Inside Look: Oakland Athletics

Old Oakland Athletics baseball logoSince we only see the A’s come to town once or twice a decade, MetsToday called on Mitchell Plitnick of the Athletic Supporters blog to give us the inside scoop on Oakland.

Herewith are 10 questions answered regarding the A’s:

1. The A’s are traditionally a second-half team, but are currently six games behind the Angels. Do you have faith in the team’s ability to make up enough ground to make the postseason, and why (or why not)?

I’ve believed since March that the A’s can win this division and that the Angels are a good team, but a flawed one. I still believe those things. The Angels are a team that is heavily dependent on batting average, the most volatile of offensive indicators. That has worked for them in the past, and it’s worked thus far this year. But teams like that are prone to slumps, and the Angels will slump some time in the second half. The question will be whether the A’s will be able to take advantage. And I think the answer to that will depend almost entirely on health. The A’s have been hurt badly by injuries this year and have a lot of fragile players on their roster. They’ve done a good job in overcoming them, but to make the run they’ll need to take the West, they’ll need to be healthy and get positive contributions from guys like Rich Harden, Mike Piazza, Huston Street and Justin Duchscherer.

2. Give us your opinion of Bob Geren. Does he have a significant impact on the team, or is he merely executing Billy Beane’s formula?

Well, in my view, MLB managers have much less influence on a team’s fortunes than NFL or NBA coaches. I also think that every GM puts a certain team together and any manager has to work within the system that his GM puts together, so Beane isn’t different from other GMs in that regard. Having said that, though, it’s clear that Beane sees a manager as someone whose job it is to implement his decisions, not as someone who is really a major part of those decisions. Art Howe, Ken Macha and now Geren are all relatively quiet types who go along with Beane’s system. Neither Macha nor Howe were particularly dynamic or impressive managers—I thought Howe’s disastrous time with the Mets was entirely predictable. But implementing Beane’s system also requires some considerable skill, because Beane will always get flawed players who have other strengths, so his teams are never like the Yankees, for instance, where the starting lineup, rotation and bullpen roles are very clear and guys are simply put into those slots. Geren’s done pretty well, I think, in his first year.

3. Dan Johnson is something of an eternal enigma. Is this guy ever going to be the monster hitter that his skills suggest he can be?

I’m not sure I agree that Johnson’s skills suggest a monster hitter, but rather a good one. He had an awful year in 2006, and he will always be prone to long slumps. He is kind of an odd case in that he doesn’t strike out that much for a power hitter, yet he also isn’t a guy you expect to hit .300. As a hitter, Johnson’s kind of a jack of all trades but master of none. He has power, but not huge power. He’s patient at the plate, but not the sort of guy that will draw over 100 walks. A .280 hitter, but not a .300+ guy. In the field, he’s a fine fielder, but he’s not going to make anyone forget Keith Hernandez. I liken him to a guy like Tino Martinez—a good enough player at first that you don’t need to worry about the position, but not a huge strength there either.

4. The fifth spot in the rotation has been a trouble spot for the A’s. How do you feel about Lenny DiNardo so far, and what can we expect from him against the Mets on Friday?

DiNardo’s done a great job despite being handled very badly by Geren early on. Geren just couldn’t find him consistent work, but he’s performed whenever called upon and really saved the team’s cookies when they needed another starter in late May. His best pitch is his curveball, but his strength is more in his command than in his stuff. He really doesn’t have an out pitch, but he gets a lot of ground balls and hardly ever gives up homers. He has gotten pretty lucky on hits on balls in play this year, which accounts for some of his low ERA. He’s pitched well, but with only 21 strikeouts in 40.2 innings, he is a guy who can be hit. For the Mets, he’s a double-edged sword. DiNardo hasn’t had a lot of major league experience, but at 27 he’s not as young as some think either. He’s a smart pitcher who pitches to his strengths and his excellent command without great stuff can really frustrate a team that has been in a hitting slump like the Mets. On the other hand, with no out pitch, a patient team that can foul off a lot of pitches and work the count will get fat pitches they can drive. When the Mets are right, that describes them, so they’ll have their opportunities in this game.

