A five-day assessment of the A’s — don’t see many chinks in the armor

It went by way too quickly. I’ve filled in for John Hickey for five days and it’s already over. Now I head crosstown to the Giants to fill in there for five days before heading home.

Even in this short time, however, I saw enough to build a pretty strong assessment. The A’s are going to be very tough to beat again. They have the deepest rotation in the division. And they may have the ridiculous bullpen in baseball, even with Ryan Cook still working his way back from a shoulder issue and Eric O’Flaherty, recovering from Tommy John surgery, not likely to join the team until July.

I got to see all five starters throw and they all looked sharp. I’m quickly over my concerns about Scott Kazmir after watching him throw Wednesday. He throws strikes, works quickly, has a very good pitch arsenal, and beyond all that, it’s just nice to have a lefty back in the A’s rotation. He looks like the guy who pitched for Tampa Bay when he was at his best. He may not be able to match Bartolo Colon’s incredible year in 2013, but he shouldn’t have to. You can see all five of the starters winning anywhere from 12 to 15 games this year, backed by a bullpen I can’t wait to see terrorize the American League. Sonny Gray could be better than that if he shows the kind of stuff he did in the playoffs, both in terms of his stuff and his mental approach. So could Jarrod Parker, who is a breakout year waiting to happen. Even if someone falters, you’ve got Tommy Milone, who pitched four sterling shutout innings a few days ago. When Milone is your starter safety net, you are filthy deep.

I don’t see many issues with the position players, either. Josh Donaldson looks like he’s primed to back up his monster year of 2013 and become a bona fide star. I equate him a bit to Stephen Curry of the Warriors. Curry was shafted out of an All-Star spot two years ago when people didn’t recognize his total game until this year. Same thing happened to Donaldson last year, but now they know who he is. He’s not just a tremendous hitter with amazing power to all fields for a man his size, he’s a superb defensive third baseman and a good runner. Bottom line, he’s already a star. The rest of the world just doesn’t know it yet.
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Facing long odds, Nakajima will nonetheless give A’s another try and be well paid for it

Hiroyuki Nakajima made his arrival with the A’s Tuesday in a far less “Hiro-ic” atmosphere than he did a year ago, when he was showered with attention from the U.S. media and hordes of reporters from his native country of Japan.

In fact, using the word Nakajima tossed out regarding general manager Billy Beane at his memorable first press conference, there was absolutely nothing “sexy” about it. After reporting in at the A’s minor league spring training camp Tuesday at Papago Park, Nakajima was probably fortunate to even be playing in a spring game his first day due to an injury to prospect Addison Russell. And there was nothing too dramatic about his interview sessions, either.

Nakajima, who signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract last year but wound up never playing a day in the major leagues, is not on the 40-man roster and his chances of getting back onto it at this point are probably slim. Face it, the A’s made a mistake in signing the Japanese infield star last year, but at least they didn’t compound it by forcing him into the lineup. They quickly covered their error by acquiring Jed Lowrie, who had a terrific year. As for the money lost, that’s back pocket pain for John Fisher and Lew Wolff, not A’s fans.

A year from now, it will be just another what-if story to tell, with Russell likely moving into the shortstop spot for the next several years and nobody giving Nakajima a second thought. Even if he does show well in Sacramento and winds up in the majors, it’ll be as a bit player trying to help, and he’ll likely be gone from the organization at season’s end.

Manager Bob Melvin was frank about the 31-year-old Nakajima’s chances of playing in the majors with Oakland this year.

“There would probably have to be some injuries to guys we have here,” Melvin said. “But who knows? Anything could happen in baseball, and I think he realizes that, and I think that’s why he’s here working as hard as he is and trying to get back to the big leagues.”
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Parker looking for breakthrough year after “mediocre” 2013, other notes

Year Three of Jarrod Parker’s emergence into a mature, top-flight pitcher should be an interesting case study in 2014. Most people think, myself included, that he’s got it in him to be 15-20 game winner and a potential All-Star. Parker thinks so, too, which is one of his best attributes. He has a staff-ace outlook, and that’s something for a pitcher who’s still only 25.

