Today’s column is written with a volume-control dial attached. Turn down to “barely audible,” lest we distract the rest of Major League Baseball.
See, the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics do not rank high on MLB’s buzz-meter. They operate in the Bay Area, far from the raucous New York-Boston corridor in the Northeast, the we-know-we’re-right piousness of St. Louis and the money-printing frenzy of Los Angeles.
Out here, the Giants and the A’s – following the leads of no-frills managers Bruce Bochy and Bob Melvin – build success without the harsh klieg lights glaring at the game’s more glitzy addresses. The rest of the baseball world almost needs reminding about the amount of winning happening out West.
The A’s and their broken-down ballpark and cheapskate payroll, ranked 26th out of 30, chase a third consecutive American League West title. The Giants slipped badly in 2011 and 2013, which seems to have OK’d baseball’s casual dismissal of their two World Series titles in the last four years.
So the two teams by the Bay open on Monday night with most attention directed elsewhere. Methinks this is the way they like it – understated and devoid of any additional sound. They might as well hang a “do not disturb” sign on the door.
The A’s M.O. remains chaotic and, at the same time, downright brilliant. They navigate around penny-pinching owner Lew Wolff who alienates fans with his we’re-moving-to-San-Jose talk. Meanwhile, O.co Coliseum no doubt will provide more business for East Bay plumbers. Last year’s sewage problems embarrassed the franchise. The longterm solution, to build a ballpark in Oakland, appears too obvious for the A’s front office. Options exist if Wolff is willing to roll up his sleeves and pound out a plan.
Against this bizarre backdrop walks general manager Billy Beane, still either famous or infamous because of “Moneyball,” but always creative and resourceful and a step ahead of most.
Beane merely overhauls the roster after each season. That spinning clubhouse door forces his hand, but no one finds more wins-for-the-buck better than Beane. More correct, no one is even close.
Out: Record-setting closer Grant Balfour. In: Jim Johnson, the saves leader over the past two seasons.
Out: Jarrod Parker after Tommy John surgery. In: Scott Kazmir, 3-2 with a 2.75 ERA last September with Cleveland.
Out: Impressive outfield prospect Michael Choice. In: Craig Gentry, a needed backup centerfielder.
The exits of free agents Bartolo Colon (18-game winner), Brett Anderson, DH Seth Smith and Chris Young, along with the injury to Parker would discourage most teams. Not the A’s and an every-day lineup that ripped 186 home runs, third-best in baseball in 2013.
They wiggle out of tight games almost daily with the longball. Even leadoff man Coco Crisp swatted 21 last year. He’s the catalyst, the A’s first 20-20 home run-stolen base threat since Ruben Sierra in 1993.
Then there’s Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick, all who stare at the fences as they walk to the plate. Baseball is misled if it thinks the face of the A’s is Eric Sogard, AKA Nerd Power. More telling looks are Crisp in full flight on the bases and the slope-shouldered Cespedes.
A gung-ho offense swinging in concert with a top-of-the-line bullpen is a dangerous combo. For that reason, the A’s have celebrated 24 walkoff wins the last two seasons. That won’t change in 2014. The A’s will tack on another divisional title while higher-salaried opponents watch from the dugout.
Across the Bay Bridge, the Giants use a different template. Not only is AT&T Park one of the game’s most gorgeous venues – their fans pack the place win or lose, which means something – it houses the only team to claim two world titles in the last four years. In 2012, they compiled one of the most shocking runs in postseason history to win it all.
That said, no one waits for headline-every-hour notoriety from San Francisco. Buster Posey, the team’s star, remains bland and uncontroversial, though that’s not a bad thing post-Barry Bonds. The Giants also are not a SportsCenter favorite because they don’t dig the longball. They hit only 107 in 2013, the second-fewest in the majors.
The Giants scored 89 fewer runs last year than the year before, in fact, and their pitching allowed 42 more runs. The mileage on the arms of Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum showed in 2013. The Giants hope that it was just a byproduct of the long championship campaigns and they’ll bounce back this year. Madison Bumgardner, 24, has risen to the top of the rotation.
Not surprisingly, general manager Brian Sabean proceeded carefully with the acquisitions of pitcher Tim Hudson and left fielder Michael Morse. Any power from Morse, who will not impress with his defense, is a plus.
The Giants count on a slimmed-down Pablo Sandoval motivated in his contract year, continued improvement by first baseman Brandon Belt, a healthy Angel Pagan in center and Hunter Pence displaying more than a September salary push. With Marco Scutaro, 38, clearly on the downside of his career, the Giants will need help at second base. Joaquin Arias and Ehire Adrianza must contribute.
Arms are being stocked in Triple A Fresno as the Giants start the season with reliever Jeremy Affeldt on the disabled list and No. 5 starter Ryan Vogelsong already struggling. The bullpen will be a work in progress.
Then again, the current-era Giants have performed better than the sum of their parts. Bochy is comfortable mixing and matching his lineup from day-to-day and his handling of the bullpen may be his strong suit. What the Giants hope for are better chances to win a 6-4 or 5-3 game, rather than squeaking by 2-1. That will depend on better offense.
The difference between now and a few years ago, however, is the free-spending Dodgers. They blew by the Giants by 16 games in 2013, despite San Francisco’s 11-8 advantage head-to-head. Brian Wilson, the bearded ex-Giant, was paid $10 million as a setup man for Kenley Jansen. The Giants’ team salary is sixth-highest in baseball, but they don’t light up an ATM like the Dodgers. Before the Giants even tee it up in Arizona, they’re already chasing L.A. (2-0).
No, the Giants and their neighbors are content to blip low on the radar. The A’s will slug their home runs, the Giants will stick largely with a familiar cast, and the result likely is more wins than losses.
You don’t need a glossy Q rating to succeed in baseball.