The Athletics have it—and how, potentially

This is not the Oakland Athletics and Houston Astros in a handshake line after a game. This is the social distance-defying debate triggered when Astros coach Alex Cintron insulted A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano after Laureano took his third plunk in the same series including two this day in August.

Ladies and gentlemen, your American League West champion Oakland Athletics. The first team in this pandemic-truncated, pandemic-weirded season to clinch their division. Hands up to everybody who thought the National League West-owning Los Angeles Dodgers would be 2020’s first division clincher.

Now, hands up to everyone who thought the A’s division clinch would happen on a day off for them while the Houston Astros spent the same day losing to the Seattle Mariners, 6-1. To those who did, hands up to every A’s fan whispering to themselves or to each other, with the appropriate social distancing, that karma’s indeed a bitch.

The last time the A’s ruled the AL West was 2013. Since then, they’ve had three second-place finishes including last year and three fifth-place finishes. Detractors over those seasons, including the young man/Los Angeles Angels fan in southern California who grants me the honour of him calling me Dad, referred to them gleefully enough as the Chokeland Athletics.

That was then, this is now, and this is also two weekends after their arguable best player, third baseman Matt Chapman, went down for the rest of the season facing hip surgery. Chapman hadn’t been quite the overall hitter this year that he was in 2018-19, but his third base play remained top of the line. Late season free agent pickup Jake Lamb has proven a pleasant surprise in just six games (1.144 OPS over them) prior to this week.

That’s good, because the A’s will need all the pleasant surprises they can get. As if going 19-8 in August and 11-8 this month, following a 3-4 July, aren’t pleasant enough. They may still have a pleasant surprise coming in round one of the intolerably tolerable weirdness of the postseason to come.

This will also be the first time since 2015 that the Astros finish any season without the AL West crown on their heads. The Astros could still claim the final of six American League wild cards. Guess who’d tangle with them in the opening round if they do?

Hint: It’s the team whose pitching staff includes the former Astro who finally blew the Astrogate whistle last November, after he and plenty of others in the know couldn’t find sportswriters who could convince their editors to expose it without someone in the know going on record.

The entire Show gunned for the Astros this season once the Astros’ illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing scandal’s depth plus the organisation’s seeming shortage of remorse became manifest in full. Nothing would have pleased the Show more than seeing the Astros humbled. Nothing would have pleased Astro fans—already coming to heartsick terms with their team’s subterfuges—less.

The A’s certainly did their part, taking the truncated season’s series against them 7-3, including a five-game set earlier this month in which they beat the Astros four out of five with two of the four decided by a single run and a third by two. The most satisfying of the five had to be when A’s center fielder Ramon Laureano singled trade deadline pickup Tommy La Stella home off Ryan Pressly in the bottom of the ninth, the day after the two teams split a doubleheader.

Earlier this season, the Astros spent a weekend drilling Laureano thrice, including twice in the final game of the set, the last of which provoked Laureano into a social distance-defying dugout confrontation when—after Laureano merely pantomimed a slider grip at Astros reliever Humberto Castellanos—Astro coach Alex Cintron threw him an insult that Latino men (Cintron himself is Latino) often answer with justifiable homicide at minimum.

In maybe the only instance in which commissioner Rob Manfred seemed to be whacked with the smart stick all year long, Cintron earned a twenty-game suspension to Laureano’s six. Cintron was offered no right of appeal; Laureano was. Appropriately.

At that point of the season the A’s had been hit by fourteen pitches. That weekend, Laureano wasn’t the only A to take three for the team; left fielder Robbie Grossman also took three drills from Houston pitching. The flip side: as of Monday, the Astros have taken twenty drills, led by utility infielder Abraham Toro’s six.

When the Astros tried mealymouthing their way through that February spring presser, during which the world hoped they’d own their 2017-18 espionage, practically seven eighths of players not wearing Astro uniforms swore their ranks would administer the justice Manfred didn’t.

Toro leading the Astros with six plunks isn’t right. He wasn’t even an Astro until down the stretch last year. Hitting him six times in the interest of Astro justice is rather like suing a new surgical intern for malpractise because of what his or her attending surgeon did two years earlier.

When Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly decided to send his own messages, at least he targeted two Astros (Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa) who’d been there and, unfortunately, done at least some of that. In a way, the Astros merely showing up to play— knowing they were the single most hated team in baseball, knowing they could have targets on their backs at any given time—showed character enough.

