THE BIG THREE II, CARELESS WHISPER ALL PART OF A’S BASEBALL THIS SEASON

As long-time Oakland fans know, The Big Three is a cherished term in A’s baseball lore. Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito arrived at the Coliseum with much anticipation and fanfare, and they did not disappoint.  Seemingly overnight, this young triumvirate became the talk of baseball as the core of a young A’s pitching staff that fueled four straight playoff teams from 2000-03.  Well, we may soon be talking about The Big Three II.  Don’t look now, but Sonny Gray (4-1, 2.17 ERA), Scott Kazmir (5-1, 2.28) and Jesse Chavez (3-1, 2.44) have risen from relative obscurity to form the best three starting pitchers on one team in Major League Baseball this young season, at least statistically.   Together, they have chiseled out a 12-3 record and 2.29 ERA.   That’s better than the Detroit Tigers’ trio of Rick Porcello (6-1, 3.22), Max Scherzer (5-1, 2.04) and Justin Verlander (5-2, 3.15), better than the St. Louis Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright (6-2, 2.11), Shelby Miller (5-2, 3.22) and Lance Lynn (4-2, 3.83), better than the San Francisco Giants’ Tim Hudson (yes, that Tim Hudson, 4-2, 2.09), Madison Bumgarner (5-3, 3.25), and Tim Lincecum (3-2, 4.78), and superior to the Toronto Blue Jays’ Mark Buehrle (7-1, 2.04), R.A. Dickey (4-3, 4.53) and Dustin McGowan (2-2, 5.08).  Which begs the question:   If Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin had not succumbed to Tommy John surgeries, would they have surpassed or even matched the remarkable performances of Gray, Kazmir and Chavez, The Big Three II….

Just how big as the “Careless Whisper” walk-up song for Josh Reddick become?  Well, yesterday morning I got an interview request from James Montgomery, sports editor of Rolling Stone magazine.  Reddick’s peculiar selection of the old Wham! hit song has gone viral, and Rolling Stone felt compelled to chronicle the new phenomena that seems to have lit a fuse in Redd’s bat.   Of course, as I reminded him before yesterday’s game, he’s always in the middle of everything.  It wouldn’t be the Oakland A’s unless our whacky right fielder was creating a buzz doing something.

You have to love Bob Melvin.  Not only is he able to manage a bullpen by committee and make it work, but he also hasn’t missed the fact that our defense has committed 32 errors—tied for second most in the American League—despite the team’s 25-16 start.  He and his staff have conducted short infield practice sessions prior to batting practice during night games of this just-completed homestand.   And he presented it to his players not as a form of “punishment” but one of simply “helping” his infielders improve their glove work to reach a championship standard.  This is why this team continues to get better.  And it is also why Melvin has managed the A’s to the best record in the majors since the start of the 2012 season.

And speaking of Melvin, the former signal-caller, he must relish the fact that the Oakland A’s currently feature the most lethal one-two catching punch in baseball.  There’s Derek Norris, who is starting to look like the second coming of Thurman Munson these days.  He’s batting .415 (22 for 53) over his last 19 games and hitting .352 overall with four home runs and 20 RBI, and would be leading the American League in batting average by around 20 points if he had enough at-bats.  And on the left side, there’s John Jaso, who’s scorching the ball at a .307 clip with four homers and nine RBI, and is batting .444 (16 for 36) over his last 11 contests.  For those of you scoring at home, that means the A’s catching tandem has combined for a .330 average with eight home runs and 29 RBI this season. And to think that Stephen Vogt, one of our playoff heroes last fall, has just been activated on the Triple-A Sacramento roster….

If you want to see great, competitive baseball and also support the A’s, there may be no better stretch at the Coliseum than the next two homestands.  The Detroit Tigers (May 26-29) and Los Angeles Angels (May 30-June 1) visit later this month, while the New York Yankees (June 13-15), Texas Rangers (June 16-18) and Boston Red Sox (June 19-22) follow about the time school lets out in the Bay Area.  All five teams will figure in playoff races, so get your tickets early.  It promises to be an exciting time, just what we like if you’re an Oakland A’s fan!