Parker is ultra-serious about his craft, too, to the degree he often looks and sounds miserable, even after a good game. He’s a perfectionist. Part of it is his demeanor, too. He’s a quiet, cerebral type with high expectations of himself, and nothing is ever really quite good enough.

For instance, I was a little taken aback Monday when he said he thought his very creditable 2013 season was “mediocre” and not one that left him terribly satisfied. You can see some of his point. After all, his ERA went up a half-point from the previous year to 3.97. He gave up 14 more home runs and he finished with one less win even though he made more starts while finishing 12-8.

On the other hand, counting the playoffs, Parker exceeded 200 innings for the first time in his pro career, had a 19-start unbeaten streak –- longest in franchise history since Lefty Grove in 1931 (Lefty Grove!) — and won his only playoff start against Detroit in the American League Division Series. Most pitchers wouldn’t call that mediocre, but that’s the kind of bar Parker sets.

“I want to be great and continue getting where I need to be,” he said. “I always look and think there are adjustments that could have been made. There are just a lot of things you aren’t content with in a mediocre season. And in my mind, it was. I want to be better.”
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Elmore stuns Vogt in A’s talent-laden talent show … plus some real baseball news

The most highly anticipated event of the spring — the A’s first annual player talent show — was also the highlight of a day in which the A’s played to a fairly mundane 2-2 with the Chicago White Sox.

Organized by new closer Jim Johnson, who staged similar shows while with the Baltimore Orioles, the mid-morning show – held behind clubhouse doors in lieu of the usual morning workout – was a huge success, according to manager Bob Melvin and several players. Melvin said his players showed off surprising array of talent, and said the timing of the event came just at the right time to ease the monotony of mid-spring.

“I’ve seen several of these over the years, but I can’t remember a time when there was actually talent involved,” the manager said. :Usually it’s more laughing and booing somebody off the stage, where this was a very talented group, each and every guy. Jim Johnson said it best afterward, that we could have a fundraiser with the talent we had today.”
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Tidbit day highlighted by rare spring ejection for Melvin; Cook’s prognosis looking better

My first day in A’s camp this spring didn’t really need Bob Melvin getting run in a spring training game for basically saying nothing. There were enough other things going on to easily fill my notebook, but the Melvin ejection may have been the most intriguing development of the day.

Melvin almost seemed embarrassed that he was thrown out in the top of the seventh. He was tossed by home plate umpire Adam Hamari, who only started umpiring in the majors the middle of last season. Hamari, whom Melvin said afterward he didn’t know, called a first-pitch strike to A’s hitter Shane Peterson that Melvin thought was outside. The manager said, “Get ’em on the plate.” When Peterson was subsequently called out on strikes, Melvin said “you made your point” … and was promptly tossed.

“Usually the magic words come with four-letter words,” Melvin said, looking nonplussed. “What are you going to do? Usually when you get thrown out there’s some intent involved.”

Melvin, who was only ejected four times last season in 162 regular-season games, said it was only his second spring training ejection ever. His previous one came with Arizona, when he went out to plead the case of Luis Gonzalez, who had been ejected. This one seemed mild by comparision. And just a bit ridiculous.
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Game 154 wrapup: You can smell the champagne, and then it’s on to a week of questions

In for John Hickey …

One win and a Rangers loss. Or two wins and to hell with the Rangers. The A’s are on the doorstep of a second straight A.L. West division title, it’d definitely going to happen, and maybe the only surprising thing about that is that so many of them are unprepared for the scenario of a possible clinch Saturday, which would involve beating up on the Twins again and then waiting around — perhaps several hours — to see if the Rangers lose again to Kansas City.

As I wrote in the game story, the A’s have never really encountered this kind of clinching situation in their Oakland history. In 1992, they clinched the division on an off-day, and everybody simply gathered at a sports bar in Jack London Square to celebrate, according to clubhouse manager Steve Vucinich. But winning and then waiting? Never. So it should be intriguing to see what they do.
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Game 154 pre-game notes: Cook has a bullpen therapy session with Melvin, Young

In for John Hickey …

Struggling reliever Ryan Cook worked in the bullpen well before the game under the observation of Bob Melvin and Curt Young. The A’s know they have to get Cook straightened out before the playoffs, but Melvin is confident that will happen.

