With the Indians and A's set to face off this weekend, I checked in with Alex Hall, my counterpart at Athletics Nation, to ask a few questions about his favorite team, which has been on a roll through the first quarter of the season, and sits atop the AL West.
Jason: I know you felt good about the A's coming into the season, but a 101-win pace, the most runs per game in the American League, and the best run differential in baseball... Did you expect all this?
Alex: I don't think anyone ever expects their team to play as well as the A's have this year. I knew that the offense would be toward the top of the league, but to lead the league is even better than I'd hoped. I knew the pitching would hold its own despite losing Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, but I didn't know it would lead the league in ERA by nearly half a run. And I knew Jesse Chavez would be worth a try, but I didn't know he'd be looking like a Cy Young candidate after eight starts. Of course, that's not to say that these things will continue -- the offense will hit its slumps, the top starters will eventually have outings in which they get knocked around, and nobody knows how well Chavez will hold up for 200 innings. But its hard to complain about anything besides the bullpen right now, and the longer the A's can stay hot the more of a cushion their division lead will have entering the heat of the summer.
Jason: Scott Kazmir is sorely missed by many in Cleveland. How have fans in Oakland taken to him?
Alex: He hasn't stood out among the high-profile personalities on the team, but his performance on the field has certainly opened some eyes. To me, he represents the new Bartolo Colon -- the reliable veteran who comes in and pounds the strike zone. Even when he hasn't had his stuff, he's still been able to gut it out for five innings and keep the team in the game (only one start with as many as four runs allowed), and when he's on he can deliver seven shutout innings. The fact that he doesn't go super deep into games isn't a big deal because the bullpen is able to absorb some innings. And a 42:9 strikeout-to-walk ratio is always a welcome sight.
Jason: Josh Donaldson appears to be having another very good season. Is the team trying to work out a long-term extension for him? Should they?
Alex: Very good might be an understatement -- he's leading the AL in bWAR and ranks fourth in fWAR. I haven't heard any talk of an extension and I doubt that anything will happen during the season, but if Donaldson indeed repeats his success from last year then I'd be surprised if Billy Beane didn't lock him in for his arbitration years. And if he's earning MVP votes for the second straight year, then the team would be crazy not to seek cost control as he enters arbitration for the first time this winter.
Jason: John Jaso and Derek Norris have done an incredible job in a platoon at catcher, but I see each of them has played in 30+ games already. How has Bob Melvin managed to get them so much playing time, and is that sort of task something that's always been a strength of his?
Alex: Well, the number of games played is a bit misleading because Bob Melvin loves to have his platoon-mates pinch-hit for each other late in games. They've combined to start all 41 games behind the plate, but Jaso also has four starts as the DH as Melvin begins to find ways to get both of them in the lineup at the same time. The catcher's spot has delivered the second-best OPS of any position on the team after left field, and at some point you have to ride those hot streaks by getting each guy as many at-bats as possible. Melvin is pretty good at recognizing these opportunities to maximize his roster's performance, and if two platoon-mates show that they both need to be in the lineup then he'll find a way to make it happen.
Jason: One of the only regulars on the team not playing well is second baseman Eric Sogard. How concerned are you about his production, and do you think he's at any risk of losing his starting role?
Alex: Given that Sogard's success last year seemed so unlikely, it's not terribly shocking to see him struggle this year. His fielding has been better than ever, but he'll need to hit better than .180/.260/.225 to stay in the lineup all season. That glove should keep him above Alberto Callaspo on the depth chart, though, and if the A's had a better option for second base then they would have gone with it in April. There isn't any immediate help within the organization, so we'll have to see what emerges on the trade market. Now that Beane has (at least initially) addressed the backup first baseman role by acquiring Kyle Blanks from the Padres to replace the struggling Daric Barton, second base seems like the last area that needs attention and I wouldn't be surprised to see him make a move if Sogard and Punto continue to hit like Brendan Ryan's smaller, weaker brothers.
Jason: Jim Johnson got off to a brutal start this season, and was moved out of the closer's role. Has he been put back into that role now, or is Oakland using a committee approach? Which reliever do you trust the most, and what would you do if you were in charge?
Alex: Johnson briefly seemed like he'd reestablished himself as the closer, but then he put up a couple more stinkers after a long run of scoreless outings. Therefore, the committee is still in effect. Sean Doolittle seems to be the hot hand right now, after a gutsy performance to quell a comeback rally by the White Sox on Monday, so he'll probably get the next save opportunity. I currently trust him more than Johnson (7.16 ERA) or Luke Gregerson (five blown saves), but that can change on a daily basis and I'm happy sticking with the committee until someone proves that they belong in the ninth inning permanently. Save conversion is the only thing that the A's haven't been awesome at in 2014, but you still have to figure that the talent in the pen will eventually win out and that group will settle down. With 26 strikeouts and zero walks, the best bet is that Doolittle will eventually cement himself as the closer; it's just a matter of when.
Jason: Who do you think will represent the A's at the All-Star Game this summer?
Alex: The A's could potentially send two starting pitchers, depending on how hot Sonny Gray, Kazmir and Chavez remain. Donaldson is a virtual lock already after being arguably the biggest snub in years last season. Cespedes could have a shot this year, between his strong numbers and the national reputation he gained in the Home Run Derby last year. And if Norris and/or Jaso keep hitting like they are, then one of them could have an outside shot with the big-name Matt Wieters out of consideration and Joe Mauer now a first baseman. One thing's for sure -- the A's won't be sending a reliever as their lone rep this year, and they will almost certainly send their first position player since 2003.
Jason: Do you want Nick Swisher back?
Alex: I always want Nick Swisher back. (Editors's note: Done, he's yours!) But he wouldn't make the team right now. The outfield of Cespedes/Coco/Reddick/Gentry is a defensive juggernaut, and even Reddick is starting to show signs of life at the plate. Brandon Moss has quietly developed into one of the top sluggers in the league, so first base is covered. Perhaps if Swish could learn second base...
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A big thank you to Alex for taking the time to talk shop with me. I hope his A's get swept this weekend, then go back to winning a bunch of games!