IT’S TIME FOR #BRINGEROFVOTES: LET’S MAKE JOSH DONALDSON THE ALL-STAR HE ALREADY IS

We may be a small market team with a modest payroll. We may be overlooked because we play mostly in the Pacific Time Zone. Despite winning back-to-back AL West titles, we may not be considered the favorites to repeat in 2014 because we have no mega-contract players like the Rangers, Angels or Mariners.

But what we do have is one of the best all-around players in Major League Baseball.  His name is Josh Donaldson.  Of course, being an A’s fan who watches him patrol third base every night, you already knew that.

As you remember, J.D. was a voting anomaly last season.  He was not selected for the 2013 American League All-Star team, yet the Baseball Writers Association of America cast enough votes for Donaldson that he finished fourth in the American League MVP balloting. His 222 votes were more than Robinson Cano, Evan Longoria, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Beltre and Manny Machado. 

Every team needs an anchor player, someone who leads with his production and clutch play. Every manager needs a player he knows he can write on his lineup card each game. Donaldson is clearly that man, a very strong athlete who thrives on playing every day. He may not always be 100% healthy—at times nursing leg strains—but there’s no doubt he is a firm believer of the school of strap-it-on-and-play. And while a very humble person who’s truly grateful for the opportunity the A’s have given him, Josh also brings that swagger on the diamond that can intimidate the opposition and embolden his teammates.

Since the start of the 2013 season, Donaldson has ranked among the American League leaders in most important offensive categories. He’s fourth in doubles, seventh in RBI and on-base percentage and ninth in slugging percentage. And maybe more significantly, he ranks first or second in virtually every category among AL third baseman during that period. First in game-winning hits. First in OPS. First in RBI. First in runs scored. First in on-base percentage. First in slugging percentage. In games, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, batting average and extra-base hits, he’s second.

Then add his remarkable range, arm and glove as a human highlight reel on defense—what other third baseman had a bobblehead designed as a diving catch over a tarp?—and J.D. is unquestionably the complete package.

So what is this leading to? We have clearly established that Josh Donaldson has always been there for you. Now, it’s time for you to be there for Josh Donaldson. We need to join together and create the buzz and excitement that will drive All-Star voting for Josh this year. It would be a grave injustice if he was denied that special distinction two years in a row. Luckily we have the best, most die-hard fans in baseball. We already have seen your social media power in propelling Eric Sogard to the championship round of MLB.com’s #FaceOfMLB competition.

Now, we need to show Josh how much we appreciate his play and how he gives everything he’s got in every game he plays. Starting today, we need to start the voting campaign. Fans around the world can cast their votes for starters up to 35 times here on MLB.com and athletics.com online and on your mobile devices. You will also have the opportunity to vote for Josh and the rest of your favorite A’s players at the Coliseum when in-stadium balloting begins May 6. The A’s haven’t had a position player named to the All-Star team since catcher Ramon Hernandez in 2003 and shortstop Miguel Tejada in 2002. We’re long overdue.

Use the new #BringerOfVotes hashtag, and we’ll feature the best ones on the team’s social media platforms. Create attention-grabbing signs and display them in the stadium for other fans and TV viewers to see. And encourage your friends and family to vote daily for Donaldson. We already know that Josh has played like an All-Star. Now it’s time to crown him with the honor, so he can make A’s fans proud when he’s introduced at Target Field in Minneapolis on July 15!

RANDOM THOUGHTS & OBSERVATIONS

Sometimes character and leadership on a team is more noticeable when the seas are turbulent. While there’s no cause for alarm when a three-game losing streak in April leaves you with a 13-8 record (now 14-8 following last night’s 10-1 win in Houston), I found it impressive how the A’s players responded to recent losses. Josh Donaldson, one of the best all-around third basemen in the game, took extra ground balls during pre-game infield after making errors in back-to-back contests. And after Tuesday night’s ulcerating 4-3 loss to the rival Rangers and a quick turnaround to a matinee game the following day, there was J.D. in the underground batting cage, taking dozens of hacks to ease his mind and refine his swing. When Sean Doolittle blew a save opportunity in Anaheim, he reacted like the team player—and leader—that he is. He was visibly happy in the clubhouse, telling reporters how great it was that the team rallied to win. It was the same Sean Doolittle, who after signing a new five-year contract, told his PR Director he would be glad to meet the media before the game but insisted that the session end a few minutes before the pitchers’ stretch on the field. He told me, “I just don’t want any of the guys to see me running late to stretch.” This, from a man who earlier in the day became a millionaire. Nick Punto, known to be a great clubhouse chemistry guy in Minneapolis, St. Louis and Los Angeles, demonstrated to his new teammates that if it will help the team, he would lay down a nifty push bunt to keep a rally aflame. And speaking of being a good teammate, it was heart-warming to see the subtle signs of support many players offered reliever Jim Johnson and outfielder Josh Reddick when they were scuffling during the first 10 days of the season. They were all small gestures that add up to a winning team….