“If you remember, he went through one of these last year and he got through it,” Melvin said. “He’s a competitor and it bothers him when he’s not contributing how he’d like to. So he’s going to fight his way through it, and he’ll get through it. Sean Doolittle went through a little bit of a tough time, and so will Cookie.”
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Game 150 wrapup: As Melvin said, we’ll just move on, plus Trout’s monster shot and Parker’s amazing run

Not much to say for this one other than the fact that despite a 12-1 shellacking to the Angels, the A’s still reduced their magic number to 7 with Texas’ latest loss (the Rangers may never win again, it appears).

Have to say, though, the Mike Trout home run in the eighth inning off Pedro Figueroa was worth the price of admission, one of the longest blasts I’ve ever seen at the Coliseum, and I go back to the Kingman/McGwire/Canseco days. It hit off a window of a luxury suite in straightaway center, some 30 feet above the 400-foot sign. It was traveling on a line when it caromed off the glass, so one can only surmise how far the ball might have traveled unimpeded. Even to the point of where it struck the window, it was measured at 421 feet from home plate (and that doesn’t account for the height).

Jarrod Parker didn’t have it on this night, but it appears he might have still been feeling some after-effects of the illness that derailed him Sunday and he was pitching with an extra day’s rest. That’s good for most pitchers this time of year, but Parker has had such a magnificent rhythm pitching every five days, and he admitted afterward it felt like it’d been forever since he was out there.

So it’s 19 consecutive starts without a defeat, good for second in franchise history dating back to 1901. Not bad. Parker was 9-0 during that run but the A’s were only 12-7. It’s probably fitting that Parker didn’t equal or surpass Lefty Grove’s phenomenal run in 1931, when he went 21 starts without a defeat. After all, Grove actually won all 21 of those starts with 20 complete games. He also made 10 relief appearances during that streak. He was 31-4 that season.

With apologies to Parker, numbers like that deserve to remain No. 1.

Don’t forget our live chat with outfielder Josh Reddick Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. — a rare chance to connect with an A’s player online.


Game 142 wrapup: Suzuki could be the key to Straily’s big breakthrough

In for John Hickey …

Just 20 more to go. No one can predict how the American League West is going to play out, but when you get an effort like Dan Straily provided Saturday, you have to feel like your chances just got a lot better. Straily has arguably been Oakland’s most unpredictable starter, but you simply can’t ignore the fact that he is 3-0 since Kurt Suzuki has returned to the team.

For my money, it’s not coincidence. When you think about how many young pitchers the veteran catcher has helped nurture to prominence, you can’t help but believe there is method to Bob Melvin having had Suzuki behind the plate for all three of Straily’s starts since he’s been back.

Nothing against Derek Norris or Stephen Vogt, but Suzuki is a take-charge guy behind the plate and he knows how to maximize a pitcher’s strengths. He seems to have made a quick connection with Straily, who has been very confident and much more in control of his repertoire in recent starts. Part of that is maturity, of course, but it’s clear Suzuki understands that if Straily can just command his fastball and get ahead in counts, he can use his unreal slider as an out pitch.

While making sure to praise all of the A’s catchers and say that he feels comfortable pitching to any of them, Straily relayed a story that tipped off Suzuki’s edge. He said Suzuki came to him the first time he caught him and told him not to worry about bouncing his slider in the dirt, that if any of them got away, they would be completely on him. Suzuki, of course, is one of the best, if not the best, at blocking balls in the dirt, so Straily may have a bit more confidence snapping off that pitch knowing it’s not going to carom to the backstop. He’s been throwing some filthy ones lately. The one he struck out Brett Wallace with in the sixth inning Saturday, in particular, was an absolute beauty.

In my game story, I fashioned a case for Straily as a late-rush Rookie of the Year candidate. He has as many wins as any A.L. rookie starter. He’s made more starts, pitched more innings and struck out more batters than any other rookie starter, and he’s dropped his ERA to 4.15, which is close to his season low. The bet here is that Detroit shortstop Jose Iglesias is probably going to win the award, and Tampa Bay starter Chris Archer is probably a close second, but at least Straily has worked his way into the conversation.

