So, how did the A's become the season's best story? - NBC Sports

So, how did the A's become the season's best story?
Offseason trades, roster shuffles turned rebuilding team into contender
October 5, 2012, 1:10 pm
  • Over their last 101 games since being swept in Arizona on June 8-10, the A's have won just more than two of every three - 68-33. Despite a brutal down-the-stretch schedule that included a 10-game, Detroit-New York-Texas trip among 23 of 38 on the road, the A's are 27-11 since Aug. 23.
  • And as you may have heard, the A's won eight of their last nine games, including six in a row, to cap a comeback from 13 games behind and steal away the AL West title from the Texas Rangers on the final day - the only day they occupied first place all season.

"Our timing obviously was pretty good,'' manager Bob Melvin said during a television interview amidst the division-title celebration.

To know how unexpected and remarkable all of this is, let's take you back in time. For those rightfully asking how could all the so-called experts miss on this team? Well, coming out of spring training here's who the A's were:

  • Allowing veteran Josh Willingham - their top 2011 slugger - leave for a three-year, $21-million free-agent deal with the Minnesota Twins hardly was a surprise.

But when A's vice president/general manager Billy Beane acquired a handful of prospects in off-season deals for Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey - key young pitchers who were at least three seasons away from free agency - the signal seemed clear.

The A's received a nice return in terms of promising young talent - Josh Reddick (Bailey), Tommy Milone (Gonzalez), Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook and Colin Cowgill (Cahill) - but with the league's lowest payroll and a roster teeming with rookies, they appeared to be building for 2013 and beyond.

Instead, they ended with a 20-game improvement from their 74-88 finish in 2011.

  • Who loses their projected regular third baseman in the very first full-squad workout?

That's when Scott Sizemore suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament that required season-ending surgery - beginning a season-long, hot-corner carousel led by converted catchers Josh Donaldson and Brandon Inge.

The former inherited the job from Sizemore, lost it in April when he couldn't lift his batting average much above .100, went back to the minors in late-June, and has a .290/.356/.489 slash line since regaining the job in mid-August, when the latter went down for the season due to a shoulder injury.

  • Remember the spring circus that was Manny Ramirez? It proved to be nothing more than a misguided mirage, as he never made it back from his second performance-enhancing drug-related suspension.

Instead, left with at-bats that Ramirez would have sucked up, Yoenis Cespedes and Reddick blossomed. How valuable has Cespedes been? The A's are 82-46 with him, and 12-22 without him.

And a veteran OF/DH triumvirate of Coco Crisp, Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith helped fuel a home-run-reliant lineup that finished in the middle of the AL pack in runs scored. So who cares if the A's also have set an AL record for strikeouts?

In fact, of all the A's 'no-way' numbers and accomplishments, here is perhaps the hardest to fathom: Since the All-Star break, the A's - who play in arguably the league's least-hitter-friendly home park - lead the American League in runs scored. Here's the breakdown for the five AL playoff teams:

Team second-half runs
Oakland - 394
New York - 392
Texas - 365
Baltimore - 361
Detroit - 339

  • Only one member of the starting rotation that opened the season has made it to the A's playoff rotation.

Bartolo Colon was suspended for PED use in late-August after 24 starts and 152.1 innings. Brandon McCarthy suffered a frightening head injury when hit by a line drive on Sept. 5, and in between disabled-list stints, made only 18 starts. Tyson Ross is a seldom-used reliever these days, and Graham Godfrey is a footnote.

That leaves Milone, joined by rookies Parker, A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily, which has helped produced a slew of club records for rookie pitchers including wins (53), games (317), innings (850) and strikeouts (684).

But the unlikeliest rookie pitcher success story is left-handed reliever Sean Doolittle, who has been pitching professionally only since last fall's instructional league. That's when the former University of Virginia slugger/pitcher turned exclusively to a mid-90s fastball and big breaking ball that is so tough on left-handed hitters. And Melvin now has another left-handed option to join veteran Jerry Blevins.

The A's did get ace Brett Anderson back from Tommy John surgery for only six starts, and he's a post-season possibility after being out since Sept 19. McCarthy also wants to return if the A's go deep into the post-season. But Dallas Braden never even pitched an inning.

  • Remember when Daric Barton was the A's first baseman of the future? That's not going to happen, and of the eight players who have made starts at first base this season, the two left standing are converted outfielder Brandon Moss and long-time prospect Cris Carter.

There still is long-term hope for young second baseman Jemile Weeks, but his .296 on-base percentage finally caught up to him mid-season. That, in part, prompted Beane to do something he usually wouldn't - add a big contract midstream in shortstop Stephen Drew - and move Cliff Pennington to second to put yet another player out of his original position.

(Of course, to help get that done financially, Beane dealt catcher Kurt Suzuki - the A's most-established veteran player - to the Nationals, and went with the platoon of rookie Derek Norris and journeyman pick-up George Kottaras.)

So, no, these aren't the same A's that began the season. And in this case, that's turned out to be a very good thing.

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