The folks at Sony were nice enough to send our public relations office some complimentary “MLB 14 The Show” PlayStation 3 video games this week. I brought my copy home and gave it to my son Luke, a college student on spring break and avid gamer. After playing the new edition that night, he told me he really enjoyed the new version. However, he also informed me that the Oakland A’s were listed 24th in overall team rankings. “Dad, that’s a PR problem. Kids don’t play teams ranked that low.” After digesting what he said, I told him I agreed with him and would make a call to my Sony contact and ask her why a team who has won consecutive division titles and more games than any other in Major League Baseball since the start of the 2012 season would be ranked so low. She was very cordial and responsive, saying that the programmers who do the rankings base it on a rather complicated formula which includes an analysis of each team’s top 80 players on both the Major League roster and in the minor league system.   Not to be mean spirited, but I almost asked her who the programmers thought played for us, Rodney Dangerfield and Aretha Franklin? R-E-S-P-E-C-T. I guess we’ll have to keep earning it….

There’s something really unique—quirky really—about the bowels of the Coliseum, places that fans never have the opportunity to see during our home games. As you step off the elevator on the ground level, there to your left are these tall metal contraptions on wheels that are used to haul luggage in and out of the clubhouses. They appear to have once been painted, but now look so worn that you think they probably should be on display in a museum. If you can believe it, they actually look older than the Coliseum does. Perhaps they originally were transported when the team moved from Kansas City. No, actually they look even older than that. More like some type of torture device or maybe a medieval chariot used by the Romans. No, really. And when you walk straight ahead out of the elevator, there are five high hurdles lined up neatly as though the starter’s pistol might be shot at any minute. Michael Henriques, our strength and conditioning coach, had Jim Johnson, Drew Pomeranz and other relievers lined up the other day, with each being asked to lift their left leg up and over the hurdles in a swinging motion.   I assume the purpose is for strengthening and flexibility. In passing, I asked Johnson if he was in the 110 or 440 event.   It’s also quite common to see players from both teams stretching or rolling over a foam cylinder on the same floor outside the clubhouses. While newer venues have specific space or rooms dedicated to such undertakings, the Coliseum does not. So media or other players routinely step over or around the players working out. It’s the Oakland way! Editor’s note: It should be acknowledged, however, that the JPA has installed brand new carpet in and outside the clubhouses, as well as in the press box. Nice improvement….

At age 30, Jesse Chavez has every right to feel proud of his early-season accomplishments as a shining member of our starting rotation. Prior to his last start Sunday, there he was leaning on the padded barrier outside the dugout, soaking up the sun and his good fortune. But his road to the majors was filled with unexpected detours and disappointment.   But anyone who observes the Slender One can see why he has persevered. First, he is a talented pitcher with a wide assortment of plus pitches. Second, he has a sense of humor and nonchalance about him that keeps him on a positive path. It may not be quite as pronounced as the one worn by singing sensation Pharrell Williams, but Jesse usually swings through the clubhouse doors with a Bolero style brimmed hat that does his Mexican heritage complete justice. The brim of the hat is twice as wide as he is. And his wicked sense of humor is on full display after most A’s wins, as he sneaks into the crowd of reporters interviewing the starting pitcher, usually holding a salt shaker or bottle of hot sauce as though it’s his microphone, and making funny faces in an effort to crack up his teammate. However, when Chavez toes the rubber, he’s all business. He’s an assassin in cleats. In other words, he fits right in with the other Athletics, loose clubhouse and all….

