How to get fired…

If Ken Macha and Kurt Young still have jobs on Monday I’ll be very surprised. The Oakland A’s were in first place for 53 of the last 57 days and lost it ultimately because it’s obvious that neither man has the foggiest notion of how to run a pitching staff.

What has been absolutely remarkable about the A’s performance this past season is that they were a contender, for the fifth year in a row, because of hitting and not pitching. The A’s pitching staff has been in trouble all year. Their first problem was that every fan who has followed the AL West for the past four years could figure out that was apparently beyond A’s General Manager, Billy Beane. Namely, I knew, heck the guy who sets up our conference rooms at work knew, that Arthur Rhodes was no closer. Hell, Rhodes hasn’t even been a serviceable set-up guy except for in 2001, when he had a career year and was nearly unhittable. The mid-season trade for Octavio Dotel was really no help. The A’s went from a lefty who relies too much on an eminently hittable fast ball to a righty who relies too much on an eminently hittable fast ball. Granted, Dotel was an improvement over Rhodes, but putting Frank Menechino out there to throw knucklers in the 9th probably would have also been an improvement.

Tim Hudson going down with the same oblique muscle strain that’s made him ineffective in the past four post-season runs and being out for six weeks didn’t help either. Nor Mark Redman’s inability to win games at home. Nor did the fact that without a closer the rest of bullpen were getting overused and used in situations that didn’t suit their, admittedly meager, talents. The only bullpen bright spots this year were the long relief work of Justin Duchscherer and Ricardo Rincon’s second half mastery of the role of left-handed specialist. Much as I love watching Chad Bradford pitch, this was not his year, and Jim Mecir, much as I hate to say it, should probably think about hanging up his glove. But these are the things that Macha and Young couldn’t help. You can’t expect a manager or a pitching coach to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and that’s really what the A’s bullpen in 2004 has been.

The A’s lucked out by being in the same division as the Mariners, who by far had the worst pen in the league. Their proximity made the A’s relievers look better than they were. Of course that cuts the other way too. The A’s have also been in close proximity to the best pen in the league, in Anaheim. But I suspect that even if you’d handed Macha and Young Donnelly, Frankie Rodriquez, Scott Shields, Kevin Gregg and Troy Percival they’d still manhandle their starters and end up losing too many games because of it.

The real key to why I think Macha and Young will get the axe can be summed up in two words – Mark Mulder. Mulder has been genuinely awful for the past month and a half. His start on Friday night was the worst of the lot by far (only going two innings and giving up four runs) but the previous start was not much better (getting yanked in the fourth after giving up four runs), and both of those shellings were against the same team. I’ve watched the radar gun when in Mulder’s last four starts and the problem is, to me anyway, obvious. When Mark’s on form he throws a 93 to 94 mph fastball. In the past four starts he’s struggled to get that pitch up to 87 mph. He’s either got a dead arm or he’s developed some kind of mental block or some other funky mechanical problem. A pitching coach and manager who insist on going with guy whose fastball has lost 6 to 7 mph and who cannot pitch his way out of trouble when they are in a death strangle with an offensive powerhouse like the Angels are going to have a hard time explaining why they should be allowed to come back to work in the spring. This is especially true when you consider Billy Beane’s notorious temper and need to place blame when things don’t go well.

The guys on the A’s coaching staff who have little or nothing to worry about are hitting coach Dave Hudgens, 3rd Base/infield coach Ron Washington and 1st Base/outfield coach Brad Fischer. The A’s offense this season was greatly improved. Four guys, Erubiel Durazo, Mark Kotsay, Eric Byrnes and Scott Hatteberg spent most of the season hitting at or above .300, and that’s better than should be expected from any of them. Durazo and Kotsay will both finish the season with batting averages above .300. Marco Scutaro and Damien Miller both produced above expectations, and Eric Chavez managed to hit 29 home runs and lead the league in walks – remarkable because Chavez missed 6 weeks of the season with a stint on the DL. Wash and Fish also managed to coach the A’s into the best defensive team in the league, which is astounding considering that Billy Beane is outspoken in his view that teams overpay for defense and that he does not consider it a priority. Wash and Fish are not dealing with the cream of the crop defensively here folks. They both deserve big pats on the back for a job very well done.

