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Closed wallet, tight roster catching up to A's in September

NBC Sports
Bob Melvin, James Kapriellian

When the Athletics build a lead, whether it’s the third inning or the eighth, whether by four runs or six, a wave of anxiety washes over a fan base. Hang on and hope for the best as distrust dominates the mind.

Call it battered-fan syndrome. It’s natural given what the fan base has endured in recent years – and acutely so in recent months.

There is the ballpark issue, born in the 1990s, still being fussed over and wrestled with as current owner John Fisher continues to hide behind the increasingly antagonistic public face of team president Dave Kaval. The battle rages on, providing us with the rare trifecta of old news, new news and no news.

More urgent, though, is the performance of the baseball team, which fewer and fewer folks are paying to watch, primarily because of raw feelings about ownership’s indifference toward Oakland and competitive achievement.

After winning back-to-back games for the second time this month, the A’s roll into Anaheim on Friday with no semblance of postseason security. We all know why.

The pitching has gone from surprisingly effective through the first two-thirds of the season to shockingly abysmal over the pivotal final third. Without Chris Bassitt, the starters can’t let the bullpen breathe. Frequent early departures, giving way to a ’pen throwing beach balls, have led to the evaporation of seemingly secure leads. Oakland’s staff ERA over the past four weeks, while going 9-14, is the worst in MLB, wavering between 6.00 and 7.00.

 

The starters shouldn’t be tired; they rarely last long enough to approach fatigue. The ‘pen is exhausted because those guys are pitching nearly as many innings as the starters. Poor Yusmeiro Petit is on pace for 79 appearances. Three others could top 70.

While the front office did a splendid job of refreshing the offense at the trade deadline -- adding Starling Marte, Josh Harrison and Yan Gomes -- the only significant acquisition for a laboring bullpen was Andrew Chafin, who has been quite good. The A’s can thank the green and gold leprechauns for Deolis Guerra, who has been solid.

Lou Trivino lost the closer role with an atrocious August. Petit’s workload has taken a toll. Sergio Romo has built quite a career on 1.5 pitches, and every hitter knows it. Jake Diekman is an adventure, throwing one clean inning for roughly every four in which he plays with fire – and sometimes gets burned. The number of blown saves is at 26.

It didn’t have to be this way.

With a rotation built largely on mid-to-back-end quality that overachieved through the first 100-plus games, the A’s stayed in the playoff race. They were 13 over .500 at the trade deadline. Two weeks later, they were 19 over.

In the five weeks since, they’ve gone 11-16, tumbling to the edge of wild-card contention. The collapse can be blamed mainly on the mound and Fisher’s wallet. When the law of averages caught up to the starters, it was inevitable that the bullpen would get cooked.

Ownership chose this route. The A’s have used a total of 48 players this season. Only three teams have used fewer. It’s particularly low for a team committed to exploited early-season momentum and seizing the moment.

The Giants, with the best record in MLB, have used 54 different players. The Los Angeles Dodgers, one game behind the Giants, are up to 61. The Houston Astros, seven games up on the A’s, have used 51. Tampa Bay, atop the American League, has used 59.

Teams making a genuine push for the postseason get greedy. They spend to address blatant needs. They don’t hamstring their manager with artificial limitations, leading to a roster so tight it’s squealing now that it’s being squeezed.

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Once upon a time, the priority in Oakland was winning. Winning games. Winning the division, the pennant, the World Series. Even when the mission was not completed, there was no mistaking the goal.

The Haas family, owners from 1980-1994, measured success by the standings. Then came Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann (1995-2005), who acquired a taste for triumph even while chasing a new ballpark. Team architect Billy Beane was famous/infamous for torturing himself and others, in pursuit of victory.

Fisher seems to have an altogether different mission. It’s ballpark first, second and third. With starters faltering and a bullpen stressed from overuse, he and Kaval are shopping in Vegas.

Though the Oakland front office did enough in July to indicate winning is desirable, events and non-events over the past month remind us it’s not the priority.