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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the A's with Athletics Nation

Jeremy Koo of Athletics Nation answered some questions about the A's before this week's three-game series in Oakland.

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For the past few years, the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics have been the two best teams in the American League. They have both won more games than any other AL team since the start of the 2012 season, and are the only AL teams to have made the playoffs in each of the past three seasons.

Everyone knows about the two closely-contested playoff series between these two franchises, but the regular season series have been very competitive as well. In order to get ready for another great series, we spoke with Jeremy Koo of Athletics Nation.

1. From an outsider’s perspective, A’s general manager Billy Beane made some questionable moves this offseason. There was plenty of mystery surrounding the team in spring training, but that has quickly evaporated. Now, the A’s are 16-30 and in last place in the AL West. What’s your assessment of Oakland’s season so far?

These A’s are not as bad as their record indicates. There have really been three phases to these first 46 games. Out of the gate there was optimism that with a few breaks the A’s could pull off another run at the postseason. The A’s started the year 8-8 and set a major league record with five shutouts in their first 12 games.

Then it all just turned to a hell scape of one-run losses. The A’s would get a lead and cough it up. They would make a run at catching up and come up just short. From April 24 to May 16, they went 5-16, 11 of them were one-run losses, and eight losses were pinned to the bullpen.

Lately, the bullpen has gone from merely nuclear-level bad to merely conventionally bad, but the hitting has cooled down thanks to a little bit of regression and injuries to Ben Zobrist and Ike Davis. Zobrist comes back from his rehab assignment for this series.

2. With early season poor performances come trade rumor vultures, such as the ones surrounding starter Scott Kazmir at the moment. Beane has never been shy about making trades, so how much longer do you think Kazmir will remain in an A’s uniform?

Scott Kazmir has pitched well enough that he probably should receive a qualifying offer at season’s end if he remains with the A’s, so that has to be factored into any decision to move Kazmir. It’s been a little frustrating to hear about trade rumors in the middle of May, but I guess it’s to be expected.

Headline pitching trades just don’t happen until July, though whether there’s a deadline deal or one around the Fourth of July is impossible to say. And who knows, the A’s could turn it around.

3. One of the pleasant surprises for the A’s this season has been Marcus Semien, who they acquired in the Jeff Samardzija trade this winter. His numbers are impressive, but do you think they are sustainable? How has he looked at shortstop?

Marcus Semien is the best hitting shortstop in the American League if you go by wRC+, and he’s been a delightful surprise coming out of the Jeff Samardzija trade. His BABIP of .341 has a little bit to do with it, but he’s also striking out at his lowest career rate and has already matched his 2014 home run total of six. He’s also already swiped seven bags.

Semien has been as good on offense as he has been terrible on defense. His 16 errors leads the American League by six at the start of Sunday’s play, and he’s run into a terrible habit of throwing low to his first basemen. I’m afraid every time I see him involved in a defensive play. It was so bad that the A’s brought back Ron Washington as a special infield instructor to try to work out what some of us are calling the yips, though of course you would never hear anybody from the team call it that.

4. Speaking of surprises, Stephen Vogt has been a monster in the middle of the A’s lineup this season, hitting .309/.408/.610 with 10 home runs in 41 games. Was this sort of breakout expected?

Even with his improvement in 2014, I don’t think anyone was expecting this level of production, where he already has more home runs in 41 games than he did in 84 last year. Stephen Vogt represents everything good about Billy Beane’s time with the A’s. He’s not going to sell any jeans, but he came from humble beginnings as a 12th round draft pick, and started his career 0-for-34 before hitting his first hit, a home run.

Vogt actually didn’t play catcher for most of 2014 because he was dealing with a foot problem that kept him at first base. Now that he had offseason surgery and rest, he’s being treated like the primary catcher, starting primarily against righties and generally getting one game off each series.

5. The Tigers will (thankfully) miss Sonny Gray in the upcoming series. The A’s have had plenty of talented pitchers come through their system in the last 10-15 years. Where does Gray rank on the list among the likes of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, etc.? Is there any chance Gray becomes the one pitcher that Beane locks up to a long-term contract?

I think Sonny Gray will rank up there with the early 2000s Hudson, Mulder, Zito trio. There was a start on April 22 where Stephen Vogt was quoted saying, "He didn’t have his best stuff tonight." He gave up one run and struck out seven in seven innings. He’ll make up pitches on the fly when his good stuff isn’t working. When he gets into trouble, he seems to always found a way out of it. There’s a reason he was given the ball, as a rookie, for Game 5 against the Tigers in 2013 over Bartolo Colon. He’s only gotten better since.

It’s so hard to know what Beane will do with extensions because he gives so few out, and the few he has given have often bitten him in the butt. Mark Kotsay was extended and immediately turned into a replacement player. Coco Crisp’s neck issue has since turned into a degenerative condition for which surgery would end his career. There are even reports from his rehabilitation assignment that Sean Doolittle, signed to an arbitration years buyout last year, may be experiencing a drop in velocity.

It would probably take a very team-friendly deal for Beane to consider an arbitration buyout or extension. Of course, Sonny has seen teammates Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin go under the knife for Tommy John Surgery before they got their chances for a big arbitration payday. On the other hand, some of us were agitating for Josh Donaldson to get a Kyle Seager-type extension, and instead Beane just traded Donaldson away.

6. Has Billy Butler brought his barbecue sauce to Oakland yet? Or is he embracing the California lifestyle and changing his "Country Breakfast" moniker to something more heart-healthy?

Billy’s Hit It A Ton BBQ Sauce has, in fact, made it to the Bay Area, though I have not tried it yet. Butler and his teammates have been making an "eat it out of the bowl" signal to celebrate his base hits, and he stars in one of the "Green Collar Baseball" commercials.

★★★

Once again, a big thank you to Jeremy and the rest of the Athletics Nation staff for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to check out Athletics Nation (and like them on Facebook!) all season long for A's news and analysis!