Do you believe in the A's yet?
Going back to last year's All-Star break, no team in baseball has won more games than the defending AL West champs and current division leaders. There isn't a Cy Young or MVP candidate on the roster. They're 27th in payroll and play in a crumbling stadium with a sewage problem, but it's time to stop thinking of the A's as an underdog band of shaggy-haired misfits and outcasts. They are an AL power.
Ten years after Moneyball, Billy Beane's A's remain a crucible of market efficiency. The pitching staff leads the league with a 3.67 ERA, and a rotation whose leaders in wins include a 40-year-old who re-signed in November for $3 million (Bartolo Colon) and a throw-in prospect from the trade that sent Gio Gonzalez to Washington in 2010 (Tommy Milone). Their bullpen, the AL's fourth-best, is anchored by 35-year-old journeyman Grant Balfour, whose 41st consecutive save last week broke the team record held by Dennis Eckersley.
The A's offense ranks ninth in the majors in runs scored, and its top contributors have been breakout third baseman Josh Donaldson (16 home runs, 61 RBIs, .900 OPS through Sunday), who was a lightly regarded prospect acquired in the 2008 trade of Rich Harden to the Cubs; shortstop Jed Lowrie (101 hits, seven home runs, .364 OBP) acquired in a five-player trade with the Astros in February; and Coco Crisp, who has been one of the more valuable centerfielders in the league since signing a two-year, $14 million deal last year.
The A's have outplayed the Rangers and the Angels, with by far the best run differential in the division, and they aren't even playing their best baseball. Leftfielder Yoenis Cespedes is hitting .225. The team's 2012 home run leader, rightfielder Josh Reddick, has only four dingers after totaling 32 a year ago. The A's second basemen have combined to hit .231 with a league-low one home run. Staff ace Brett Anderson has made just five starts this year, but he's projected to return from a foot injury in August. After rocky starts to the year, Jarrod Parker (2.28 ERA in eight starts since June), Dan Straily (three runs allowed in his last three starts) and A.J. Griffin (2.60 ERA in June) are just now beginning to hit their stride. Like the rest of the team, Parker, Straily and Griffin—all 25 or younger—are full of upside.
The A's as a World Series contender? It's time to believe.
SMART MONEY The A's have gotten a sizable return on the aged Colon, who has offset his declining K rate with his refusal to walk anyone.