OPPORTUNITY IS ALL THESE GUYS NEEDED

It’s no surprise that A’s pitchers have played a prominent role in the team’s 5-3 start to the season. Stocked with an exceptional arsenal of quality arms, this Oakland club might even exceed the mound exploits of the past two AL West Division champions.

And while talent is a common trait, it’s also clear to me that virtually every one of our pitchers has benefitted greatly from one thing: opportunity.

  • Despite his relative youth and experience, A’s management has not played it safe with Sonny Gray.  He drew Game 2 and Game 5 starts against Detroit in last year’s ALDS, responding with a 2.08 ERA. This season, he was the Opening Day starter and has posted a 0.75 ERA in two starts.
  • Scott Kazmir, only two years removed from pitching in an Independent League, got the chance—the opportunity—to continue the resurrection of his career when Oakland signed him to a two-year free agent contract.   The crafty southpaw is 2-0 with a 2.03 ERA thus far.
  • Jesse Chavez, who bounced around baseball as both a starter and reliever with six different organizations, got a rare opportunity to join the A’s starting rotation at age 30 this year and he’s seized it with a vengeance.   In mowing down the Twins for seven innings yesterday, the Human String Bean has chiseled out a 1.38 ERA in two starts this season.
  • Two seasons ago, the equal-opportunity A’s promoted Dan Straily, an obscure 24th-round draft pick out of Marshall University in Huntington, W.V., through two minor league levels in a matter of months and placed him into the Major League rotation for seven starts at 23 years old.   Straily, who allowed only three runs in his first start last weekend, owns a 12-10 record and 3.96 ERA in his young career, leap-frogging more ballyhooed prospects to establish himself as a bona fide starter.
  • We all know the slugger-turned-pitcher story of Sean Doolittle, but if he had not been given the opportunity—there’s that word again—to pitch by the Athletics, he might very well be out of baseball by now.
  • Dan Otero, claimed off waivers from the Yankees last year, might be the Poster Child for making the most of an opportunity.   As soon as he stepped foot into the A’s organization, all Otero has done is throw strikes and compiled subterranean ERAs. He garnered a 0.99 ERA with 15 saves in 23 appearances with Triple-A Sacramento last season before being summoned to the big club, where he was 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA, plus 5.2 scoreless innings in the playoffs. Yesterday, he demonstrated all his skills, dousing a Twins rally, eating up innings (2.3) and closing/winning a game and whittling his ERA to a paltry 1.69.
  • And there’s newcomer Drew Pomeranz, who’s making the most of his new scenery and new role as a reliever. As the fifth overall pick in the 2010 Draft by Cleveland, the flame-throwing lefty was trumpeted as the Next Big Thing. But after he was traded to Colorado midway through the 2011 season, his spotty control in three partial seasons with the Rockies eventually caused a move to the bullpen. Acquired by the A’s in a pitcher-for-pitcher trade involving Brett Anderson this offseason, Pomeranz seems to have a new lease on his baseball life.   He’s thrown three scoreless innings in relief for Oakland thus far.

Of all people, it was French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte who once quipped, “Ability is nothing without opportunity.” While Bonaparte died in 1821, Gray, Kazmir, Chavez, Straily, Doolittle, Otero and Pomeranz are all alive and well in 2014. And whether they know it or not, the French emperor was absolutely correct.

A’S VALUE IQs AS WELL AS OBPs, ERAs AND WARs

Yes, the baseball wizards at 7000 Coliseum Way are smart guys. It’s well documented that Billy Beane spurned a Stanford scholarship offer to sign professionally out of high school, eventually returning to college to earn an economics degree at UC San Diego. David Forst played baseball and graduated Cum Laude with a B.A. degree in sociology from Harvard. Farhan Zaidi was a MIT undergrad who earned a Ph.D from UC Berkeley. Dan Feinstein, not to be outdone, brings a degree in Medieval European History from UC Davis to the table.

So it should be no surprise that their manager Bob Melvin is a Cal man. But the high IQs and academic pedigrees don’t end there. More than any season in recent memory, the A’s roster is bloated with baseball brainiacs. Shortstop Jed Lowrie, amateur photographer and world traveler, is one of three A’s who went to Stanford. The others are outfielder Sam Fuld, who writes book reviews in the Wall Street Journal in his spare time, and outfielder Michael Taylor, who already boasts “KNBR radio reporter” on his resume.

