Looking at the standings today, does anybody miss Eric Byrnes? What about Mark Mulder? Tim Hudson?
The 2005 Athletics have been three different teams (see THT‘s graphical standings). It was tough to predict how the A’s would do this season. Only one game away from the playoffs last year, GM Billy Beane traded away the two best pitchers in Oakland’s history (by winning percentage). I wasn’t too sad to see Mulder go, after watching his decay in the second half last year, but Hudson was my favorite player on the team, and thought he should be the guy to build a pitching staff around (certainly not Zito). However, I went into the season with a cautious optimism and a real interest in watching a team with a pitching staff under 27.
After one month, the A’s managed to hold a .500 record (12-12), but it felt like the team was walking a tightrope. Well, the rope broke in May. Injuries (Crosby, Harden, Dotel, Durazo, Swisher, Calero) mounted and losses followed. I gave up on this team. After the 7-5 loss to Boston on May 17, I took my frustrations out on Zito, “Barry Zito cannot be considered the ace of this staff. When the bullpen is worn out, the ace goes more than 5 innings. The ace doesn’t walk 7 guys and get pulled early. When an offense is struggling and manages to put up some runs, the ace takes over the game. Barry Zito is no ace.” After getting swept at Tampa Bay May 24-26, I said, “Who is this team going to beat? They do nothing right. Starting pitching, relief pitching, hitting, fielding, they’re not good at anything.” At the end of May, Ken Macha started talking about getting back to .500 by the All-Star break. I thought it was more likely that Ken Macha would be fired.
However, since that time, the Athletics have done almost nothing wrong. Injuries healed. The offense, most notably Eric Chavez, turned around. The starting pitching kept their pitch counts down, and under less stress, the bullpen became a strength also.
As usual, Beane has improved the roster mid-season. Injured reliever Chad Bradford was sent to the Red Sox for OF Jay Payton. The glut of outfielders was relieved by shipping fan-favorite Eric Byrnes (and minor leaguers) to Colorado for RPs Jay Witasick and Joe Kennedy. While not as flashy as deals in previous years (e.g. for Dotel, Durham, or Dye), these moves have worked beautifully. Witasick and Kennedy have dramatically deepened the bullpen, while Payton has been both an offensive spark and defensive insurance policy for CF Mark Kotsay, who’s missed time with back problems and the birth of his second child.
Of course in May, when the A’s seemed to always be on a 7-game losing streak, the trades of Hudson and Mulder looked foolish, but what about now? Haren has arguably out-pitched Mulder, especially recently, and Beane was able to also get the key RP Calero and hot prospect Daric Barton. The Hudson trade is not as rosy for sure, with none of the three players acquired on the major league roster. However, Thomas and Cruz have straightened themselves out at AAA Sacramento, and Meyer is now healthy. On the other side, Hudson has not been the dominating pitcher we knew in Oakland, still hampered by the oblique problems he battled here. So while it would be nice to have Hudson in the rotation instead of Saarloos, Beane may have cut bait at the right time and saved a huge chunk of change at the same time.
Looking at how well the A’s have played for the last 2+ months, now with the second best record in the AL, this team is Beane’s greatest accomplishment. For years, praise for Beane was always tempered by the presence of the “Big Three.” This year, Beane has completely reconstructed the pitching staff, coped with season ending injuries to Dotel and Durazo, and put together a team that’s poised to succeed for the next several years.
This week the A’s will be hosting the Angels to decide the leadership in the AL West. And I dont think anyone will be missing Eric Byrnes.