs of 590 and 709, respectively.

The pitching staff hasn't been great either. Angels' hurlers are 29th in baseball with a 4.72 ERA (and a virtually identical 4.72 FIP). The team's re-worked starting rotation hasn't been the answer to last year's struggles. Newcomers Jason Vargas, Joe Blaton and Tommy Hanson have combined to allow 45 runs in 73.1 innings (5.52 ERA).

The Series Match-ups

Straily (1-0, 2.70 ERA) takes on Hanson (2-1, 4.24 ERA) in the series opener on Monday. Straily is coming off an impressive stint with Triple-A Sacramento. In three starts for the River Cats, he allowed just two earned runs in 18.2 innings with 20 strikeouts. Straily is hoping to keep his strong run going and will have to avoid the home run, unlike last year, if he wants a chance to stick in the rotation going forward.

Hanson hasn't thrown since April 19, when he shutout Detroit for six innings. He's coming off the bereavement list after a death in the family. The A's missed Hanson in their three-game sweep of the Angels in Anaheim early this month. Hanson's yearly drop in velocity has been well documented, but he's also seen an increase each year in line drive percentage and an increase in ground-ball rate.

Tuesday's second game will feature Garrett Richards (1-1, 3.65 ERA) and Parker (0-4, 8.10 ERA). Richards moved from the bullpen to the rotation to replace Jered Weaver, who is on the DL with an injured left arm. Richards has thrown well in his three starts, allowing nine runs in 20.1 innings, with posting a .197/.250/.310 slashline. Richards throws two pitches and has averaged 95 miles-per-hour on his fastball this year.

Parker will be hoping to regain his command after allowing six runs to Baltimore in his last outing. He has only made it past the sixth inning once in his five starts and could be looking at a demotion should he not show signs of improvement.

Parker's biggest problem has been fastball command, especially late in the count. Often he has left fastballs up in the zone, leading to 37 hits allowed in 23.1 innings.

Wednesday's finale will feature Milone (3-2, 3.38 ERA) against fellow-lefty C.J. Wilson (2-0, 4.30 ERA). Milone has been one of Oakland's two most consistent starters in 2013 and he is coming off a tough loss to the Orioles during which he didn't allow an earned run.

The lefty's home and road splits from last season have rolled over into this April. Milone has allowed a 596 OPS in Oakland and an 884 OPS elsewhere.

Wilson has been one of the Angels' most consistent starters, but he's allowed less than three runs in a start only once, which is telling of the team's struggles on the hill. He earned his second win of the season in his last start, despite allowing three runs in 5.1 innings to the Mariners.

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