The Pirates (53-34) own baseball's best record along with the Cardinals, a team the Athletics took two of three from more than a week ago in Oakland. The Pirates could have baseball's best pitching staff and lead the majors in ERA (3.16) and opponents OPS (651).
But on to Grant Green who will be making his long awaited major league debut after getting drafted 13th overall in 2009. Much has been made of his constant shifts of position during his minor league career. Drafted as a shortstop, he moved to center field mid-way through 2010 with Double-A Midland before shuffling all over the outfield with Sacramento in 2011.
Coming into spring training this year, he was moved back to the infield to compete for time at second base after the previously "untouchable" Jemile Weeks came back to earth in his sophomore season.
The organization spun Green's ever-changing defensive assignment as an ode to versatility. But reality more closely resembles a scramble to find his bat a position that could help most at the major league level. Once it was determined Green couldn't play a big league shortstop, he was moved to the outfield. And when Oakland loaded up on future cornerstones in Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick in the offseason leading up to 2012, they moved him to second base giving him an unblocked path to the major leagues.
Green's transition to second base was rough at the start. He admitted to struggling with short throws in the early going because he was used to making only long throws as an outfielder. But as he received more reps throughout the season, he improved drastically and his defensive actions led the A's to believing he wouldn't be the defensive liability he once was.
Offensively, Green has grown as a hitter in all the right ways. He was drafted with a swing quick swing that led to hard contact. After a gaudy first full season with High-A Stockton (.318/.363/.520 with 20 homers, 39 doubles and 87 RBI), it was clear his hit tool was exactly what Oakland was looking for. But his approach needed work if he was going to get on base enough to be a contributor in the major leagues.
In his first full season with the River Cats last year, Green reached at a .338 clip while hitting 15 home runs, proving his power was still improving after hitting just nine in 2011 with Midland (the Texas League is notoriously tough on hitters for a multitude of reasons). But his on-base numbers simply weren't satisfactory for the type of hitter the A's needed him to be.
In his second go around this season, he lifted his on-base clip to .374 but not because he was drawing significantly more walks, he was actually hitting more. His .367 BABIP might be a Pacific Coast League byproduct, but there's also evidence that shows he's a good enough hitter to disprove the idea of it being a fluke. His walk rate improved to just seven percent from 5.9 percent.
How Green is used remains to be seen. He clearly thrived as Sacramento's every-day second baseman. Platooning would be a major adjustment because he's never done it before.
Green hit well enough against right-handed pitching (.306/.362/.484) to be given a shot as an every day player, which would allow Eric Sogard to become the team's primary utility guy (more on that soon). Green's success against lefties is also worth mentioning. He slashed .366/.423/.563 against them this season with Sacramento, assuring him Nate Freiman status, at the very least.
The move to promote Green is somewhat of a surprise because of his lack of experience at second base. But the timing makes sense considering the type of June he had the plate. For the month, Green hit .372/.411/.1055 with 18 extra-base hits after combining for 19 in April and May. It's clear the A's wanted to promote Green while he was still ascending, much like Weeks in his rookie year.
The other side of Green's promotion comes at the expense of Adam Rosales, who was designated for assignment to make room. Rosales had a 603 OPS in platoon role at shortstop and was always an organizational favorite because of the way he played the game and his effervescent clubhouse presence. But after sample of 147 plate appearances since coming off his injury in spring training – combined with his sixth-inning error in Saturday's loss to the Royals – the Athletics decided he would be on the outs with Green's promotion.
On the surface, there's no argument against Rosales' designation. But with an off day coming up later this week and the All-Star break looming next week, the A's wouldn't have necessarily needed A.J. Griffin until July 22 at the earliest. That means they could have freed up a roster spot by optioning Griffin to Sacramento to give themselves versatility while playing in the National League park. And with Rosales gone, Sogard becomes the only option at shortstop aside from Jed Lowrie.
On the other hand, as much as the team liked Rosales, moving him out of the picture clears room for Hiro Nakajima, who continues to improve in Sacramento. And Andy Parrino remains on the 40-man roster and becomes the best defensive option the team has at shortstop, should he be needed.
Back to the series against the Pirates, Monday night's game will feature a pair of All-Stars when Bartolo Colon (11-3, 2.78 ERA) takes on Pittsburgh's lefty Jeff Locke (8-1, 2.12). Colon is coming off his first loss since early-May after allowing two runs over seven innings to the Cubs, while the offense could only muster a run against Matt Garza.
Colon is on track on pitch next Sunday against Boston making it doubtful he will participate in the All-Star game. That means there's a reasonable chance closer Grant Balfour gets the nod to replace him after saving all 22 of his opportunities to date.
Locke is off to an incredible start to his first full season in the big leagues with a 1.15 WHIP despite allowing nearly four walks per nine innings. That means the southpaw is incredibly difficult to hit despite a modest 1.57 K:BB ratio. Lock averages just over 90 MPH on his fastball while throwing it 67 percent of the time. His other two offerings are a curveball and change up. He hasn't lost a decision since his first start of the season April 7.
Tuesday night's contest will feature former No. 1-overall pick Gerrit Cole (4-1, 3.94) and Dan Straily (5-2, 4.52). In his last start, Cole received his first loss after getting wins his first four major league outings. He allowed three runs in 5.1 innings against the Phillies.
Cole features an explosive fastball that comes in at a low, three-quarters angle. He's a prototypical hard-thrower with ace potential, although his strikeout numbers haven't resembled that in the early going of his major league career. He's walked just five in 29.2 frames so far leading to a solid 3.20 K:BB rate.
Straily will look to backup his outstanding start against the Cubs in place of Jarrod Parker when he threw seven innings of one-hit ball. It was a much-needed outing for the right-hander after he was temporarily demoted to Sacramento after struggling in his previous two outings.
With Sonny Gray in a holding pattern for now, the A's might be looking to find him a start sooner rather than later. Another good showing for Straily could go a long way to assuring he won't be the odd arm out in that case, especially going against one of the best teams in baseball.
The series wraps up Thursday when Tommy Milone (8-7, 4.11) goes against Francisco Liriano (8-3, 2.20). Milone is coming off one of his best starts on the road all season after allowing three runs in eight innings in Kansas City. He had a shutout going until the ninth inning when he allowed all three of his runs before Balfour came in to get the save.
Liriano is having a resurgent season with his new team. He struck out 15 A's last year in a loss for the Twins before getting traded to the White Sox. He threw again for Chicago just weeks later and allowed six earned runs to Oakland in 3.1 innings.