So, it’s pretty much all over but the shouting. All but one playoff spot has been decided. That left me wondering how I did with my end of season picks that I made this past spring. This is what I predicted for the National League:

Winner of NL East – Philadelphia
Winner of NL West – San Diego
Winner of NL Central – Chicago
NL Wildcard winner – Houston

This is how it’s actually turned out so far:

NL East – Atlanta
NL West – Los Angeles
NL Central – St. Louis
NL Wildcard – still undecided but considering the Giants choked in the 9th today and turned a 3-0 lead into a 3-7 loss I’d bet money it’ll be Houston

So, I did pretty badly there. Philly not only didn’t win the NL East, they were scuffling pretty much all season and Larry Bowa has gotten the axe. I looked at their roster in the spring and figured they were an ace in the hole. I conveniently forgot that Bowa is not only insane but that he saps the will to win out of his players. I also forgot that, as far as managers go, Bobby Cox is GOD. Atlanta’s roster is almost completely different from the team they took into the playoffs last season, but if you give Bobby Cox a halfway workable set of players he’ll find a way to win it.

I’m mad at myself for not picking LA to win the NL West. Jim Tracy is a good manager, and Paul DePodesta was Billy Beane’s right arm for the last few years in Oakland. DePodesta was bound to find a way to fill the holes in the Dodgers’ roster without spending much money, and a new owner who wants to win doesn’t hurt anything. Still, the Padres put on a respectable show. If they can find replacements for Captain Bringdown (Phil Nevin) and Major Moaner (Ryan Klesko) who can produce at the plate they’ll be tough to beat next year.

I totally blew it with the NL Central. The Cubs?!?!?! What was I thinking. Probably that someone else would be managing and that Dusty Baker wouldn’t have a chance to destroy the arms of Zambrano, Prior and Wood. Someone really does need to clue Dusty in to concept of fatigue and the need for the body to recover. I was also probably figuring that Sammy Sosa wouldn’t spend most of the season afraid of the plate. I sure as hell wasn’t counting on Aramis Ramirez to carry Chicago into the postseason. That he nearly did it is to his credit. that he had to try tells you all you need to know about baseball’s second most cursed team. At least I know I’m not the only fan out there who was pretty much totally surprised by the Cards being such a juggernaut this year.

I hope the Astros don’t make a total NL monkey out of me tomorrow. I don’t think they will. The Rocket is starting and they’re playing the Rockies. Besides, even if they lose the pitiful and dreadful 2004 SF Giants would have to win in order to rain on their parade. The less said about that team the better.

Here’s my calls for the American League:

Winner of AL East – Boston
Winner of AL West – Anaheim
Winner of AL Central – Kansas City
AL Wildcard winner – New York

And here’s how it actually turned out:

AL East – New York
AL West – Anaheim
AL Central – Minnesota
Al Wildcard – Boston

Ok, so a lot better here. If we’re just going with who got into the post season I called three of four. Calling the Royals for the AL Central was just stupid in hindsight. Did I really think that the Twins were going to suddenly be losers because they dumped AJ Pierzinski on the Giants and Eddie Guardado on the Mariners? Sure, the Twins will get their asses handed to them in the first round of the playoffs regardless of who they play, but I shouldn’t have doubted they’d get there.

Calling Boston as the winner of the AL East over the Yankees was entirely based upon my judgment that New York’s pitching staff was a lot worse than they’ve been in the last couple of years with the loss of the Rocket and Andy Pettite. As it turned out, Kevin Brown did a fine imitation of the Rocket (in terms of his won/lost ratio) and Javier Vasquez did a fine Pettite. And while the Yanks made some mind boggling moves, like trading Jose Contreras for Esteban Loaiza they also pulled an ace out of their sleeves by putting El Duque back in pinstripes. Meanwhile, while I’d thought that signing Curt Schilling was going to give the Red Sox a tough five man rotation, it turned out that they desperately needed him with both Tim Wakefield and Derek Lowe pitching worse than expected (much, much worse in the case of Lowe). So instead of being a lot better than they’d been last season, the BoSox were pretty much the same.

Anaheim taking the AL West is totally no surprise. I’m a huge A’s fan. I grew up with them as my team. But this spring as I watched both teams in Spring Training games I saw a marked difference between them. The A’s were working harder for their runs and outs than they had been in previous years and the Angels were coasting. The only thing that made it doubtful that we’d see Anaheim in the post season this year was the number of their key players who spent big chunks of the early season on the DL. Once they got healthy they spent the rest of the season right on the A’s tail. That they closed in for the kill wasn’t a shock at all.

Having the Angels, the Yanks and the Red Sox in the playoffs means we’re going to see a lot of offense in the post season this year. All three teams knock the cover off the ball with minimal effort. I’m sure the TV networks will be pleased.

I made other predictions and I’ll go over those as we move through those milestones over the next month.

NP: X – The New World

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