As the second-half begins, the surprising A's are a game ahead of the Yankees in the Wild Card race and, like the Yankees, are six games behind in their division. Oakland's success to this point has been almost entirely due to its pitching and defense, the latter of which boasts the best defensive efficiency in baseball. True, the A's get a big boost in run prevention from their home park, but only the Braves have allowed fewer runs per game on the road, which isn't the best news for the Yankee offense, which really needs to hit the ground running in the second half.
Continuing to rebuild despite their unexpected run, the A's have, in the last ten days, traded three of their top six pitchers by innings pitched. Joe Blanton, who was dealt to the Phillies yesterday for a trio of minor leaguers, is no big loss. His 4.96 ERA was the worst on the staff and the worst in the A's rotation by nearly a run and a half. Twenty-four-year-old lefty Dallas Braden, who had a rough rookie season last year but has continued to pitch well at triple-A, should be able to replace Blanton in the rotation with little difficulty.
Less clear-cut was the earlier deal that sent fragile ace Rich Harden and swing man Chad Gaudin to the Cubs. I understand why the A's traded Harden. Though immensely talented, Harden has been unable to stay healthy. After an injury-shortened 2005 campaign, he made just 13 starts in the 2006 and 2007 seasons combined and missed more than a month at the beginning of this season with a shoulder strain. After returning from the DL, however, he dominated over 11 starts (2.59 ERA, 77 K in 66 IP), and Billy Beane cashed him in while he was still healthy. I get that. After losing all of that time to injury, Harden is now 26 and starting to get expensive (the long-term deal he signed before the 2005 season pays him $4.5 million this year and has a $7 million option for 2009). I get that. What I don't get is the fact that Beane also included Chad Gaudin in the deal and only got back two aging prospects and one young low-risk/low-reward pitcher.
That's not to make Gaudin out to be something he's not. He's a short, 25-year-old righthander with a league-average career ERA, who fell something short of that in his only full season as a starter last year. Gaudin's also in his arbitration years. Still, given his innings-eater/swing-man role, he's unlikely to get terribly expensive (he settled for $1.775 million this past winter). Thus, Gaudin was an established and affordable major league arm that could have served as a safety net for younger starting options such as Braden or Gio Gonzalez (part of the Nick Swisher swag) as the A's continue to try to establish their next generation of starters.
The pitcher obtained from the Cubs, 22-year-old righty Sean Gallagher, who will pitch Sunday, replaces Harden in the rotation, but he was merely average in ten starts for the Cubs, and despite his youth, isn't projected to get much better than that (though he did ace his A's debut: 7 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 7 K). In making that swap, Beane was trading fragile brilliance for ordinary dependability.
Still, it could well pay off for him. Harden could go Mark Prior on the Cubs and their pitcher-hating manager, Lou Piniella, in which case Beane will have upgraded from Gaudin to Gallagher and gotten a couple of useful pieces for his trouble. And Matt Murton and Eric Patterson are useful pieces. Unused in Chicago, Murton has gone straight into the A's lineup as their left fielder. Once the Red Sox prospect who accompanied Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs in that famous three-way deadline deal in 2004, Murton is now 26, but still a high-on-base righty slugger, and the A's are likely hoping he'll become another Jack Cust if given proper exposure. Fact is, Murton could be better than Cust, as he's younger, hits for a better average, and doesn't strike out nearly as much.
Patterson, meanwhile, receives high marks for his well-rounded offensive game, but his cumulative offensive value is such that his ultimate position will have a great deal of impact on his overall worth. A poor defensive second baseman, Patterson could wind up in the outfield like his older brother Corey, but the A's have him at the keystone in triple-A, and likely envision him as a replacement for pending free agent Mark Ellis. A career .303/.366/.475 hitter in the minors who will steal 20-plus bags a year at a decent clip, Patterson's obvious comp is Ray Durham, himself a former Athletic. Patterson's no kid--a college product, he's 25--but he doesn't have many major league miles, so he should be a cheap alternative to Ellis this winter and for several years to come.
Still, if Harden leads the Cubs to their first World Series in 63 years and goes on to pick up a Cy Young or two, all of which are very likely if he can only stay healthy, Beane's return is going to look awfully light.
As it pertains to this series, the Yankees benefit from not running right into Harden out of the break, but also would have been better off facing Blanton tonight. Facing Gallagher on Sunday splits the difference to a certain degree. In place of Blanton, the Yanks face rookie Greg Smith tonight, himself rebuilding booty from the Dan Haren trade (Beane has now traded 60 percent of his 2007 rotation). A 24-year-old lefty, Smith has an ERA nearly a run higher on the road, but that road mark is a still-strong 3.86. Smith gets by on his curve and changeup, but is far from dominating. Over his last six starts, he's posted a 2.78 ERA, but has walked more than he's struck out.
Expect newest Yankee Richie Sexson to get a start against the lefty Smith with Jose Molina continuing to serve as personal catcher for Mike Mussina. That will leave Jason Giambi and Jorge Posada to duke it out over DH duties. The Yankees have never faced smith before and Giambi has faired better against lefties than switch-hitting Posada, but Smith smokes lefties (.205/.250/.265 on the season), so maybe the pitcher's splits trump the hitters' here.
Home Ballpark (multi-year Park Factors): Oakland Coliseum (93/93)
Who's Replaced Whom:
Matt Murton replaces Travis Buck (minors)
Donnie Murphy (DL) replaces Bobby Crosby (DL)
Jack Hannahan (bench) replaces Eric Chavez (DL) at third base
Ryan Sweeney (DL) replaces Chavez on the roster
Sean Gallagher replaces Rich Harden
Dallas Braden (minors) replaces Joe Blanton
Santiago Casilla (DL) replaces Keith Foulke (DL)
Jerry Blevins (minors) replaces Kiko Calero
someone replaces Chad Gaudin
1B - Daric Barton (L)
2B - Mark Ellis (R)
SS - Donnie Murphy (R)
3B - Jack Hannahan (L)
C - Kurt Suzuki (R)
RF - Emil Brown (R)
CF - Carlos Gonzalez (L)
LF - Matt Murton (R)
DH - Jack Cust (L)
L - Ryan Sweeney (OF)
R - Rajai Davis (OF)
R - Gregorio Petit (IF)
S - Rob Bowen (C)
R - Justin Duchscherer
R - Sean Gallagher
L - Dana Eveland
L - Greg Smith
R - Huston Street
L - Alan Embree
R - Santiago Casilla
R - Andrew Brown
R - Brad Ziegler
L - Dallas Braden
L - Jerry Blevins
15-day DL: L - Eric Chavez (3B), R - Bobby Crosby (SS), R - Frank Thomas (DH), R - Keith Foulke, R - Joey Devine
60-day DL: R - Mike Sweeney (1B)
R - Kurt Suzuki (C)
R - Matt Murton (LF)
L - Jack Cust (DH)
R - Emil Brown (RF)
L - Carlos Gonzalez (CF)
R - Mark Ellis (2B)
L - Daric Barton (1B)
L - Jack Hannahan (3B)
R - Donnie Murphy (SS)