A's have been steady, but not spectacular

Though they haven't raced out to a blistering start, the A's have been far from the slow starters of the past.

Originally Published: April 25, 2003
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

For most franchises, a 12-10 start to the season would barely register. But the Oakland A's, with a recent history of disastrous starts, are not like most franchises.

The A's haven't exactly run off and hid from the rest of the American League West. In fact, they sit two games behind Seattle as the season nears the one-month mark.

But context is important here.

Jermaine Dye
A healthy Jermaine Dye has added some oomph this season.

"Based on previous years,'' jokes A's general manager Billy Beane, "I'd say we're red-hot.''

Indeed, in the previous two seasons, the A's have seemingly done everything possible in the first month or two to fall out of contention, only to rise, Lazarus-like, around Memorial Day.

In each season, the A's rebounded to win at least 100 games (103 in 2002 and 102 in 2001) and qualify for the postseason. If nothing else, the A's track record over the last two seasons seemed to dispel the notion that while you can't win a pennant (or division) in the first month or two, it's possible to lose one.

But it hasn't been easy. A year ago, dissatisfied with the team's focus and results, Beane tore up the roster after two months, trading Jeremy Giambi to the Phillies, and shipping Frank Menechino and Carlos Pena to the minors.

The shakeup got the rest of the A's attention. Oakland went on to win the AL West.

This year, there's been no stumble out of the gate. Then again, as intradivision play had the AL West teams playing only one another for the first three weeks, it was nearly impossible for one team to separate itself from the pack.

"Part of the anxieties in the previous two years,'' Beane said, "have been created by the performance of other teams in the division.''

Indeed, in 2001, the Mariners set the pace early en route to a 116-win season. The miracle was that, after their 8-18 start, the A's came as close as they did -- 14 games back -- when the regular season finished.

Last year, the A's were fine in April only to lose 17 games in May. On May 23, they found themselves 20-26, dead last in the division, behind even Texas. They nearly were left behind by Anaheim (27-17) -- which had its own troubles with a franchise-worst 6-14 kickoff -- and Seattle (30-16).

Over the years ...
How the A's have stood after 22 games dating back to the 2000 season, the first of three consecutive years in which they qualified for the postseason:
Year Record Finish Place
2000 9-13 91-70 1st, AL West
2001 8-14 102-60 2nd, AL West
2002 12-10 103-59 1st, AL West
2003 12-10 ??? ???

This April, with the four AL West clubs knocking each other off, no one team could gather the necessary momentum to become the pace car for the division.

That's good news for the traditionally slow-starting A's.

"One of the explanations,'' offered Beane, "is, as a small-market team, we're always reinventing ourselves. Sometimes it takes a while for us to integrate new parts.''

That hasn't been the case this year, however. Newcomer Erubiel Durazo, long sought-after by Beane, has made a smooth transition to his new team and league. Ditto for Ted Lilly, who didn't contribute much because of injuries last year after coming over from the Yankees. This season, Lilly is 1-0 with a 3.24 ERA in four starts.

Oddly enough, it's been two A's veterans -- right fielder Jermaine Dye and shortstop Miguel Tejada -- who've struggled the most this time.

"At least they're known quantities,'' reasons Beane.

It's tempting to attribute the A's improved start to the managerial change made this past offseason. Former bench coach Ken Macha replaced Art Howe as the manager and has a more intense style than his laid-back predecessor. But that would be both inaccurate and unfair, according to Beane.

"There's a lot that's different between Art and Ken,'' said Beane, "but there's a lot that's the same. I wouldn't attribute this to the change in managers, one way or another.''

That said, Macha has had to oversee some significant changes in the roster. Gone are David Justice, Billy Koch, and Cory Lidle. Newcomers include Keith Foulke, Durazo, John Halama and Chris Singleton.

You've got to be careful about not placing too much emphasis on any one portion of the season. This isn't the Tour de France, where you get to wear the yellow jersey after the first month. The only thing April provides is material for the media -- to take a snapshot of who's hot and who's not. But whoever is on the cover of a magazine in April may be yesterday's news in a month.
Billy Beane, A's GM

Neither Beane nor Macha spent much time in spring training exhorting the A's to get off to a better start.

"You've got to be careful about not placing too much emphasis on any one portion of the season,'' said Beane. "This isn't the Tour de France, where you get to wear the yellow jersey after the first month. The only thing April provides is material for the media -- to take a snapshot of who's hot and who's not. But whoever is on the cover of a magazine in April may be yesterday's news in a month.

"The great thing about the season is it's all about where you finish and you have plenty of time. A team is not judged on a month-to-month basis. Every team in the division realizes how long the season is. There's no mental edge to be gained in April.''

How the A's finish is another organizational bugaboo. Despite two first-place finishes in the last three seasons and 296 regular season victories in the last three seasons, the A's have been unable to get out of the Division Series, losing thee consecutive Game 5 showdowns (two to the Yankees and one to the Twins).

That October failure is far more incentive than the sluggish Aprils they've had to overcome.

"Whenever a team is knocked out of playoffs (early), that becomes a battle cry,'' Beane said. "If anything, this team is a little more mature. Being a year older, having experienced some things -- that maturity leads to greater day-to-day focus.''

This season, right from the start.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.