Then there’s first baseman Nate Freiman and relief pitcher Dan Otero who hail from Duke University. Both might be leaders in the clubhouse—literally—in another team pastime: crossword puzzles. Rice University, another bastion of higher education, has provided us with some estimable pitching depth in Joe Savery and Philip Humber.

And of course, the A’s erudite southpaw with the flowing beard—Sean Doolittle—was educated at the University of Virginia, where his writing skills were honed and borrowed by ESPN.com when national baseball expert Buster Olney is in need of a guest columnist.

Rounding out the Scholar-Athletics dean’s list is our Opening Night starting pitcher, Sonny Gray, the pride of Vanderbilt University, perhaps the South’s most elite academic institution.

Everyone marvels about the A’s clubhouse chemistry and the team’s fun-loving, frat-house vibe. But looking at this year’s club, there may be an actual chemist sitting at one of the cubicles. Now, do smart players guarantee a team will play smart baseball? That remains to be seen. In simplest terms, there still is much wisdom in Ariel Prieto’s award-winning TV commercial from last year. “See the ball, hit the ball.”

But judging from the academic pedigrees of the 2014 A’s, one thing is certain: Craig Breslow left us too soon.

A’S CATCHERS WIELDING HOT BATS

Eleven days from Opening Night and what do we know?  There’s an abundance of quality infielders and catchers. Our starting pitching depth will be tested right out of the gate.  Josh Reddick looks healthy.  Both Michael Taylor (.320, 5 doubles, 1 triple, 3 home runs, 10 RBI) and Sam Fuld (.304, 13 runs, 3 triples), a couple of Stanford products, have taken advantage of Craig Gentry’s absence to make strong bids for breaking camp on the 25-man roster.  And Jesse Chavez is giving every indication he’s ready to shine this season….

The A’s catching trio of Stephen Vogt, Derek Norris and John Jaso has terrorized the Cactus League this spring, combining to hit .355 (33-93) with eight doubles, one triple, four homers and 28 RBI thus far.  Norris ranks second on the team to Brandon Moss (.433) in batting this spring with a .407 average to go along with two homers and nine RBI. Vogt is close behind with a .394 average and owns the third best on-base percentage behind Daric Barton (.533) and Norris (.467) with a .459 figure, plus a homer and eight RBI, while Jaso has a homer and nine RBI to go with his .258 average.  Would we actually consider carrying three catchers this season?  Stay tuned….

While there’s no denying their talent and resumes, can you name another Major League team that could have a pitcher who won 14 games last year (A.J. Griffin), a pitcher who had 12 victories and a 19-start unbeaten streak last season (Jarrod Parker) and one of the premier set-up men in the American League (Ryan Cook) on the shelf, and still have ample arms to be one of the better pitching staffs in baseball?  You certainly can’t deny the talent, potential and resumes of Parker, Griffin and Cook, but with that said, the vibe in the A’s Phoenix Muni clubhouse remains upbeat and business as usual.  From the manager on down, no signs of panic whatsoever.  It helps to have quality arms the likes of Tommy Milone, Jesse Chavez, Evan Scribner, Drew Pomeranz and Josh Lindblom to summon as their replacements….

Eric “The Face” Sogard hasn’t even gotten to Opening Day and he’s already had a great season.  First, he rode Nerd Nation to an improbable runner-up finish in the Face of MLB online contest, blowing by the likes of Buster Posey and Jose Bautista and nearly upsetting the Mets’ David Wright in the championship round.  Then last night, the vertically-challenged infielder received another big honor, as his old high school retired the No. 9 jersey he made famous at nearby Thunderbird High School in Phoenix.  Sogie is the first baseball player in that school’s history to have his number retired….

