A's need offense to step up down stretch
Young arms in rotation prove worthy of high expectations
OAKLAND -- The A's turned some heads during the offseason when they traded for Matt Holliday and signed veteran free agents Jason Giambi, Nomar Garciaparra and Orlando Cabrera.
It just didn't seem to fit the previously started plan to rebuild, but general manager Billy Beane insisted it did. The centerpiece of the rebuilding project was a group of highly touted young pitchers, and Beane felt an improved offense would take pressure off the prospects.
It hasn't quite worked out that way. The offense hasn't improved much, if at all. Holliday, a three-time National League All-Star and a free agent-to-be, and Cabrera each had a pedestrian first half, Giambi in July dropped to the bottom of the American League in batting average and Garciaparra spent far more time on the disabled list than on the field.
Alas, the young pitching proved -- for the most part -- to be worthy of the high expectations it will face going forward. With a starting rotation that features two 21-year-olds, a 22-year-old and nobody older than 25 or with more than a year of rotation experience, the A's future is bright on the mound.
But unless Cabrera, Giambi, Holliday and Garciaparra pick it up at the plate in the second half, Oakland has little shot at making a charge into playoff contention. Then again, with the Trade Deadline looming, some or all of them might not even be around for such a run.
Club MVP: Catcher Kurt Suzuki handles a young and inexperienced starting pitcher every night, he leads the AL in starts, and he leads the regulars who have been with the team since Opening Day in batting average. He's been Oakland's lone rock of consistency.
Call him "Ace": Left-hander Dallas Braden, 25, seemed an unlikely choice as the Opening Night starter when Spring Training opened, but he earned the honor and spent the first half proving he deserved it with his performance on the field and leadership among his young peers. His run support was miserable, so his win-loss record is far less a reflection than his ERA of how well he's pitched.
Greatest strength: Though the starters have been inconsistent, save Braden and Josh Outman, who is out of the year after needing Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in June, the A's still send a starting pitcher out every night with the talent to shut the other team down. Lefty Brett Anderson, 21; righty Trevor Cahill, 21; righty Vin Mazzaro, 22; and lefty Gio Gonzalez, 23, have the kind of stuff that makes opposing pitching coaches jealous.
Biggest problems: In addition to the struggles of the big boys, including Jack Cust, the A's haven't had any of their young regulars, with the exception of Suzuki, show significant improvement. Also a major issue, for the fourth consecutive season, is health. Two-time All-Star Justin Duchscherer (right elbow) won't make his 2009 debut until August, if at all; third baseman Eric Chavez (back surgery) and projected closer Joey Devine (Tommy John surgery) will miss the whole season; second baseman Mark Ellis (left calf) spent 60 days on the DL, and the A's are on pace to break the DL-use record they've re-set the past two years.
Biggest surprise: Righty Andrew Bailey was a struggling starter in Double-A ball late last June. Moved to the bullpen for the second half, he dominated, earning a trip to the Arizona Fall League and big league Spring Training. He made the team as a glorified mop-up man, but he quickly moved up the ladder of responsibility and is now closing games and is Oakland's 2009 All-Star Game representative.
Team needs: Offense, offense, offense. And good health. And going forward, with an eye toward 2010 and beyond, the team, desperately needs help on the left side of the infield. That surely will be on the asking list in most trade discussions Beane has with other GMs.
He said it: "I think this team has enough talent to go on a big run. With the young pitchers we have, if myself and the rest of the offense gets it going, we could have a great second half." -- Giambi
Mark your calendar: The A's open the second half with a tough stretch (July 16-Aug. 6) against the Angels, Twins, Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays -- without a day off. How they come out of that will determine whether the rest of the schedule means something or will serve as an extended audition for anyone playing well in the high Minors.
Fearless second-half prediction: Holliday, Cabrera and solid righty reliever Michael Wuertz will be dealt before the Trade Deadline, and Bailey will make a run at AL Rookie of the Year honors.
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.