BCB: The A's got Josh Donaldson from the Cubs in the Rich Harden deal. He's been a revelation and likely one of your most pleasant surprises. Are you expecting that to continue, and who's the biggest disappointment on this year's A's?
AN: Donaldson took a long time to develop, but he appears to be for real. He may not hit .320 all year, but a .300/.370/.500 line is not out of the question. His BABIP is a bit high, but it was always high throughout his minor-league career as well so massive regression is not guaranteed. The ball jumps off his bat like a bullet, he hits a ton of line drives to all fields, and he's got enough speed to beat out a handful of infield hits. He's a doubles machine with enough power that some of those liners clear the fence for homers.
His improved performance actually started in the second half of 2012, when he hit .290/.356/.489 in about 200 plate appearances. He had always possessed good power and plate discipline in the minors, so those skills didn't come completely out of nowhere. I think that two things contributed to his success. The first is that he has improved his approach at the plate, becoming more selective and then punishing the ball when he gets the pitch he's looking for. The second is that he got out from behind the plate and moved to 3rd base. It's no secret that catching takes a big toll on players, and switching away from that position often can provide a boost to a player's offensive production.
While Donaldson's bat has taken everyone by surprise, his defense might actually be more impressive. He had a small amount of experience at 3rd base before 2012, but not much. After just a couple years of playing there regularly, though, he's already a whiz - there's no question that he will win a Gold Glove at that position at some point in his career.
As for the biggest disappointment, that would have to be Chris Young. Oakland acquired him from Arizona during the offseason, and he's been a total flop so far. He's hitting for a bit of power, but his .190/.272/.370 line is not getting it done. What's worse, he's also not playing all that well in the field, and his center field defense was supposed to be his main calling card (along with dingers).
At Athletics Nation, we chalk that up to a combination of factors. There are the usual ones: new team, new league, tough park to hit in. Then, there are the unique ones: This is the first time in Young's career that he hasn't been an everyday player (he's part of a 5-man rotation in the outfield), and he's been asked to learn two new positions (LF and RF) despite not having played a single Major League inning anywhere other than center in his six-year career in Arizona. That's a lot of change for one man to make all at once, and his swing wasn't exactly airtight heading into this year (career .316 OBP and 22.7% strikeout rate). He's already starting to show signs of life in the last couple weeks, and we are all hopeful that he'll come around and provide some value in the second half.
BCB: Cubs announcer Pat Hughes likes to make fun of Grant Balfour's name as being "Bal Four", a bad name for a pitcher. Is Balfour really this good, or is this a mirage?
AN: Balfour hasn't blown a save since April of 2012, and that's a statistical fluke no matter who does it. That being said, he has a 2.40 ERA over 168.2 innings in his three-year Oakland career, so it's tough to call him a mirage. He is a nasty reliever who has shown a consistent ability to keep the hits down while striking out a batter per inning. He has bouts of wildness and can sometimes be prone to the longball, so he is beatable, but he's been a very reliable reliever for years now and has really settled into the closer's role. He's become a huge fan favorite in Oakland (watch the right field bleachers for "Balfour Rage" when he comes into the game), and he's a very good bet to make the All-Star team.
BCB: Are you surprised at the A's competitiveness the last two years? They weren't expected to be this good, this soon. How can the Cubs mirror that success?
AN: Obviously, 2012 was as huge of a shock to A's fans as it was to everyone else. There were reasons for optimism, sure, but an AL West crown? Nobody, and I mean nobody, saw that coming. This year, though, it's not so shocking. Billy Beane took a good-but-flawed team and filled in the holes rather than praying for a repeat. He got a catcher with a bat (John Jaso), a shortstop with a pulse (Jed Lowrie), a theoretical upgrade in the outfield (Young over Jonny Gomes, though that hasn't worked out so well yet), and made the then-unpopular move of retaining Bartolo Colon to make sure that he had more than five good starting pitchers (since someone will always get hurt).