A NEW BILLY BALL IS INTRODUCED IN THE DESERT

They say you can’t steal first base, but after watching Billy Burns I’m not so sure.  On the verge of setting land speed records every time he bursts out of the batter’s box, the Georgia Express is virtually a human blur on the base paths.  As veteran baseball scribe John Shea noted in his San Francisco Chronicle blog today, Burns ranks seventh in the majors in steals this spring.  Not individually.  As a team.  In other words, only six MLB teams have more stolen bases than Burns, who’s a perfect 7-for-7 on swiping bags.  Acquired in an offseason trade that sent the popular Jerry Blevins to the Nationals, the mercurial switch-hitter is also batting .318 with a .423 OBP in eight Cactus League games to date.  His blazing speed is reminiscent of Rickey Henderson, intimidating defenders who are becoming keenly aware of his rare gift.  Last weekend against Texas, you saw a Ranger second baseman drop a routine groundball because he knew he had to hurry his throw to first base.  In that same game, the Texas catcher mishandled a strike because Burns was already bearing down on second base and only a lightning-quick release would avert a steal.  Might he be a new version of Billy Ball?  At 5-9, 180 pounds, Burns is built like a bantam weight boxer.  His upper body suggests he might lead the clubhouse in the lowest percentage of body fat.  As media were wrapping up their questioning of Billy at his locker recently, I ended the session by announcing that “Billy has to run to the showers now”…..

AF3D6133And speaking of Billys, I always get a kick out of international fascination with our rock star GM Billy Beane.  The constant requests from around the globe remind me of when I was a youngster on vacation with my family.  Driving across the country, we would play the count-the-license-plates game, seeing how many different states we encountered on the highway.  I’ve been known to see Billy in the hallway and merely say, “Brazil today, Billy.  It’s their Time magazine.”  Earlier this week, it was Wejae Yi from the Chosun Daily News in South Korea sitting down with Billy in his Phoenix Muni office for a brief interview.  Prior to their meeting, Wejae asked me a tough question:  “Who’s older, Billy Beane or Brad Pitts?”  Being the conscientious PR man that I am, I told him that Billy is about a year older (51 to 50).  But knowing where my bread is buttered, I also added “I think Billy looks younger, however”….

So far, our spring training has been quite uneventful in a very good kind of way.  For the most part, we’re staying healthy (both Ryan Cook and Craig Gentry are nearing game activity) and our reservoir of pitching looks as good as advertised.  Probably the biggest news items of the early spring have been Eric Sogard’s rise to fame as the #FaceOfMLB runner-up in the recently completed MLB.com contest, and Josh Reddick robbing Mike Morse of not one, but two homers in the Cactus League opener at Scottsdale stadium.  The first catch, which I’m convinced might have been an optical illusion, aired on many network television shows including NBC’s Today Show.   While it came in an exhibition game, something tells me Josh might have earned a few early Gold Glove votes with his patented Spider-Man antics….

It’s interesting to watch our four catchers wage a battle for spots on our 25-man roster.  Stephen Vogt, who endeared himself to all A’s fans by delivering a game-winning walk-off single in Game 2 of the ALDS last fall, has been wielding a hot stick thus far this spring with a team-leading .538 average and four RBI.  Derek Norris (.273, 4 RBI) and John Jaso (.200, 2 RBI) have both homered, and newcomer Chris Gimenez (.250) owns a .400 on-base percentage and gives Oakland a veteran defensive presence behind the plate.  While all four guys know that one or two of them won’t make the Opening Day cut, it’s impressive to watch all four form close friendships that epitomize the team attitude of this 2014 club.   It’s what championship teams are made of….

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. 

TODAY’S FINAL DAY OF THE WINTER MEETINGS BITTERSWEET

If you’re a died-in-the-wool A’s fan—you know, the kind that Bernie leans at the drop of a hat and waits in line three or four hours to claim their cherished new bobblehead giveaway—you have to be excited about the team’s new acquisitions this month.  Time will tell just how successful each trade or free agent signing was.  However, if you walked the lobby at the Swan & Dolphin Hotel in Orlando as I did this week, you heard universal praise from GMs, media and even a couple of agents about most of our player moves.  And while the two deals we swung earlier today might be wait-and-see propositions, there appears to be big upsides for Colorado left-hander Drew Pomeranz, a former fifth overall draft pick, and mercurial leadoff man Billy Burns, the Nationals’ Minor League Player of the Year this season.

Yet, while we can look forward to an organization getting stronger with some shrewd additions, I can’t help but feel some remorse by two news developments that unfolded today.