There were those, including Kelly, who pondered whether Manfred’s immunity in return for Astro players spilling their Astrogate secrets made them the snitches too many accused Fiers of being. When Astros pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. lamented that nothing would be enough to satisfy Astrogate’s critics, he harrumphed concurrently, “By the way, there was only one snitch. And that’s the person who spoke to The Athletic.”

The pandemic also kept real fans out of the stands on the regular season, handing the Astros a big enough break. They didn’t have to try playing through live catcalls and boos and nasty banners in the stands. Road ballpark DJs were probably under orders not to even think about playing canned booing or nastygrams, never mind trash-can banging noises, whenever the Astros batted.

About the worst the Astros might have dealt with this season was the occasional cutout in the stands referencing their 2017-18 cheating. From what I’ve seen, trash can references were the most popular. When the Astros traveled to Los Angeles for a set with the Dodgers, fans outside Dodger Stadium’s entrance road let the Astros aboard their team bus have it. Trash can bangers abounded there. (One sign: “You’re lucky there’s a pandemic!”)

Even the independent league St. Paul Saints joined in the fun. They prepared an Astro the Grouch souvenir—showing a variation on the Sesame Street character in a trash can, with two baseball antennae on the lid, and a push-botton voice box calling the pitch or banging a can—as a late July giveaway and also for general sale. The demand overwhelmed their supplier.

The Saints issued an e-mail earlier this month saying Astro the Grouch would be on his way to his buyers at last, starting this week. (I’ll let you know when mine arrives.)

The A’s have resisted joining in the Astro trolling fun this year. Mostly. About the only team-delivered troll was a late July game in which the A’s didn’t play the Astros but did put a cutout in the stands of the Astros’ team mascot, Orbit . . .in a trash can. In early August, though, some A’s fans hired an airplane to fly around above the Oakland Coliseum towing a banner saying “Houston Asterisks.”

Of those who haven’t resisted Astrotrolls, maybe none was more relentless than Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer. He’s waged troll war against the Astros all year. His latest salvo: wearing cleats festooned with trash can images when he started against the postseason-bound Chicago White Sox this past Saturday. God only knows what Bauer has planned if some now-undetectable alchemy has his Reds meeting the Astros in the World Series. Big “if.”

Fiers proved himself made of tougher stuff than suspected after he spent a winter surviving everything from mere opprobrium to death threats. The A’s have proven themselves made of tougher stuff than suspected when coronaball finally got underway. Purely by dint of his rotational schedule, Fiers hasn’t faced the Astros on the mound this year just yet.

That could change if the Astros hold on to make the postseason and draw the A’s in round one. Add the likelihood of most of baseball world rooting for these much-burdened A’s to (sorry, can’t resist) can the Astros early, and that could make that round-one set must-listen radio or must-see TV.

Cahill another low-risk Angel arm

2018-12-20 TrevorCahillSigning Matt Harvey even to what may prove a single-season rental befuddled no few who watch the Angels closely. Signing Trevor Cahill to what may prove a single-season rental seems to do likewise until you look a little closer. Angel fans hope the pitching-needy team knows what they’re doing and won’t have yet another reasonably-laid plan explode in their faces. Especially when they could have had a couple of

Cahill isn’t trying to overcome even half the baggage Harvey had to start overcoming in Cincinnati last year. Signing Cahill for a year and $9 million with about $1.5 million possible in incentives looks at least as reasonable and with just as small a risk. And, as with Harvey, the Angels couldn’t have been unmotivated by the thought that division-rival Oakland had eyes upon Cahill, this time in terms of bringing him back again.

The Athletics bought low on the veteran righthander for 2018 and he proved valuable enough for their slightly surprising run to the wild card game. The only reason he made only twenty starts worth 110 innings was an Achilles tendon strain that knocked him onto the disabled list in mid-June and kept him there until almost mid-July.

He posted the best fielding-independent pitching rate (ERA minus defense factors) of his career with a better than respectable 3.54, and the best strikeout-to-walk rate (2.44) of his career. And he continued the overall bounceback from a 2016 spell of relief pitching by getting ground balls at a rate almost equal to his career 55 percent.

All that while making seventeen quality starts (three earned runs or fewer) out of his twenty. He came away from the season with a 7-4 won-lost record and eight no-decisions out of the quality starts. Three of those turned into A’s losses; if they could have hung up the key lead runs while he was in the game Cahill’s won-lost record might have ended up at 12-4.

