Upstart Royals Are The A's Next Challenge

After suffering a tough series loss to the Texas Rangers, the Oakland A's will look to earn a series win against the upstart Kansas City Royals. Chris Biderman previews the series.

When the Oakland A's came home from their three-city road trip and beat the division-leading Texas Rangers on Monday, it seemed like the type of victory that could spark a turnaround from their recent struggling. Unfortunately, the A's were unable to back up that strong performance and went on to lose two straight to Texas, leaving the team licking its wounds with Kansas City coming to Oakland for a weekend series.

After winning three-consecutive games April 26-28, the A's had a 16-12 record. Oakland since then has lost 10 of 14, leaving April's hot start a remote memory. A variety of obstacles have come to the forefront – including injuries to key players – putting the A's a season-high seven games behind Texas for the division lead.

Two of the team's four injured players are on the mend, including Coco Crisp who returned from his hamstring injury on Wednesday. Chris Young, who was added for depth in case of injury in the offseason, sustained a quad injury in April 29's 19-inning win, which has become the season's most landmark affair less than two months into the new year.

Young began his rehab assignment with Triple-A Sacramento on Thursday and could be back to face the Royals at some point over the weekend. Other injury news from earlier this week arose about Brett Anderson, who reportedly hasn't been given a timetable due to his continued ankle issues. According to reports, Anderson doesn't have any problem with the ankle while pitching, but fielding his position remains a concern.

Considering Anderson's litany of injury problems so far in 2013, the A's have decided he is best served taking all the time he needs to be completely healthy. With the way the A's starting pitching has struggled so far, Oakland will be counting on Anderson to come back and be the stopper they envisioned if they have any hopes of a return trip to the postseason.

Oakland's offense has done more than it's fair share, scoring the second-most runs in baseball, amassing a .242/.329/.395 team-wide slash line while continuing to lead in walk rate. Meanwhile, the starting pitching has a 5.09 ERA, fifth-worst in the league. The defense hasn't been good either. The A's are second worst in baseball in defensive runs saved at -29, 17 runs behind the Cardinals who are one spot ahead. Only the Angels have been worse at -30.

With a 42-game sample size, it's clear the A's are having somewhat of an identity crisis. Outstanding pitching held the team together for the first half of 2012, but now it's the young arms that will have to step up if the club wants to be a contender.

The Royals (20-17) come to Oakland with a high-average offense that doesn't get on base at a great clip, leading to a 714 team OPS, good for 19th in baseball. Kansas City is scoring 4.49 runs per game despite getting hits at the second-best rate in the big leagues.

The Royals have received great seasons from three of its top starting pitchers so far, James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and Ervin Santana, who all have ERAs below 3.00 in their combined 23 starts. The A's will face two of those starters in this series.

Friday night's first game will have Jarrod Parker (2-5, 6.86 ERA) take on Shields (2-3, 4.48 ERA). Parker struggled with an 8.10 ERA in his first five starts and has seen slight improvement in his three starts since. In 17.1 innings, Parker has given up just 16 hits. But he's also allowed nine walks and five homers, which has led to an 866 OPS and 5.19 ERA in that span.

With Anderson's absence being prolonged, the A's will need Parker to step up and become a much-needed leader of the staff. He admitted to a neck strain that hampered him in the early going, and is looking to make his third quality start in his last four outings.

Shields and Wade Davis came to the Royals in one of the biggest trades in the offseason that sent one of baseball's top-hitting prospects, Wil Myers, to Tampa Bay. The Rays also received Mike Montgomery, Patrick Leonard and Jake Odorizzi. They later sent Elliot Johnson to Kansas City to complete the trade.

The Royals hope the Shields' trade is a culture changer for the franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 1985. So far, the team has played well and is just 1.5 games back of first-place Detroit in the AL Central. Shields has been outstanding over his last three starts, allowing opponents a .163/.230/.275 slash line with a 1.57 ERA in 23 innings. In 12 career starts against the A's, the right-hander is 5-3 with a 4.08 ERA. But he's 2-2 with a 4.99 mark in Oakland.

Saturday's game will have familiar foe Santana (3-2, 2.79 ERA) take on lefty Tommy Milone (3-5, 3.71 ERA). The 30-year-old Santana was another acquisition via trade for the Royals, acquiring him from the Angels with cash for lefty prospect Brandon Sisk.

So far, Santana has had the best groundball rate of his career with his new team. He has also improved his command dramatically, cutting his walks significantly to just over one per nine innings. Santana was an albatross with the Angels, struggling with consistency and not living up to his high ceiling. Dating back to 2005, Santana has thrown very well against the A's, going 14-5 with a 2.03 ERA, allowing just 140 hits in 164.1 innings.

Milone is hoping to take advantage of the Royals' disparity against left-handed starters. Kansas City has a 593 OPS against southpaw starters (compared to a 764 mark against righties), and hit just five of their 26 homers against them.

The left-hander struggled in his last start in Seattle, yielding five runs on six hits in five innings, including a three-run homer to Kendrys Morales in the first inning. Milone has struggled in the first inning in 2013, allowing a 1015 OPS and 7.88 ERA in the first frame.

Sunday's series finale will have A.J. Griffin (4-3, 3.48 ERA) face off against Luis Mendoza (1-2, 6.00 ERA). Griffin has become the A's best starter in terms of numbers and has put together three-straight quality starts where he's allowed just four earned runs in 20.2 innings (1.74 ERA). His latest start might be his best to date, striking out eight Rangers in seven innings, allowing just one run.

Mendoza has allowed three runs in six innings in each of his last two starts. The 29-year-old is getting ground balls at a two-to-one rate over flyballs while relying heavily on his fastball and curve. Command has been an issue, walking nearly four hitters per nine innings.

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