With those new pieces in place around a strong core of Cespedes/Moss/Reddick/Coco/Donaldson, a dominant bullpen, and his young starting pitchers, A's fans were very confident that the team could repeat the success of 2012.
As for the Cubs? Well, they already made the first move by getting their own Billy Beane (two of them, actually, with Epstein and Hoyer). Good teams start with good minds in the front office. The next move, in my opinion, is to build from within. Chicago should trade everyone of any value other than Rizzo, Castro, Samardzija, and Wood, for as many quality prospects as they can get, draft well, hope that some of those prospects pan out, and then augment all of that with the proper trade and free agent acquisitions. I believe that recent history has shown us that quality teams are not smashed together with high-priced free agent signings (Dodgers, Angels, Marlins), but rather built from the ground up around homegrown cores (Giants, Rangers, Cardinals, Reds, Rays, 2008 Phillies). Heck, even the Yankees built a dynasty on the backs of a homegrown core of Jeter/Pettitte/Rivera/Posada, and today their brightest hopes are based on Cano and Gardner rather than the squad of All-Star mercenaries around them. Signing stars isn't a bad thing, but I believe it's most effective as the finishing touch on a win-now team. Relying on that strategy alone is a great way to pay big money for past performance and end up disappointed.
(Note: "Homegrown" need not mean "drafted." In this case, I would define a player as homegrown if he appeared as a rookie or a sophomore for that team, even if he was acquired as a Major League ready prospect like Jarrod Parker or Anthony Rizzo.)
BCB: How is Bartolo Colon doing what he's doing at age 40?
AN: If I knew, I'd be making a lot of money coaching old baseball players. He was a staff ace in Cleveland and a Cy Young in Anaheim, so it's not like his success has come out of nowhere. He had major injury problems in his 30's, but those issues are behind him thanks to a long layoff and some experimental surgery.
These days, he throws absolutely nothing but strikes, he gets wicked movement on his fastball, and he induces a lot of weak contact. By avoiding walks, he makes his opponent beat him rather than giving out free baserunners. By getting ahead in counts, he forces opponents to swing at his pitches rather than forcing himself to challenge them. By keeping opponents swinging, he keeps his pitch count down so that he can work deep into games despite rarely breaking 100 pitches (only three times in 16 starts). By throwing almost exclusively fastballs and relying on control rather than velocity, he reduces the strain on his arm, allowing himself to stay durable in his old age.
Yeah, he got in trouble for some PED's last year, and there's no way to guarantee that this year's performance is natural (just as there isn't with any player in any sport), but nothing that he's doing screams foul play. He hasn't magically added a bunch of velocity or stamina or anything. I highly doubt that PED's help a pitcher hit the strike zone, and his durability is completely reasonable given his pitch selection and Oakland's conservative handling of him. He'll almost certainly come back to Earth at some point, but he's a legitimately good pitcher at age 40. To put it succinctly in a baseball cliche: He's become a pitcher, not a thrower.
BCB: Can you sum up A's fans feeling about the San Jose situation in words that won't take up hours of Cubs' fans time?
AN: I'll sum it up in five words: Get it over with already.
Bud Selig has been holding the A's hostage for years now. Honestly, I've stopped caring what happens. If the team stays in Oakland, awesome. No one likes change, and I'd love to keep my A's in Oakland forever. If they move to San Jose, awesome. They get to be a big-market team and actually spend some money now and then, and the games might actually attract fans. I see positives in both scenarios. I think that most fans have a strong preference one way or the other, but I just don't care anymore. I want it all to be over so that we (the team, the fans, everyone) can start planning for the future rather than living year-to-year under this shroud of uncertainty. Gun to my head, I'd rather keep the team in Oakland - it's closer to where I live and no one wants to see their team move, even if it's only 40 miles down the road. But the thing I want most is a final answer, one way or the other.