Saturday may have been his best start yet and even though the A’s only gave him two runs of support — solo homers by Yoenis Cespedes and Jed Lowrie (both bombs) — he pitched coolly and confidently and made those runs stand up through seven innings. One walk and very few three-ball counts, too. Two hits. Seven strikeouts.

It’s a heck of a sign, particularly knowing that Straily’s next turn will be in Arlington against the Rangers next weekend. I was on the road trip in which Straily outdueled Yu Darvish in Texas, so he’s obviously not intimidated by pitching there. But you can bet Suzuki will be behind the plate for that one.


PREGAME NOTES: Melvin not worried about Balfour, Oakland manager recalls Petit

In for John Hickey …

Whew, like my iPhone, still trying to get my internal main battery charged up after covering the closest you can come to a perfect game without actually throwing one Friday night in San Francisco. Fortunately, I also covered Dallas Braden’s perfect game in May of 2010, so personally, I can live with the result. In fact, I may actually have seen something rarer. There have been 23 perfect games in major league history and I’ve seen one of those. But there have only been 12 perfect games broken up with two outs in the ninth and now I’ve seen one of those. And I was also on hand Nolan Ryan’s seventh. So I think my bucket list is complete on no-nos, perfectos and near-perfectos.

It’s interesting that A’s manager Bob Melvin had some insight into Yusmeiro Petit. He managed him in Arizona for a couple of seasons.

“I do remember him pitching some good games in San Francisco,” Melvin recalled. “That’s a good ballpark for him. He can keep the ball in the middle of the field. It’s a big park there. He’s able to keep the ball off the barrel of the bat when he’s good, and he mixes his pitches up. He’s got a little crossfire to him across his body, and there have been times when he’s been really good. Hats off to him, that was a terrific performance yesterday.”

Melvin also spoke to why Petit hasn’t been able to find a stable home in the majors.

“I think it’s because of some consistency issues with him,” he said. “He’ll be good at times and then he won’t be at time. His problem when I was with him is getting the ball up in the zone, and when you don’t throw that hard your fastball is fairly straight. You can give up some homers. But from what I see, he’s pitched pretty well. When he’s down in the zone, he’s much more difficult to deal with.”

–Melvin said Grant Balfour, who threw 37 pitches in a rocky ninth inning Friday, isn’t available today against the Astros and Sunday will depend on how Balfour feels. While Balfour has lost a bit of stuff in recent outings and hasn’t been all that sharp, either, the manager isn’t too worried.

“He may be trying to overthrow his fastball a little bit,” Melvin said. “He had three days off. If you really look at how the inning went down, there’s an infield hit, a potential double play ball, a poke to right. He didn’t walk anybody. So granted his stuff may not have been as crisp as it was earlier in the year, but there are going to be periods of time when struggle a little bit and it’s not just the closer. It could be anybody, but it’s more magnified when it is the closer because he’s the last line of defense.”

Sean Doolittle went through a similar rough patch recently and now seems to be back in form.

“You have to stay confident with those guys and sometimes you have to let them fail,” Melvin said. “But sometimes it’s a little easier to make an adjustment with a setup guy than the closer.”

–Coco Crisp is not in the lineup, but it’s a schedule day-after-night off day.

“This day was on the docket for him,” Melvin said. “We try to be careful with him and keep him healthy. He plays hard, and he plays that style every inning of every game, so we’ve gotten ourselves in trouble at times maybe pushing him a little too far, with the wrist on top of that. So it’s always difficult to do, it’s not like I enjoy giving him a day off at this point in time, but we feel it’s the prudent thing to do. We have a game tomorrow and then another off day after that, then 16 in a row. Again, it’s difficult to do, but sometimes you have to do difficult things.”

Jed Lowrie’s the leadoff man, and here are the full lineups:

OAK: SS Lowrie, CF Young, 3B Donaldson, LF Cespedes, 1B Freiman, 2B Callaspo, DH Norris, RF Choice, C Suzuki. RHP Straily (8-7, 4.38)

HOU: SS Villar, 2B Altuve, RF Crowe, DH Castro, 3B Dominguez, LF Carter, 1B Wallace, C Pagnozzi, CF Barnes. LHP Oberholtzer (4-1, 2.79)