A 10 a.m. news conference at the Winter Meetings was held by Brad Horn, the highly-respected PR man for the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.  He announced that long-time Texas Rangers’ play-by-play man Eric Nadel was this year’s winner of the Ford C. Frick Award.  Nadel, a friend and fellow blues enthusiast (we trade CDs and MP3s every time we see each other), is richly deserving of the Hall of Fame honor.  He’s been a sports radio fixture in the Lone Star State for 35 years.

However, his selection also meant our beloved Bill King was passed over yet again by the voting committee.  As a courtesy, Horn shared the news with me 10 minutes before the press briefing.  While I was deeply disappointed—as was A’s Vice President of Broadcasting and Communications Ken Pries and A’s voice Ken Korach who authored the King “Holy Toledo” book—no one could be more disappointed than the thousands of Bay Area fans who cherished every broadcast Bill ever did and mourned his unexpected passing six years ago.

Earlier in October, I had sent a copy of Ken’s wonderfully-written book, along with a letter, to each member of the Ford C. Frick Award committee.  There were glowing quotes from dozens of people in the book, including such sports icons as Hall of Famers John Madden, Rick Barry and Tony LaRussa, and a foreword by Jon Miller, whose plaque also resides in Cooperstown.   In my letter, I told each voter we understood there were many worthy recipients, but while you may not be able to read Holy Toledo cover to cover before voting, I implored them to at least turn to page 111 and read the transcribed broadcast account of King’s remarkable call of Kirk Gibson’s World Series home run off Dennis Eckersley and the moments leading up to that historic clout.   Due to the classic calls of Jack Buck and Vin Scully of the same play, I suspected none or very few of the voters had ever even heard Bill’s version on A’s radio.  As usual, King’s description of the Series-turning homer was absolutely masterful.   Not only did he capture the moment perfectly, adding his typical flair for the dramatic, he set the scene like no other broadcaster can.  Other Hall of Fame broadcasters had to marvel how Bill actually anticipated that Eckersley’s 3-2 pitch to Gibson might be a back-door slider.

Unlike past years that Bill was eligible for selection and he finished in the top three in fan voting on the Hall of Fame website, this past month I received phone calls or notes from a number of committee members, including such legendary broadcast figures as Vin Scully and Bob Costas.  They thanked me for sending Ken’s book and said they learned things about Bill they never knew.  One member, who will remain nameless, also told me that King’s death may have delayed his chances of being selected, as the voters might not feel the urgency to vote him in when there are living candidates that would also be fine choices.  That may be a bitter pill for some of us to swallow, but at the same time, there is validity to his comment.  Now, under the new Ford C. Frick Award procedures where a different era of broadcasting is voted upon each year, we must wait until 2017 for the next time Bill’s era is on the ballot.  If anything, the longer the wait, the sweeter it will be for A’s fans and King’s family and friends when he finally receives this long overdue honor.

And a second news story hit the Twitter World this afternoon, when it was announced that Jerry Blevins had been shipped to the Washington Nationals for Billy Burns.  While we never should get too close to our players, knowing they are only a phone call away from being scratched off our roster, it’s no secret that Blevins was not only a clubhouse and front office favorite, he was also a great fan favorite.  And this was a distinction that he plainly earned.  Whether it was doing countless community outreach appearances on behalf of the A’s, collaborating with Coco Crisp on introducing the “Bernie Lean” song and dance to his teammates and the Coliseum faithful, or providing veteran leadership to a young and talented bullpen, Blevins demonstrated what a classy and team-oriented role model should be.  His cerebral take on things, not to mention his at-times goofy sense of humor, will be sorely missed next season.   And thanks to his dedication and work ethic, it was truly a pleasure to watch this string-bean-of-a-man develop into a strikeout artist who developed into one of the better left-handed specialists in the American League.  It was that development which eventually made him a valuable commodity that today brought a coveted minor leaguer to Oakland in return.

When the Nationals visit the O.co Coliseum in early May, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a few chants of “Jerry, Jerry!” when the former A’s favorite starts warming up in the bullpen.   And if that’s the case, I think we’ll all understand.   So long Jerry.  You left a mark here in Oakland, and for that, we say thank you and wish you nothing but the best.

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