In other words, Cahill at last re-emerged as the decent pitcher who launched his Show career with the A’s in 2009 and whose signature tendency seems to have been working with his defenses to get results and keep them in games. If the A’s might have won the three no-decision losses instead, Cahill might have been 15-4 in 2018; add to that two losses in which he pitched well enough to win and he might have been 17-2.

If the Angels have Harvey as a number-three starter, they likely have Cahill as the fourth man. Both pitchers finished 2018 having shown they can get ground balls and miss bats at reasonable rates. Getting grounders and missing bats are things the Angels love unconditionally.

With Garrett Richards and Shohei Ohtani (as a pitcher) down for the 2019 count thanks to Tommy John surgery they may yet lack a legitimate ace, but there have been teams who’ve gone to the wars and endured in the pennant races with four or five solid pitchers despite no ace. It’s difficult but not impossible.

Still, the Angels could have made more impressive-looking moves. Charlie Morton could have been had for comparable money to Harvey; the now-former Astro signed for two years and $30 million with the Tampa Bay Rays. They went in on Nathan Eovaldi but they, too, couldn’t convince him to say goodbye to the world champion Boston Red Sox. Nor could they convince Patrick Corbin to stay southwest; Corbin went to the Washington Nationals for six years and $140 million, or about $12 million a season more than the Angels will pay Harvey just in 2019.

I get the Angels might have been wary about a six-year commitment to Corbin considering their recent history with multiple-year deals going past two or even three. That’s allowing that those deals’ implosions haven’t really been anyone’s fault. I say again:  nobody including Albert Pujols asked his heels and knees to betray him, and nobody including Josh Hamilton asked a) him to incur a substance-abuse relapse that Super Bowl Sunday or b) the Angels’ brass to make such a disgraceful hash out of trying to humiliate Hamilton for it.

The deal for which you can really crucify the Angels in the past decade was Vernon Wells—and it wasn’t even a free agency signing. But it was done purely out of rage; or, purely out of owner Arte Moreno channeling his inner 1980s version of George Steinbrenner, after then-GM Tony Reagins couldn’t convince then-free agent Adrian Beltre to sign up after the 2010 season.

Moreno hit the ceiling hard enough to go through it and almost to the moon. When he came down, he gave Reagins one day to deal for Wells or else. Knowing now-retired manager Mike Scioscia preferred defense-uber-alles catchers, for all the good that did him anyway, Reagins sent big-hitting Mike Napoli to the Toronto Blue Jays, who needed catching help and a big bat, for Wells. Whoops.

Beltre, of course, went on with his just-ended, Hall of Fame-in-waiting career. Napoli went on to contribute mightily to World Series teams in Texas and Cleveland and won a ring while he was at it with the 2013 Boston Red Sox. Wells was a Gary Matthews, Jr.-level bust in Anaheim, so much so that the Angels choked on a lot of money on Wells’s inexplicably backloaded contract to move him to the New York Yankees, where his once-promising career ended in something close enough to a whimper.

The Angels now have a much-improved farm system; last spring it was rated the second-best in the American League West behind the Astros. Want to know how long it took for the Angels to recover the farm? How does eight years strike you?

At the same time Moreno went ballistic over losing out on Beltre and demanded the deal for Wells, the Angels made a sacrificial lamb of their scouting director Eddie Bane. Bane was made to pay for a series of bad drafts and worse free agency signings even though Bane was the lead instigator in the Angels’ landing a kid named Mike Trout.

Bane’s execution followed the Angels gutting most of their international scouting operation, and executing its director Clay Daniels, over bonus skimming shenanigans by underlings who kept Daniels in the dark about their doings. The Angels cashiered the man whose smarts brought them the likes of Francisco Rodriguez (one of the late secret weapons in the Angels’ 2002 world championship run), Ervin Santana, Kendrys Morales, and Erick Aybar in the first place.

It’s forgotten sometimes, too, that the Angels let Corbin escape in the first place. That happened when Reagins (under Moreno’s orders, perhaps?) made the 2010 non-waiver trade deadline deal that practically drained the best of the Angel farm (including then-promising Tyler Skaggs, too) in order to get Dan Haren, who may have led the American League in strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first full Angel season but who gave them 1.7 total wins above replacement-level for his two-and-a-half years with them.

They got Skaggs back in a convoluted three-team deal and Skaggs’s second Angels life has been riddled with injuries, too.

Maybe compared to all that, signing Harvey and Cahill even on a seasonal rental might actually wreak less havoc than the Angels have brought upon themselves in the past decade. Maybe. Might.