Cespedes, Balfour bring momentum home from All-Star game
Whichever direction the A's turn in terms of tweaking their roster will speak volumes about where the front office believes the team is headed. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
Forget for a moment that the A's are coming out of the All-Star break with a winning record for the first time since 2008. Rather, let this soak in -- for the first time since 1990, the A's are in first place by themselves at the break. And at 56-39, they hold a two-game lead over Texas in the American League West.
Yes, these are heady times indeed for the A's, who were represented at the Midsummer Classic's festivities this week in New York by Yoenis Cespedes putting on an epic show to win the Home Run Derby, Grant Balfour throwing a scoreless inning and Bartolo Colon on hand to smile through it all from the dugout.
There have been sidebars galore through the A's first 95 games. But there will be many more in the second half. Following, then, are five A's storylines to watch after the break...
1) How the A's react to being the hunted, rather than the hunter
Obviously, it's been a while since the A's could be perceived as buyers, rather than sellers, at the non-waiver trade deadline. Being in first place with a team as cohesive as it is, though, brings its own set of issues. It's been 23 years since the A's have really been in this position, the first time since Billy Beane became general manager in 1997. So how do he and the entire organization react to being the hunted rather then the hunter for the first time, really? Do they look to make a splash at the deadline -- Cliff Lee, anyone? Chase Utley, perhaps? Or do the A's think the answer to what minimal subjects ail them reside in the minor leagues? Right-hander Sonny Gray has already been called up. So has infielder Grant Green. Then there's the likes of outfielder Michael Choice, and infielders Hiro Nakajima and Jemile Weeks at triple-A Sacramento, though Weeks could be trade bait for an established big leaguer. Whichever direction the A's turn, in terms of tweaking their roster, will speak volumes about where the front office believes the team is headed.
2) Can Cespedes' HR Derby crown serve as a springboard?
Yoenis Cespedes blowing the doors of the competition at the Home Run Derby Monday night served as his national coming out party. The 32 total homers he hit on the biggest stage of his big league career showed the rest of America what those of us who watch his batting practice sessions see on the regular. And no, he does not think participating in the derby will negatively affect his output in the second half. Because while his numbers have dipped from last season -- he batted .292 with 23 home runs and 82 RBI in 129 games last year, compared to his current line of .225, 15 homers and 43 RBI in 79 games -- he is not worried. In fact, even Melvin agreed that Cespedes participating and doing well in the derby could serve as a springboard. "I played nine seasons in Cuba," Cespedes said. "And the first halves were always poor. The second halves were always my better ones. So I'm not really worried, because I believe that will happen again."
3) Will the injury bug stay away?
From 2007 through 2012, the A's used the disabled list an average of 20.5 times per season, including 21 times last season. And last year, those 21 players missed a combined 1,072 games, an average of 51 games per player. It was the third time ever Oakland lost at least 1,000 games to the D.L., along with 2010 (1,397) and 2007 (1,259). This year? The A's have only used the D.L. nine times thus far, losing a combined 385 games to it. The injury bug that wreaked so much havoc in previous years has been seemingly tamed. Sure, regulars Cespedes, Crisp and Reddick and all had stints on the D.L., but they've made it back. Brett Anderson should be on his way in the second half. If the A's are able to stem the recent tide of losing players and games to injury, their chances at a second consecutive trip to the postseason for the first time since 2000-2003 will be as healthy as their injury report.
4) Is Bartolo Colon for real?
No doubt he's been the A's best starter -- a 12-3 record with a 2.70 ERA and an All-Star bid will testify to that. And he's a clubhouse cutup who keeps things loose with his unique brand of humor. But the right-hander is 40, after all, so you wonder if Father Time is due to collect on his next pitch. Then again, Bud Selig might come calling first. Colon, you'll recall, has already been popped for failing a drug test. He served a 50-game suspension last year and was still re-signed by the A's. Now that he's having his best season since his Cy Young campaign of 2005, there are suspicions. Especially with his name linked to the Biogenesis scandal and reportedly on the hook for another suspension. Is he for real? The better question might be, will he be around in September. And not just because of a potential suspension coming his way. He is, as noted above, 40 years old, so can he keep it up, or will his body betray him?
5) Can the pitching staff stay on point?
Entering Sunday the A's had the lowest ERA in the American League (3.65), the lowest opponents on-base percentage (.295) and had issued the fewest walks in the league (228). The
.243 batting average by opponents was the second-lowest in the league and the .384 slugging percentage the third-lowest. Oakland has authored eight shutouts, fourth-most in the A.L., and the A's starters are 27-8 since May 17, after going 14-21 in their first 42 games. Closer Grant Balfour has yet to blow a save in 25 opportunities and is riding a franchise record of 43 straight saves. Yeah, pitching is the team strength and, aside from purported ace Anderson and his ankle and foot, they have avoided injury. Though Jarrod Parker's right hamstring issue can be troublesome. Consistency is key, then, and how Sonny Gray fits into the mix may actually be the biggest key going forward.
In-line images provided by USA Today Images and the Associated Press