February 2014

A’s FANS HAVE A REASON TO LIVE

Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason
To live

They got little hands
Little eyes
They walk around
Tellin’ great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet

Well, I don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
`Round here

Seattle Mariners v Oakland AthleticsRandy Newman would love this team.  If ever there was a group of players that would inspire someone to write a satirical song called “Short People,” it might be this 2014 edition of the Oakland A’s. However, unlike the lyrics once penned by Newman, these vertically-challenged men are vital cogs “’Round here.”  Take Coco Crisp for example.   He may measure 5-10, at least in the eyes of the media relations staff, but his stature is much taller when he strides to the plate to lead off an Oakland first inning.  And he’s not the only compressed compadre on the team.  Check out the roster’s Sub Six Foot Club:  Alberto Callaspo (5-9), Nick Punto (5-9), Yoenis Cespedes (5-10), Yoenis Cespedes (5-10), Eric Sogard (5-10), Sam Fuld (5-10) and Sonny Gray (5-11).  Honorary member:  third base coach Mike Gallego, who tops out at 5-8.   Kind of makes you wonder whether our esteemed leader Billy Beane has found a new Moneyball matrix that might give the A’s an edge over the competition.  Soon, he’ll be sending his scouts to amusement parks across America, looking for those special kids that will project favorably at a young age.  You know, the kids who don’t measure up for the big rides yet.  “Fellas, scour every inch of the country and find us the commodity no one else covets.  We won’t settle for anything but short!”  It appears that Nate Freiman (6-8), Michael Ynoa (6-7) and Jim Johnson (6-6) will be grandfathered in, however.

Remember when your parents said “Johnny, you should always eat a good breakfast in the morning”?  Well, for outfielder Michael Taylor, already sporting a Greek God of a physique (6-5, 256 lbs.), that advice truly changed his life.  And we’re not talking nutrition here.  It seems that during his time in Arizona, he has made it a point to patronize a great breakfast spot on Scottsdale Road called U.S. Egg.  A beautiful young lady named Addie would wait on him.   Before long, Michael may have chosen that particular restaurant for breakfast more because of Addie than the egg omelets.   And then this past offseason, the match-made-in-a-coffee-shop got married.  I assume not in the restaurant.

Taking a page out of Japanese professional baseball, Bob Melvin employed two batting cages on the same practice field at our Papago training complex today.  Using pitching machines against hitters, the new practice allowed the team to get more work in less time.  It may be the first time a Major League team has utilized the Japanese setup, although the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser reports that Sonny Gray told her that Vanderbilt and other colleges have used the two-cage format in workouts.  Melvin and the A’s were exposed to this Japanese custom during their 2012 trip to Tokyo.  And who knows, maybe the A’s skipper is cleverly campaigning for his club to be chosen to represent MLB in their Taiwan series next year!

And speaking of Sonny Gray, you can take your pick on how to describe his stuff this spring:  (a) nasty, (b) filthy, (c) electric, (d) unhittable and (e) all of the above.   And how great is it for A’s fans who visit our Papago training facility during our final year in Phoenix?  Today, I saw a father and young son standing behind yellow ropes, not more than 25 feet away from Gray on the bullpen mound today.

Josh Reddick, looking fully recovered from his offseason wrist surgery and with few pounds of added muscle, got no favors from the coaching staff when it came to his early live BP sessions.  First two pitchers he had to face:  Jarrod Parker and Sonny Gray.

MLB Network, one of the best gifts ever to baseball fans when it came on the scene in 1999, announced that it will televise eight A’s games from Spring Training.  So mark your calendars:  Mar. 2 at the Angels, March 3 vs. the Dodgers, March 15 vs. Texas, March 18 at the White Sox, March 23 vs. the Cubs and March 24 at Texas.   Comcast SportsNet California will also air our night game against Colorado on March 13.

HOW CAN YOU NOT BE BULLISH ON THIS BULLPEN?

“If you don’t have a bullpen, you ain’t got nothing.”

Dusty Baker, one of my all-time favorite people in the game, used to say that all the time. I think the lineage of that original quote was credited to either Casey Stengel or Yogi Berra, two sage baseball men in their own right.

For the past two years, there’s an irrefutable case to be made that the Athletics’ strongest component has been its relief.  And maybe not so coincidentally, the small-market, low-payroll A’s have claimed back-to-back American League West titles.  As pitchers and catchers report to Phoenix tomorrow for 2014 Spring Training, Bob Melvin calls this year’s bullpen perhaps his deepest and most talented.  In fact, there are long-time baseball observers who rank the A’s relievers as one of the best groups in the majors.

That arms-arms-arms mantra filled the hallway outside of the offices of Billy Beane and his top lieutenants David Forst, Farhan Zaidi and Dan Feinstein during the offseason, resulting in a possible pen upgrade in the additions of new closer Jim Johnson, who has saved a major-league leading 101 games over the past two seasons, a pair of proven setup men in Luke Gregerson and Eric O’Flaherty (available at mid-season), and dart-throwing lefty specialist Fernando Abad.

Like the returning nucleus, all of these newcomers share a common thread.  They all throw strikes.  That’s a characteristic that must thrill pitching coach Curt Young to no end.  It fits right into his keep-it-simple, make-them-hit-your-pitch approach.  The quality depth and experience he will have at his disposal gives Young many advantages over most clubs in the American League.

Detroit Tigers v Oakland AthleticsHe has more flexibility in utilizing relievers in the best possible matchups.  And because he’s operating with so many star-quality arms, he can keep his bullpen fresh throughout the grueling campaign—much like he and Melvin did last season.  That plethora of strike-throwers also creates healthy competition from within, which only pushes pitchers to reach their maximum potential.  The A’s also have the luxury of at least five pitchers who can spell Johnson with an occasional save assignment.  Returnees Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle have both slammed the lid on Oakland wins in ninth-inning duty, while Dan Otero—he of the 1.38 ERA last year—was a lock-down closer at Triple-A Sacramento before dominating with the big club.  Then add Gregerson and eventually O’Flaherty, and you should understand why there will be an air of excitement at Papago Saturday when these impressive arms start popping catchers’ mitts on multiple mounds in the Arizona sunshine.

Maybe the most significant impact our bullpen will have on opponents will be psychologically.  Beyond saving our young starting rotation from high pitch counts, they essentially shorten the game.  Opposing hitters will know that if they don’t score early and stake a lead, they run the risk of never seeing a lead.  Any way you slice it, that spells i-n-t-i-m-i-d-a-t-i-o-n. 

And that, A’s faithful, is a very good thing. 

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