5. We know about Huston Street. Tell us about the arms bridging the gap between the starter and Street.

Well, Street remains on the disabled list, as does the top setup guy, Justin Duchscherer, so things in the A’s pen are in a serious state of flux. The #2 right handed setup man, Kiko Calero, is having a terrible year. Among the pieces that the A’s started the season with, only Alan Embree has exceeded expectations. He has really shocked me, as he’s not someone I put a lot of stock in, but he has been the A’s closer since Street went down and he’s been brilliant. With all the injuries and ineffectiveness, the A’s have brought in some younger pitchers, like Santiago Casilla who’s been outstanding, and Ron Flores. They’re getting by for now, but the pen clearly needs some help and the A’s are very much looking for seven innings whenever they can get them from their starters. For the Mets, trying to get into that bullpen should be a major strategic objective.

6. Generally speaking, the A’s don’t bunt and rarely steal. Will they stick to that philosophy in the NL park, and without a DH?

No reason to change this approach without a DH. Many NL teams also bunt and steal rarely. Teams have generally found very little use for small ball tactics in a high octane era like this one, which is why even teams that bunt or steal relatively often don’t do so at anywhere near the rates of 15-20 years ago. The Mets steal a lot, but, like their crosstown rivals run by Willie Randolph’s mentor, they do so because they are remarkably successful at it, so it’s much less of a risk. The A’s are a slow team, so stealing is not an option, and bunting, well, I’m sure their pitchers will lay down a few.

7. How will the lineup be affected by the lack of a DH? Does Swisher go to the outfield?

Swish mostly plays the outfield, while Dan Johnson plays first and Jack Cust gets most of the DH time. Cust will be in a pinch-hitting role most likely for this series, though I’d stick him in the outfield against El Duque, who has a lot of problems against lefties, especially the take-and-rake kind like Cust.

8. Are you looking forward to seeing any Mets player in particular? How do feel about interleague play overall?

Well, while I’m a writer for Athletic Supporters, I also write on MVN for The Bronx Block, and am a lifelong Yankee fan and a born and raised New Yorker living in exile in California. So I follow the Mets somewhat anyway and seeing them here is no big treat. In fact, there isn’t a lot of buzz in the Bay Area around this series, although that can probably be explained by the Yankees actually coming to San Francisco the same weekend. Bottom line though, I am not a fan of interleague play. Yes, it’s cute to watch the Yankees play the Mets and the A’s play the Giants. But other than those natural rivalries, it’s not all that interesting. And interleague play wreaks so much havoc with the schedule and with competitive balance between contending teams that I would love to see it go. I think if it stays it should be limited to two series, pitting natural rivals against each other and that’s it. Six games.

9. Tie game, ninth inning, two outs, man on third. What A’s hitter do you want up in that situation?

Nick Swisher, no question. He’s their best hitter all around, and their best hitter for average and, if he doesn’t get his pitch, he’ll take the walk and give the next guy a shot rather than try to force the issue and put a bad ball in play.

10. During the offseason, we heard a lot of Mets-A’s rumors involving Rich Harden, Joe Blanton, Lastings Milledge, and Aaron Heilman. Any new rumors heard out on the West Coast involving the two teams?

No, but that doesn’t mean much. With the A’s, they frequently pull off the deal you didn’t hear rumored. Beane tends to play things very close to the vest and often when you hear a rumor from the A’s, it’s been planted to throw people off the scent of what Beane is really trying to do. That said, I very much doubt Blanton is going to be traded, and I doubt even more that Harden looks very desirable for the Mets. Also, given the maturity issues that still seem to be at play with Milledge, I don’t think he’s what the A’s are after, since they’ll likely be looking for someone to help this year. I’d bet a lot of money that the A’s will pull off a trade or two before July 31, but I don’t see much of a fit with the Mets.

Thanks again to Mitchell Plitnick of the Athletic Supporters for his comprehensive insights. Be sure to check out that blog for A’s info, as well as The Bronx Block for his thoughts on the Yankees.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.