After an outstanding first half, the Oakland A's come off of the All-Star break with 10 games against the Angels and Astros. The A's are a combined 14-1 against those two teams and will have a good opportunity to dampen the Halos' hopes of a second-half resurgence with seven games over the next two weeks.
Oakland's strong 2013 has been a function of a solid starting staff backed by an outstanding bullpen. Combined, A's pitchers have an American League-best 3.62 team ERA. But a deeper look into the metrics might say the A's have seen their fair share of luck and have taken advantage of pitching in one of the toughest hitters' park in baseball, per usual.
While the standard numbers have been very strong, the A's 4.30 xFIP at home is third-worst in the league, indicating how difficult it is to hit home runs in O.co Coliseum. Given the team's home venue isn't going to change as the season goes on, there's reason to believe these numbers will remain stable and the A's will continue to prevent teams from scoring runs a good rate.
But these numbers also offer caution. And to be sure, the front office has taken notice. That's why it's worth taking a deeper look into the pitching staff with the trade deadline approaching.
With Dan Straily's impending addition to the 25-man roster this week paired with Sonny Gray's ascendance before the break, the A's are on thin ice should anything happen to any of their starting pitchers. Jarrod Parker is receiving extra time off between starts after throwing just 93 pitches in his start against the Red Sox before the break. He missed a start after suffering a hamstring injury in late-June.
Bartolo Colon is having perhaps the best season of his career, but between his age and connection to the Biogenesis investigation, it's difficult to have complete confidence he'll remain one of the league's best starters for the remainder of the season.
On the flip side, Tommy Milone saw a reasonable drop in production in the first half and should be better in the second if his career numbers hold true. The same can be said for A.J. Griffin, who had bouts of inconsistency in the first half but has shown flashes of brilliance lately.
The point here: if Oakland considers itself a World Series contending team, it's unlikely to feel completely comfortable with its starting staff in it's current form. Sure, Brett Anderson could return with a fresh arm as he did last season, but his health is far from a guarantee. And if anything were to happen to the 40-year-old Colon, the team would be in major trouble. At Triple-A Sacramento, Bruce Billings, Andrew Werner, Arnold Leon and Travis Banwart haven't necessarily proven they are ready to be plugged into a major league rotation.
That makes Straily one of the most important A's players to watch going forward. If he throws well in his next few starts, it would be a boon for the front office that might not have to go out and get an established starter.
Gray is the wild card. If the A's feel good enough about their prized right-hander being effective in his first major league stint, then there might not be a need to add another starter at the trade deadline. But if they'd prefer to be conservative with him, adding an arm for depth remains in play.
Offensively, the A's are seventh in AL in runs without getting significant contibutions from Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick. Reddick has shown improvement since coming back from his wrist injury. His pitch recognition has improved drastically from his first season in Oakland and the indications are his power is due to return in the second half.
The A's are hoping Cespedes' impressive showing in the Home Run Derby can get him back on track at the plate. His strikeout rate is up a touch less than five percent from his rookie season while his walk rate remains the same. The contrast from last year is his .251 BABIP that's down drastically from his .326 rookie mark, which is likely to normalize somewhere in between. If that happens, it's reasonable to assume Cespedes can hit between .260 and .280 with double-digit homers the rest of the way if he continues to work on his approach at the plate.
If there were a position the A's could look to improve offensively, it would likely be second base, where only one home run has been hit leading to sub-replacement-level output. On-base numbers for the position are right around the league average, but an improvement in power production could go a long way toward adding depth to an already good lineup.
The A's could make a trade that would require parting with valuable prospects, or they could opt to see what Grant Green can do in the meantime. If the past is any indicator, their patience with Green might be thin if he continues to struggle defensively.
Oakland has played very well against the Angels, but the two clubs haven't met since early-May. The Halos have the typical look of an underachieving team ready to let its talent take over and make a run in the second half. Despite going 3-5 over their last eight games entering the break, the Angels clubbed 13 home runs. As always, their pitching will go a long way towards indicating if they can make a playoff run.
The A's will send Griffin (8-6, 3.68 ERA) in Friday's opener against ace Jered Weaver (3-5, 3.63 ERA). Earning wins in his last two starts, Griffin has allowed just two earned runs in 13 innings with a WHIP of exactly 1.00. With the All-Star break this week, A's manager Bob Melvin could have elected to throw any of his starters, but chose Griffin off of five days' rest over Colon, who would been throwing on regular rest. Colon will be throwing the last game of the series instead. Milone won't be pitching this series in order to get more than 10 days of rest since his last start.
Weaver is coming off a disappointing loss in Seattle where he yielded four runs in 5.2 innings in his fifth loss of the season. That outing came after allowing just two runs in his previous 20.2 frames. Weaver has typically been a worse pitcher in the second half of the season throughout his career, but he missed 46 games this first half with a fractured elbow on his left side and could be fresher than normal this time around.
In Saturday's second game of the series, the Angels will send C.J. Wilson (9-6, 3.37 ERA) against Straily (6-2, 4.28 ERA). Wilson has allowed just three earned runs over his last two starts and is looking to build on his 5-1 record over his last six. In that span, hitters have hit just .212/.277/.253 against him.
Straily will be rejoining the 25-man roster after throwing seven shutout innings of four-hit ball in his last outing with the River Cats on July 14. The 24-year-old is looking to stick in the major leagues as the club's fifth starter with the A's being 7-2 in the last nine games he's started. He's held hitters to a .196/.252/.299 slash line over that same span.
Sunday's series finale will have Colon (12-3, 2.70 ERA) go against Jerome Williams (5-5, 4.60 ERA). Colon didn't appear in the All-Star game after throwing in Sunday's game prior to the break. He's walked just 15 hitters in his 19 starts and has the third-best ERA in the AL. The right-hander has thrown more sliders and changeups this season than last, but he's still relying on fastball nearly 85 percent of the time.
Williams hasn't lasted past the fourth inning in his last three starts, where he has a 19.13 ERA and 1280 opponents OPS. The Angels don't have much starting pitching depth at the top of their organization, otherwise Williams might have been replaced in the starting rotation at this point. Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas remained shelved with injuries.